Letter from Venice 1

We arrived here from Geneva on an Air Chance flight, and were settled in our seats, with the plane full and about to take off, when a flight attendant approached and said there were other people that held our seats and we would have to move.  I said nothing doing, these seats were assigned by our boarding passes and we were staying put; the other claimants should find other seats, or wait for the next flight.  She retreated and brought a superior officer, male.  He asked to see our boarding passes, and when I produced them he quickly tore them in half and said they were invalid.  That’s a new experience for me, and I told him you’d have to call the police and physically remove us from the seats and the aircraft, if necessary.  At that point my wiser companion reminded me if that happened, we would be deprived of our already-loaded luggage for the rest of the trip; so I capitulated and we were moved to seats way back in the plane.  I guess the moral is when you are seated and somebody asks to see your boarding passes, just exhibit them at a distance and don’t hand them over.

Screen Shot 2013-06-24 at 8.52.49 PMAs every schoolboy knows, the main reason for coming to Venice is to get a look at Venetus A, the 10th century manuscript of the Iliad at the Marcian Library, the earliest written Iliad known to the world.  Geoffrey Kirk, editor of the five–volume Iliad commentary that we use in class, calls it “the greatest of all medieval manuscripts.”  My Greek classmate insisted that I gaze upon it, and knowing that it would not be easy to get access, I took the precaution of getting a letter from the head of the classics department at Loyola testifying, with some exaggeration, to my scholarly bona fides and honest intentions.

And so, upon entering the hieroprepic Biblioteca Marciana, I encountered a rather elaborate ritual:  first you present your accreditation; a messenger is sent into the interior; an English-speaking gal comes out; and directs you to a seated official who demands your passport – I don’t carry mine – but accepts a driver’s license; she then types more on her computer than exists on the license, takes my picture, and issues me my own Codice Utente and a plastic card with my picture.  Then another official escorts me into a reading room – companion not admitted, she doesn’t have a Codice Utente – where I sit at a table and wait (during which I study the Iliad on my Touch to get in the mood).  After awhile an attendant enters carrying – two thick red cloths, which she reverently places on the table before me; and then reenters with a huge book, which she places, even more reverently, on the red cloths and opens to the Iliad, Venetus A.

It is much easier to make out than the reproductions we have seen.  In fact it is actually Screen Shot 2013-06-24 at 8.45.25 PMreadable, if you know the verses.  They wouldn’t let me photograph the page because it’s on their website and they don’t want any competition; but they did allow me to photograph the book opened to Venetus A.  I felt as though I had been to a sanctification.

At the Ca Rezzonico the best things to see are: Longhi’s scenes of Venetian life; Tiepolo’s ceilings; Crosato’s ceiling in the ballroom; and the wood sculptures of Brustolon – all of which are described in previous journals.

We made a brief stop at Sta. Maria dei Miracoli to check out the allegation that it has a rood screen, which we found to be an exaggeration; all it has is a handsome baluster by Tullio Lombardo (1455-1532), not really a rood screen at all because it doesn’t go all the way across. The church in its present form dates from the early 1400s.  The mirror that was formerly provided in the nave to view the 50 compartments of the coffered ceiling is no longer there.

We engaged a guide for the interior of St. Mark’s, in order to learn some of the more recondite features.  She was rather sensitive about the stuff stolen from Constantinople in the Fourth Crusade of 1204.  The floor mosaics are really not as good as the contemporaneous ones at Murano.  The Paladoro is surely quite remarkable, but maybe no better than the one at Klosterneuburg outside of Vienna.  There is indeed a rood screen [date], but it’s rather rudimentary.  Only one of the exterior mosaics is original.  Going to St. Mark’s with a professional guide is the only way to bypass the enormous line to get in.

Screen Shot 2013-06-24 at 8.48.00 PMI asked our guide where to find some turrone (nougat), and she said nowhere near St. Mark’s; instead you have to go to Mascari’s, a shop on the other side of the Rialto.  We duly went, and sure enough it’s a classical Venetian spice shop, including not only nougat and other sweetmeats but also an extensive assortment of spices from Calabria, Vietnam, Malta, Ceylon, Indonesia, India, Madagascar, Giamaica (sic) and all manner of other exotic locales.  Now there is a very useful touristic tip.

The Fondaco Tedeschi has been bought by Benetton to be turned into a shopping mall.  The PTT has moved out, and the building is closed for renovations.  I reluctantly advised my grandson, who wrote his Harvard undergraduate thesis on the Fondaco, hoping that this chthonian development  will not make his great work obsolete, and he replied:

“Wow. Interesting development, and fuel for the popular fear that Venice is becoming a giant tourist shopping mall. I imagine they must have super- strict preservation laws that would prevent any significant change.”

Another art history buff  to whom I relayed the same information replied as follows:

“Please advise of address of Committee to Halt Vandals so I can send a contribution. This is an intolerable outrage.  We have people picketing and   marching all around because of petty social issues, but they are MIA when something really important comes up.”

Our guide of the day before had suggested, in answer to my question of where we might find Screen Shot 2013-06-24 at 8.48.38 PManother grotesque head, that we take a look at the campanile of San Bartolomeo near the Rialto, and sure enough, though it was not easy to find, there is indeed a very blackened grotesque head, not quite in the same league as the Ruskin head at Sta. Maria Formosa but the nearest we have found so far.  Its tongue, while protruding, was not quite a-lick, and its blackness made the features less discernible, but it’s nevertheless a valuable addition to my compendium of Venetian grotesques.

Thomas B. Lemann






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