Saturday, November 25, 2006

Patterns in a picture IV

More patterns, and the physics of Venice's effect upon people.

1. Possibility : Anything that is truly good, is possible.

Unfortunately, we rarely believe it's achievable. Usually, the behavior of other people prevented us, from when we were small, from realizing our most pleasant dreams. Maybe your village was bombed; maybe your parents told you to stop playing; maybe you feel hurt by friends; maybe teachers, bosses and mass media coerced you, or bribed you, into conformist thinking.

One way or another, if someone proposes something fantastic, not physically impossible, but simply too wonderful & difficult, we're likely to dismiss it, and say "that will never happen".

In the face of that, Venice stands. Seemingly impossible; and yet impossibly successful. Successful because it followed a simple idea: "let's live in the middle of this lagoon." It overcame the difficulties of that proposal. Its existence, and our ability to touch it, immediately gives us hope of a better world. It makes us forget bad things ... war, debts, jealousy, greed, hate ... things that have been as much a part of life here as anywhere else. But here, somehow, the normal problems of the world did not defeat an improbable, positive, massive project.

That's something to take home with you. Don't give up on a beautiful idea.

2. We are water : and water is life. When we have ideas, when we solve problems, when good things happen, when they are harmonious, we are "going with the flow". We are more "fluid". And nothing else, for some reason, can "get our juices flowing" the way that water can, and the more integrated our lives are with water, the better. No land-bound town survives without its river, its aquifers, its wells, its springs, its swales, its irrigation systems, its waterfalls, its seafront, its lakefront ... water keeps us alive, not just technically. Without being part of a natural cycle of water, of rain and evaporation, of storm and calm, it is impossible to even feel alive, let alone make the world around us more alive.

If Venice offers us any single prescription for achieving our dreams -- for fulfilling life's great possibilities -- it is this: get as close as you can to the source of life. Get in touch with water. Hold on to it, integrate it with everything in your daily life, at every scale imaginable. Take care of it, respect it, and it will feed your souls, it will continually revive your community, and anything will become possible.

Friday, November 24, 2006

Patterns in a picture III

I choose random photos here, purposely: Venice has so many overlapping good patterns, so much life, at such depth, that any glimpse of it, anywhere, reveals important principles. These are patterns that anyone can use, mutatis mutandis, for the good of their community.

1. Many stories : the great thing about a public square, or any gathering place, in this case a campo, is that everyone can be the center of attention, even if they are doing nothing at all. Here's a priest, near a newspaper kiosk, engaged in conversation, waiving his cellphone -- waiting for a call, or about to make one -- and does it have anything to do with his conversation? There are some young ladies, sitting on the well-head, preening in the shade on a hot day, looking at their camera, no doubt recording the scene in the campo, as we are. An elderly couple sits in a cafe nearby ... all of them add to the richness of life in the square, helping each other to feel more human.

2. Sub-centers, active or vestigial : the campo is clearly a major center. But it would be dead without supporting centers ... even when they are barely operational. Here's a kiosk -- closed at the moment, and many kiosks in Venice serve tourist needs more than local ones; here's a well-head -- but again, fresh water in Venice now comes from the mainland, rather than from the man-made aquifers under these wells; here's a cafe -- but note that it only has benches, a kind of temporary extension of an eating or drinking establishment. Not a decent cafe, with small tables & movable chairs. There are balconies, unused but by the flowers of window-boxes. There are trefoil windows, but no one is looking in or out. The only working apparatus is an awning, which an elderly gentleman is about to walk under, to get out of the sun for a moment. And, yet, the whole environment works -- it's profoundly comfortable and supportive for everyone there. If it were just a square with a perfectly flat, undifferentiated pavement, and blank walls, we'd think it was a prison. We know it's not : it was built, gradually, by real people, for real human-scale purpose. In this campo, we're surrounded by the force of structures ready to help us, and which have helped people in the past.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Patterns in a picture II

It's a sunny day on the Grand Canal, in front of the the Palazzo bought by Peggy Guggenheim, and now housing her private collection. This is a very popular spot. What's happening?

1. Semi-public, semi-private : anyone with a few euros can get into this private house turned museum. And yet, it's in Venice, and there are thousands of tourists outside, in the Dorsoduro sestiere.

2. Self-differentiation : Through access to this small collection, tourists can differentiate themselves from others, sorting themselves, albeit temporarily, by their interest in famous 20th century painters & sculptors. There's an opportunity, for example, to meet someone who is equally fond of a favorite of yours.

3. Interpenetration : this is similar to (1), but at an additional scale -- this balcony sticks into the canal, so that it is possible to interact with the endless, intimate, endlessly varied stream of boats passing by, more or less, with serenity. Something similar happens when an outdoor cafe bumps outwards into a pedestrian square or stream. The actual morphology here, on the lagoon, is quite different, but the effect is the same ... to separate yourself from the public, and yet flirt with it.

4. Handmade : Art is everywhere here: ancient, modern, architectural, sculptural, nautical ... studio pieces sitting on the balcony, marble windows and tiled gables across the canal, iron-work balustrades of the balcony, fashionable clothes on the visitors, accordion and violin melodies wafting in here and there from a passing gondola. All this applied talent simply makes you feel more like a human being, and gives you hope for the world.

5. Gathering center : it's not obvious unless you're there, but this balcony is a beautiful gathering spot within the museum, and the structure of the palazzo leads you onto the balcony, where you can sample perhaps the best vista in the history of civilization. But there are people there. It makes you want to hang out, chat with strangers, feel the sea-breeze, etc.

6. Places to sit : Balconies should always be sittable. So should railings (unless there's an overwhelming saftey issue). Benches, sculpture bases, steps ... people sit anywhere in a spot like this. Add a few loose chairs and this balcony would be totally packed all day ...

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Pattern: conservatori

Vivaldi's time in Venice is the subject of an upcoming hollywood biopic, with Joseph Fiennes playing Vivaldi.

The movie's scope is Vivaldi's time directing the girl's orchestra at the Ospedale della Pietà. This was like an orphanage: the girls were wards of the state, given public purpose. Vivaldi put them to especially good 'use': no doubt they premiered the Four Seasons, and hundreds of other concertos. It was a heady time for music in Venice, and Vivaldi's work there deeply inspired Bach, and all music henceforth.

These state wards were known as conservatori. It is possible that Vivaldi's girls inspired our term "music conservatory".

Conservatories were meant to conserve humans, who might otherwise die, or cause other trouble to a city. The policy and pattern is more or less ancient. It's human nature to take care of the unlucky. It's also human nature to put some burden upon them. Orphans for example, have lost their family and community ties, so they need an active program of community re-integration.

In the worst of cases, they are given work that doesn't even need doing ... to simply maintain the operation or profit of the institution itself. This "busy work" means no "net gain" for the community, and is most common in large cities or societies. More positive examples exist, which give the charges some choice, and a chance to prove themselves, choosing among farmwork, craftwork, public service, etc.

But something special happened at Vilvaldi's 'first' Music Conservatory. The conservatory itself seems to have helped stimulate the subject, in this case, to new heights in music design & performance.

Vidal quotes Charles de Brosses, president of the Burgandy Parliament, who visited Venice two years before Vivaldi's death in 1741:

The girls are educated and maintained at the expense of the State, and their sole training is to excel in music. Thus they sing like angels, and play the violin, flute, organ, oboe, violoncello, and bassoon -- in fact, there is no instrument so big as to intimidate them. They are cloistered like nuns. They perform without outside help, and at each concert forty girls take part. I swear there is nothing prettier in the world than to see a young and charming nun, dressed in white, with a spray of pomegranate flowers over her ear, conduct the orchestra and give the beat with all the exactness imaginable.

Apparently, 35 years later, English musician Charles Burney, having seen this successful phenomenon, tried to reproduce it with the Foundling Hospital in London. With less success.

But it is an inspiring idea, to create centers, or conservatories, dedicated to excellence, giving chances to those who have fallen out of the system. In fact, this should become again a part of the definition of the word "conservatory" ... the social purpose, combined with an attempt to restimulate quality, giving real form to our hopes for a better world. This is of course the goal of education, and continuing education, which is woefully underfunded throughout the world. The money is there, but private interests tend to take public money for themselves, so conservatories are terribly rare -- when they launch, they are typically initiated by dreamers, and supported by a private community, until they slowly garner some public support. But they are forced to fight for every penny ... art and skill and potential are eroded and lost under such conditions. If the future is to be better, we must be aware that the conservatory is a successful pattern, and do our best to make it easy for them to exist.

Drawing by Greg Bryant, sometime in 1999

Advantage: courtesans

In 1985, Gore Vidal wrote a book, and starred in a documentary, about Venice -- if I ever find both out-of-print tapes, I'll post them on YouTube. He makes a very Vidalesque observation, about the origin of the practice of Venetian courtesans, to keep their breasts bare. "... their principle competition: transvestites from the mainland." In response, the courtesans became advertisements for their gender, using the only advertising weapon, breasts, that the tranvestites, no doubt very prettily dressed, lacked.

In the 16th century there were apparently some 12,000 registered and taxed courtesans in the city. That's nearly a quarter of today's complete body of Venetian citizens. According an excellent chapter in Venice: The Tourist Maze, courtesans began to flourish during the pilgrimages to the Holy Land, which set sail from Venice. They did well during the heydays of the Carnival and the Grand Tour ... but now there are none in the city. The Museo d'Arte Erotica, provocatively near to that former street-walking hot-spot, Piazza San Marco, is trying to remind visitors of the Venetian Republic's spicier past. However, the museum's website is down, as I write this. Perhaps the museum itself is closed? When I visited, this summer, at the height of tourist season, it was nearly empty, although the giftshop was doing decent business. Their building is huge ... so someone is subsidizing this museum. I'm sure it has an interesting story in its own right ... [12/21/06 note: I was right, the musuem has closed. UPI's article.]

Venice Monopoly -- the "Age of Discovery"

Since at least the Venetian conquest of Constantinople in 1204, Venetian dominance of mediterranean trade was extreme enough to warrant a continual search, by every other European monarch, for alternative routes. When the Ottomans captured Constatinople in 1453, the Venetians and the Ottomans were by far the largest players in the Meditteranean, and the pressure for alternative routes increased. Spain & Portugal, indulging in muslim ethnic cleansing at the time, were particularly keen to not deal with the Ottomans.

Many other forces were involved, including the European monarchs' need to conquer, to maintain growth & power. But the strategic position of Venice led, more or less directly, to the European invasion of the New World.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Capitelli: restoration under the radar

In Venice: The Tourist Maze Davis & Marvin lament that most decisions, regarding the use and restoration of structures in Venice, rarely involve Venetians themselves. But sometimes, they write, locals are in complete control of the situation:

Ordinary Venetians have, for example, continued to tend their city's five hundred or so
capitelli, or street-side shrines, "that adorn the intersection of a great many calli and canals, that illuminate dark sottoportici, or that reign on remote channel markers in the Lagoon." These little altars are part of a cultural tradition in Venice that dates back a millenium or more, though as works of art they have yet to appear on the aesthetic radar screens of UNESCO or APC. Still, modest as they are, these shrines require regular upkeep, generally from parishioners, who not only keep them in flowers and candles, but also clean, paint, and repair them when necessary. How well this work is done depends to a great extent on the "sensitivity" of the volunteers -- we never heard of anyone getting any special training in this sort of thing -- but then fixing up of such "popular" artwork is not usually subject to the same standards as those demanded for art in the recognized canon. However well the restoration is done, neighborhood people still appreciate the improvement, and they still come to make use of their local capitello -- for personal prayers, to leave ex voti, or to join together in the somewhat more formal business of chanting orations or reciting the rosary in the evenings.

Patterns in a picture

1. public square

A civic space where people can arrange to meet, and which provides a beautiful and useful place to hang out.

2. public performance

In this case, music for the benefit of the cafe patrons, but also for the general public. It helps to draw people into the cafe seating area.

3. open cafe

A cafe that the public can interact with, and walk though, but with waiters, so that if people sit, they need to get something.

4. arcades

Covered walkways, wide enough for tables, chairs & vendors, with high openings to let the light & sun in.

5. chairs and tables

If you want people to hang out in private or public spaces, make sure they have adjustable places to sit.

6. small tables

Tables that are small enough so that people can easily and comfortably talk with each other in private, even in noisy surroundings. An added benefit: smaller tables fit more easily into unusual spaces, and you can pack more of them into a cafe.

7. Inspiring ornament

In this case, on the palazzo ducale. Ornament that lifts your spirit, and which is in harmony with the above patterns.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Venetian tapestries

From Harper's New Monthly Magazine, 1878

Moth-eaten and faded, pale with their age and long imprisonment in dark halls into which the sunlight never crept, are the old Venetiaan tapestries. You may see them to-day, drooping, faint and humble, about the windows of the dingy shops, among the grotesque brasses, the deep-toned laces, the dark tomes and jewelled reliquaries. They shudder at every footfall -- broken old aristocrats, so long recluses through poverty that the light of day and the noise of humanity are full of terror and foreboding to them.

At a regatta-time the poor pale phantoms rise from their graves in the iron-bound coffers or the joyless banqueting halls, and flutter mournfully from under the window arches, mocked at by the stone satyr heads, or sweep below to a balcony nigh to the water's edge -- a faint color space with tones of yellow and green, darkening with the figure outlines, reproducing the shifting color effects of the palace front behind and the changeful waterway below, forming an ascending scale of harmony that gives to the wide sweeping way that subdued pearly quality of color that the old painters of the last century, Canaletto and his followers, felt and expressed -- so unconciously mournful, so symbolic of the city's decay. It is an aspect that could have been made prominent only at a time when human action had ceased to interest, and the artist soul fell back upon accessory.

On festa the damasks make blood-red stains against the gray stones, turning them to white. They have served through victory feasts and holy-tides, have symbolized rejoicing over warrior and monk, but they still glow warm in the noon-time sun, for there is in them something sturdy and martial -- the strong old democratic force that blots itelf darkly against the poor faded patrician fabrics.

They still linger in the churches, those old velvets and damasks with the odor of the centuries upon them. They glow crimson about the columns, or cover the walls, framing in the fair-haired pictured shapes. Threads of gold and silver gleam suddenly in the alter light from their tissues. In the sacristies, upon the alters, in the robes of the priests, the draperies of the holy tables, the hangings of sacred places, their rich, deep tones, mellowed by the centuries, wrought in crimson, pale green, faint yellow, are all caught up in one exquisite harmony in the soft taper glow.

The history of the sea-city is inwrought with these stately arazzi, so grand and royal in their very humiliation, no less than with the great canvases that the dying republic bequeathed to its posterity. The relation is even closer, for the soft yielding folds of the arazzi could enter secret places that were closed to the unbending canvases. In the farthest chambers of the palaces, where men bared their hearts one to another, thinking their plots secure, lurked the listening arras, waiting for their victims! What treacherous footsteps were muffled by the indulgent tapestry! What lovers' heads it touched in blessing as they passed through the portals, brushing aside the heavy folds; what death-doomed caressed with its comforting hands! Courtly, politic old nobles, these arazzi of Venice, gaining a foot-hold in every household, indulgent and liberal to guilt as to innocence -- philosophic spectators of the great tragedy of life, with no personal interests at stake.

In the early age of the republic there was weaving of stuffs in Venice, but stuffs simple, severe, of single purpose and religious aim -- stuffs that hung in long straight folds on the pious men, and draped the saintly women in noble curves. It was in this mood that the earliest artists of Venice worked, those to whom had come down the simple traditions of the early Church and their exponent, Art, and therefore, when they overlaid the domes of the basilica with holy shapes throned in a golden glow, they made their humanity higher than their garments, draping them in the coarse dark serge of the poor and the lowly. And this mood held good wherever sweet and simple thoughts were uttered upon canvas through all succeeding years.

photos borrowed from Olga Volchkova