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.