Cabot: from Venice to Newfoundland

THE DISCOVERY OF Canada by Europeans is not usually at the forefront of my mind, especially just after an airflight landing in Venice. Yet when we disembarked from the waterbus that carried us from Marco Polo Airport to the city, I noticed a building that surprised me at the south end of the Via Garibaldi (in the Castello ‘sestier’ of Venice). It has one plaque commemorating Giovanni Caboto (c1450-c1500) and his son Sebastiano Caboto (c1450-c1557). Giovanni is better known (to me) as John Cabot. I had no idea that Cabot, the ‘discoverer’ of Newfoundland was from the Italian peninsular. Sebastiano was also a maritime explorer. His most famous work was done in South America.

Cabot(o) lived here in Venice

Giovanni Caboto’s birthplace is unknown, but is likely to have been in the Province of Genoa. By 1476, he had become a Citizen of Venice. He was a trader there. Getting into financial difficulties, he left Venice for Spain in the late 1480s. After seeking financial support for a trans-Atlantic expedition, which never happened, he set off for England in 1495. Cabot, as he became known in England, went to Bristol. From that seaport, he led at least three expeditions to explore the east coast of North America. During these voyages, he set foot on what is now called Newfoundland and probably also on parts of what is now Nova Scotia. One of his later expeditions is believed to have been one of the earliest attempts to discover a Northwest Passage.

Cabot received a reward for his services from England’s King Henry VII. Where John Cabot died is uncertain. It might have been during his last expedition to North America during the period 1498-1501, but no one knows for sure whether he died at sea, or in North America, or after his expedition had returned to England.

A monument on the house in Via Garibaldi, which was placed in 1982 by the Canadian Province of Newfoundland, records that John’s discoveries in 1497 were made with his son Sebastiano. The house that bears this monument (written both in English and French) and another one in Italian, is said to be the house where John Cabot lived in Venice. From many of its windows, the great explorer would have had a good view of the lagoon and the quays, where trading vessels might well have been loaded and unloaded.

Our rented apartment was on a narrow street leading off the Via Garibaldi. I was pleased to see that this is close to a narrow alleyway called Ramo Primo Caboto.

Sad to leave, glad to return

AT THE END of a four day stay in Venice, a city, which I have loved ever since my early childhood days, I felt sad at the prospect of departure for home. Wandering about the city brought back happy memories of visits there with my parents as well as giving me the chance to experience familiar sights and to make new discoveries. Although Venice is a little overrun with tourists, its history as a gateway to points further east remains fascinating and evocative. So, the anticipation of leaving filled me with sadness.

We left Venice on a waterbus, which arrived punctually and was not overcrowded. After a lovely 70 minute voyage, which included stops at the Lido, the Fondamente Nove, and a couple of stops on the island of Murano (famous for its glass production), we arrived at Marco Polo Airport. And that is where our journey became wearying.

First, we had to queue to reach the baggage depositing facility for our airline Easyjet. Next, we discovered that our departure would be delayed by about 30 minutes. Then, we sat in a crowded waiting area without knowing from which gate we would be boarding our ‘plane. It was important to know this because there are two sets of passport control points, each leading to a separate set of gates. Once the gate was announced, another queue. This time, we had to wait (not too long) to have stamps placed in our non-EU passports. On arrival at the departure gate, we were told that boarding was beginning. What this meant was that everybody had to stand up, to show our boarding passes, and then to stand in a long sloping corridor for at least 10 minutes before we were invited on-board. The 1 hour 55 minute flight to London’s Gatwick Airport was pleasant, although delayed.

At Gatwick, we disembarked at a point distant from the immigration hall. The latter was reached after a good 15 minute walk. The passport control area was chock-full of people, some of them inebriated. Unlike in the EU, where EU and non-EU passport holders are separated, at Gatwick (and Heathrow), both kinds of passport holders and those from several other countries (e.g., Australia, NZ, and Japan) queue together to use the automated passport checking machines. The process, which might save spending on labour costs, is not user-friendly. Many passengers had difficulty using the machines and had to be helped by other passengers and a few members of airport staff. Fortunately, because it had taken so long to get through the immigration control, our suitcase had arrived in the baggage collection hall.

After one more short, but fast-moving queue, we reclaimed our car keys, and soon began the 1 hour drive home. Although I was so sad leaving Venice, after the many hours spent at airports and the numerous lines in which we waited, I was glad to be home. Years ago, when I was a child, leaving wherever we had spent our holiday was always sad, but even worse was returning to everyday routines of school and life in the staid Hampstead Garden Suburb, where we lived.

Music in the piazza

MUSIC IS A PART of what I associate with St Marks Square in Venice (Italy). Whether it be the occasional outdoor orchestral concerts that used to be held in on summer evenings in the 1960s, when we made annual family visits to the watery city, or the small bands that play on stages next to some of the square’s costly cafés. One of these ‘cafs’ is Florian’s, where a 6 Euro charge is added to your bill for the music.

Florian with its beautiful neo-baroque rooms that are entered beneath the arcade surrounding the Square was founded in 1720 as ‘Alla Venezia Trionfante’ but soon became known by its present name.

We looked at the menu at Florian, but although it is an extremely romantic place, there is a substantial price to pay to be an active part of it!

To Venice by crossing the water

THE LAST TIME I flew into Venice’s Marco Polo airport was in the late 1960s with my parents. In those days, the airport was tiny in comparison with what it is now. Back then, there were two ways of reaching the city of Venice from Marco Polo: by bus to Piazzale Roma, or far more expensively, in a private water taxi, in effect a speed boat. Despite my mother’s tendency to become seasick easily, we always took the speedy water taxi from the airport to our pensione on the Fondamente Zattere. In those now distant times, the airport arrival hall was much closer to the shore of the lagoon than it is today.

Water bus

Times have changed. The airport has grown and is far from the waterfront. Although there are still plenty of speedy water taxis carrying passengers, there is now a regular, moderately priced water bus service, which links Marco Polo to many points in Venice. We used this service.

As we crossed the lagoon, many water taxis sped past us. We passed Murano and the cemetery island of St Michele. Then, as we approached the Fondamente Nuova on Venice proper, I spotted the curious domed Bell Tower of the church of Madonna dell’Orto. I looked at it and felt a lump in my throat as I remembered the numerous times I visited that church with my parents to see the frescos within it. It was one of my favourite Venetian excursions, being taken to see that edifice.

After getting off at the wrong stop (mea culpa) and boarding another vessel, we reached our destination near the Gardens where much of the Venice Biennale happens. There is no doubt that arriving in Venice by traversing the water in a boat is far more dramatic and pleasant than arriving across the bridge by train or bus.

Examining the past

ON 13th AUGUST 2020, MANY YOUNGSTERS in England received the results of the state’s university admission examinations. This year of plague and social distancing, 2020, the results have not been determined by the students themselves writing examination papers but by a clumsy, somewhat arbitrary, algorithm that takes various factors other than a student’s own ability into account. Things were quite different last year and back in 1970 when I sat the A-Level examinations required for admission to university.

BLOG EXAM

Back then, as now, universities offered places to potential students subject to achieving or exceeding certain grades at A-Level. The place that was my first choice amongst the six universities I chose was University College London (‘UCL’). In ‘my time’, UCL invited potential students for extensive interviewing. I was invited to spend a whole day at the Physiology Department. During that day, I was interviewed at least three times by different people and met both members of the academic staff as well as students already embarked on their courses of study.

Several days later, I received a letter from UCL offering me a place on the BSc course providing I achieved three E grades at A-Level. The top grade at A-Level was A, the lowest pass grade was E. At first, I was not sure whether to be pleased that all I needed was just to pass my three A-Level examinations. Was that the best that they thought I could manage? No, it was not. In those days, if UCL liked a candidate at interview, they took the strain off the candidate by not expecting high grades. Thee Es was normal for most subjects except medicine and dentistry when 3 Cs were required.  These days, candidates to places like UCL would be expected to get 3 A grades or something awfully close to this. Well, having been offered a place subject to my attaining at least 3 E grades and being neurotic by nature, I began to worry. What if I could not manage the three Es?

I became obsessed by examination papers to such an extent that I used to use my father’s typewriter to compose examination questions that I hoped would never appear in front of me in the examination hall. Whether or not composing these impossible questions was a kind of self-therapy or simply an opportunity to enjoy using the typewriter, I cannot tell, but it did me no harm. At the very least, It gave me short breaks in what for me was long hours trying to understand what I was studying.

My three A-Level subjects were Biology, Physical Science (a mixture of chemistry and physics), and mathematics. I found that all of them were most interesting and not too taxing. When I was at school, it was possible to opt to attempt supplementary papers in the subjects chosen for A-Level. These papers were known as ‘S-Levels’ and were designed to test a candidate’s deeper understanding of a subject. I chose to do S-Level papers in biology and mathematics. The biology S-Level paper was enjoyable. I was able to show off what I had learnt from reading around the subject. One of the questions was something to do with discussing the origins of life on earth. Well, in addition to various then current theories I decided to include what is described in the first chapter of the Old Testament. I passed that S-Level. The mathematics S-Level paper was a quite different ‘cup of tea’. Even though I had attended special classes to learn the mathematics that was required, I was stumped. For the first 30 minutes of the three-hour paper, I just stared at the questions. There was not one that I could even begin to tackle. So, after 20 minutes, I walked out of the examination room, leaving a blank script on my desk.

I can remember where I was when I received the A-Level results in August 1970. I was in Italy with my parents and sister on one of our annual visits to that country. We were in Venice, staying, as we always did, at the Pensione La Calcina, where many decades earlier the eminent John Ruskin(1819-1900) used to reside when visiting the island. The establishment’s façade is on the Fondamente Zattere across the water (of the Giudecca Canal) from the famous Santissimo Redentore church (completed 1592) designed by the architect Andrea Palladio.

We had just eaten lunch at the pensione and were taking the air on the waterfront prior to retiring indoors for a siesta when Signorina Steiner, the manageress, came rushing up to us with a telegram. My parents opened it to discover that my aunt in London had sent my A-Level results, which to my great relief were way in excess of the minimum required to gain admission to UCL.

If I had not managed to attain even 3 E grades, I would certainly not have expected to be admitted to any university. I would have had to accept the result and might well have decided to re-sit the examinations a few months later. As far as I am aware, in my day, there was no appealing to have papers re-marked as has become normal in the last twenty or thirty years. During recent times, it is not unusual for someone who is not satisfied with a grade to have his or her examination papers re-marked. Often, the revised grade is higher than the original, but things can go less favourably for the candidate.

This year, when young people have not been able to attend school since March and have not been awarded A-Level grades based on final papers written under strict examination  conditions, they have been awarded grades based largely on statistics (generated by what appears to be a poorly conceived algorithm) rather than individual ability. Many students have been awarded grades well below what they and their teachers expected. Thank heavens that there are appeal procedures in place.

I remember how much of a nail-biting experience it was waiting for my A-Level results back in 1970. This year, it was far worse for candidates. Not only did they not know on what basis their grades would be estimated, but also many of them will have to remain anxious for even longer whilst their appeals are being considered.

An American in a gondola

When I was young, before I was about 17, I used to visit Venice annually with my parents. We used to stay in a pensione called ‘La Calcina’. As breakfast and one meal were included in the room price, we used to take lunch in the dining room of La Calcina. Every year, we sat with other regular visitors, whom we got to know gradually. One of them was a somewhat silent American gentleman…

 

On the Canale Grande_500

 

The Calcina’s neighbour, the Pensione Il Seguso, was located on a corner where a narrow side canal met the wide Giudecca Canal. One morning, we were waiting outside the Calcina, trying to decide what to do. It was a bit later than usual, which is possibly the reason that we spotted something we had never seen before. A gondola with green upholstery and other identically coloured cloth drapes appeared from along the side canal and drew to a standstill at the corner near where we were standing. The gondolier was dressed in a livery the same colour as the upholstery and the drapes. After a short delay, the American, who used to sit silently with us at lunch, left the main entrance of the Calcina and boarded the gondola. The gondolier set his vessel in motion. His American passenger sat reading his newspaper whilst he was rowed across the Giudecca Canal. We watched them disappearing along a canal that passed through the Giudecca Island towards the wide open lagoon beyond the island. Naturally, our curiosity was aroused.

That lunch time, the American sat down in his usual place. My mother could no longer contain herself. She asked the American about what we had witnessed that morning. He explained that the gondolier was the grandson of his late mother’s personal gondolier. Whenever he visited Venice, he would hire this same grandson for the duration of his visit. Every morning, he was picked up just as we had observed, and was rowed out into the midst of the lagoon. When they arrived there, he and his gondolier exchanged roles. The American had mastered the art of rowing a gondola, and took his daily exercise by ‘gondoling’ around the lagoon for an hour or so.

The American introduced himself. My father, a knowledgable amateur historian of art, was most excited to discover that our American lunch time companion was William Milliken, a former Director of the Cleveland Museum of Art in Cleveland, Ohio, and a famous historian of mediaeval art.

Later Miss Steiner, a humourless late middle-aged Austrian who managed the Pensione Calcina, told us that Mr Milliken stayed at the Calcina every year during the month in which his mother had died. He stayed in the room that she used to occupy during her visits to the Calcina. Whilst he stayed there, Miss Steiner informed us, the room was always filled with his mother’s favourite flowers, and furnished with the very same furniture that she used to use whilst she was a guest at the pensione.

 

Mr Milliken died in 1978, at least ten years after I last met him. About twenty years later, I bought a second-hand copy of his book, “Unfamiliar Venice”. This wonderfully illustrated and almost poetically written book, which was published in 1967, describes the magic of Venice beautifully, but makes no mention at all of any of the things we learnt about our solitary American neighbour in the dining room of the Pensione Calcina.

 

 

Venice observed

 

Venice is a special place in many ways. This meeting place of oriental and occidental art is bathed in light of a special quality. Maybe this is due to the fact that there is so much water reflecting the daylight and thereby increasing its intensity. Maybe, it is something else, but whatever it is, part of the beauty of Venice is its lovely light.

Artists have long been attracted to portraying Venice. Canaletto portrayed the city almost photographically in his paintings.  Guardi captures the city brilliantly by using an almost impressionistic technique. Ruskin captured the beauty of the Venetian architecture scholarly yet attractively. Other artists such as Manet, Monet, Moran, and Turner have also portrayed some of the ‘essence’ of Venice’s attractiveness.

Yesterday, I visited an exhibition of new paintings inspired by Venice by the British contemporary artist Joe Tilson (born 1928). Each of his deceptively simple canvases capture several aspects of what makes Venice attractive for me. Architectural details, coloured patterning like tiles or brickwork, and moonlit skies  conspire to evoke the special light an appearance of Venice. His painting is both simple and subtle, and above all visually satisfying.

 

The exhibition is at Marlborough Fine Art, 6 Albermarle Street, London W1S 4BY until 18th May 2019