A Gondola on Sherbrooke Street

 They gave the city the name Venetia as if to say Veni etiam – Come again!

Francesco Sansovino
Citta Noblisissima et Singolare – 1581

I have a confession to make: in the many times I’ve been to Venice I have never taken a ride in a gondola. Nope, not even the traghetti that Venetians use (at €1 a ride) to cross from one side of the Canale Grande to the other.  Oh I’ve watched the gondolas a million times and even taken the odd picture of a Gondolieri or two – just as a cultural observer of course.  But to actually fork out the money – the last price I heard was €80 for a 40 minute ride* – for a tour through the canals: not going to occur during the lifetime of the reigning monarch. But then I said that about going to Venice during Carnivale and look what happened!

One of the scenographic features of the recent exhibition at the Musée des Beaux Arts was a long wall cut by irregularly placed windows.  Through the windows you could see a gondola – not a priceless antique ceremonial gondola but an ordinary 20th century Venetian gondola.  Not that there is really anything ordinary about a gondola:  they are still handmade of 8 different types of wood (fir, oak, cherry, walnut, elm, mahogany, larch and lime) and are composed of 280 pieces. 

 The etymology of its name gondola is uncertain; it may be a portmanteau word –  the verb dondolare (to rock gently) and the Middle Age Greek kondura or short-tailed boat – older gondolas had a less soaring stern than today´s ones.  Or it may come from the Latin cunula or rocking crib.

The design has evolved greatly over the centuries and to govern further changes was codified by the city of Venice in the mid-20th century.   The gondola is still evolving: its sesto, the scalar ratio between the frames in its shape, is frequently updated.  This allows for changes to be made as gondolas fight the rise of the waves caused by motor boats and cruise liners.  Unlike older gondolas a modern gondola is asymmetrical to account for the position of the gondolier at the right on the stern (yes gondolas are right hand drive!). 

The elaborate stern decoration is called a risso or ringlet (that lovely brass decoration in the picture above) and is said to resemble the swirl of water in the wake of the vessel.  The prow decoration (and somehow I didn’t get a proper photograph of this one – how the hell did that happen?) is called a dolfin (dolphin) because of the resemblance to a dolphin’s muzzle.  The shape of both decorations has changed over the centuries.  The risso has become smaller and the dolfin has become redolent with symbols of Venice: the upper part recalls the Corno del Dose/Capello del doge (Crown of the Doge); the shank the meandering of the Grand Canal;  the arch signifies il ponte di Rialto and il bacino di San Marco; the comb the city´s Sestieri (six districts); the opposite tooth is Giudecca; while the decorated points between the teeth represent the three main Islands of the Lagoon (Torcello, Burano, Murano).  It should be noted that the cemetery island of San Michelle is missing from this symbolic icon – no point in tempting fate.

Though in the 17th and 18th centuries there were between eight to ten thousand gondolas in the Republic an earlier map from the 1500’s by Jacopo de’Barbari suggests that batellas, carolinas and galleys were the major modes of transportation.   Many gondolas where privately owned though there were also gondolas for hire.   Today there are approximate 400 gondolas, all of which are used in the tourist trade or for sporting events.

Gondolas were brightly, at time garishly, painted and laden with gold or silver ornaments and silk draperies and trappings.  In reaction to the extravagant nature of many of the private gondolas the Senate issued a sumptuary law in 1609 that all gondolas were to be painted black.  This did not stop people from adding elaborate  parecio or removable metal ornaments that served no real purpose other than decoration.  Elaborate metal-work (gold, silver, iron or brass), draperies and carvings often graced the felze or cabins that were a feature on gondolas up until the late 1940s.  However these enclosures that served as a source of protection from the sun, rain or prying eyes were removed after complaints from tourists that it blocked their view. 

The rèmo, or oar, is specially made by the rèmer (oarmaker), who exclusively builds oars and fórcola or oarlocks. The wood used for the rèmo is split beech, well-matured and without knots. It is carefully crafted to have a tapered blade at the end; the thickness of the oar gradually diminishes, which allows the oarsmen to row more with greater ease and agility.   A gondola is rowed not punted and the design of the boat and the oar mean that the effort required to paddle one with two people on board is equivalent to what a person would expend walking at the same speed.

The fórcola or oar lock is a highly personalized feature of any gondola.  It is a basic form that is adapted to the height of the gondolier, his arm length and rowing technique.  Its complex design allows for eight rowing positions the chief being a slow forward row, a powerful forward row, turning, slowing down, a backward row and stopping.  The process of creating this deceptively simply looking piece of wood takes several years and the knowledge of a craft and tools that are centuries old. While searching for information about this unique oar lock I came across an interesting site created for Saverio Pastor a master rèmer of Venice who creates oars and oarlocks.   A click through the various pages of Maitre Pastor’s site give visual life to the creation of the fórcola, its use, history and construction.

In the 17th century there were several thousand gondoliers and often they were run as a small private collective – three gondoliers and one dispatcher.  History suggests that they were the “secret holders” of the city:  conversations, assignations, plots and family (monkey) business were all overheard by the “family” or “taxi” driver.   Today the profession is controlled by a guild, which issues a limited number of licenses (425 regular – 175 fill-in) after 400 hours of training, a period of apprenticeship and a comprehensive exam of knowledge of Venetian history and geography, foreign languages and, of course, safe and efficient navigation of the gondola.  Few secrets or intrigues are overheard today other than mutterings about the price of a Bellini at Harry’s.  Prior to the Second World War the standard uniform for gondolieri was a black outfit however in modern times the more colourful blue and white or red and white stripped blouse has become the norm. 

It was not until 2010 that male dominance on the profession was challenged by Giorgia Boscolo who became a licensed gondolier (I’m not sure there is a feminine ending for the title) in August of 2010.   She was one of three female students that year – unfortunately the other two did not pass.  Her father, a retired gondolier, had some reservations and was quoted as saying:  I still think being a gondolier is a man’s job, but I am sure that with experience Giorgia will be able to do it easily.  Giorgia’s response was a typical Venetian shrug and the observation that “Childbirth is much more difficult.” 

Back to the exhibition that started me on the Veniza nostalgia trip:  so how do you get a slender (1.4m/4ft 6in) but long (11m/36ft) boat up to the third floor exhibition rooms of the Desmarais Pavilion?  Why the way you get anything into an upper story in most cities in Italy:  through an upstairs window!

While going through the many posts, articles and webpages available about gondolas and gondolieri I came across this rather fun quiz:  How Stuff Works – Gondola Quiz.   The first time I’ve ever put a “check for understanding” on a post.

*To be fair that is per gondola not per person and is the tariff set by the city of Venice. A gondola holds up to six people so the cost per person depends on the number in the group.  The routes are set and agreed upon prior to leaving the statzione.  And the gondolier does not – repeat – does not sing!

January 28 -1958: The last episode of the British radio comedy programme The Goon Show is broadcast.

Enhanced by Zemanta

Splendours of Venice

They gave the city the name Venetia as if to say Veni etiam – Come again!

Francesco Sansovino
Citta Noblisissima et Singolare – 1581

Just before Christmas I received an e-mail via a French arts website from my friend Sybil in Geneva.  The link provided was for an exhibition at Musée des Beaux Arts de MontréalSplendore a Venezia.  I had to admit ignorance of the event but it contained that magic word: Venezia! I am sure I’ve made it apparent on at the least one occasion here that Venice is a city I adore and the offer of a multidisciplinary exhibition so close to home that combined the art and the music of Venice from the Renaissance to the Baroque – well what more could a Venitiaphile (is that a word?) ask for?

The rich silk, linen and lead robes and stole of a Procurator and a Corno Ducale (Doge’s crown) were the first, but far from the last,  splendours that greeted the viewer.  Not visible in this photo but behind the ducal finery was Titan’s portrait of a sickly Doge Francesco Venier weighed down by the elaborate robes of state.

On Boxing Day we celebrated Linda and Yves’ recent marriage with a celebratory champagne lunch at the Sofitel.  Afterwards it was a short walk over to the Beaux-Arts to take in the Venetian splendors – and splendors there were.  Even though it was late afternoon the crowds were still fairly heavy but we were able to take in a goodly portion of this marvelous show.  Paintings, clothing, musical instruments, incunabula, manuscripts, bronzes and artifacts trace 300 years of the musical and cultural history of the great Republic  Sixty-one collections from nine countries were combed for remarkable – and in many cases seldom seen – examples of the magnificence that was La Serenissima until its dissolution by that evil little Corsican Napoleon in 1797.   The exhibition was the work of Dr Hilliard Goldfarb, Associate Chief Curator and Curator of Old Masters at the Musée and reflected both his passion for and deep knowledge of the music and art of the period.

Splendore a Venezia:  Exhibition curator Dr Hillaird T. Goldfarb with a few of the wonderful treasures tracing the connections between music and art from the Renaissance to the Baroque in La Serenissima.  A right click on each of the paintings will give you a closer look at each one.
The Dogeressa Leaving the Palace - Giacomo Franco San Marco - Interior - Canaletto San Marco - North Transept and Choir Tribune - Canaletto Doge Francesco Morosini is invested at San Marco - Alessandro Piazza Image Map

A few days later I wrote him to both congratulate him and his team on a magnificent show and to ask a few questions.  In return I received two very kind e-mails answering my questions and mentioning how it had taken five years to bring this exhibition together – something you don’t think about as you wander through a gallery.  He also gave me information about several of the caricatures by Anton Maria Zanetti that were on display including the existence of a catalogue from an show at the Fondazione Giorgio Cini in 1969.  (I found a copy at AbeBooks and have it in hand now!)  As part of the preparation for exhibiting the Zanetti caricatures the conservators at the Musée did much needed restoration and preservation work as well as remounting.  They are the sort of tiny glories that I always find fascinating amongst the great works.

Anton Maria Zanetti’s caricature of Antonio Maria Bernacchi
captures the good and the bad of the great male soprano. 
His voice had incredible power and beauty but Mary Grenville
observed: his person not so good, for he is as big as a Spanish friar.

Like Bernacchi Giustina Turcotti was known for her incredible vocal power and her ample girth. 
It is recorded that La Turcotti had trouble moving on stage and Zanetti’s nude female figure
appears to be a less that flattering portrait of the Florentine diva.

In this caricature Zanetti suggests that the great mezzo Caffarelli (Gaetano
Majorano) single-handedly carried the fortunes of Teatro San Grisotomomo
on his shoulders.  The vain, pugnacious and arrogant singer probably
would not have challenged him to a duel on that view.

Dr Goldfarb also suggested that if I visited the show again that  he would be pleased to say hello.  So visit it again I did.  My neighbour Cathy and I headed down to Montreal on the morning train last Thursday.  Having forgotten how icy that wind can be as it comes cutting down from the mountain I decided to walk over to the Museum from Central Station.  You’d think five years of living at Peel and Sherbrooke would have taught me better!  I arrived at the Musée frozen but the appearance of my dear Christine, who I hadn’t seen since we left Roma, soon warmed me up.  That and a glass of pinot grigio at our reunion celebration lunch – are we seeing a theme here?   The food at the Café des Beaux Arts is remarkably good, varied – I haven’t seen, not that I would order it, Blood Pudding on any other menu – and the service very friendly.

Dale Chihuly’s The Sun was part of a larger exhibition
earlier this year but is now in the Musée’s permanent
collection. It was purchased through public donations.

I thought that on a day mid-week there would be less people but the exhibit proved to be as popular as it had been on December 26th.  Dr Goldfarb greeted us and apologized that the two large gilt galley lanterns were missing as they were being photographed before being shipped to the Portland Art Gallery.  Strangely it is the only other venue for the exhibition.  I would have thought other museums would have jumped at the opportunity of sharing this remarkable collection; however given the budget cuts that have affected most museums these days it is not all that surprising.

As a sidebar it was interesting to see that through individual donations and public subscription the Musée has acquired Dale Chihuly‘s The Sun, which had been featured in a major exhibition of his work earlier this year.

Fortunately I was able to spend a bit more time than previously taking in the whole exhibition and particularly the collection of instruments on display:  an archlute in kingwood, ivory and ebony made in 1654; a beautiful theorbo in ivory and ebony from the late 1600s; a military drum bearing St Mark’s lion along with Turkish instruments captured a war booty but put into ceremonial use; and a sinuous, strange-looking bass cornetto or serpent that certainly lived up to its name.  The craftsmanship in the stringed instruments was remarkable – elaborately carved sound holes, detailed scrimshaw and delicate inlay. 

This theorbo was crafted in Venice somewhere between
1630-1640.  The ivory scrimshaw and intricately carved
sound hole make it as beautiful to look at as it is to hear. 

This bass cornett or serpent is curved so the finger
holes were within reach of the player.  It dates
from the 16th c. and is leather covered wood.

This archlute is a stunning mixture of kingwood,
ivory, spruce, willow and ebony.  Created by
Christoph Koch in 1654, the extended pegboard gives
it a wider bass range than the regular lute.
The spruce and animal skin drum on the left was used in the 1600s to rally the brave fighting men of the Most Serene Republic in their military endeavours.  The Naqqarah (kettle drum) and Zil (finger cymbals) were trophies of their victories over their Ottoman foes but were often used in the parades and processions that were part of the rituals of state.

And of course no exhibition on the glory that was Venice would be complete without the works of Giovanni Antonio Canal ditto Canaletto.  He is well represented in both paintings and drawings.  Particularly delightful is the pen and ink drawing that is annotated:  I Gian Antonio Canal made this drawing of musicians singing at the ducal church of San Marco in Venice at the age of sixty-eight without eyeglasses, in the year 1766.

The Feast of San Rocco: once again Canaletto captures a Venice filled with life.  August 16 was a major holiday in Venice and the Doge paid a state visit to hear mass at the Church and venerated the Saint’s relics.  He was entertained at the Scuolo and viewed the only fixed art exhibition in the city.  And like today’s visitors he marvelled at the Tintoretto murals and ceiling.

Even with a second viewing when I look over the beautifully illustrated catalogue I realize that there were things that, like the city itself, deserved a third, fourth even a fifth viewing.  And of course looking at all those splendours only made me long even more to experience them in my beloved Serenissima once more.

January 17:  1893: The Citizen’s Committee of Public Safety, led by Lorrin A. Thurston, overthrows the government of Queen Liliuokalani of the Kingdom of Hawaii.

Enhanced by Zemanta