BRITISH INTELLIGENCE ABROAD
(OCCASIONAL SERIES)

LETTERS FROM VENICE (5)

MAURICE TRAVELLER

1st September, 2020

9) 8/10/16

I take a walk to San Lio and Santa Maria della Fava (Hannibal Lecter’s favourite bean) purely because Joseph Brodsky had mentioned that he lived in this vicinity on one of his many stays in the city. I determine to avoid the square I always collide with – Santa Maria Formosa – partly because its always seething with turisti (of course, I haughtily exclude myself from this group) and also because I find its layout, with the Greek Cross-shaped church plonked skew whiff near the middle and a scowling and belligerent vegetable stall holder unappealing (what I do like about it is that it can be entered from nine different side-streets, giving it a theatrical feel). Avoiding the Formosa takes some doing and my best map-reading skills. After skirting dangerously close to the thronged streets around San Marco I negotiate my way through winding back streets, emerging suddenly on a canal-side opposite a large, shabby square. The far end is entirely taken up by the façade of the church of San Lorenzo. The marble has been entirely stripped from it leaving it looking decrepit and featureless, just rows and rows of bricks with the protruding courses that used to hold the marble in place. It doesn’t even have a metal plaque boasting of the Tiepolos and Tintorettos inside. The square is filled with wheelchairs bearing the equally decrepit and featureless ancient Venetians from the Residenza San Lorenzo which makes up the left wing of the square. They wear enormous sunglasses and are in very advanced old age. Relatives sit on benches chatting to them in the sunlight.

The next day, on a cold grey morning, I don the heavy leather jacket which had seemed surplus a week ago and head for the islands in the lagoon on the number 12 which is a larger boat than the normal vaporetti and whose 100 seater cabin mercifully has heating. We stop at Murano and then on across the laguna to Mazorbo which is adjacent to the lace-making and fishing island of Burano and which is linked to it by a footbridge. I take the short walk and pass a very chic establishment called Venissa which has a starred Michelin restaurant and a lovely walled vineyard of vines producing grapes for a Prosecco style wine. There are also vegetable plots within the walls together with the obligatory, gratuitous and inexplicable modern art in the form of some squat bronze animals (including a rhinoceros) and fruit scattered around amongst the rows of vines. I cross the footbridge, glancing at some pleasing modern housing on the quayside facing Burano done in bright but pastel colours by an architect called Giancarlo de Carlo.

On Burano the houses are, uniquely to Venice and its islands, painted in very bright almost primary colours. I take a spin around the small island knowing that the boat back is in an hour. It’s all very pretty and I have time to see the main thoroughfares and to get change for the illumination box in the huge palladian-style church where there is an early Tiepolo. The main square by the church is attractive and I’m also able to get good distant views back to the skyline of Venice. I reach the boat station in time and am able to look across to the tower of the Basilica on the island of Torcello which is only five minutes away by boat. This is the most ancient church in the lagoon (dated 638 AD), including Venice itself because this is where Venice began. That will be for another day. I head back on the small ship-sized number 14 which stops at some of the bigger islands and returns me to San Zaccaria near San Marco after stopping at the Lido. It’s spitting with rain.


10) 9/10/16

Insisting to myself on finishing a chapter in the book I am reading I cut it fine for making my way to the Arsenale tonight. I rush through the darkened streets spotting a well-thronged cicchetti bar with a live singer, on the way. I have a ticket for a Biennale Musica event featuring the London Sinfonietta. The programme features Ravel and Stravinsky together with an Italian composer I haven’t heard of. I pass the main gate of the Arsenale and cross the bridge. I am soon in a side street down the side of the dockyard where I can see light pouring from a large door onto the Calle. My ticket is scanned and then begins a terribly long trek through the entrails of the dockyard from which I emerge, with other audience members, onto the quayside of the grand basin of the dockyard. On my way I see many of the exhibition halls of the Architecture Biennale which I have been debating whether to visit. Finally we enter the Teatro alle Tese which is situated in Navata 3, an ancient brick-built boat shed. It is sparklingly fitted out with a large reception area and an auditorium with raked seating.

The evening begins with awards to Kyo Murakami who writes modern pieces with names like ‘Ambient Noise’ which I can’t help smirking at even though I have never heard anything by him and it could be excellent. He has long, centre-parted, black hair and wears black Doc Martins and baggy black trousers whose crotch is only a foot from the floor. He graciously, through an interpreter, accepts his prize. Next, a prize is given to the Italian composer, Salvatore Sciarrino, three of whose pieces are to be played tonight. He is around 50, wears a jacket and collar and tie with baggy jeans. I don’t know why I am so interested in the trousers of these two artists. They simply catch my attention.

The 10 man/woman Sinfonietta take the stage with their conductor and begin with a Sciarrino piece. It starts with the cellist making a scraping sound by placing his left hand across all of the strings without holding them down and using his bow. There are a number of mosquito like sounds form the violinists and this whining and squealing is augmented by the brass and woodwind players. Throughout the piece they don’t play a note. They simply hold their instruments to their mouths and let out sighing and puffing sounds which are clearly audible from the back where I am sitting. My guess is that Sciarrino is treating us to something like music trying to become music and possibly failing, pre-expression struggling to express itself. 


After this a tall, slim blonde soprano appears for the Ravel which is a short but beautiful rendering of some Mallarmé poems. Then, and this is most extraordinary, she walks round to a plinth behind the players and the second Sciarrino piece begins. It is similar to the first but, this time, she joins in making disjointed sounds with truncated words, whoops, squeals and a lot of glottal stops. It sounds like listening to a soprano in another room, between us and which some heavy double doors keep opening and closing. I do my best not to give way to my philistine prejudices and lean back with my eyes closed to see if these sounds are pleasant. Even then I can’ help thinking of incidental music to 60’s American cop shows, to ‘Alien’ or even to ’Tom and Jerry.’ Following the interval the Stravinsky is disappointingly brief and we finish on another Sciarrino offering, after which he takes the stage for accolades. I am impressed by the London Sinfonietta who have played his extraordinarily difficult soundscapes with great professionalism. What do they look like on the page? - I wonder.

At the end of the recital there are drinks and canapés on offer to the audience served stylishly by black-garbed waiters with black aprons. I slog back to my flat through silent streets and realise that, perhaps, the best thing I have seen or heard this evening is the crowded statuary beautifully lit at the main gate of the Arsenale.

The next day I am in town around 9am. It is a Sunday but the refuse collectors are working from their boats and there are street cleaners too. In addition several funeral parlours have their doors open. Their employees sit in collars and ties at their desks with the door open. A white cat sits on one of their desks.

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