Tuesday, 29 May 2012


"Patience and Time" - General Kutuzov, War and Peace.

It's about 9.10 on Tuesday morning, and the room starts shaking. Just a little but - as before - it's an unsettling feeling. Our teacher, Alberto, looks up at the light fittings swinging from the ceiling, and shrugs insouciantly. "Ah, terremoto". Some of the class seem a bit perturbed but he jokes that we should perhaps abandon the building and go for a coffee. We all laugh and settle down for the lesson.

Nearly four hours later, and we feel the aftershock. Just a gentle vibration through the building, but noticeable. A German lady in the class is visibly unhappy and gets to her feet. She explains that she was in Rome when the 2009 quake nearly wiped L'Aquila from the map. She really doesn't want to sit down, there's only five minutes of the lesson left, and so we call it a day.

As far as I know, there was no significant damage in Venice. A statue toppled over in the Papadopoli Gardens and slightly injured a passer-by, but that was it.

Of course,  we're all thinking the same thing - if we can feel it here, what's happening a hundred miles away? You know by now - over a dozen dead, and thousands more made homeless. And it doesn't matter if you're insured to the nines, or that this is a prosperous Western country - the people of L'Aquila are still waiting to be properly rehoused over three years later.

On to happier things.

We return to the Anagrafe and greet the Signora with hugs, kisses and flowers. Well, not really, but given she's probably the person we know best in Venice by now it feels as if we ought. She hands over our documentation in exchange for a modest number of euros, points us in the direction of the sportello that deals with the issuing of Carte d'Identita, and we make our farewells. And ten minutes later, we're standing outside with two spanking new identity cards certifying that we are now Venetian residents, our photos stamped down with two metal seals bearing the imprint of The Most Serene Republic. We are now effectively entitled to most of the rights of the Italian citizen, except the right to vote in parliamentary elections (we are however entitled to vote in local and European elections, and I look forward immensely to not voting for Silvio Berlusconi!).

Frankly, we deserve a drink. And not just any drink, but a negroni. I don't know if you're familiar with the negroni, but they're a bit like being punched in the face, but in a good way. So we stop at a nearby bar and toast our good fortune. Three months work, disheartening at times to be sure, but everything is now complete. We have health cover, we have a tax code, we have official residency status.

I ask the signora at the bar if I can pay. She fetches the bill, smiles, and says she remembers us from a few weeks ago (I was mistaken for a German, possibly on account of wearing a pin-striped jacket). Caroline explains that we are very excited, as we are now residents.

The signora looks taken aback. Show me, she asks.

Caroline hands over her Carta d'Identita.

She smiles, crumples the bill in her hands, and knocks a not inconsiderable number of euros off the total. When we come back, she says, we must point out to the owner that we are residenti and we will not have to pay the same as tourists.

There were many reasons for becoming residents : a sense of belonging, of making a commitment to a new place, of being strictly legal and above board, even the entitlement to free entry to museums. Cheaper negronis are an unexpected, but very welcome, bonus.

Patience and Time, indeed.

Sunday, 13 May 2012


It's Saturday night, and we emerge from the Scuola di San Rocco into the twilight; stiff of back and sore of bottom, after a two-and-a-half hour presentation of a new book on John Ruskin and his time in Venice. We are amongst the hardy bunch who survived the whole series of lectures, an initially healthy audience having dwindled to a handful over the  course of the evening. It's been informative, enjoyable, and perhaps -  like Ruskin's The Stones of Venice- there's also been rather too much of it.

Ruskin's attention to detail is staggering, obsessive even. There is scarcely a column, cornice or capital in St Mark's Basilica or the Ducal Palace that is not dissected and analysed to its most minute aspect. His reasons for this were simple - Venice, he thought, would either fall into ruin or, worse, be destroyed by restoration, and it was important to record what was there as best he could. Admirable, yes, heroic even; but it does not make the Stones an easy book to read in its entirety.

He hated half the buildings in the city as much as he loved the other half. He considered the Gothic and the Byzantine to be the high points of architecture, but despised the Baroque (the "Grotesque Renaissance", as he puts it); whilst Palladio's Classicism drove him into a furious rage ("...contemptible under every point of rational regard!").

Nevertheless, he needs to be read. It may not be necessary to read the whole thing (to be honest, without being as intelligent as the man himself, it may not even be possible to read the whole thing) but he's certainly worth dipping into. When he dismisses a favourite building of yours with his curt (and frequently used) one-liner -  "of no interest" - you'll want to shout at him, "oh for God's sake man, just look at the bloody thing, what do you mean it's 'of no interest'"! But he's always erudite and informative, and, more surprisingly, he can also be waspishly funny and magnificently rude.

At the end of his days, he seems to have felt ambivalent about his relationship with the city, fearing, perhaps,  that he had devoted too much of his time and energy to a place that he considered essentially to be dead or dying; more of a museum than an actual functioning city. People are still debating that, over one hundred years after his death. Proof, perhaps, that the old place has some life in it yet.