A church with maps in Venice

SANTA MARIA DEL GIGLIO, or ‘Santa Maria Zobenigo’ as it is commonly named in Venice, is a baroque church with a magnificent façade. It was built between 1678 and 1681. The edifice was constructed by Giuseppe Sardi for Admiral Antonio Barbaro, who died in 1679. Amongst his many achievements he was Provveditore Generale (Governor General) of Venetian Dalmatia and Venetian Albania in 1670-71.

During my many visits to Venice, most of which were made annually with my parents during the 1960s, I have passed the church and noted an interesting feature of its façade. The base of this is decorated with six carved stone bas-relief maps. These have always fascinated me, but it was only after our recent trip to Venice in September 2022 that I finally got around to investigating them.

The maps are of Spalato (Split in Croatia); Corfu; Roma (Rome); Padoa (Padua); Candia (Haraklion in Crete); and Zara (Zadar in Croatia). Except for Rome, these are all places that were once governed by Venice. The maps depict places where Antonio Barbaro served in one capacity or another.

Wnen James (later Jan) Morris wrote “Venice” (published 1960), which is I believe the best book written about Venice, he/she noted of the façade of Santa Maria Zobenigo that:

“… it is notorious because not one item of its convoluted design has any religious significance whatsoever.”

Morris also pointed out something I have never noticed on that façade. Namely, that it bears a crest with a double-headed eagle, the crest of the Barbaro family. As this symbol interests me, I checked it out. The Barbaro family might have used it because of their connection to the Vlasto family, who were prominent in Rome by the end of 2nd century AD (see; www.christopherlong.co.uk/per/vlasto.byzantium.html). By the end of the 11th century, the Vlasto family was members of important families including the Barbaro’s. The Vlasto family crest includes the double-headed eagle, which amongst other things, was a Byzantine symbol. Interestingly, the Vlasto’s had already begun using it in the early 1st century AD, while the Byzantines only began using it in the 12th – 13th centuries. Maybe I never noticed the double-headed eagle because whenever I have passed the church, my eyes have been drawn to the maps on its fine façade. They fascinated me so much that I never bothered to look upwards.

Carpaccio and the Albanian community in Venice

THE ITALIAN WORD ‘scuola’ (plural: scuole) does not always mean ‘school’ (i.e., an educational establishment). In Venice, there are several scuole, which were never schools, but confraternities (or guilds). Well-known examples of these include the Scuola Grande di San Rocco, which contains many fine paintings by Tintoretto (1518-1594), and the Scuola Dalmata dei Santi Giorgio e Trifone, which contains a superb set of paintings by Carpaccio (1465-1525). The latter, also known as the Scuola di San Giorgio degli Schiavoni, was founded by Slavs (‘schiavoni’ in Italian) from Dalmatia (now mainly Croatia).

Another group of migrants from the Balkans, Christian (mostly Catholic) Albanians, began arriving in Venice in the early 15th century, both as traders and refugees from the Ottomans. In 1442, the Albanian community in Venice established its own confraternity, the Scuola di Santa Maria degli Albanesi. The building that housed it from the end of the 15th century still stands on a narrow passageway, the Calle dello Spezier, connecting Campo San Stefano and Campo San Maurizio. During our annual family holidays in Venice in the late 1950s and throughout the 1960s, we often passed along the passageway whilst walking from the Academia Bridge to Saint Mark’s Square. After my interest in Albania was first kindled in about 1967, I learnt about the Albanian scuola and always felt excited when we walked past its façade decorated with bas-relief stone carvings.

Three of the sculptures, which are affixed above the ground floor windows, depict two saints (Gallo and Mauritius) with the Mother and Child between them. Above them and located between the two second floor windows there is a larger bas-relief. It portrays a scene with two men in turbans standing on a rock facing a high hill on top of which there is a building with two heraldic crests. One of the men is brandishing a curved sword. This scene is a representation of the great Siege of Shkodër (1478-79). The city was then a Venetian possession. One of the men with a turban is a depiction of Mehmed II. The shields on the building and on the top corners of the sculpture were those of the Loredan and Da Lezze families, who were heroes of the siege.

The Albanian community in Venice was quite important during the period of the Venetian Republic, which ended in 1797. Several years ago, I met the Kosovan scholar and diplomat Bejtullah Destani, who told me that the city’s archives contain many documents charting the activities of the Albanians in Venice, and they have yet to be examined in detail.

Like the Scuola Dalmata, the Scuola degli Albanesi was decorated with a series of paintings by Carpaccio. In 1780, the Albanian scuola was closed. Its building became home to a bakers’ confraternity. 28 years later, when Venice was under Napoleonic rule, the other scuole were all suppressed. The Carpaccio paintings have long since been removed from the Albanian scuola, and can be found in museums in Venice, Milan, and Bergamo.

To get some idea of how splendid the Scuola degli Albanesi must have been in its heyday, a visit to the wonderful Scuola Dalmata should do the trick. Even if you have minimal interest in either Albania or Dalmatia, the paintings by Carpaccio make a good reason to visit Venice.

Eating there again at least 50 years later in Venice

EARLY IN SEPTEMBER (2022), I was eating spaghetti alle vongole (spaghetti with clams) in a restaurant in Venice (Italy). The place where I was eating this delicious dish has many memories for me.

Lantern hanging outside the entrance to the Antica Locanda Montin

During the late 1950s and throughout the 1960s, my parents took my sister and me for annual holidays in Venice. My parents were discerning eaters. Unfortunately, back in those now far-off times, there were very few restaurants in Venice which served food that met my parents’ approval.  Eventually, they homed in on one place that they liked enough to return there for every evening meal (our accommodation provided lunch as part of our demi-pension deal). That restaurant is called the Antica Locanda Montin (‘the Montin’). According to its website, it has hosted celebrities including Modigliani, Ezra Pound, Robert de Niro, Luigi Nono, and David Bowie. Well, I did not know that when I used to dine there with my family.

During our recent trip to Venice, we found out that the Montin is still in business, and we booked a table for lunch. To my delight and amazement, the restaurant looks exactly as it did when I last visited it over 50 years ago. It does not seem to have changed one little bit. The front of the Montin faces a small canal. The dining room is long and rectangular. At the far end opposite the front door, a rear door gives access to a pleasant garden, where people can eat in good weather. The walls of the dining room are covered with framed paintings, many of them of great artistic quality. Apparently, they have been donated over the years by artists, who have dined in the restaurant.

I cannot remember what I used to eat at the Montin over 50 years ago. However, my spaghetti alle vongole was tasty and enjoyable. My wife and our daughter were also happy with what they ate. Our lunch was one of the better meals we ate during our four days in Venice. What I enjoyed even more than the food was discovering that the Montin looks as it did when I was much younger. I am glad that the place has survived the trying times we have been through recently and Italy’s various economic crises.

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.

The place where the artist Tiepolo was born in Venice

GIOVANNI BATTISTA TIEPOLO (1696-1770) is one of my favourite artists. I have been familiar with his works ever since my childhood, when we visited Venice annually from the late 1950s or early 1960s onwards. My parents took me from church to church to see the great master’s paintings, which I prefer to the somewhat more photograph-like paintings of Canaletto.

We used to stay in a pensione on the Fondamente Zattere, a waterfront facing across a wide canal to the Giudecca island. The Gesuati church was a few yards from where we resided in Venice. It contains ceiling panels and a wall painting, all created by Tiepolo. Often, we passed the church and almost always entered it to gaze up at Tiepolo’s ceiling. I cannot remember it, but my sibling recalls that almost every morning, early, my father used to stand quietly and alone in the church for a few minutes.

I became so keen on Tiepolo that I broke my train journey between Ostend and Vienna to spend a night in Würzburg in order to see Tiepolo’s paintings in the city’s Residenz (a palace).

This September (2022), I was walking along a narrow passageway (Calle S Domenico) when I spotted a commemorative plaque above an archway leading into a long narrow courtyard surrounded by tall residential buildings. The plaque recorded that in the courtyard there was the house in which Tiepolo was born on March 1696. Exactly in part the courtyard, the Corte S Domenico, the artist was born, I could not determine. However, I had never seen this place before and was thrilled to have stumbled across the place where one of my favourite artists was born.

Parasol in the palace: art and architecture

WHEN I SET off for Venice a couple of days ago, I doubted whether I would enjoy the Biennale as much as my wife and our daughter. How wrong I was. I have been enjoying exploring the artworks housed in a number of different places around the city. Some of the shows are in pavilions specially designed for Biennale exhibitions. Others are in places adapted, mostly temporarily, for use during the art festival. For example, the Nepalese and Armenian shows are in what look like disused shop premises. Others are in far grander edifices.

Today, we visited an exhibition housed in the courtyards and rooms of a huge palace, which is home to a music conservatoire (located close to Campo S Stefano). The exhibits (sculptures, paintings, and videos) were created by members of a group of artists within the fold of the Parasol Unit art foundation. The artists in the show are: Darren Almond, Oliver Beer, Rana Begum with Hyetal, Julian Charrière, David Claerbout, Bharti Kher, Arghavan Khosravi, Teresa Margolles, Si On, Martin Puryear, and Rayyane Tabet.

The show in the conservatoire is wonderful. The building itself is a fantastic architectural sculpture with a myriad of neo-classical decorative sculptural details. The works of art, which are in total contrast to the architecture, harmonise interestingly with the environments in which they have been placed. Photographs cannot do justice to this exhibition; it has to be experienced in person.

Although this show will be amongst my favourite exhibitions in the 2022 Venice Biennale, it is not alone in being magnificent. I am glad that we have come to Venice for this artistic bonanza.

Two empty pavilions at the Venice Biennale

THE BIENNALE IN Venice was first held in 1895. The original international bi-annual art exhibition was contained in public gardens at the Eastern end of the city of Venice in the Castello district.

Initially, there was a Central Pavilion, opened in 1894. Later, various participating countries built national pavilions, the first being Belgium in 1907. The latest is the Australian pavilion, built only a few years ago.

The national pavilions reflect both the politics and architectural styles prevailing at the time they were built. Therefore, they are at least as interesting as the artworks that take up temporary residence within them at each exhibition.

I will discuss two of the pavilions in this short essay, and hope to write about some of the others at a later date.

The Russian pavilion bears the date 1914 and several double-headed eagles. It was constructed before the 1917 Revolution, and has some traditional Russian architectural features.

Next to the Belgian pavilion, stands the Spanish one. First constructed in 1933, its facade was replaced by a modern brick one in 1952.

Both the Spanish and the Russian pavilions appear to be empty, but for quite different reasons. For the 2022 Biennale, the artist Ignasi Aballi (born 1958 in Barcelona) has left the pavilion empty but shifted its internal walls in an attempt to correct a discrepancy between its original architectural plan and what ended up being constructed. The result is an empty pavilion with a strange internal layout. It was at first disconcerting to discover a pavilion empty of artworks, but soon it became pleasurable to see the strange vistas and connections between neighbouring rooms.

The Russian pavilion, unlike the Spanish, is closed. But it is also devoid of exhibits. Russia was not invited to the Biennale this year. The reason for this was Mr Putin’s unwise decision to invade his neibour, Ukraine.

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!