Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Here is more of my weekend presentation on "Undiscovered Rome, Florence, and Venice":

*Returning to Canareggio: The Venetians invented the income tax, statistical science, the floating of government stock, state censorship of books, anonymous denunciations, the gambling casino, and the Ghetto, a word which comes from teh Venetian word for 'foundry' because in 1516 the Jews were directed to the New Foundry, where cannons had formerly been cast. On the Campo Ghetto Nuovo there is a plaque which reads, "The city of Venice remembers the Venetian Jews who were deported to the Nazi concentration camps on December 5, 1943 and August 17, 1944." Visiting the synagogues -- on guided tours only -- is quite rewarding, and the Campo is rarely crowded. A parting thought on this old, historic community comes again from Mary McCarthy: "The Jews were the last representatives of the Eastern bazaars to remain in Venice; when the Star of David set in the 18th century ghetto, Venice herself was extinguished." Incidentally, Rome is home to the second oldest, continuous Jewish community in the world after Jerusalem, and Tuscany has a great number of htings of Jewish interest -- the historic roots of a Jewish presence in Tuscany extend back a long way, at least to the sixth century. Florence's Tempio Maggiore, built between 1874 and 1882 and located at via Farini 4 (, is a working synagogue and a museum. It's also among the most beautiful I've ever seen -- the exterior is constructed of alternating blocks of white and pink stone and is in a Moorish style, while the interior is a riot of painted geometrical designs on wood, in bright shades of red, orange, and blue, and it rarely sees more than one or two dozen visitors at a time.

*John Julius Norwich, in his excellent work A History of Venice, refers to Venice's Arsenale as having been "the supreme shipyard of the world, its secrets as jealously guarded as any nuclear armoury; its walls were two miles round, its payroll numbered 16,000 and in the 16th century wars against the Turks a new galley left its yards every morning for 100 years. The Venetian Navy, manned by free men until the slavers’ seventeenth-century heyday, was a most formidable instrument of war, and long after the rise of Genoa and Spain as naval powers, Venetian gunnery remained incomparable.” The Arsenale was the world's first dockyard, and its origins toward becoming legendary began in the 1100s, when Venice believed she was inadequately equipped for the future. In a little more than a decade she had put some 300 men-of-war ships to sea, but she would need more than this to fully exploit trading possibilities in the Levant and hold her own against competition from Pisa and Genoa. So an ambitious new shipbuilding program was initiated by Doge Ordelafo. Before this time, the shipwrights of Venice had been scattered all over the Venetian lagoon, many of them small businesses of their own. Ordelafo nationalized the shipbuilding industry, and over the next half century a complex of dockyards, foundries, and workshops for carpenters, sailmakers, ropemakers, and blacksmiths was created and it was called the Arsenale, a word which is derived from the Arabic Dar Sina’a, House of Construction.

Eventually the Arsenale's 16,000 workers were nearly all specialists, and when they operated at full capacity, the Arsenale turned out fully-equipped warships at the astounding rate of one every few hours. From this point on Venice could plan ahead, and undertake long-term shipbuilding programs as situations demanded and state finances allowed. She could standardize designs and build up quantities of spare parts, and she could build certain ships primarily for war and others for trade. The Arsenale is closed to visitors today, open only occasionally for Venice Biennale events, but all this attention to it is worthwhile because it was from this spot that the source of all Venice's wealth came, for without her fleet, she would have been nothing. However, visitors are welcome at the nearby Museo Storico Navale, on Riva San Biagio. There are two large anchors in front of its doors, which is what you see before the sign -- if not for the anchors you could easily think the building was just another part of the Arsenale. Once inside, you will likely discover that you will be almost alone -- few tourists find their way here. Looking at a bunch of boats might not sound exciting, but these are no ordinary boats: among World War II vessels and ship's models -- one with 48 oars on 24 benches -- there is also Peggy Guggenheim's personal gondola and the Bucintoro, Venice's ship of state in which the Doge made his ritual appearances. The original was destroyed by the French in 1798, but workers in the Arsenale recreated it in this model in 1837. A great feature of the museum is the tall windows that look out onto the lagoon, so that you have a kind of panorama of cruise ships, tugboats, gondolas, motorboats, and vaporettos floating by -- which seems appropriate for a city wedded to the sea. [I included an article in my book on Venice, the Veneto, and Friuli-Venezia Giulia about this museum, written by Suan Allen Toth, The New York Times, November 7, 1993]

*To again quote McCarthy, "And there is no use pretending that the tourist Venice is not the real Venice, which is possible with other cities -- Rome or Florence or Naples. The tourist Venice is Venice: the gondolas, the sunsets, the changing light, Florian's, Quadri's, Torcello, Harry's Bar, Murano, Burano, the pigeons, the glass beads, the vaporetto. Venice is a folding picture postcard of itself." Venetian glass in particular is something that every visitor encounters. It may seem like nothing more than a tourist trinket, but as Norwich informs us, “So important to the State were the sixteenth-century glass-blowers, masters of one of the Venetian monopolies, that they were given a patrician status of their own, and excused all kinds of impositions. As a cold corollary, it was publicly announced that if any glass-blower emigrated with his secrets, emissaries of the State would instantly be dispatched to murder him: legend has it that the two men who made the famous clock in the piazza of St. Mark, with its intricate zodiacal devices, were later officially blinded, to prevent them making another for somebody else.”

After you've seen a lot of Venetian glass much of it begins to all look alike, so that when you do actually see something distinctive it really stands out. A jewelry designer I met in 1990, whose work is truly distinctive, is Leslie Genninger, an American who has been living in Venice for about 30 years. She began working as an apprentice in a shop near the Rialto, working with antique glass beads, and then she branched out on her own and now offers a full line of attractive creations -- I'm wearing one of her bracelets today. Her shop and studio are conveniently located on the Grand Canal next to the Accademia (

Venetian glass can also be a source of inspiration: the necklace I'm wearing today was handmade by Kathy's mother, also named Kathy, who about six years ago or so was in Venice and decided she was going to learn the craft of jewelry making. She's created some unique pieces with Venetian glass, and you can purchase them through Dream of Italy (

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