Letter from Venice 3

The bane of all tourists in Venice is the irregularity of church openings and the unreliability of information supplied by concierges. Yesterday, for instance, we tried to visit San Trovaso to see the St. Chrysogonus on Horseback by Giambono (active 1420-62), but it was chiuso although the concierge had written down its supposed opening hours. And even worse, we hired a water taxi (Uber is still unknown here) to go all the way out to the island of San Michele, where the cemetery is located, to check out a suspected rood screen in the church there, only to find that contrary to the concierge’s written opening hours, it too was chiuso. I need to find out where the concierge is getting his info — the web, the tourist office, the church itself, or an obsolete posting of some kind.

San Giorgio dei Greci (which one can walk to) has an elaborate iconostasis, see below:

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And while we were out in Castello we checked the Via Garibaldi, which I read somewhere was comparable to the Strada Nova in Cannaregio in width and busyness. Not so: the Strada Nova is much wider and busier than the Via Garibaldi, and must be the widest street in Venice.

We checked the Veronese restorations in San Sebastiano, which are proceeding apace by Save Venice Inc. but with plenty of scaffolding still in place. San Sebastiano is truly a Veronese museum. A painting of John the Baptist baptizing Jesus made me wonder who gave John the Baptist the right to baptize, and what his formula was since at that time he could only baptize in the name of the Father, I take it. Checking the Web I see that John the Baptist was predicted in the OT by the prophet Malachi, at 3.1 and 4.5; and that he is mentioned not only in the Gospels and Acts but by Josephus; but I can’t find the formula he used to baptize Jesus.

I asked for a guide of the Ghetto and synagogues, which I first visited some 50 years ago with a descendant of the Luzzatto as guide, a family of Venetian Jews that settled here in the 1400s; the tour having been arranged by a college classmate who had married a Luzzatto (and who later became Ambassador to Italy). I assumed they would send us a Jewish guide this time, but he was an official Venice guide and not Jewish, and said only a Jewish guide could take visitors into the synagogues and he would just tag along.

On the Campo de Gheto Novo (old spelling of Ghetto, foundry) we found a green iguana; asked the owner if he was Jewish, she thought not. Guide says many Christians now live in the ghetto, and the majority of Venetian Jews don’t: of 3,000 Jews in Venice, about a thousand live in the Ghetto. The Jews first arrived in Venice in the early 1300s, Germans fleeing from the plague, and were required to live on the Lido, which is why the Cimitero Ebraico is out there. The Ghetto was established in 1516, and everybody except physicians had to stay inside after dark.

The three synagogues are all on upper floors, like the one at Carpentras in Provence, dating, as I recall, from the 1400s. The first Venetian synagogue was established in 1528, the second in 1531, and the third in 1541; the first two are quite handsome (no pix allowed), the third very austere.

There is a small museum of ceremonial artifacts like 17th century Rimmonim (Torah finials) and a pair of puny Shofars (ram’s horns) blown at the Yom Kippur service — puny compared to the great big one used at Temple Sinai at home (New Orleans).

I always ask Venetians if there are any churches dedicated to OT figures besides St. Moses, St. Job, and St. Jeremiah, and our guide had another suggestion: St. Simeon Profeta. We went there, and it turns out that St. Simeon was maybe the only prophet in the NT who predicted great things for Jesus at the Temple. So the three Christian OT saints are still alone.

How are things at the Frari? Well, Deo gratias, the postcard protection racket, whereby if you try to take pictures they yell at you, has receded, and although the No Photos signs are all over, nobody is now enforcing them; so I was able for the first time to take picture of the finest rood screen in Venice, below, with Titian’s Assumption in the distance.

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Another great, if controversial, monument at the Frari is the one dedicated to Doge Pesaro (1699) by Longhena. Ruskin of course scorned it; but there is something intriguing about those blackamoor telamons that don’t seem very happy holding up the monument.

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A trip out to Murano for another visit to San Donato (full name Santa Maria e San Donato, but everybody calls it just San Donato) provided another example of the desuetude of the Postcard Protection racketeers, as I was able to photograph for the first time the 11th century mosaic floor, contemporaneous with that of San Marco and in some respects superior. Here is one, but don’t ask me to explain the iconography and undoubted symbolism.

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And here for lagniappe is a close-up of the famous orecchioni (big ears) at the Salute, the distinctive spiral volutes that Longhena dreamed up in 1630 or so.

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Did you know that the Salute has its own Pala d’Oro (sort of)? Here is its altar dedicated to St. Anthony:

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So we’re off to Paris tomorrow with our only regrets the chthonian church hours that frustrated our visits to San Trovaso and San Michele in Isola. But as the poet said, αλλ ου ζευς ανδρεσσι νοηματα παντα τελευτα (Zeus does not fulfill all the plans of men).

Thomas B. Lemann

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