21 July 2001 Venice

The plan had been this: as Venice's canals are too small for a ship of our girth, we would dock at the Marittima Station Berth, west of the city. You can imagine the sight, then, as we pulled straight in to the Grand Canal, the Golden Princess towering high over Venice. Though I imagine it was an enthralling sight (or, more likely, appalling) to the locals, it was a unique and spectacular vista from our brunch on the Horizon deck. The vista was entirely unique, with the red rooftops of the city stretching out in inexplicably complex geometric patterns, which the Italians describe as being shaped like a lute. Only the Campanile, the bell tower next to St. Mark's Basilica, stood above us.

Entering Venice, or as the locals call it, "desecrating a skyline eleven centuries old."

 I had been to Venice once before, in 1988. That time, it was raining. A gondolier illustrated my ignorance of the language by highlighting the difference between cinquanta mille lire (50,000 lire, the price I heard him quote for a trip) and cento mille lire (100,000 lire, the price he actually charged in a much louder voice). There had been, as usual, a strike on. Sadly, it was the sanitation workers who were lining up; people simply heaved their trash out of their windows into the canals below. It had been a rather disagreeable trip. I was determined, this time, to Get It Right.

We docked in the middle of Venice, only a fifteen minute walk from San Marco - a distance described as 'about four or five bridges' in town. As we arrived late in the morning, the Princess would remain in Venice overnight, giving us two half-days to wander the Queen of the Seas. Again, we changed our money at the remarkable machines on board the Princess. In these last waning days before the Euro, almost every port of call had different currencies. Special ATMs performed the conversion at each stop, providing you with the convenience of both a central location for money changing, and of not burdening you with the extra weight of carrying much of that money around. To achieve the latter, they simply charged exorbitant fees- quite an elegant solution, I thought.

We were greeted on the dock by a cat. Clearly, the cat from the Tower of London had called ahead to warn her Italian cousin of our arrival: this gentle puss climbed right up my shoulders.

Our first stop, the necessary stop, was to visit St. Mark's. I had seen the "golden church" before, but had not really understood its significance. The unique construction of the sanctuary, with its alcoves running off of the main aisle, led composers such as Giovanni Gabrieli to experiment with his choir in the sixteenth century. He divided the ensemble into two groups, and had them stand in opposing alcoves to perform against each others' sound. This music, called antiphonal (literally, "against the sound"), is one of the hallmarks of the Renaissance. It allowed for very florid, echo-like textures, especially associated with feast days. I focused on this chori spezzati technique during my doctorate, and fervently awaited the opportunity to hear how this space affected the performance of such music, much as the architects of the reconstructed Globe theatre wanted to see how the actual structure affected production of Shakespeare.

Well, it was marvelous. There is a long decay in San Marco - over eight seconds long. I had assumed that the choir came down to the main floor, to stand in the transept to sing. Most cathedrals of the era (Byzantine architecture of the 11th century) were built in the shape of a Greek cross, so I'd always had trouble

understanding what made this particular space unique. In fact, there are loads of alcoves in the basilica. There is even access to several such niches up in the choir lofts high over the altar, though one must clamber around the beams to get to them. I could just imagine the Italian sopranos of 1585, highly incensed at Andrea Gabrieli's little nephew for making them scramble around the dusty loft, only to sing several yards away from the rest of the choir. It felt as though there was a musical kinship running between choirmasters and composers throughout the ages, and I was part of the club, too. 'Hey, guys, I have a neat idea for a stereo effect for next St. Stephen's day...'

There is also a gallery in the back of the sanctuary, behind the seating relegated for women. The cathedral glinted below, with its walls guilded with dazzling mosaics, the altar screen is bedecked in gold and precious stones. We found some rather ornate and oddly neglected illuminated manuscripts. I was singing through these, when bells rang out. We dashed out onto the balcony, amid the four great bronze horses swiped from the Hippodrome in Constantinople, and nearly slid off the roof. Venice has settled a bit over the years (read: it's sinking), and most floors roll like the sets of "The Cabinet of Doktor Caligari." St. Mark's is a poster child for these shifts. We regained composure and footing (the headline in the London Times would surely read: 'Two idiotic Americans fall headlong from 1200-year-old international landmark. St. Mark's remains moved to British Museum for safekeeping. Italian government reportedly annoyed.'). The bells were, of course, in the Campanile sounding a call to worship, and the tourists continued to scurry around the square.

The horses' jeweled eyes are in Turkey. They pester tourists asking about the view.

From a window in the Palazzo Ducale. That ship on the right is not a gondola.
I bought a book about the architecture, and we moved on to the other obvious tourist site, the Palazzo Ducale, called the Doge's Palace. Astonishingly, we found no line there, but wafted in. The separation of the cities in Italy combined with the difficulties of transportation over the centuries have led to root-level differences in their governments and culture. This is especially true in Venice, where the unusual design of the city afforded it isolation. Venice rather liked it that way, and no where was this more apparent than at the Doge's Palace. A traditional four-sided court design, the joint is very ornate, with statuary, armaments, expansive oils and nearly ubiquitous gold leaf covering most available surfaces. We saw a darling suit of armor, proportionally sized for a young child (which would be a lot less cute if the little bugger was pinning you down at swordpoint.) One of my favorite frescos, a typically flamboyant ceiling, portrayed the spirit of Venice (a young woman, naturally) being worshipped and glorified, and rejecting the poor Pope with a magnificent Joan Crawford gesture. The Venetians did not care much for papal authority. Jen and I crashed a passing tour, and learned that the Doge's authority was physically reflected in the rooms to which Palace visitors were admitted. Like many palaces (or, indeed, the Governor's Mansion in our own Williamsburg, VA), the more important you were, the further in you got to get. The rooms here got bigger as you moved deeper in, building up to a really immense Senate chamber, with oils rivaling anything I've seen.

A sandwich in the courtyard seemed enough fuel to power us along to wander the streets. This is the best plan of attack in Venice: head "thataway." There is, in fact, something interesting just around the next corner no matter which corner that happens to be. That afternoon, most of these "something interestings" turned out to be shops. I'm not sure whether it's the romance of saying "oh this old thing? I just picked it up in Venice." or that the Old Things they sell are all indeed magnificent, but we wandered shops until dusk. Linen, leather, Morano glass, cashmere and silk pervade the city, and yeah I did buy a couple of ties. And a carnival mask, thanks. Christmas shopping? Covered. Peckish? Una picccolo gelatto chocolate, per favore. And I would have kept on, except that Jen subtly hinted it was about time for dinner, so I clutched my bruised forearm and we headed off on a quest for an interesting-looking restaurant out of our copy of Fodor's. We wandered in a few wrong directions, bumping once into our Texan dinner companions from the previous night, who were about as lost as we. I caved in; we bought a street map.

You know, it really does help to read that fine print that says "reservations strongly recommended." So we wandered off on, er, another quest!  to find an interesting-looking restaurant out of our copy of Fodor's. This one paid off. Jen and I got a candlelight dinner by the Canal Grande: risotto, cuttlefish and spranggio for dessert. Lots of the house white wine and a champagne toast. We staggered back towards San Marco.

The piazza was transformed. This I had not seen twelve years' previously: the nightlife of Venice is the ninth wonder of the world. The sidewalk cafes are lined up next to each other, each sporting its own quintet playing on a platform built in front, surrounded by tables . This night, four such concerti al caffè battled it out for the tourists' patronage, each orchestra with two violins, an accordion, a string bass and a grand piano. They traded

sets, dazzling the crowds with arias (Nessun Dorma) to songs (La' Dove Fioriscono I Limoni), waltzes (Blue Danube) and show tunes (spectacular, bravura medleys from Evita and Phantom). The lead violinists were each unbelievable: off book, floridly improvisatory, playful and, above all, passionate. And bald. (Two maestri in neighboring cafes had twin, enormously hairless pates. I still wonder at the connection.) As one ensemble ended their set, their last triumphant notes still lingering in the air, the next would immediately strike a downbeat. The crowds hovering behind the café's tables would dash to the next stage en masse to listen and cheer.

I have never heard Salon music played this well, and don't ever expect to ever again. A couple of really lovely CDs I would pick up the next day from the Caffè Florian (est. 1720) would only serve as a wistful reminder of the music in the air that night. It is the great tragedy of our art as musicians: the painting will last, the building will stand, the film may exist on video for you to watch again, but the live concert is dependent on time. Music, with its infinite diversity and often simplicity can only be understood completely in retrospect, and then it lives only in memory. I will not forget that warm July evening I stood in Piazza di San Marco and was changed.

Back at the dock of our towering ship, that cat was still there to welcome us in for the evening, and climbed right up on my shoulders. Venice, in her splendor would be there in the morning.

The difference is that she would spell it not "meow," but "miaow."

22 July 2001 Still in Venice.

This morning we had planned before even purchasing our tickets. We had an early breakfast brought to our room and, mocking the already rising mercury in the thermometer, donned several layers of our finer clothes. At 10AM, amidst a rather heavy schedule of liturgies, San Marco was holding its Messe Sonelle in Latin.

The city was very sunny and still very quiet, with only a few fishermen and a few intrepid tourists about.

Floor plan of San Marco. The choir is high above 11 and 12.
The huge front doors held back the regular throng of tourists, but Jen and I wandered to the left side, where a small door was mostly unnoticed and, in my broken Italian, I asked a guard if it was permissible to attend the Mass. It was. Risking the wrath of Catholics internationally, I must say we got great seats in the center of the sanctuary. Though not "a show," a Mass is presented with a certain theatricality, and the vaulted, alcoved cathedral, eleven centuries old, conveys a sense of the divine like few other places in the world. We sat on wooden chairs placed centrally on the rippled floor.

Jen and I were among very few tourists in attendance. I felt slightly conspicuous: Venetians do not, evidently, wear their finest clothes to a warm summer Mass. None-the-less, we reveled in this insider's view of the ancient city. High above the quire, voices soared. The ensemble was not spezzati, of course (it was not a feast day) but did sing in devastatingly appropriate five-part polyphony throughout even the parts of the Mass. I recognized only one piece specifically, Mozart's famous Ave Verum Corpus, which served as the second offertory. The readings celebrated the city's role as an international tourist destination: the languages alternated between Spanish, French, Italian and English. The sermon was in Italian, following many of the edicts and structure of Vatican II, and the entire service lasted an hour and a half. Strange how these foreign customs and unfamiliar languages drew me closer to my own sense of spirituality than many worship services I've attended in the States. I am not sure whether it was the lavishly guilded walls of the sanctuary or the universality of the choral music that caught me, but I must most accurately recall the experience as transcendental.

After Mass, we could not resist the temptation to wander and to shop again for a few hours, realizing a bit later than we should have how long it takes to walk those five or six bridges back to the ship when your feet are utterly shot. We did make it back in time for our departure, with some small, smug comfort in watching other tourists struggle to haul their suitcases over the steps of bridge after bridge. (Item from my notes: "Love the boat!")


Not a postcard: a snapshot, a love song to the Queen of the Seas.

Next: Topaz at sea, hold the shuffleboard.

<-PREVIOUS  1 - 2 - 3 - 4 - 5 - 6 - 7 - 8 NEXT->

Back to Palestrant Main Page

Back to Palestrant Personal Page