Sunday, 22 December 2013


The kids I teach get progressively less lovely over the course of the week.

Each class had to have an end-of-term progress test (something they all seemed weirdly excited about). Following which, we let them do nice Christmassy things - making cards, learning an English carol; that sort of thing. And, as a treat, they got chocolates as well.

The Tuesday class are so damn nice they weren't interested in eating them at all, but had more interest in affixing them to their cards in order to make them extra-special.

The Friday class, by contrast, came down like a wolf on the fold before I'd even crossed the threshold; the plate stripped bare in microseconds in a frenzied blur of unidentifiable scrabbling limbs that reminded me of the way they used to depict fights in The Beano. Fortunately they'd taken longer over their tests than the other classes, so I was able to pack them on their way before the sugar rush had been able to properly kick in.

Christmas has felt different this year. The cycle has gone through the magic years, the grumpy years, the boozy years, and the blimey-it's-Christmas-again-how-did-that-happen years. Maybe it's teaching kids or maybe it's been the couple of Christmas concerts I took part in, but it's felt a bit special again this time.

Anyway, we're off back to the UK for a week. The journey may well be reduce me to Scrooge-like grumpiness again, but, in the meantime Buon Natale / Merry Christmas / Nadolig Llawen everyone!

Tuesday, 17 December 2013

The Party's Over

The 55th Venice Biennale finally came to an end on Sunday 24th November.

We did our best to see every last exhibition. We didn't quite manage it. I'm not sure if it's actually possible. In fact we realised it wasn't going to be possible by the end of the first weekend as an installation at Palazzo Zenobio -only there for the first few days - broke down and never got fixed. In a way, this took some of the pressure off.

Amongst others, we also failed to see the works at the maritime museum (we never seemed to get the opening times right) and Tuvalu, hidden away over in Mestre. We felt guilty about that, as we weren't sure how many visitors they'd be getting. I hope it was worth their while.

Nevertheless, we must have seen at least 95% of everything there was to be seen. Here's a very subjective selection of what was good, and what was, well, less good.

The Bad

Noise : In the ex-magazzini di San Cassian. We tried, and failed, three times to see this. On the fourth occasion our luck ran out and they were actually open. Audio works that "respond to the architecture of the space of the installation". Yeah. I've heard dozens of audio works that "respond to the architecture of the space of the installation". They all sound exactly the same, namely,  Nyyyyyyyyyyyyyyooooooooooooinnnnnnnnng. The work below has been in progress for thirty years :-

- it was a lighbulb.

Scotland : "Will this do?". Woefully unambitious. A cash-strapped Creative Scotland would have been better off saving the money and spending it back home.

Kenya : Not bad art in itself, but only a handful of works were by genuine Kenyan artists. The vast majority were by Chinese artists with little or no link to the country. So what's the point in participating if your national pavilion is effectively just being rented out to another country?

Macedonia : A maze-like construction of silkworm cocoons and rat skins. The actual rats were removed after complaints about animal rights. Creepy, and not in a good way.

Lithuania/Cyprus : I blogged about this earlier  in the year. It was rubbish. It also won an award which demonstrates I know nothing about contemporary art.

The Good

Well, Angola won the Golden Lion, which was nice, but we didn't really think it was deserved. Elsewhere, the Portuguese floating pavilion was magical, and Russia was typically entertaining. Iraq deserves a mention for the sheer variety of work and the chance to relax in the salon-like atmosphere of Ca'Dandolo (we also like the beermats). But these are my Top 5 :-

Wales : Yes, Wales! We were rubbish back in 2011, and John Cale's work in 2009 probably wasn't all that great in retrospect; but, this year, Bedwyr William's "The Starry Messenger" was an absolute triumph. Clever, ambitious and a bit  mad. He should do it every time. And if he doesn't want to, they should make him.

Ireland : Richard Mosse, "Enclave". A multi-screen video work shot in the Eastern Congo on infrared film. Disturbing and upsetting, forty minutes spent in an atmosphere thick with potential violence and horror. A voyage into a veritable Heart of Darkness.

Daniel Pesta, "I was born in your bed". A short video work examining the plight of Roma in the Czech Republic. The simplest of ideas - two classes of Roma schoolchildren stand in rows, as if for a school photograph. As a voice from off-screen calls out their names, they each place a canvas bag over their head until this group of individuals has been replaced by an anonymous, faceless "other". A simple message, beautifully conveyed.

United Kingdom : Gilbert and George were excellent back in 2005; but, since then, Tracey Emin, Steve McQueen and Mike Nelson have all been disappointing. Jeremy Deller's "English Magic", though, actually made me proud to be British. A hen harrier takes vengeance on a murderous Hooray Henry's Land Rover. William Morris hurls Roman Abramovich's yacht out of the Venetian lagoon. A steel band plays works by Vaughan Williams and David Bowie (and if you haven't heard the works of those two great Englishmen played by steel band, you really should!). It feels rooted in the urban and pastoral landscapes of Britain and represents the best of left-wing/liberal Englishness (and yes, I mean English not British). When you think it can't get any better, there's even the chance to have a cup of tea outside, which seemed to be where the on-duty firemen were choosing to hang out. Oh, and kudos to Deller for properly acknowledging his creative team. It would have been my pick of the Biennale had it not been for...

Romania : A physical theatre work in which - for eight hours a day, every day - a group of young performers would 'act out' previous Biennale works from the past one hundred years. It was utterly, utterly fantastic. We went back time and again until we'd seen every last minute of it. We kind of got to know the performers  and decided to take them a couple of bottles of prosecco on the last day. They'd earned it.

So there we are. All finished. It's kind of nice to have our lives back again, but part of me wonders how we're going to manage without it.

It's eighteen months until the next one. In the meantime, here's a farewell picture of our Romanian chums.

Friday, 29 November 2013


It was the best of weeks, it was the worst of weeks...

It had started so well. The book was due to come out and the only problem was that Amazon had credited it to "Mr Philip Gwynne Jones". I liked the the fact that it made me sound like an elderly gentleman Victorian novelist, but it also sounded more than a little pompous so it had to be changed. But the main feeling was one of excitement.

And then, nine days ago, the boiler started making one hell of a racket. Shortly followed by lack of any heating and hot water. I got on the phone to our landlady who arranged for someone to call the next day.

La festa della Salute is not the ideal day to find oneself in need of a plumber. Still, I took a telephone call from one who talked me through how to restore pressure to the boiler. Success! For about thirty seconds. Followed by an ominous KERCHONKACHONKACHONKA sound. He advised me to bleed all the radiators. I did so. Three times. I discovered ones I didn't even know we had. Niente.

A plumber came round on Saturday morning. He looked the boiler over for perhaps thirty seconds and told me it was knackered. He phoned  our landlady and explained they might be able to start work by the end of the following week. No, they couldn't do it any quicker. If there were any children or elderly or infirm people in the house, they might be able to speed things up but - and at this point he stared at me for just a few seconds longer than I thought necessary - that didn't apply in this case.

This left us facing temperatures plunging below zero during the night with no source of heating whatsoever. We borrowed a two-bar electric fire from the Anglican church in the hope we could at least keep one room warm. The trouble is, the entire flat is open plan. The only room that can be closed off completely is the bathroom, and given the lack of hot water we were unlikely to be spending much time there anyway.

On Tuesday, a different plumber arrived and managed to restore a modicum of heat and hot water to the kitchen by cranking up the pressure to a possibly inadvisable level; and gave me a stern warning not to turn the heat up beyond forty degrees or it would pack up again. Or possibly worse.

On Wednesday, our landlady came to see the situation for herself, in the company of yet another plumber who took one look at the temporary fix before using the words molto pericoloso.

I didn't think it was possible to get any colder, but, on Thursday, the existing boiler was removed. This left a circular hole, perhaps 9" in diameter, in the outside wall.

At the time of writing, two guys are working away installing the new one. It is bitterly, punishingly cold, and the two-bar fire, perhaps six inches away from me, is keeping my left foot warm but little else. If I stop typing I worry that I will lose all feeling in my hands.

I honestly don't know how we would have managed this past week had it not been for the incredible kindness of a dear friend who is putting us up in her flat and looking after us. I'm not going to embarrass her by mentioning her name but simply have to say a very heartfelt thank you.

And yet, it's been a good week in spite of everything. I arrived at school on Tuesday to find the kids had written "We Heart Teacher Philip" on the board. One of those money-can't-buy moments. And, of course, there's the book. It cracked the Amazon UK top 10 for books about Venice, and, for one glorious day, it actually outsold Jan Morris. Things have calmed down a bit now, and Ms Morris is now back in her (let's be honest) rightful position; but, for one day, I felt like a street musician who suddenly finds himself outselling the Beatles.

It was the best of weeks, after all.

Tuesday, 26 November 2013

The Book

Hi everyone, it's Shameless Plug Time.

When I started this blog, two years ago now, I did so for two reasons. One was to let friends and family back home know how we were getting on. The other was simply that I thought the experience would be worth recording. I had no intention at the time of writing a book.

At the start of this year, however, I decided that I had sufficient material to start putting a book together, with the intention of chronicling the Project from its inception up until the end of our first year in Venice. That book is now available from Amazon as a paperback, with an e-book version to follow shortly.

It's impossible for me to be objective, of course, but I'm very pleased with it. It's the book I wanted to write. More importantly, perhaps, it's a book I would have wanted to read.

I hope you enjoy it.

Tuesday, 19 November 2013

The Smoking Frenchwoman

People of France, your attention please. We know you to be a civilised and cultured people; with a fine history of music, art, literature and philosophy. Your culinary tradition ranks amongst the highest in the world, and your national anthem is perhaps the fourth best in the EU. However, it has come to our attention that - of late - the quality of your tourists has been, shall we say, disappointing. Please do try and do something about this, such as sending them to Eurodisney instead. (Oh, and please stop voting for people like Marine Le Pen. It really doesn't look good.)

Caroline and I were returning from a party in Mestre last Saturday night (yes, a party! with real Italians!). The weather was still warm enough to sit outside on the vaporetto, the Grand Canal quiet and almost empty. Then one of the two French women in the adjacent seats lit up a cigarette. OK, I can imagine a time when I might have enjoyed a late-night cigar on the back of the vaporetto, enjoying the silence and watching the city slide past. But you can't smoke on the vaporetti any more, and the rules exist for nice people as well...

Caroline asked her to put it out, initially in Italian and then in English. The woman half-apologised and tried blowing the smoke away from us. But that's not the point. So we rattled through every combination in English and Italian that we could think of - non è permesso, è vietato, è illecito, è contro la legge, è illegale...but nothing seemed to work. Annoyingly the one phrase that wouldn't come to mind was defense de fumer. I don't think she'd have cared anyway. She obviously understood what we were saying, but by now she was openly laughing at us. Then Caroline snapped, walked over to her, grabbed her cigarette and chucked it into the canal; before stalking off to the front of the boat. I followed, open-mouthed in admiration and not a little fear.

People of France, one day you might just find yourself sitting next to my wife when you decide to treat the city as your own personal fiefdom. And trust me, you don't want that to happen...

Saturday, 9 November 2013


Bah, this was just going to be a short post about Cantori Veneziani's last concert, but it ended up being a little more complicated. The reason is that Google changed the way you embed music within Google blogs back in July. Which means I found out this morning that none of the previous concerts I linked to would play. It's taken a bit of arsing around but I think I've got there now - personally I think it looks a little clunky compared to the previous solution, but it will have to do. When I get time I'll go back and update the other musical blogs.

Anyway, here (hopefully) is the concert.Vivaldi's Gloria at the Scuola Grande di San Rocco (Orchestra Barocca di Bologna, conducted by Paolo Faldi) . I think it's pretty good. There's a bit of coughing during some of the quiet bits, and the sound of the soprano and mezzo walking on and off stage (I don't know why they didn't just stay seated on stage throughout but, hey, I'm not the maestro) but nothing too noticeable. I can actually identify my voice at times...I'm never quite sure if this is a good thing or not!

Et in Terra Pax
Laudamus Te
Gratias Agimus Tibi
Domine Deus
Domine Fili Unigenite
Domine Deus, Agnus Dei
Qui Tollis Peccata Mundi
Qui Sedes Ad Dexteram Patris
Quoniam Tu Solus Sanctus / Cum Sancto Spirito

Saturday, 12 October 2013

Behind the scenes at the bank

It would be fair to say that the headquarters of the Cassa di Risparmio di Venezia in Campo Manin does not feature highly on any list of the city's most loved buildings.

It's an ultra-rare example of modernist architecture in the city and so, the complaint goes, it doesn't fit the surrounding environment. I don't think it's such a bad building - in other cities it might be thought of more highly - but there's no denying that it seems strange and out of place at first sight.

The history behind it is interesting. Towards the end of the 19th century, the city wanted a permanent monument to Daniele Manin, the hero of the rebellion against the Austrians. As a result, the church of San Paternian (already closed by Napoleon) was demolished to make way for the statue of Manin, and the square was renamed in his honour. In 1883, the first Cassa di Risparmio was opened there. By the 1960s, the bank had outgrown the building, and a new one was commissioned which opened in 1972. So it's worth stressing that the new building replaces one less than a century old - it's not as if one of the truly historic monuments was demolished to make way for it.

The architects were Angelo Scatolin and the great Pier Luigi Nervi.We had the chance to take a proper look around it during a one-day event called "Il Palazzo - Arte e Storia nelle banche" (think of it as a banks-only equivalent to "Doors Open Day" in the UK). We were taken round by one of the bank staff who explained its history. On the very first day of business, he told us, the bank took the grand total of 1.5 lira in deposits; the one from a bishop and the half from an ordinary member of the public.

I really like the interior, which feels spacious and full of light, due to a ceiling supported on just four pillars. I wasn't sure if I should take photographs or not - banks, understandably, get twitchy about that sort of thing - but the guide was quite happy for me to do so. Architecture students, he said, are always particularly interested in the staircase which shows the influence of Scarpa.

Beyond the architecture itself, there's some interesting art to be seen, and midway through the tour we were handed over to the bank's archivist. One of the board rooms holds one of the preparatory designs of the Paradiso, the full-scale version of which can be seen in the Palazzo Ducale. Another holds a portrait of a Venetian nobleman that is commonly attributed to Tintoretto's son Domenico. But, in the  opinion of the archivist, it may be something far more exciting : the lack of a signature and pentimenti (found throughout Domenico's work) might mean it is actually the work of Tintoretto's daughter Marietta, la Tintoretta.

He took us through to the archive itself, where he put on a pair of white cotton gloves and reverentially took down a small book, perhaps no more than 5" by 3". The Life of the Virgin, he announced, and turned to the beautifully illustrated front page. Painted by Giovanni Bellini with a brush made, it is said, from the hair of a newborn baby.

The  book, bound in Hungary,  was thought lost until an antiquarian in Vienna came into possession of it in the early 1990s, not long after Hungary had re-opened its borders. Funding was found to secure its return, and so the archivist travelled to Vienna, handed over the money, and returned to Venice with a book illustrated by Bellini tucked into his jacket pocket. He was, he told us, too scared to transport it any other way.

As I said, the building itself is a controversial one. But in its own, unique way, it's one of the most interesting in the city.

Saturday, 5 October 2013

San Francesco del Deserto

One of the more remote installations at the Biennale is on the tiny island of San Francesco del Deserto. It's not the easiest place to reach. You need to arrange a transfer from Burano, in advance, following which a boat will pick you up and take you to the island, where one of the frati will show you around. And no, they're not monks : as it was explained to us, monks are self-sufficient, and live an ascetic life cloistered away from the world. Friars belong to mendicant orders and live an evangelical lifestyle in which they move around on a regular basis.

They say the convent was founded in 1220, following a visit by St Francis after his return from the Holy Land; making this the northernmost Franciscan outpost in Italy. It's a lovely place, extremely peaceful. The convent itself underwent restoration in the mid 20th century, removing previous work that was not felt to be in keeping with the Franciscan ethos. There is no great art to be discovered here, but that's not the point. It doesn't distract from its simple, meditative beauty.

The main Biennale work had finished by the end of August, but there was one quite jolly piece that still remained (as the artist hadn't got round to removing it) :-

- entitled "Soft Carnivorous Machines", it consists of a number of fragile, crab-like claws of Murano glass emerging from the lagoon. In her statement, the artist claims that "St Francis would have liked these animals". I'm sure he would!

Wednesday, 25 September 2013


We had never heard of Vajont.

Palazzo Ca'Bonvicini was hosting a number of exhibitions over the summer. Some of them were Biennale related, some of them weren't, and one of them bore the title Vajont - il Risveglio delle Conscienze ("the awakening of consciences").

The title meant nothing to us, and so we went into the exhibition without any preconceptions at all.

The first room consisted of over a hundred black and white photographs fixed to the walls, together with newspaper clippings. They were difficult to decode at first. Pictures of pretty villages that I thought were probably in the north of the country. Pictures of a dam, of mountains, and of a reservoir.

Then other images. Cars strewn across streets. Wrecked houses. Huge areas of flattened forest, where hardly a tree was left standing. And photographs of coffins. Funerals with dozens upon dozens of coffins.

As we worked our way through the news clippings, things started to become clear.

The Vajont dam, completed in 1959, stood in the valley of the Vajont river, under Monte Toc; perhaps 100km north of Venice.

On the 9th October 1963, a landslide on the slopes of the mountain caused the dam to overflow, with the result that a 200m high wall of water crashed onto the villages of the Piave valley below from a height of nearly half a kilometre.

It's no exaggeration to say that photos of the site, post-impact, resemble images from Hiroshima or Tunguska. Even today, the number of dead remains uncertain; estimated from 1,900 to over 2,500.

The reaction of the government (who owned the electricty supplier, SADE (later ENEL), responsible for the dam's construction) was to attribute the tragedy to a natural disaster. The truth was very different. During construction, the communist newspaper L'Unita had continually warned that three different studies showed that the mountain was unstable and landslides were an ever-present threat. The journalists responsible were denounced by the government as "unpatriotic".

With only days to the landslide, ENEL became aware that the mountain was moving and tried to lower the water level in the reservoir as best they could. It didn't work. After the disaster L'Unita criticised both government and company for ignoring expert advice in the first place, and for not informing the population that a disaster was imminent. The response of the Christian Democrat government was to castigate the newspaper for trying to make political capital from the tragedy.

The survivors were rehoused and the local area rebuilt. The Vajont dam still exists, but the reservoir itself is now empty beyond the natural level of the lake. In this fiftieth anniversary of the disaster, however, there is clearly a feeling that the best interests of local people were ignored for the sake of profit, that the truth behind the disaster was too long in coming to light, and that those responsible were allowed to go free, unpunished.

The second room of the exhibition consists of the simple installation below :

No interpretation, surely, is necessary.

Monday, 23 September 2013


Hello lovely readers!

I've had a request asking if there was any way followers of the blog could receive updates by email.

For those who are interested, if you look on the right of the page, I've added a "Follow by email" option. If you enter your email address, you should ('should') start receiving updates automatically. Rest assured I will *not* see your email address.

I hope this is useful - please let me know if it works!

Thursday, 19 September 2013


This man is breaking the law :

So is this one :

The guy in the first picture is selling padlocks for tourists to attach to the railings on the Accademia bridge. A victim of his own success, he's having to rearrange all the locks on that stretch as best he can in order to try and make room for a few more. He probably has a permesso di soggiorno, although it's  unlikely that it says that he's in the country to make a living by defacing a national monument.

The man in the second picture is writing his name and that of his partner on a padlock. When this is done, he'll fix it to the bridge and throw the key into the Grand Canal as a symbol of their undying love.

It leaves wide stretches of the bridge looking  like this :

This supposedly started in Rome some years back, inspired by the film Tre metri sopra il cielo, but now seems to be little more than a herd instinct encouraged by the abusivi on the bridge. This is tourism at its most stupid and ugly. It is no different, in essence, from spraying "West Ham is a Poof" on the wall of a pub toilet.

There has been a bit of vigilante action where local citizens have started trying to remove the locks by themselves. But it's laborious, difficult work and bolt-cutters are not easy to use - you can end up damaging both yourself and the structure. The responsibility should lie with the city itself. But what's the point in doing it if they'll just build up again within weeks?

There's the occasional clampdown by the police. A recent one was celebrated as if they'd succeeded in recovering a stolen Caravaggio instead of twenty-five padlocks. The deterrent effect of this lasted less than a day.

I don't know why this annoys me so much. Perhaps it's the thought that the chance to visit this city should be seen as being among the greatest experiences that life has to offer, and not just like a visit to a tacky theme park. The difference, of course, is that if you were to try anything like this in Disneyland Mickey Mouse would kick your arse within minutes.

Friday, 13 September 2013


7.45 on a Wednesday night, and we're both thinking we've made a big mistake. We're at the opening of a short festival of cortometraggi (short films) at the Teatrino Grassi. A sound installation called Godzilla is playing. Loudly. Very loudly. It sounds like the great Thunder Lizard himself is in the room. I've just spend ten minutes queuing up to spend 7 euros on a beer and a miniature glass of prosecco. There is, God help us, a DJ. In short, we're not having a good time. The temptation is to give this up as a bad job and just go home for dinner.

And that would have been a great mistake, because much of what follows is an absolute delight. A typical evening is built around a 45 minute screening, followed by a break, followed by another screening...and so on, and so on until around midnight. For four nights.

At the end of the first part we adjourn to our local bar, Da Fiore, where you can eat and drink well and get change from twenty euros. Then back for the second screening. Then we have another 45 minutes free. We could go home for a glass of wine at this point but decide just to head back to Da Fiore for a brace of spritzes.

It reminds us of being back in Edinburgh and rushing from Fringe venue to Fringe venue; grabbing a bite to eat and a drink with whatever short amount of time might be available to us.

As to the work itself, some of it is utterly brilliant, some is incomprehensible, and a few are just plain rubbish. The great thing about a festival of short films is that if you don't like one you only have to wait ten minutes at most until the next comes along. And we've see an extraordinarily wide body of work : a high-camp music video that references Visconti's Death in Venice; a series of competition entries for the Italian blood donation service (more interesting than you might imagine); a 30 minute piece about lesbian unicorns (less interesting than you might imagine); a British film in which an unsympathetic DHSS worker is executed with a nail gun; and, best of all, a short piece in which a bespectacled man in a cardigan sings the Habanera from Carmen as the scene behind him changes from a domestic interior to a leather bar. (It was great. No, really.)

There's been the occasional happy hour and snacks, so I'm even feeling less grumpy about the original 3.50 prosecco. I just wish they'd turn down that bloody Godzilla thing before, during and after every event.

Project Verdi : Ernani

Oh, this is a good one!

Ernani is significant in a number of  ways : it was based on a play by Victor Hugo (to whom Verdi would return with Rigoletto), it was his first work to be commissioned by La Fenice, and it marks his first collaboration with the librettist Francesco Maria Piave with whom he would collaborate on no fewer than ten operas over a twenty year period. In 1904 it became the first opera to be completely recorded. On 40 discs it must have been hard work if you wanted to listen to the whole thing in one sitting.

The plot : Don Juan of Aragon has been stripped of his title and lands by King Carlos, and now lives as a bandit under the name of Ernani. His attempt to save his true love Elvira from a forced marriage to the villainous de Silva is foiled by the sudden intervention of the King, who abducts her. Ernani accepts Silva's protection from Carlos, and the two team up to free Elvira, but Silva's price is a high one - Ernani will owe him a perpetual debt. After various failed conspiracies King Carlos has a change of heart, and frees Elvira to marry Ernani. But just when we think we're going to have a happy ending, Verdi and Piave twist the knife : Silva reappears and hands Ernani a dagger. He has come to collect his debt - Ernani is to kill himself...

The recording : Richard Bonynge and Welsh National Opera, with Luciano Pavarotti and Joan Sutherland. Sutherland's performance in particular, is remarkable : phrases that would sound squally or shrieky in the hands of a lesser artist are here delivered with the lightness of a feather and the precision of a laser.

For the first time Verdi was in complete control of his material - he as composer would now drive the drama, rather than his librettist. It's a taut, dramatic and enjoyably nasty piece.

Friday, 6 September 2013

Project Verdi : I Lombardi

I Lombardi alla prima crociata (to give it its full title) is a bit of a strange beast. It premiered at La Scala early in 1843, and was another great success; although critical reaction was slightly more muted than it had been for Nabucco. Its importance, perhaps, lies less in its own merits than in the fact that it firmly cemented Verdi's reputation.

The recording : James Levine and the New York Met; with Samuel Ramey, June Anderson, and Luciano Pavarotti.

The plot : actually quite a good one. Two Milanese brothers fall out during the time of the crusade, but with a bit of a twist in that Pagano (the evil one) becomes a saintly hermit and redeems himself, whereas Arvino (the good one) spends the latter part of the opera spreading destruction across the Holy Land. The Muslim characters are sympathetically painted, and one of them, Oronte, even gets the girl (he does, however, have to convert to Christianity first, and he dies shortly afterwards for his pains). It's also ahead of its time in that the character of Giselda dares to suggest that the Crusades may not be entirely a Good Thing ("it is not the cause of God to spread blood across the earth"), although Verdi and his librettist (Solera, again) get away with this by suggesting that Giselda has temporarily lost her reason.

There's also the plot device (similarly used, albeit even more unconvincingly, in Il Trovatore) of having Pagano kill off his dad by mistake because it's a bit dark.

It's not a great work, but never less than enjoyable. Strange, perhaps, that it gets revived so rarely - given the subject matter it must be crying out for a modern interpretation?

Thursday, 5 September 2013

Manet in Venice

In this Biennale year Manet - Ritorno a Venezia, at the Ducal Palace, is the big-hitter amongst the more traditional art exhibitions.A friend of mine actually worked on it. He still couldn't get me a free ticket.

It was supposed to finish in early August, and was then extended until September 1st. I left it, of course, almost until the last minute to go. I had no idea how busy it might be, but - Venice still being packed with tourists - I made sure to be there right on the stroke of nine. The piazza at this time was almost free of crowds, one of those all-too-rare occasions when it's a pleasure to stroll through. Likewise, for the first ninety minutes, the exhibition space was  practically empty.

The curators have played up Edouard Manet's connection with the city and its influence on his art; yet he was a visitor here on only two occasions and painted just two views of the city (one of which, a pleasant but unremarkable work showing the Salute and the Grand Canal, is in the final room).  It was the city's artists, as opposed to the city itself, that had the greatest influence on him, and so a number of Venetian works are juxtaposed with Manet's own : his painting of Zola accompanies Lorenzo Lotto's Portrait of a Young Man, while Carpaccio's Two Venetian Ladies hangs next to The Balcony.

This works absolutely brilliantly in one case in particular : for the first time ever we have the chance to view Titian's Venus of Urbino next to Manet's Olympia. Beyond the surface similarities, it's the differences between the two that really catch the eye. I'm particularly taken by the little dog snuggling happily into the sheets at the feet of Venus; replaced in Olympia by a stroppy-looking cat staring balefully at the viewer.

Manet really is one of those artists I blow hot and cold on, but I emerged from the exhibition realising I liked him far more than I thought I did. He could draw quite brilliantly, and had an extraordinary talent as a copyist (his copy of a self-portrait by Tintoretto is almost indistinguishable from the original). The Spanish-period paintings here didn't do much for me; neither did the small number of religious pieces. Yet there are paintings here I could sit and look at for hours upon end : his wife, Susanne, depicted in two beautifully meditative works Woman with Jug and The Reader; the four isolated figures of The Balcony; or his two wondrous portraits of Berthe Morisot. But unfortunately no seats are provided and, after two hours or so, the crowds were starting to arrive en masse. Slightly reluctantly, I decided it was time to go. Outside, the queues for the Basilica were stretching back beyond the entrance to the palace...

Monday, 2 September 2013

The Aggressive Frenchman

Perhaps the most downright stupid behaviour ever seen from a tourist was from the guy Caroline saw on Saturday morning who, having realised the vaporetto was leaving without him with all his friends on board, took a running jump and hurdled the gate while the boat was moving away from the pontoon. An action which, had he got it wrong, could easily have killed him.

The most unpleasant though has to be that at the Regata Storica. We have two friends visiting for the afternoon, so we pack up some deckchairs, some wine, and the rest of our gear and go down to Campo San Samuele. We did this last year : it doesn't get too busy, and you can normally get a spot near the front without too much trouble.

There are a few people already there, all seated right on the edge of the campo with legs dangling over the canal. So we put up our chairs a few feet behind them :  plenty of legroom for us, space for people to get past if they need to, space for the people in front to lean back if they get tired.

The guy in front of us - scrawny, bespectacled, unkempt - is reading Le Monde. Time passes, the sky clears and the sun comes out, and it seems it might be a good idea for me to go back to the flat to pick up some hats, umbrellas, sun cream etc. By the time I get back the French guy has shuffled back a bit from the edge. Nothing too annoying as yet, but starting to impinge on our space.

Over the next half hour, he progressively moves further and further back, stretching his arms out behind him until his hands are starting to stray suspiciously close to our stuff. I can't work out if he's just being antisocial or if he's planning on trying to nick something.

And then, all of a sudden, he tries to move back, realises he hasn't got room, and starts moving our bags out of the way. Caroline immediately moves them back..

He pushes himself further back, more forcefully this time.

I ask him, in Italian, if he'd like to use my chair as he's practically sitting on me anyway. I could use English, but I figure Italian will annoy him more as I suspect he doesn't speak any.

Caroline attempts to prod him forward with her foot, at which point he turns and snarls and snatches her handbag.

I grab the other end and wrestle if off him. At which point all those hours reading Sherlock Holmes in Italian really pay off and I shout at him something which translates along the lines of Next time it'll be the worse for you, wretched Frenchman!

He's properly angry now, and I realise that he might do something stupid - either grab something of ours and throw it in the canal, or possibly even hit me. And it strikes me that it would be really, really stupid to get involved in a fight. Thankfully, he seems to think the same, and turns away from us in a fury and tries to push himself back once more. But I've got my foot in place now, so if he wants to do so he's going to have to sit on it; which is going to be more uncomfortable for him than me.

Impasse, then. We stay like this for the next twenty minutes or so,  my foot braced ready for him to try something, and Caroline's handbag looped around my arm. I am almost shaking with anger and the worry that he might try something stupid. Eventually he gives up, and wanders off to the back of the campo, but even now I think I need to keep a half eye on him, just in case.

The Regata passes pleasantly enough but  the shine has been taken off the afternoon for me, although a stiff drink and nice meal on the Zattere help matters. I'm still unsure if it was a cack-handed attempt to steal something or an audacious (and, indeed, successful) attempt to propel the French to the head of the Crap Tourists league. Still,he has to go back to France. We get to stay in Venice. Ergo, we win.

Thursday, 29 August 2013

Project Verdi : Nabucco

Shaken by the failure of Un Giorno di Regno, Verdi almost gave  up on opera altogether. Still, he had a contract from La Scala for three more works that needed to be fulfilled. One story relates that he fell upon Temostocle Solera's libretto for Nabucco (or Nabucadonosor,as it was originally titled) with delight and set to work immediately in a frenzy of inspiration. Another relates that he practically had to be dragged kicking and screaming to his piano. Whatever the truth, the work premiered at La Scala in 1842 and was an immediate, colossal success. Wagner would spend much of the next twenty years mired in debt and political and personal scandal; but Verdi's reputation was now all but assured.

There's a number of interesting things about Nabucco, not least that it's one of surprisingly few operas based on a story from the Bible (what might we give to be able to hear Wagner's aborted Jesus von Nazareth?). It's easy enough now in a more secular age, but in Verdi's time depicting biblical characters on stage wasn't really considered "proper".

It's most famous, of course, for Va, pensiero (or "the Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves") which has almost become a second Italian national anthem. But first and foremost it will always remind me of the chorus of Scottish Opera who sang it during the curtain call at a performance of La Boheme, in protest against threatened job cuts by a penny-pinching Scottish Executive. It had been a good Boheme,  but it was this moment that properly reduced us to tears.

The Plot (in brief) :  During the Babylonian Captivity, Nabucco/Nebuchadnezzar declares himself a god and is struck down by a thunderbolt; whilst Abigaille (who may, or may not be his daughter) plots to usurp his throne. Nabucco converts to Judaism just in time, and tells the Israelites they can all go home. Abigaille poisons herself and dies, but not before begging for forgiveness.

The Recording : that most cerebral of conductors, Giuseppe Sinopoli, and the Deutsche Oper of Berlin; with Piero Cappuccilli, ,Placido Domingo, Ghena Dimitrova, and Lucia Popp in the minor role of Anna.

I can't quite bring myself to love Nabucco. It's conventionally written, but there's plenty of good bits and the music carries the drama well enough. I think it's the role of Abigaille : with its extremely high tessitura it's a killer of a role to sing which, unfortunately, means it can be a bit of a killer to listen to as well. After a while I started to find it grating instead of thrilling. Perhaps I just needed a different recording, but there's no time for that now. On to 1843 and I Lombardi.

Sunday, 25 August 2013

Alison Lapper

I don't like Marc Quinn's retrospective at the Cini Foundation. The best work there is over ten years old; and the more recent stuff seems tired, derivative and ugly. I say this to demonstrate that I'm not some sort of Quinn fanboy who'll defend every last piece of his to the death.

More interesting to my mind is his giant inflatable sculpture outside, just next to the church of San Giorgio Maggiore. Entitled "Breath", it hasn't gone without comment.

It originated as a life-size marble sculpture on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square nearly a decade ago, entitled "Alison Lapper Pregnant". Lapper is an English artist who was born with phocomelia (not due to thalidomide, as is sometimes reported). She has no arms, and her legs are truncated at the knee. She was institutionalised throughout most of her childhood. As an adult, she faced a battle to prevent her son from being taken into care, social services believing that a mother faced with  everyday challenges such as hers could not possibly take care of a child as well. She would kick your arse if you dared to feel sorry for her or use words such as "inspirational" within earshot.

None of this, of course, means that "Breath" is any good. But whether it is, or is not, any good as a work of art is beside the point. Because most of the criticism of the piece isn't about its merits as a sculpture but, rather, as to whether it should be where it is.

It's purple. Well yes it is, undeniably so. It's hardly bright day-glo purple though. Would it make any difference if it was made of pink Verona marble?

It's too big. Yes, it's big, but it's still dwarfed by the adjacent church. Besides, its scale is important : would you like it to be just a little bit smaller and tucked away somewhere less visible? Tough, says Quinn : if you find the image disturbing, that's your problem.

It's out of place : If you look back towards the centro storico from San Giorgio Maggiore, to the left of the Ducal Palace, your eyes will fall upon the Sansovino library. Or rather, they won't, as one side of it is entirely obscured by a billboard for Gucci sunglasses. So what's out of place?

At the end of the day, it doesn't matter if you like Quinn or not. It doesn't matter if you like "Breath" or not. What we have here is an image of a pregnant woman next to a church. If you find it ugly, or upsetting, or out of place...ask yourself why...

Friday, 23 August 2013

The Gym of Despondency

If you can't be good, you should at least be memorably bad.

We've seen some fantastic work at the Biennale : Bedwyr Williams, Bill Culbert, the Andorrans, a video work by Daniel Pesta on Giudecca that was so good you wanted to collar passers-by and drag them in to see it immediately.

And then, there's the stuff that's not so good. Not bad, just a bit unmemorable. Luxembourg? I have a vague memory of electric guitars hanging from the ceiling but little more. Angola? Not bad as such  but given it was competing for space with works by, amongst others, Piero della Francesca, I've got no particularly strong memories of it. Montenegro? Have we even been to Montenegro? Things are starting to blur, and we've not even touched the Giardini yet.

Which is why, if you can't make fantastic work, you should go all out to make something properly bad. In this respect the Biennale has much in common with the Edinburgh Festival : I must have seen hundreds of well-meant but unexciting "well made plays" over the years. I can't remember the title of a single one of them. But Murder in the Heart, the Latin opera about the life of the Yorkshire Ripper? Over ten years later I can record almost every single minute of the twenty that we managed to stick it out.

What this Biennale has lacked so far is the pleasure of seeing something memorably awful. So step forward, please, Lithuania and Cyprus.

It starts well enough, by virtue of the fact it's held in one of the strangest buildings in Venice. Hidden away behind the naval museum near the Arsenale is the Palasport, a piece of 1970s brutalist architecture. It looks so out of place that the mind almost refuses to acknowledge it. You've walked halfway along its length before suddenly thinking "hang on, what did I just see there?".

The interior is even stranger. Venice has a graffiti problem, but at least this is usually confined to the outside of buildings. Here, it's the inside that's been vandalised, which gives the interior spaces a slightly threatening feel, akin to the underpass scenes in A Clockwork Orange.

We were actually expecting two separate pavilions, but it seems that Lithuania and Cyprus (not, geographically at least, the most obvious partners) have a co-venture this year. And the art itself...?

Well, as we wind our way up the stairs and through the intimidating corridors, we encounter some photographs of 1970s Soviet athletes which have a certain kitsch appeal if nothing else. We come across some precisely arranged stacks of paper which turn out to be a deconstructed exhibition catalogue. And then we emerge at the top of the basketball court.

Various pieces are arranged in the stands, and others down on the court itself. An IKEA style cabinet blocks the spectators' entrance; its unique point being, apparently, its lack of 90 degree angles. Fragments of wall are dotted around the court. In the midst of these is something resembling a large room divider or bookcase, helpfully described as "a multipurpose room installation". Bits of tree are piled up at one end of the court, although we're unable to determine if the plastic wrapping behind it is part of the piece or if they just haven't finished unwrapping it all yet. The scoreboards at each end flash up the numbers 0 - 15 in binary; which may be of possible interest to those who have encountered neither the binary system nor, indeed, the electric light.

I try to keep an open mind. OK, the art might not be up to much, but the space is quite interesting. Then again, you're on to a loser if the best you can say about an exhibition is "the art wasn't great, but at least the space felt slightly threatening". I read and reread the guide but my eyes just keep sliding off it. And then it hits me : this is Rubbish. No, not just Rubbish. We have left the Zone of Rubbish and have entered the Arena of the Pitiful.

We stand in silence and survey the bits of wall, and the bits of tree, and the room divider. The scoreboards continue to count from zero to fifteen, in silent admonishment.

"This is bollocks isn't it?", says Caroline.

I nod, happily. It most certainly is.

Thursday, 22 August 2013

Ciao Silvio?

I was in Rome in 1994, when Silvio Berlusconi won his first election. I didn't know much about him, but what I knew I didn't like. Still, when his government fell later that year I assumed I'd never hear of him again.

Lesson 1 : Italian politics is not like ours.

Lesson 2 : Never, ever write off Silvio Berlusconi.

The journalist Curzio Maltese compares him to a serial killer in a Dario Argento movie; the figure that rears up from the dead, ready to strike, its plastic face immobile and impassive, just when the audience thinks it's safe to relax.

So you might have thought -  having lost his final appeal in the Court of Cassation, receiving a one year sentence of house arrest and a ban from public office - that the great pantomime villain of European politics was gone for good. Not a bit of it.

Firstly, he's not quite run out of appeals yet : he can appeal to the President for a pardon. His ego won't allow him to do this directly (it would, for one thing, actually mean admitting he was guilty), but his people immediately started putting pressure on Giorgio Napolitano to do so. Why on earth would he agree to do this? For the simple reason that Berlusconi has the ability to bring down the fragile coalition government of Enrico Letta. Napolitano desperately wants to avoid this - he knows that what Italy needs above all is a measure of stability, and a reform of its wretched electoral laws. None of this will be possible, for the foreseeable future, if Letta's coalition crumbles.

Nevertheless, it seems that Berlusconi may not call for a pardon. There are two reasons for this. Firstly, he has two upcoming trials and a further appeal in the "Ruby" case, and if he loses this one he faces a very stiff jail sentence indeed. In other words, it's not in his interests to use his "Get Out of Jail Free" card now when it might prove more useful in the future.

The other reason is : why blackmail the President when you can just blackmail the Government directly? As a result of his conviction he should, by law,  be automatically disqualified from public office for life. This does, however, require a vote by a majority of the Senate. The threat is : vote against me and I'll bring the
government down. And then, the next time my party returns to power we'll change the law to quash my conviction. And we'll give the legal system and the magistrates a good seeing-to as well.

Depressing? Yes. It's been a bad summer for Berlusconi, but it's not turning out to be a great one for Letta or Napolitano. He's down, but certainly not out, and - for the moment - he is going precisely nowhere.

Wednesday, 21 August 2013

Project Verdi : Un giorno di regno

The second opera of the project, and it's this unloved comedy from 1840. It dates from perhaps the blackest period in Verdi's life :  in the space of two years he had lost both his wife and his two children. He found himself with a commission from La Scala to write a comedy to an existing libretto but his heart really wasn't in it.  In the end he ended up choosing the one he disliked the least.

Un giorno di regno (roughly translated as King for a day) was an absolute disaster. Cancelled after just one performance, it almost stopped Verdi's career in its tracks. It would be over fifty years before he attempted another comic opera. It's rarely performed, even today, and carries a reputation as an early, clumsy misfire.

The plot : A French cavalry officer needs to impersonate the King of Poland and...oh look, you can probably work it out from the title. Mistaken identities with hilarious consequences, and it all comes right in the end.

The recording : There aren't all that many, but I ended up using Lamberto Gardelli's version with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and an extraordinary cast that includes Jessye Norman, Fiorenza Cossotto and Jose Carreras.

The piece itself is less obviously Verdian than Oberto, and it's Rossini's influence that dominates here. In short, I expected to hate it. And at the first listen, I did. Still, I thought be it deserved a second chance, and I liked it rather more. By the third attempt I was forced to concede that it might be a right load of old nonsense, but it's also tremendous fun.

Verdi, on the other hand, seems to have been keen to forget it. Still, his next work would be Nabucco, and then everything starts to change...

Tuesday, 20 August 2013

Incidente a Rialto

Venice rarely makes the national news over here. If it does, it's usually either on the cultural pages or  the subject of gloomy articles about the future of the city asking “What Is To Be Done?”. Yet, last Saturday morning, I logged on to La Repubblica to find a front page article about an accident on the Grand Canal, near the Ponte Rialto. A tourist, it seemed, had been killed in a collision between a vaporetto and a gondola.

A family of five German tourists had been boarding a gondola. Any information beyond that is still contradictory – the vaporetto was out of control; it took evasive action to avoid collision with another boat; it was reversing; it hit the gondola side on; the gondola should not have been moored where it was. What we do know is that the vaporetto struck the gondola, pitching the passengers into the water. A university professor from Munich, a father of three, was crushed between the boat and the jetty.

The reaction was astonishing. The gondoliers staged a day of mourning, each ferro wrapped with a strip of black; and a brief ceremony of remembrance was held at the Rialto the very next day. It's a generation since someone was last killed in an accident involving a gondola, yet there is, perhaps, a feeling that this was an accident waiting to happen, with vaporetti, gondolas, taxis, and commercial boats all competing for space on one of the busiest stretches of the canal. Investigations are ongoing, but it wasn't long before recriminations started. La Nuova reported isolated incidents of gondoliers shouting Assassini at vaporetto crews.

As to what can be done : suggestions include limiting the number of vaporetti on the canal (impractical),  prohibiting gondolas from operating during certain times of day (unthinkable), or severely restricting the number of moorings in the busiest parts of the canal. Not for the first time, Venice finds itself caught between the demands of a city that depends on mass tourism, and a city that needs to provide essential public services to its residents.

By Monday, the gondola service was back to normal. The occasional ferro was still banded in black, but, on the whole, tourists were being ferried around with songs and music as normal. Business, after all, is business.

Monday, 19 August 2013


We miss the Edinburgh Festivals. We miss the excitement of waking up when the programme is announced, of clearing our calendars at work to give us time to look at what's coming up, of haggling over what we have to book now and what can wait until the reviews start coming in. We miss those all day sessions at the Traverse, before anything has been reviewed and everything is still unknown and potentially brilliant; and of performances in strange little spaces that we didn't even know existed.

There's nothing similar in Venice. Yes, there's a theatre scene, but this is a city of less than 60,000 people and it can't hope to compare to Edinburgh in that respect.

And then we discovered that Venice has a Theatre Biennale. I say "we" - Caroline already knew about it. I just hadn't been paying attention. It's not much more than a week in length, but contains all sorts of exciting work

We'd just come back from holiday, so, being on a limited budget and having no real idea as to what things would be like, we restricted ourselves to three performances.

Alfred Jarry's Ubu Roi was a huge influence on the Theatre of the Absurd, on 20th century drama in general, and on writers such as Ionesco, Beckett, Genet and Pinter. Embarrassing, then, to admit that I've never actually seen it. The performance was from the stable of Declan Donnellan and Cheek by Jowl, so we were expecting great things. We were also expecting it to be in English. A bit of a surprise, therefore, to find it was in French with Italian surtitles.

Nevertheless, it was a fantastic piece of theatre, in a blissfully cool, air-conditioned Fenice. The most striking moment was perhaps halfway through, in a scene where Ubu summons and castigates a group of magistrates, before having them taken out and executed. And it suddenly struck me : Ubu is Berlusconi. This is an extraordinary coincidence – Donnellan cannot possibly have known this in advance – but Il Cavaliere had lost his final appeal for one of his ongoing cases only a few days previously; and had spent much of the intervening period raging against plots against him by the judiciary.

The parallels are almost perfect : a stupid, corrupt man finds himself in a position of absolute power because wielding power is the one thing he happens to be good at. And the staging - a bourgeois Parisian dinner party - could serve as a metaphor for Berlusconi's  “elegant dinners” at the Villa Arcore.

Next up was Io, Banquo at the Teatro Piccolo Arsenale. Again, we'd got this a bit wrong. We'd assumed it was a performance by Tim Crouch, a frequent visitor to the Edinburgh Fringe. Instead, it was actually a piece by Crouch, interpreted by an Italian actor.

There's something of a feeling of deja vu upon entering, as the space is very reminiscent of Glasgow's Tramway :-

Crouch's play is basically Macbeth through the eyes of Banquo. A dapper man in a white suit walks up to the front of the stage, surveys the audience, and points at a man in the row in front of us.

"Imagine we are friends. Imagine we are great friends. Imagine...".

He pulls up a floorboard, reaches into the space below, and withdraws his hand, now soaked in blood.

The story is a familiar one, but it's a wonderfully charismatic performance; perhaps a little bit weakened by the audience participation element - not everyone wants to get involved, and sometimes foreigners are picked out who don't understand what's going on. Thankfully, he never picked on us.

Banquo has left the building

I was back in the UK for the weekend, and so missed Ibsen's An Enemy of the People at the Teatro Goldoni, which we expected to be in Flemish, but turned to be in German. Caroline reported that this was a first-class modern production with Bowie on the soundtrack and, yes, some slightly confusing audience participation. She returned home at around 1.00 am, a proper Festival-type hour.

So that was our first year of the Theatre Bieannale, reminding us how much we've missed good theatre. A season ticket is around the 200 euro mark - I suspect we might very well be tempted in two years time.

Wednesday, 14 August 2013

Visions of China

The Chinese had never exhibited at the Venice Biennale until twenty years ago, but this year they are absolutely everywhere. They have more pavilions than handbag shops. The vast space of the Arsenale Nord is hosting a compendious survey of contemporary art from China, "Voice of the Unseen".

There are almost two hundred different artists represented. Some of it is brilliant, but an awful lot is mediocre; and, above all, there is simply too much of it. After more than a couple of hours the mind is just not up to concentrating any more, and the eyes are sliding off the exhibits.

This is  a shame, as there is plenty of good stuff to check out here. The trouble is that what you perceive as the good stuff is very much dependent on how sore your feet are.

Still, we were quite taken by this :-

- the seat at the end was apparently reserved for a statue of Mao, but the piece was mysteriously damaged before it could be shipped. In the meantime, Caroline stepped in to help out the Cultural Revolution.

Another piece demonstrates the problem with the volume of work on display :-

- a haunting portrayal of exhausted miners in the aftermath of a disaster, it feels crammed in and overwhelmed by the surrounding pieces.

The best, perhaps, is one that you can't actually see at all :-

- the crate contains six versions of a painting depicting the founding of the Chinese Communist Party, with each one changed to take account of the prevailing mood of the time, adding or subtracting key figures depending on their official status in Party history at that moment. It was not allowed to be displayed in China, and so the artwork has now become the packing case with an explanatory note. The message is powerful in its simplicity : things have changed, but not all that much.

The Andorra pavilion is also to be found in Arsenale Nord. Dwarfed by the size of the Chinese exhibition, it comprises just three works by three artists. Yet it's one of the best things we've seen so far : intelligent, beautiful and well thought out, it's a perfect example of less being more.

Tuesday, 13 August 2013

Project Verdi

It's a year of anniversaries. Two hundred years of Verdi and Wagner. One hundred years of Britten. One hundred years since The Rite of Spring. Peter Cushing, the gentleman of horror, would have been 100 on May 26th. Doctor Who is 50.

There was, I thought, a little side-Project in one of these. There's something about the nature of anniversaries which appeals to me in a very blokey way. A sense of completeness, of ticking things off.. Which to choose though?

Strangely, Wagner was the obvious one to decide against. Now, I bow to no-one in my admiration for The Master of Bayreuth. I have more recordings than is sensible. I spent my fortieth birthday watching Gergiev conducting The Ring. I have been fortunate enough to go to Bayreuth. I have been known to refer to him as The Master, which is possibly going a bit far. But for precisely these reasons, a Wagner Project seems unnecessary. Yes, it would be fun to listen to every work in chronological order, but I've done that in the past and will do so again. Quixotically, a Wagner-light year might be a good break.

I actually started trying to watch every episode of Doctor Who, but by the end of February I'd not even reached the end of William Hartnell's first year. The remaining 30-odd seasons wouldn't leave much time for other things. Like sleeping. Or eating. Not without a certain amount of regret, I abandoned the idea.

Every Cushing movie and surviving TV appearance, then? The trouble is that, even in these days of nearly everything being on YouTube, I didn't want to get halfway through and find that there were recordings I just couldn't get hold of. And, let's be honest, I probably don't need to see Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires again.

That left Britten and Verdi. Well, of the two, I suspect I might find a year working through Britten to be the more interesting. But, crucially, there are huge swathes of Verdi that are completely unknown to me. Now some of what I've heard is fantastic (Don Carlo, Simon Boccanegra) and some leaves me a bit cold (never managed to understand all the fuss about Falstaff). But it's a big old gap in my musical education that needs to be filled, and, besides, we're in Italy.

So Project Verdi it is then. Every opera, in order, by the end of the year; and hopefully the Requiem and the Quattro Sacri Pezzi as well. Why am I blogging this? For the simple reason that I'll give up if I don't write about it.

So here we go. Verdi's first opera, Oberto, Conte di Bonifaccio

The recording I used is Sir Neville Marriner's with the Academy of St Martin in the Fields; with Samuel Ramey, Maria Guleghina, Violetta Urmana, and Stuart Neill.

Leonora, daughter of Count Oberto, has been seduced by Riccardo; soon to marry Cuniza, the sister of Oberto's great enemy Ezzelino. Oberto swears terrible vengeance, but Riccardo kills him in a duel. Cuniza is broken-hearted. Riccardo realises he has done a great wrong and goes into exile, leaving all he possesses to Leonora, who renounces it all in order to become a hermit. There's no happy ending to speak of.

Verdi was in his mid-20s when he started work on Oberto, and it took him nearly four years to complete. It was first performed at La Scala on 17th November 1839 and met with a modest amount of success.

Oberto rarely gets a run-out these days, which seems a bit of a shame as it's actually rather good. What's surprising, perhaps, is how instantly Verdian it all sounds. It took Wagner three operas to find his voice, but Verdi seems to have known what he wanted right from the great opening four chords of the overture. There are plenty of good tunes and shouty choruses; although it's not short of a bit of note-spinning, or what I like to call "going to the shops" arias. It's a bit insubstantial perhaps, but not short of rousing moments. Very enjoyable, and worth checking out. A good start to the Project.

Saturday, 3 August 2013


In 2011, the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei was arrested and held for 81 days. His period of detention was spent in a tiny cell with constant light, under permanent supervision from two guards. His family were never informed of his whereabouts. He is still prohibited from leaving the country.

Yet he's a major presence at the Biennale this year. His installation Straight is at the Zitelle complex on Giudecca, and he's one of the artists representing Germany at their official pavilion in the Giardini (or rather the French pavilion - our crazy German chums have swapped spaces with the French and are only exhibiting non-German artists this year. But this is another story for another time). And a new work, SACRED, has been developed especially for the church of Sant'Antonin.

Upon entering, the viewer is confronted with six seemingly solid rust-coloured blocks; featureless apart from the shape of a door, and some small (almost invisible at first sight) windows. The temptation, of course, would be to try the door; but it's immediately obvious that the shape is only incised into the surface. But the first glance through one of the windows is something of a shock : we look into a brightly lit cell, in which
the central figure (immediately recognisable as a small mannequin of the artist himself) goes about his daily business - eating, sleeping, using the bathroom - all the time under the gaze of two impassive guards. We move from block to block, wondering what the miniature Ai Weiwei will be up to in this one. It becomes an odd, disconcerting feeling. It feels intrusive and voyeuristic, Big Brother style, which is presumably the whole point.

It's worth visiting in its own right, but the chance to look around Sant'Antonin is something of a bonus. The church was designed by Baldassare Longhena, although the facade was never completed; and, as a result, is somewhat anonymous-looking from outside. It was closed in 1982, but has been undergoing restoration in recent years; and it's usually impossible to visit without pre-booking a tour.

Given that, I try to make the most of the opportunity and take a couple of photographs.

One of the invigilators sees us taking an interest in the church and comes over to talk. Work, he says, is ongoing but he has no idea if it will ever reach the stage where it can be opened up to the public again. He talks us through some of the art : to the left of the altar is a Last Judgement (a rather less grim version than many); and, to the right, The Sacrifice of Noah by Pietro il Vecchio. Directly behind the altar is The Martyrdom of Sant'Antonin by a Venetian artist so obscure that this is his only known work (and whose name, unfortunately, now escapes me).

The organ looks to be in splendid condition and, indeed, ,it turns out to have been recently restored - the only problem being that the restoration was only cosmetic, and it can't actually be played. Unfortunately, if understandably,  it wasn't considered a priority to have a fully functioning organ in a permanently empty church.

The recently restored chapel of San Saba is decorated with works by Jacopo Negreti, better known as Palma il Giovane. Palma is ubiquitous in Venice. There is scarcely a church without a work by him. As a young man, he found a place in the workshop of the elderly Titian, and famously completed his master's Pieta after his death. Following the death of Tintoretto, he found himself the pre-eminent artist in Venice. And yet, I have to to say, I have never seen a work by him that has particularly moved me, or amazed me, or made me feel anything other than a general shrugging of the shoulders. The predominant impression I have of him is a preponderance of brown. Lots and lots of brown on dark, shadowy canvases. Now it may be that I'm doing him a disservice, and that perhaps the majority of his works are merely in need of restoration. The works in the chapel are typical, if perhaps ever-so-slightly less brown than usual. If you like his work, it's worth your while making a visit. If not, well, they won't change your mind.

And so we take our leave of Sant'Antonin. It's worth pointing out that you're not allowed to photograph the church itself, only the contemporary works. I snapped the picture of the altar, before being informed; and then took the one of the organ as discreetly as I could. And then, of course, the young chap who showed us around was so nice, friendly, and informative that I immediately felt guilty. Call it karma, if you like.

Nervetti : The Return

A Tuesday night, and we've treated ourselves to dinner at Ai Mercanti, which might be our new favourite restaurant in Venice. An interesting, quirky place that seems to specialise in putting a modern spin on the traditional cuisine of the Veneto.

Now, you might remember our first encounter with nervetti, perhaps a year ago, after which we decided that gelatinous cubes of pressed calf's foot were not something that needed to be tried again. And yet there it is on the menu, drawing my eyes inexorably towards it. A salad of nervetti, with prawns, avocado and wasabi.

Stupid idea. We've come out for a nice meal, why would I want to spoil the experience by ordering something that I am almost certainly not going to like?

On the other hand, how bad can something with prawns, avocado and wasabi be? Chances are you won't even be able to taste the nervetti under that lot. And this is probably as good as it's ever going to be. So maybe I should give it a go?

I shake my head. It's gelatinous, pressed calf's foot. There are all sorts of lovely things on the menu, why would I even consider having a salad of gelatinous, pressed calf's foot. Silly, silly idea. I'm decided. I'm not having it.

The waiter comes to take our order.

 "I'd like the nervetti, please", I say.

And then I put my head in my hands.

Well, it arrives. The plate is covered in a thin layer of something that kind of resembles a sheet of bubble wrap after all the bubbles have been burst, as if different bits of jelly have somehow been melted together. I prod it aside with my fork and, underneath, is a beautifully composed salad of leaves, prawns, radishes, avocado and wasabi.

I cut myself a piece of semi-translucent jelly.

It's...not horrible. It's sort of ok. It's not actively unpleasant. It is actually extremely bearable.

The salad, by contrast, is an absolutely lovely thing; and the odd dab of wasabi here and there serves to make the nervetti even more tolerable.

I clear my plate. I'm not quite sure what to think about it. The salad was delicious, but wouldn't it have been better on its own? Yes, it served to make the signature element of the dish not horrible; but, really, if you're going out for a meal then "not horrible" should kind of be your minimum expectation.

I feel modestly happy that I gave it a go. But it really doesn't need to be done again.

Almost certainly.

Friday, 26 July 2013

La Sagra

Our second Redentore arrives, but we still don't know anyone with a boat, so we limit ourselves to a quick stroll around that Zattere late afternoon; which is enough to confirm that getting there early enough to get a decent spot and remain there for the next eight hours would be a little too much like hard work.

Still, there are other things going on. There's yet another significant musical anniversary this year, namely the centenary of the first performance of Stravinsky's ballet The Rite of Spring.

Stravinsky loved Venice. The Rake's Progress was premiered at La Fenice; the Canticum Sacrum at St Mark's; and Threni at the Scuola Grande di San Rocco. And yet, strangely, he never properly lived here. He died in New York in 1971, but his body was flown to Venice to be interred on the cemetery island of San Michele, following his funeral at the church of Santi Giovanni e Paolo (for which the Vatican had granted permission). He lies now next to his wife, Vera, and his great fried Sergei Diaghilev, in the Orthodox section of the cemetery.

One of the more frustrating things about The Rite of Spring (or, La Sagra della Primavera, to give it its Italian title) is that it seems to be so bloody difficult to actually see a performance of it. I've heard it given as a concert performance any number of times, but I've never been lucky enough to see a staged production.

Even in the centenary year, there seems to be no prospect of an actual production anywhere nearby. The best alternative seems to be a semi-staged version, using a piano reduction of the score, at the cloisters of San Salvador.

The concert begins with a mixture of traditional Russian songs, and some short vocal pieces by Stravinsky; and then we're into the main event. Stravinsky's own version of La Sagra, for two pianos.

It might not the same as being at an actual performance, but it works remarkably well. It doesn't have the sheer visceral force as the fully orchestrated version, but it's not for want of trying from the performers : during the more violent moments one of the keyboards rocks alarmingly on its stand as the pianist pounds on it with his fists. Then, for the final Dance of the Virgin a ballerina dances to Nijinsky's original choreography.
It's a thrilling experience. It looks, and sounds utterly modern. It feels like it could have been written yesterday.  After the Rite, neither music nor dance would ever be quite the same again. Small wonder if caused an actual riot at the premiere, but we're not that sort of audience and just make our way, ever so slightly stunned, into the night.

Home for dinner, and then to watch the fireworks from the altana. A slightly different Redentore, but a good one.

Monday, 1 July 2013


Yes, we're still here.

June was supposed to be a quiet month, giving us plenty of opportunity to start ticking off Biennale events from the Little Pink Book. Or, given our track record so far, possibly not. It hasn't worked out like that. Caroline has been busier than ever, albeit with nice, motivated, and above all non-shouty adult students. Work slowed to a trickle for me, but I found myself jumping through hoops with a series of interviews for a job which I am almost certainly not going to get, but which sounded interesting enough to be worth having a go at anyway.

People have been queuing up to offer Caroline work. A Famous Edinburgh Arts Impresario was very keen to give her the chance to look after his exhibition. An interesting opportunity but, unfortunately, an unpaid one; and the offer was politely declined. The other one was more interesting : the chance to be an actual performer at the Biennale. On the surface, it sounded like quite a nice job - for a number of hours each day, she would sit in a space in a palazzo reading from a script by the artist (a rather interesting piece about the Algerian war of independence). After meeting with the artist and her representative, she was all ready to sign up, until the contract arrived with the number of expected hours suddenly doubled; bringing the hourly rate of pay down to something less than six euros. I was very proud of her for getting it, but even more pleased that she turned it down.

Caroline has just finished her last lesson. I have a surprisingly busy day tomorrow and then that'll pretty much be it. A twelve day break in the UK, and then back to Venice for some quality altana time, and throwing ourselves on the mercy of the Little Pink Book.

So there we go. That was our first anno scolastico. Now, a number of people have asked us why we don't try something different, possibly less stressful, and certainly more lucrative, such as working as tour guides. This suggestion has come up a lot, so I think it's worth explaining why not. The answer is very simple : it's very, very hard to become a tour guide in Venice. You need fluency in at least three languages. Your knowledge of the art, architecture, history, politics and music of Venice needs to be forensic. You cannot just pitch up and start running tours. I have Venetian friends who work as guides. It took them years of study to qualify. How would I feel if I ran into them in town whilst running an unlicensed tour? Is it really worth putting a friendship at risk for the sake of a few extra bob? No, for now, at least, it's a teacher's life for us.

As I said, we're off to the UK for a few weeks. Hopefully there'll be more time to write when I get back, but in the meantime buon estate everyone.

Wednesday, 12 June 2013

A Tale of Two Bernards

The Biennale runs on until mid-November, but some of the smaller exhibitions will have packed up long before then; so we took the opportunity on Sunday to try and knock off some of the early finishers. And to help us in this, we made use of "My Biennale Guide 2013" :-

- every event listed with start and end dates, locations marked on a map, and all in a convenient pocket-sized little book. What could be more useful?

We start with two artists inspired by their time in Madagascar. Or rather, we don't. We find ourselves in San Polo in search of a building that doesn't seem to exist. We walk up and down Calle Bernardo, several times. It really isn't there. We take out the useful little pink book and recheck the map. Then we recheck the listing. Ah. The map is directing us to Calle Bernardo, whereas the listing specifies Calle Bernardi. A subtle, but important difference. 

Still, the proper location isn't far away, so off we head, and within ten minutes we find ourselves outside Palazzo Ca' Bernardi. Recheck the book. Yes, this is definitely the place. Except that the art is conspicuous by its absence. There's no official Biennale sign to be seen. It just seems to be a private residence, and the only sign is for a bed and breakfast. We don't think we can really ring random bells and ask "Can we come in and see the art please mister?" so, reluctantly, we give the Madagascans up as a bad job.

There may be some art behind this door. And, then again, there may not.

Not to be downhearted, we strike out for Costa Rica at Ca' Bonvicini, not very far from where we've just come from. Except that when we arrive, Ca' Bonvicini appears to be a dentist's surgery. And not called Ca' Bonvicini. We walk up. We walk down. We walk around. But San Polo 2164 is obstinately refusing to be anything other than a dentist's.

Hang on a minute, San Polo??? 

We recheck the useful little pink book. The map directs us to San Polo. And the listing directs us to Santa Croce.

We've been on the go for an hour-and-a-half now and, in a city where almost every available building is pressed into use as an exhibition space, we have somehow contrived to find No Art At All.

It would be fair to say we're losing faith in the useful little pink book at this point, its convenient size not really compensating for the fact that it seems to be of limited use when it comes to actually finding anything. So we decide to cut our losses and head for somewhere that we actually know exists, Ca'Foscari, hosting a pretty good exhibition of contemporary Russian art.

Lenin encounters one of Giacometti's "Walking Men"

"Russia is the Motherland of elephants"

 There's a lot of it to get around, and by the time we finish the weather has completely changed and it's raining. We decide to make our way back via the Palestinians at the Liceo Artistico. The garden at the rear has been turned into a rather striking installation.

Giardino Occupato. You can guess what it's about.

The Ukrainians in Campo Santo Stefano are still open for business, with a well-thought-out exhibition of sculpture and video; and then we make our way home. It's been a good afternoon's work in spite of a shaky start. But next time the little pink book will probably be left at home.