There was a respectful silence in the church, and apart from the occasional shuffling of hands to rub off the cold December air, the whole congregation stood very still as a young man began making his way up to the pulpit. He spoke of his uncle, Nicolò Marcello, who had died at 77 years of age after serving as doge for only 16 months. And yet, since taking up the dogal corno in August 1473, he had done far more than many had accomplished in much longer terms.
We can only guess the words his nephew spoke at the funeral, so we might as well start with what we do know. His portraits for instance.
We begin in the 1580’s with Jacopo Tintoretto’s son Domenico, who had the merit of completing a series of portraits of the doges which adorn the Sala del Maggior Consiglio in the Doge’s Palace, each with a white ribbon flowing around their bodies upon which we read a personal message from the doge telling us his accomplishments in office, a sort of dogal speech bubble. “ME POPULI PIETAS ET OPES EXPONERE MOVIT” is how Marcello’s ribbon begins, “the love for the people moved me to give up my riches and my life”. Indeed, he donated his whole estate to the poor and the needy of his city, in tune with what many say was his gentle and generous nature. A little surprising perhaps, given his peculiar taste for the extravagant and the luxurious; he was in fact the first doge to insist on wearing wholly golden robes during ceremonies, and on having trumpets exclusively made of silver. These novelties were commonly accepted gracefully given his able statesmanship and good-natured heart.
Let’s backtrack a century or so to 1479, when Gentile Bellini was sent to Constantinople on a mission to portray Sultan Mehmet II, a work that popularised him as the best portrait artist in Venice, and was then commissioned to do a series of portraits of the doges, many of which were unfortunately lost in a great fire that spread across the Doge’s Palace in 1557. Luckily, Gentile’s portrait of Nicolò Marcello was saved, though I think we would have been even luckier had his younger brother Giovanni tried his hand at it, as we might have learned more of Marcello’s character as Giovanni was clearly more talented, and surely more interested in showing a subject’s character through their exterior traits rather than just giving a faithful depiction of those traits.
In any case, Gentile’s work has all the characteristics of early Renaissance portraiture and it is plausible that the profile angle was directly inspired by old Roman coins, where the emperor’s head would be depicted from one side. The idea behind both coin and portrait was to simply showcase one’s status and power, which was to last through the ages and inspire pride in the eyes of one’s descendants and awe in those of the public. Quite fitting for a doge who was supposedly a distant descendant of an ancient Roman family, the gens Claudia-Marcella.
The numismatic link is also apt since Nicolò Marcello was famous for having introduced a new coin in the Venetian market, worth half a lira and called “marcello” in his honour, as it greatly helped in sanitising the dire financial situation the city had been stuck in for years. His face, ironically, did not appear on thecoin, because just before being elected doge, the correttori della promissione ducale, charged with defining the terms of dogal administration, had determined that no coin should henceforth ever represent a doge’s face, as had been the custom until then.
We are, however, fortunate that around 70 years later, Titian was able to see the portrait and have a crack at it himself. Marcello is still seen in profile, and this is not a small detail because amongst all of Titian’s surviving portraits, this is the only one where the subject is seated in this position, bust, head and eyes facing to the left, as if completely disinterested and even unaware of the artist – or rather, the viewer, like a photograph of a doge “caught in the act”, and the “act” is where Titian steers away from Bellini, as he uses a wider lens making the most of all that space to show the doge’s whole body, with particular attention to his arms and hands. His right arm is stretched out but almost concealed by the cloak if we were to look at it from the other side; the hand is stiff and angled horizontally as though prepared for a handshake, and Titian is telling us an essential aspect of who the doge really was; at heart he was a merchant, and indeed he had spent much of his early career travelling to foreign countries on commercial business, spending a good number of years in Damascus. And what is more merchant-like than an inconspicuous handshake?
Let us not misunderstand merchant to be synonymous with crafty, and we need only look at his expression to be reassured of this. Unlike Gentile Bellini, Titian gives some character to Marcello’s face, who in his own way looks decisive and straightforward, but does not have the sharp features of Doge Gritti as portrayed by Titian, and even has an inkling of a double chin that is so common with older – we might say harmless – men. He might gain our respect but perhaps does not command it as Gritti does, and looking at his lips we might think they are even working towards a warm smile that would certainly keep us on his side. All in all, he exudes an endearing firmness no good merchant would wish to be without.
Now, it might not be the purpose of artists to convey what the powerful in history were truly like, and many variables can come between reality and the artist’s work; but there is a feeling emanating from the portraits of Nicolò Marcello, that he had been a kind, reasonable and pragmatic person, who was certainly not thrifty in nature but also knew his duties came before his own pleasure. Not a bad start for any politician in any age.
By Ale Dowling
It’s a wonderful sunny day and I head straightaway to the Jason Bell photography exhibition after my university exam. Overlooking the Grand Canal, Fondaco Marcello is very simple but perfectly renovated, shining and minimalistic. During the 16thand 17th centuries it was a goods storage. This is reflected in the very basic space organization and the monumental wooden roofing. Now this space is dedicated to contemporary art exhibitions.
As I arrive they offer me Prosecco and invite me to enjoy the sun on the dock. The view onCanal Grande is stunning. I must admit that half of any exhibition in Venice is the experience of Venice itself.
There aren’t a lot of visitors. I ask the hostesses and they reply that I’m the first Italian visiting the exhibition that day: “Most visitors are tourists who got lost and came here by chance. This palace wasn’t meant to be reached on foot: during the 16th century, only boats could arrive. It is in fact quite difficult to find”.
The photos occupy all the four walls of the single room, from the floor to the top. It’s incredibly enveloping and a little chaotic since pictures are not separated but all continuous, like a collage. What I immediately notice is that almost every celebrity is caught when she or he is not looking straight at the camera. They seem naturally posing or caught in a moment of relaxation during the shooting. Léa Seydoux, in a black and white photo, is shot when brushing her hair with a hand, one of my favourite pictures. Jason Bell’s ability to capture those volatile moments is breath-taking.
The exhibition was inaugurated the night before. Jason Bell was present along with Italian and international celebrities. I ask waiters how he was. “Jason Bell was great. I’ve never served such a polite person… Very English I would say”, they reply to me laughing.
I try to find some traits of Bell’s personality by staring at his photos. There’s something in the way the celebrities are shot that conveys a sense of gentleness and delicacy. I feel that the photographer does not impose himself but rather reports nonchalantly. A few weeks ago when photographing the British royal family for intimate shots, he was asked, ”What did you want to convey with those pictures?”. “That they’re a normal family, like the others”.
I exit the palace and I realize that I fully understand the title of the exhibit just now. “Portraits”, not celebrities. The picture of Monica Bellucci is still in my mind. For the photographer she isn’t a celebrity anymore; he portrays her as if she were a wife, a mother, or a sister, gently.
by Margherita Tess
That Saturday night Venetians eat outside, preferably on water. On improvised tables made of wooden boards covered with tablecloths and placed on boats or along the quay, the traditional bean and pasta soup (pasta fagioli) will surely be served. Who knows why this modest dish is omnipresent on practically all festive menus here? There will be other Venetian specialties like bigoli in salsa, thick spaghetti in a brown sauce of stewed onions and anchovies, or duck ragout made of the lesser meat of the same duck that will be later eaten roasted as a main course. For starters, most probably sarde in saor, fried sardines marinated with onions and raisins… Wonderful evening, modest ingredients and strong tastes so favored in the Venetian cuisine! There is a chance for a touch of color if pepperonata of yellow and red peppers is served on the side along with stewed chanterelle mushrooms with parsley.
There will be plenty of wine – Venetians are easy and celebrate with the same wines they drink every day: the simplest wines from the Veneto region vineyards bought in small shops all over town and poured directly from the barrel into empty plastic mineral water bottles; red cabernet franc, merlot or slightly fizzy semi-dry raboso or rabosello, if white, then sparkling prosecco is a must and flat tai (which used to be called tocai) or pinot grigio which in Venice is closer to a rosé and never too dry. It is a long evening, generous dinner and wine substitutes water but nobody hurries back home before they eat a slice of watermelon big enough to serve an extended family.
Fireworks can be seen just as well from the land, though our hair won’t get sparkled with ashes. The higher, the better: from balconies, rooftops, and terraces of smaller houses or palaces and hotelson the Grand Canal. Venice, again, is democratic and the illuminated sky can be seen from the most remote places in the perimeter of the town. That is certainly one of the reasons why Venetians build and tend rooftop altanas: to see the sky and water too, as did Venetian merchants for ages. From their balconies, they watched their ships bringing goods from overseas. Palazzo Venier dei Leoni – once Peggy Guggenheim’s house and now a museum named after her – has only one floor and was never completed because the neighbors across the Canal, the Corner family did not want their view blocked. Whoever has a good balcony or an altana will not be alone on the night of the Redentore.
by Ewa Gorniak Morgan
Venice is made of many dreams.
Il Redentore is the most phantasmagoric of all Venetian festivities. Celebrated every year only in Venice, it falls on the third Sunday in July and the preceding night.
This tradition originated from a 1576 decree by the Senate of the Venetian Republic, to build a church and mark the end of a plague. That church is the magnificent Basilica del Redentore, designed by Andrea Palladio, one of the most renowned architects of the day. It is said – along with the Basilica di San Giorgio Maggiore nearby – to be Palladio’s greatest achievement in the field of ecclesiastical architecture.
The church is in the eastern part of the Giudecca. Its Palladian façade shines with the glare of white Istrian marble. It is the most important church of the Giudecca and, once a year, of Venice itself.
A pontoon bridge is assembled on Sunday to connect the embankment of the Zattere with the church of the Redentore across the canal. It is a thank you bridge, and it will carry tens of thousands of pilgrims and tourists, dreamily walking on water. Masses are being said non-stop on the hour, and the parish organizes a charity lottery and hosts a celebration concert. The festive atmosphere is contagious and all-inclusive.
The platform with fireworks for the midnight show arrives early on Saturday morning and is moored in the middle of the Bacino San Marco. From early evening on one can watch from the Accademia bridge a never-ending colorful stream of rowing boats, barges, motorboats, fishing boats – in all shapes and sizes, privately owned or chartered, decorated with wreaths and lanterns – in a slow jolly procession toward the Bacino and the Giudecca Canal to find the best space with a view.
Soon the area opposite the church and island of San Giorgio is so thick with boats that one could walk on water jumping from one to another. Everybody seems happy even before it gets dark, but the magic comes – as in an old movie theatre – before midnight when the sky over Venice explodes for nearly one hour with fireworks above the anxiously awaited flotilla of boats.
by Ewa Gorniak Morgan
I like what Henry James wrote about Venice, but until tonight I never liked his famous phrase that Venice was “the most beautiful of tombs.” Tongue-in-cheek perhaps, since he also called Venice “the most beautiful of towns”; but the phrase does mean something and gets famous for that, while the word “tomb” is no doubt unpleasant to people who believe the city is still alive.
“Venetian life, in the large old sense, has long since come to an end… Nowhere else has the past been laid to rest with such tenderness, such a sadness of resignation and remembrance. Nowhere else is the present so alien, so discontinuous, so like a crowd in a cemetery without garlands for the graves.” – Henry James, Italian Hours (1909).
“Are there famous people buried in Venice?” My friend asked when we took a walk after dinner on College St. A law student at Yale, he is very interested in graves. He frequented the cemetery across the street from the Law School, and he said, “Malinowski is at another site.”
“Oh, the sociologist,” I said.
“He gets famous in China because of Fei Xiaotong the sociologist,” my friend said.
My friend is very kind and always responds to my comments by comments that follow my comments. That is, he doesn’t contradict, not explicitly, which I always do, especially to contradict myself. If I were him I would have replied that Malinowski is an anthropologist, if I could recall.
I couldn’t recall the name of the Russian composer buried at San Michele, and I told my friend only two literary figures to answer his question: Ezra Pound and Joseph Brodsky. Two obscure poets—they are famous, but obscure, like most dead people, like most distant and recent history—buried near Stravinsky. I remember the composer’s name now.
Come to think of it, of course more famous people are buried in Venice: St. Mark, for instance, though technically he was buried in Alexandria and only in 828 did he become a possession and patron saint of Venice. Many other saints and strangers are there, too, I mean their relics, like Othello’s, like Shylock’s.
But it just occurred to me that James was right about Venice being “the most beautiful of tombs.” The Basilica of St. Mark is a beautiful mausoleum of Constantinople, of the Byzantine, of the Eastern Mediterranean. And the palaces on the Grand Canal that of a simpler and perhaps better time.
The end of that time has left us materially rich but spiritually uncertain. Tradition is dead; tradition is yet to come. And every corner of the world is struggling to get back home.
A home not the old but the new. A home new but also old, that sees everything comes and goes, “and takes it all in with practised eyes.”
by Yuqian Cai, Venice Palaces
I am walking through the streets of the Burano Island. It is a sunny day. A soft wind is blowing.
The first thing that hits you when you drop off the “vaporetto” is the smell of fried fish from little bars and typical restaurants, water all around and an explosion of colours. Each house, in Burano, is painted differently from another, and colourful laundry is hanged out of the windows, blowing in the breeze.
The ferry boat that takes you to Burano from Venice is enormous, but it is always crowded. People from around the globe come and visit the island, unique in the world. The charm of the place is softened by the invasion of tourists: they are so many that you will surely see more tourists than inhabitants. At each corner, on each bridge, someone is taking selfies and pictures and posting them on some social networks.
An old woman is smoking out of her blue house, her lazy cat is laying down on the windowsill, enjoying the sun, between two flower bowls.
“It’s so quiet to live here.” she tells me. “You know… no cars, no pollution, no traffic jam, no dangers. It’s just us and the water. Water is the only danger.”
She tells me a bit of her story, her accent is strong, I struggle in understanding some words but keep on listening.
She was born in Burano and has lived here ever since. “It’s like a piece of heaven,” she tells me.
Her house is close to the famous “Tre ponti,” where two canals and three districts meet.
“The oldest people call me when they need to cross the bridge. I help them every day. We perfectly know each other, we are all friends here, it’s like a big family. You never feel alone. You can always knock at someone’s house and have a talk. It’s like heaven,” she tells me again. “Look at my door: I have no door; this is just a curtain.”
I notice that almost all the houses have no door, but just a colourful curtain. I wonder how it feels to live so peacefully in our contemporary world. We lock our doors because we are frightened, everything can become a danger, anyone can be an enemy, we live in suspicion and fear.
How does it feel to live so fearlessly that your door is always open?
Her husband comes out of the house, caresses the cat and join the conversation.
“We do not mind having tourists around. It is a resource: tourism is very important to us, a main activity along with fishing and craftsmanship. However, sometimes, you know, it feels like they do not understand that this is real life, that this is our daily routine. It is important to understand that Burano, as Venice, is not a playground, it is real. Often, while we are having lunch, someone draws our curtain: they are curious, they want to see the inside of our funny houses, but this is our private dimension! When I see them draw the curtain and peep out, I just smile at them and say ‘Buon appetito!’.”
“It must be wonderful to live here,” I say to my special guide.
“It is… but nobody stays in the end.” I see sadness coming in her eyes. “A few years ago, I bought a house for my two daughters, trying to provide them a reason to stay. But none of them remained here, they both moved to Jesolo, they settled there.”
The sun is setting. It reflects wonderful colours, together with the houses, in the canals.
Nevertheless, Burano seems very different to me from the moment I arrived.
Its grace, its calm, its unspoiled reality lives together with its isolation and depopulation. What will happen to a place like this when no one wants to live here anymore? The fear of seeing this little piece of Heaven becoming a playground for tourists – as it is happening to Venice – is big, but what can we do to save it?
Perhaps the key might be in a talk like this, bringing to light some memories hidden which reveal the true existence of a place. Despite our everyday rush, the secret may be in taking a little time to rest, not stopping asking why and listening a bit more.
by Federica Biscardi, Linea 20
Looking up the shiny surface of One Canada Square I was thrown back to my memories from 25 years ago. There and then my young ambition was to reach the top floor, in more than one sense. Now disillusion hit me, the country that I chose as home for my family had turned its back on my dreams, and the already airy borders of my financial profession became even more cloudy and unstable.
I’d been living in London for half of my life, raising my large happy family with the same tolerance and liberal mantles that my mother chose to dress me in as a young boy. The few short moments back in my native city had soon become extremely precious to me, however, and I didn’t quite foresee how one particular event would change my life and my perspective.
My mother told me that our friends were about to sell their Palazzo Soranzo Van Axel and it would be turned into luxury flats. My infamous temperamental personality revealed itself through terrible anger before merging into a sense of despair and profound frustration towards what had become the disease of a once glorious city. Residents were giving up, selling out and leaving Venice to its destiny.
A short while after the conversation with my mother, I was playing with my daughter on the lawn of my friend Luca’s estate in Norfolk when, as an afterthought, I mentioned that the magnificent XV century Gothic Palazzo was suddenly to become no different than One Hyde Park, or any other luxurious playground for the rich. Before I could finish my sentence, Luca said: “Let’s buy Palazzo Soranzo Van Axel and preserve it as it is”. My daughter was jumping and laughing hysterically, and I couldn’t contain a burst of laughter myself. Luca gestured for me to sit next to him on the lawn and I quietly explained the financial sense of such an investment. I knew very well how to pitch an investment opportunity to a client and how to focus my arguments on the long-term benefits, balancing short-term risks.
Could a Venetian Palace be rescued through such arguments?
Then it was a warm day in May; the early evening light sparkled across the flat lagoon water, the only noise being the short waves slapping the hull of my Venetian boat like a playful kid jumping in a puddle. We were drifting smoothly across it and my father said, “I like to fly low, with my bum close to the water.” He meant that any journey in Venice, whether walking or sailing, had to resonate to the slow and steady rhythm of the city and its lagoon. Venice had the unique power of choosing its own direction, as if it had an hologram of its own distant future. I couldn’t understand the meaning of my journey back then, but I came to have faith in a vision that had only started to take shape in my mind. I called Luca and said, “We should buy Palazzo Soranzo Van Axel and preserve it as it is”, adding that “but we should also open its doors to artists, musicians, designers, tech geniuses, entertainers and all those individuals for whom the mission in life is to be creative”. Being asked for a commitment to giving new life to the Palazzo, Luca said “Absolutely” and added “…and their sponsors”.I ended the call with a smile.
My father had a remarkable knowledge and an insatiable curiosity. A member of one of the most ancient Venetian aristocratic families, he was respected and sometimes feared for his sharp, cynical comments. He always spoke with great passion of what made Venice such a unique treasure, each stone hiding century-old secrets. After a lifetime of fighting what he saw as the degradation of his city — the modern fast food, fast travel, fast culture — my father, and many of his Venetian friends, surrendered and chose to lock themselves in their dusty and dark salotto, peaking at the siege through half closed shutters, an unbearable defeat for those once fierce combatants. The Grand Canal and the fish-like island, seen from the skys, may look like any small river slicing through a charming village; but the time-honoured values of the city and the survival instincts of the first residents, seeking refuge from barbarian invasions, still live on.
“Why on earth did you leave this paradise?” My international friends often asked me when they visited Venice, joining the multitudinous events that attracted art or cinema lovers and partygoers. “I’d love to live the life of a Venetian aristocrat in a Palazzo” they said. “You have no idea”, I replied.
As my vision is gradually taking shape, I have gone on to salvage a second and a third Palazzo, and the support and enthusiasm shown by the Palazzo owners, prospect guests and investors have been overwhelming. What I see is not only the city’s survival and preservation, but also its redemption and renaissance through the ancient power of creativity and of trade.
Determined to act like a Venetian ambassador, I am intensely knitting a web of international connections, creating opportunities for my city, risking my human capital and the sponsors’ investment for a never-ending rescue mission. I sincerely hope you will join us on this unique journey.