Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Bravo, bravissimo

Venice, Italy - We splurged! We got prime second-row seats to see Rossini's opera, The Barber of Seville, at the celebrated Venetian theater.

La Fenice is an icon. Over the years, it has hosted countless world-famous operas, including premiers by Verdi and major productions by Rossini. Its five-tiered interior glitters with gold; its ceiling is festooned with frescoes; and it is lauded for its impeccable acoustics.

La Fenice is so iconic, that two of the books I have read in Venice are centered on events that take place at the theater. One is Death at La Fenice - that's right, another one of Donna Leon's murder mysteries, in which the compassionate Commissario Brunetti resolves the murder of a celebrity conductor. The second is John Berendt's account of the many characters and calamities that haunt Venice. The City of Falling Angels commences on the day in 1996 that La Fenice was consumed by flames.

Venetians were devastated when their beloved opera house burned to the ground. The prosecution launched a far-flung investigation, charging city officials with negligence and investigating arson plots that imputed the Mafia. In the end, two lowly electricians took the rap for the whole affair. Apparently, they faced financial penalties because they were behind schedule on their work; they started the fire to cover up their own tardiness.

This conclusion, which was finally reached five years after the fire, did not actually satisfy skeptical Venetians; but this is the story that stuck.

As for the theater, the mayor of Venice immediately announced his decision that La Fenice should be rebuilt exactly as it had been - not a contemporary re-interpretation but a replica of the neoclassical jewel. Com'era, dov'era. "As it was, where it was," became the Venetian rallying cry.

The reconstruction was plagued by lawsuits, delays, over-spending and in-fighting. The original millennial deadline came and went and the theater was little more than a hole in the ground. The following year, a new mayor sacked the contractor and started from scratch with a local company, which worked 16 hours a day to meet a new deadline.

Finally, eight years and 90 million Euros later, the new Fenice was ready for action. (In Venice, the cost and time overrun were scandalous; but by Boston standards, this public works project appears to be the model of efficiency.) In 2004, the theater re-opened amidst great fanfare with a performance of La Traviata, the opera by Verdi that originally premiered here in 1853.

Meanwhile, the accomplice to the arson, Massimiliano Marchetti was sentenced to six years in prison, which he began serving in 2003. The primary culprit, Enrico Carelli, fled Venice while awaiting the court's decision on his appeal. He was on the lamb for four years before he was tracked down in Mexico. Apparently, police were able to trace a call that he made to his mother, to the great delight of the press, which labeled him "Mamma's boy". Carelli's extradition in 2007 finally ended the sad saga of the Fenice fire.

As I basked in the glow of the glittering chandelier, I admired the amazing artistry all around me. The lights dimmed, the curtain parted and Rossini's colorful characters took the stage. They spat out their tongue-twister lyrics at an incredible rate, but still clearly enough that I could understand. (The surtitles helped too, though the music moved so fast that it was challenging to read along!) Bravo, bravissimo, bravo, bravissimo...

La Fenice, appropriately, means "the phoenix". It earned that moniker after the original theater on this spot, the San Benedetto, burned to the ground and was rebuilt in 1792. That this history would repeat itself in the 19th century and again in the 20th century seems more than a little strange - as if the place is cursed by its title. Then again, it must be reassuring for Venetians to know that this cultural icon will always endure, as has by now been proven.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

T Coins in the Fountain

Rome, Italy - I have a good friend who studies politicians. If he were elected mayor, he says, he would put a fabulous fountain in every plaza. He assures me that this is the most effective way to win the loyalty of the electorate.

It appears that my friend's political pointers have been taken to heart, as the Roman piazzi and parks are filled with flowing fountains, each with its own story:

Piazza Navona

The centerpiece of the Piazza Navona is the Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi, or Fountain of the Four Rivers. Bertnini's masterpiece personifies the Nile, the Ganges, the Danube and the Plate, surrounding an Egyptian obelisk. Unfortunately, it was covered with scaffolding while we were there. So we amused ourselves with the smaller scale fountains at either end: Fontana del Moro, featuring four Tritons, the Greek god who was supposed to be the son of Poseidon and messenger from the sea; and Fontana del Nettuno, featuring Neptune himself. This is one of the Tritons and his devilish dolphin friends.

Borghese Gardens

Read your guidebook, girls and boys! It will inform you when it is necessary to make advance reservations at a museum, as is the case at the Villa Borghese. If you don't read it carefully, you may find yourself spending the day wandering around the surrounding gardens.

Of course, this is not the worst outcome. Frankly, the Borghese gardens present a pretty pleasant alternative to the gallery, especially on a spectacular spring Saturday. We watched the dogs romping in the off-leash zone. Then we rented bikes and rode around taking pictures of the sculptures and statury. This is another beauty by Bernini, with four wild seahorses rearing up out of the water. "An enchanter's wand has checked the horses in mid-career, and here they remain, motionless, for all their movement..." (

Piazza San Pietro

Two twins frame the obelisk at the center of St Peter's Square, with the Cathedral as the backdrop. Apparently these two fountains have been flowing pretty much non-stop since they were constructed in the 17th century. The tradition of fluvius non-interrompus dates back to Roman times, when all fountains were built with two tanks to ensure that the water would never cease.

Trevi Fountain

This Roman icon also depicts Neptune, Tritons and seahorses, all frolicking in the waves. The place was swarming with tourists. Apparently every visitor wants to toss a coin over the shoulder and into the fountain to ensure that they will return to Roman. I didn't have a coin on hand, but I did find a T-token which I thought would do the trick. I later read that the coins are collected on a weekly basis and donated to charity - an amount that averages about 1500 euros a day. It's unlikely that anybody will be able to use my T-token now that we have Charlie Cards in Boston. I hope that does not invalidate my toss!

Friday, April 18, 2008

The Eternal City

Rome, Italy - This morning we woke up in Rome. Thank goodness. If I wasn't paying attention, we might have woken up in Naples.

It was a case of over-thinking. I knew that Roma Termini is the main train station, so I had no intention of getting off when the train stopped at Roma Tiburtina. But we sat on the platform for so long that I started to get suspicious. When I finally inquired, the conductor informed me that our train would not stop at Roma Termini but would continue on straight to Napoli. So we clamored back on the train to retrieve our suitcase and then joined the crowds of commuters in Roman rush hour.

This is an amazing city. I've never been to a place that is so ancient, yet so alive. Whereas Venice seems to stand still in time, Rome exudes an air of vibrancy and dynamism, even as it is one of the oldest cities in the Western World. Bookstores, art galleries, fashion boutiques and wine bars are contemporary and cutting-edge, even while they are set in the midst of Roman ruins and Renaissance architecture.

After the obligatory visit to the Pantheon, we popped into the Chiesa di Santa Maria supra Minerva. Interesting comparison. The Pantheon was originally built in AD120 (on the site of an earlier temple). As a Roman ruin, it is exceedingly well preserved, probably because it was converted to a Christian church in 608. The place is cool, especially the huge domed roof with the skylight up top. Unfortunately, the constant crowds of tourists ensure that this ancient temple does not retain any air of reverence.

The Gothic church around the corner is a different story. Built in the 13th century, the Chiesa di Santa Maria Supra Minerva takes its name from the temple to Minerva that supposedly occupied this spot. Today the church contains the remains of Saint Catherine of Siena (minus her head, which is apparently on display in Siena). Whether Saint Catherine or Minerva (or both), somebody is watching over this lovely little church.

It is unremarkable from the outside, but the interior is so uplifting. Besides the kaleidoscope windows and fabulous frescoes, this church also contains one of Michelangelo's little known but much loved sculptures, Christ Bearing the Cross. The murmur of prayers echoes under the dramatic Gothic arches, as a reminder that this is sacred space, as it has been for thousands of years.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Chill Out

Venice, Italy - Last summer my household acquired an ice cream maker. This happened at the same time that we were participating in "the great appliance give-away", getting rid of vegetable steamers and panini presses that we had never used, so it was ironic that an ice cream maker should come into our possession; but there it was. We spent the summer concocting some amazing flavors, including an ultra-creamy strawberry and a buzz-inducing champagne sorbet. We perfected our ice cream making skills over the course of the summer, which culminated with a divine mint chocolate chip, made with mint leaves snipped from my garden and dark chocolate chipped off an organic bar.

That is the extent of my expertise in the area of making ice cream. Of course, I have many many years of experience eating ice cream, resulting in many strong opinions. I am partial to flavors that involve various combinations of chocolate and peanut butter or chocolate and coconut. I am addicted to Ben & Jerry's Chubby Hubby, which is vanilla ice cream, swirled with chocolate, peanut butter and chocolate-covered pretzels. (Don't knock it till you try it.)

This is all by way of background on my frame of mind when I arrived in Italy, where - frankly - there is no such thing as ice cream. In Italy, there is gelato - and lots of it.

Gelato is usually made with milk and sugar, as well as chocolate or nuts or whatever the flavoring; ice cream uses cream instead of milk. That's right - the primary difference between American ice cream and Italian gelato is the fat content. According to Wikipedia, gelato usually has 5-8% butterfat, compared to ice cream which has twice as much. So, we immediately notice one advantage of gelato... half the guilt!

Incidentally, I just finished reading a murder mystery by Donna Leon, the Agatha Christie of Italy. Starring the contemplative Commissario Guido Brunetti, Leon's books are all set in Venice. In the context of the murder mystery, Leon often includes vividly detailed (and sometimes mouthwatering) descriptions of food. You get they idea that she was a food writer before she made it big writing detective novels. This is from her novel Blood from a Stone:

"Brunetti hadn't been in the bar for years, ever since the brief period when it had been converted into an American ice-cream parlour and had begun to serve an ice-cream so rich it had caused him a serious bout of indigestion the one time he had eaten it. It had been, he recalled, like eating lard, though not the salty lard he remembered from his childhood, tossed in to give taste and substace to a pot of beans or lentil soup, but lard as lard would be if sugar and strawberries were added to it."

Now that I think about it, that sounds a little like the strawberry ice cream that we made last summer.

Gelato may not be as rich as ice cream, but it is dense with flavor. Apparently this is a result of the lack of air in the product, so there is more flavor packed in. It is served semi-frozen, which makes it softer and - if it's possible - more sensuous than ice cream.

Although gelato comes in a wide variety of flavors - including chocolate, coffee, hazelnut, etc - there are very few flavors that involve chunks, swirls or other embellishments. This takes some getting used to. In an earlier blog, I revealed that I am very American in my tastes when it comes to such things: I like my omelets, pizza and ice cream with a lot of stuff in/on it (as evidenced by the Chubby Hubby addiction). But I have to admit, there is something ambrosial about the pure, undiluted flavor and texture of gelato.

So, you are wondering, am I prepared to give up the luscious, lard-like delights of my native land for the joys of gelato?

Absolutely not. Somehow, I don't believe that the richest gelato can possibly have the healing powers of a pint of Chubby Hubby. But when in Venice, do as the Venetians... As such I am finding nocciolo (hazelnut) to be a pretty good substitute.

Monday, April 7, 2008

For stony limits cannot hold love in

Verona, Italy - Verona is for lovers, or so William Shakespeare thought, for he set two of his most heart-wrenching love stories here. His first - Two Gentlemen of Verona - is a comedy, where all the friends and lovers find their happiness in the end (after only one attempted rape - that part is hilarious - but never mind).

The more famous play is Romeo & Juliet, and we all know what happens to them. Apparently Shakespeare based his celebrated tragedy on two 14th-century Veronese families, the Montecchi and the Capelli. It is not clear if the families actually feuded, and Romeo and Juliet certainly are fictitious characters. Nonetheless, centuries later, Verona is still a sort of pilgrimage destination for the starry-eyed.

They all seek out the 12th-cenutury house of the Dal Cappello family, now better known as the Casa di Guilietta. The lovestruck come to scrawl messages of amore on the walls; while the lovelorn are invited to touch the right breast of the Juliet statue for better luck. (Let me tell you, nobody is shy about copping a feel from this bronze beauty.)

The keystone in the courtyard does bear an engraving of the Dal Cappello coat-of-arms, so that much is true: the Shakespearean family did live here. But everything else about this place was invented or added to make the place look like a theatrical set. Even the famous balcony is a 20th-century addition.

But who am I to ruin it for the romantics? Shakespeare aside, Verona is incredibly picturesque, its Roman ruins and Romanesque architecture vying for attention alongside the chic boutiques and sidewalk caf├ęs that fill the medieval center. The Roman arena - the third largest amphitheater in the world - is amazingly intact; it hosts an annual opera festival, and so has heard the likes of Luciano Pavarotti and Jose Carreras. And every evening, the entire town comes out to stroll the streets in the finest tradition of the passegiatto. Lovers promenading arm in arm through the cobble stone streets, with nary a destination in mind... what's more romantic than that?

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Marketing 101

Venice, Italy - `Rialto' means many things in Venice. First and foremost, it refers to the canopied marble bridge that spans the Grand Canal. One of the most famous Venetian landmarks, he bridge also offers a spectacular view of the palaces that line this waterway.

`Rialto' also refers to the neighborhood on the northside of the bridge, the Rialto da qua, or `that side', as the left bank is known. Here, you'll find the sweet San Giacometto di Rialto, which is the oldest church in Venice, and the beloved Gobbo di Rialto, the humble hunchback sculpture that supports the steps to the public podium.

But most importantly, this neighborhood is home to the city's oldest marketplace. The names of the streets - like Ruga degli Spezieri (Spice Street) - reveal that this has been a mercantile neighborhood for hundreds of years. Now, brightly-colored canopies cover the fruit and vegetable vendors at the canalside erberia, or produce market, while the age-old pescheria, or fish market, is housed under the arcades of two neo-Gothic halls.

These days in Venice, we have house guests, so on Saturday morning, we took Mom and Dad to the Rialto market to shop for our evening feast. The place was packed with patrons admiring the fruits of the earth and of the sea.

We finally decided on this handsome Sicilian swordfish in honor of our recent trip. We would eat him later that evening topped with a salsa of tomatoes and garlic, and served alongside green and white asparagus sprinkled with balsamic vinaigrette. Deliciosa!