After leaving the exhibition housed in the Arsenale, we were left with two days in Venice at our disposal to visit whatever sites we chose (!!!), and since we had paid dearly for this entire adventure, any entrance fees for museums (from an approved list) paid out-of-pocket during the next 48 hours would be reimbursed to us on our return to Rome, upon presentation of a receipt.
Feeling the gravitational pull of Piazza San Marco, some of us walked to the Museo Correr, where, as it turns out, additional works by featured Biennale artist Anselm Kiefer were on display. In addition to the usual timeless treasures.
The Museo Correr is the city's official museum of history, so as well as seeing the usual treasures, one can view coins, lace, jewelry, even the building itself on display as a relic of the city's past glory. Robes of a doge can be found hanging near a painting of a doge wearing that very outfit. Engraved depictions of political wrangling hang on walls near where the wrangling itself occurred.
Thus, a room used to display works by Anselm Kiefer was arranged in a way that could be confusing to those seeking a Republic's history. At least, a couple of older women walking near us seemed to be confused by it. Maybe that has to do with Kiefer's style - a densely layered, intentionally aged look which references Rome and other historic sites which build atop their old selves instead of erasing clean and starting fresh. Seeing one of Kiefer's splattered, battered, decrepit-before-its-time book-art creations, the two women whispered among themselves, "Oh, this must be how it looked when they dug it up." We could only hope that Kiefer would quietly chuckle to himself if he had heard this, for that's what we did.
The Museo Correr also boasts some of the finest public views of Piazza San Marco and the Palazzo Ducale, entry to which is included with the Correr in a single ticket. As you have probably already guessed, the Palazzo Ducale was covered at that time by protective sheeting to mask the scaffolding and restorative work being conducted. At least in this case, the sheath was decorated with the facade's distinctive Gothic quatrefoil rounds and delicate pink-and-white zigzag masonry design so that one could yet discern the beauty of the building underneath.
I rested in the palazzo's inner courtyard, with a clock tower built into the wall between the palace and the basilica San Marco, before heading up a grand staircase into the Doges offices, meeting halls and apartments, and eventually into the prisons. For 1000 years, here is where decisions were made regarding what became one of the most powerful trading empires in the world, though in hindsight considered one of the more enlightened oligarchies.
Whereas the palazzo is well-kept, bright, and outfitted most splendidly, the prisons are dark caves in which the only decor is scrawled graffiti, though I can't tell if what I read was the hopeless and defiant writings of condemned prisoners or the mischievous work of more recent, ah, vandals.
Then slowly across the Bridge of Sighs, peeking through the small holes in its walls -- decorated for the benefit of those outside, not inside, the bridge -- to see the sliver of a view last seen by those who were soon to be executed. No wonder the Romantic writers of the 18th century could come up with a name which touches its history and at the same time continues to reach through future generations.
Then back outside, by which time Piazza San Marco was fully involved in the acqua alta, the "high water" tidal flooding exacerbated by seasonal storms, continental winds, the enclosed nature of the Venetian Lagoon, and of course the Moon. That's not a good list of problems for even the most powerful empire to overcome -- especially that big rock hundreds of thousands of miles away which predictably and frustratingly can cause more marine havoc than a broken trade alliance. Nothing much can be done about the Moon except land on it and hit it with a hammer, and even the powerful Doges were not up to that task.
I waded -- literally -- into the Basilica of San Marco, the cathedral of Venice which lies most unfortunately at the lowest elevation of this low-lying town. Inside, any deterioration of the brilliant pavement mosaics is not apparent, though the floor is the most noticeably uneven of any church I've visited in Italy thus far. Above, (presumably) safe from the attacking tide, countless more mosaics decorate seemingly every available space the ceiling offers.
Word passed through the crowd that the church's Treasury was still open for viewing, but I didn't go inside it. This entire town, including the church, was first built as a defensive tactic, and then built upon as a symbol of overwhelming victory. The Four Horses (actually replicas) which stand above the entryway, some structural elements, even the relics of St. Mark were hauled here over time from conquered lands. While presently San Marco stands as one of the wonders of both the Byzantine and modern eras, it also is a warehouse of, shall we say, ill-gotten gains, and its future -- that of a building, and a representation of an entire town, sinking into the murky depths under the weight of its own loot -- seemed at that time to be more than just coincidence.
And yet, at the same time, I hope any farfetched plans (and there are plenty of them) to rescue the Lagoon and the city succeed. Standing out front as the sun sets, the building shimmering as in a dream, how could I not fall under its spell?
What to see, what to see -- while some UW students ventured to the Peggy Guggenheim Collection of 20th-century art, I wandered to the Gallerie dell' Accademia, the finest collection of Venetian School paintings in existence. When I first arrived here, I was hardly a Venetian painting scholar but nonetheless familiar with the brilliant, otherworldly blue skies depicted by the city's master artists, and after spending only a couple of days I know now that they were simply describing reality. Those who wonder about the techniques of Bellini and Giorgione, Titian and Tintoretto, Veronese and Tiepolo, and how they got that ultra-blue sky which accompanies their visual storytelling, need only look up and wonder no more.
While in the neighborhood of the Accademia, a few of us also partook of dinner at an out-of-the-way trattoria which had come to us by recommendation. Now this is more like it -- helpful staff, good food and drink, in a quiet neighborhood devoid of tourist hordes. Plus dinner entertainment, in the form of Waldo trying to translate our wishes into Italian for the staff and their responses into English for us. A toast to Venice, long may she reign.
Then a nighttime vaporetto ride to the hotel, on a boat seemingly loaded with none but UW students, and an accompanying lesson in public transit. Like most European mass-transit systems, the Venetian vaporetto sell their tickets on the honor system -- you purchase a ticket beforehand, and validate it by machine when you board. Depending on staffing, a conductor may or may not actually check to see who has purchased tickets for a particular ride. If a conductor *does* check and you don't have a ticket handy, not only do you have to buy one on the spot but you also will pay a hefty fine.
Now a conductor, spotting our sizeable group, perhaps noticing we were not validating tickets en masse, and possibly sensing a large contribution to the city's coffers, hopped on board with us and asked for our tickets as we rode, and of course we were organized (and honest) enough to have already dealt with this trifling detail. Passing from one to the next, asking all for tickets, the conductor saw each of us flash our multi-day pass just like the pros. I hope that he found it as reassuring of his trust in us as we did in our admiration of his excellently performed duties.
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