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December 23, 2005

La Serenissima

Announcing a new album, Carved in Stone: Venice, The Ghost of Decadence Past

Having reached its zenith of wealth and power some 800 years after its founding on several tiny mud flats in the northwestern Adriatic marshlands, the tiny city-state of Venice attained a level of civility unprecedented in Post Roman Europe. As its ships returned laden with cargo from the East, its stature, riches and naval might made it the greatest sea power of Renaissance Europe. A city state, ruled by an oligarchy that resisted monarchy, centered on a cluster of close lying islands with canals and rios for throughways and alleys, commanding a vast network of trade routes, it exercised its might in every corner of the Mediterranean. Nowhere in the history of the world, had so much display of power and wealth been concentrated in so compact a space. Great palaces and basilicas, cloaked, decked and pinnacled in refined sculpture, golden mosaics, marble cornices and master painting, were raised cheek to jowl on every available piece of canal bank, crowding and outdoing each other like courting peacocks in a pen.

Venice, a city that never had a population of more than 250,000, would have more than its share of home grown painter, sculptors, writers, architects, artisans and worldly citizens.  The list is a long one that includes: masters like Vivarini, Titian, Bellini, Giorgione, Tintoretto, Veronese, Donatello, Canaletto, Sansovino, Codussi, Palladio, Tiepolo, Carpaccio, Canova, Casanova and a long list of others.  Because of its wealth and prestige, Venice also attracted at one time or another nearly every major artist, writer and philosopher working in Renaissance Europe and Rinascimento Italy. Both Dante and Petrarch were sent there as ambassadors. Venice can also claim to be the place in which the museum  was conceived and given form. Venetian collectors garnished their public facades with imported and home-conceived treasures and were perhaps the first to open up their studioli of various curiosities, art and antiquities for public display and also, it seems, the first to build structures specifically to house the display of those objects.

The city's cultural and political history is not without its own many contradictions, ironies and stains. Like the Romans before them, Venetian armies brought booty back from conquered cities, though unlike Rome, Venice's wealth and power was built mainly on a network of trading outposts not garrisons and militarily enforced puppet governments. It is also very hard to imagine through our modern eye that the Venetians prided themselves on a certain egalitarian modesty (mediocrita) best reflected in their use of the word Ca' for casa or house rather than Palazzo or palace to describe their patrician dwellings. Since the Republic steered  scrupulously clear of having kings or ruling dynasties, the patriarchal families were often berated for public displays of ostentation, though it's clear this was a rule that was given a great deal of flexibility in its execution. The city's patron saint and most cherished relic is St. Mark, of New Testament prominence. Mark had nothing to do with the origins of a city that did not even exist during his lifetime but in the 9th Century several enterprising Venetian merchants, as the story goes, managed to purchase and then smuggle his remains out of Moslem dominated Alexandria by hiding them out of the reach of port inspectors under a cargo of reviled salt pork The church bearing his name is one of the most spectacular in all Christendom.

Venice also gets credit for contributing the word ghetto to our modern vocabularies, though the word itself (foundry) has nothing to do with its modern connotations.. Nonetheless, the amount of room the ruling councilors set aside to lock up its 5,000 Jews at night, is shamefully less than the space it set aside for a typical orchard in any of the many monastic orders.

By the 17 Century, as the European world turned westward, outnumbered in its own waters and traditional Dalmatian hinterlands by the Ottoman Turks, Venice gradually fell into a crumbling decadent shell of itself. Its patrician families, whose ranks had been forever sealed way back in the 12th century, clutched the remains of their patrimonies: La Serenissima, or the most serene republic, as it liked to called itself -- fell into miserliness so penurious that a dowry required from a marriageable female --eligible by wealth and breeding to mate an equal-- could easily total what on "terra firma" amounted to a king's ransom. The city, fighting to maintain its gentility, became awash in a sea of surplus daughters, walled away in a maze of nunneries, and sons locked out of inheritances, forced to find new lives. John Cabot, of English and North American historical fame, or Giovanni Caboto as he was known in his home city, was one such son.

It is estimated that by the time the red priest, Antonio Vivaldi was busy teaching some of the ever increasing number of foundling daughters of the city to perform his urgent yet profoundly melancholic compositions, nearly half the adult women in its population were working prostitutes. Where once it was the great merchant princes who flaunted their wealth in the most magnificent and ornate urban palaces ever seen then or since, it was these worldly women whose dress, manners and jewelry were so flagrantly dazzling that the city fathers passed one decree after another to limit their conspicuousness. The noble oligarchs that held power over the centuries in this closed republic, it is said, ruled that the courtesans of the city were to be required to bare their breasts at all times when out in public, supposedly to limit their daytime activities. It's also said that, demonstrating just how far out of touch these old men had become, their decree, instead of causing a diminution in female presence on the streets and in Europe's first cafe's, had quite the opposite effect. Long before the courtesans of Paris took their society openly to the streets, staid, strict, mannered, cloistered Venice was the unlikely founding site of the liberty of European women.

After an unprecedented 1100 years of independence, La Serenissima, a city of gilded domes, finally fell to the armed wave that spread across Europe led by Napoleon Bonaparte. Bonaparte led to the further decline of the city stripping it of monuments and artworks.  For a while, the four gilded horses that the Venetians had brought from the East --some think they were cast in China-- to place in honor above the main entrance to St. Mark's Basilica, were given pedestals in the Louvre. Romantic European poets, writers and composers would take up residence in Venice during that decaying century in which the French occupiers would be quickly followed by the Austrians.  John Ruskin, the British essayist and critic is perhaps the foreigner who is most associated with the city during its time of greatest loss  but Byron, Wagner, the Brownings, Thomas Mann and many others have their stays marked by stone plaques set on the facades of numerous palaces and hotels. Ruskin wrote about The Stones of Venice and even purchased their rubble --he bought the ruins of a monastery Napoleon pulled down to improve the view from his palace.  In its decline he projected in Stones all of his own innermost struggles, revising the Shakespearean concept of Diseased Love:

I do not wonder at what men Suffer, but I wonder often at what they Lose. We may see how good rises out of pain and evil; but the dead, naked, eyeless loss, what good comes of that?... the whole majesty of humanity raised to its fulness, and every gift and power necessary for a given purpose, at a given moment, centred in one man, and all this perfected blessing permitted to be refused, perverted, crushed, cast aside by those who need it most,... these are the heaviest mysteries in this strange world, and, it seems to me, those which mark its curse the most. And it is true that the power with which this Venice had been entrusted was perverted, when at its highest, in a thousand miserable ways: still, it was possessed by her alone.... That mighty Landscape, of dark mountains that guard her horizon with their purple towers... that mighty Humanity.... the majesty of thoughtful form, on which the dust of gold and flame of jewels are dashed as the sea-spray upon the rock, and still the great Manhood seems to stand bare against the blue sky ... then judge if so vast, so beneficent a power could indeed have been rooted in dissipation or decay. It was when she wore the ephod of the priest, not the motley of the masquer, that the fire fell upon her from heaven. [X, 178-179]

The contemporary city of Venice that Ruskin would hardly recognize, but now firmly a part of Italy, and from where we are happy enough to be writing this, is no longer a major city even in its own country. It remains, however, thanks to the efforts, skills and imagination of its forefathers, encapsulated, --like the patrician museums of another day, a blend of what once was and a cabinet of curiosities some real some fake,- into one of the world's great wonders.

Venice is now, also partaking in a bit of millennial irony primping herself even further for the rise of China, land of half the world's population, where, if only a relatively small percentage of its inhabitants reach that state of affluence called middle class, its tourists will outnumber all the travelers combined since the dawn of time. As a prelude, look today into the canals from the arched stone bridge under your feet down into the gondolas passing just meters below the step you stand on and you will see in this Autumn of 2005, bobbing poltrones filled with smiling, chattering Asians as busily snapping their bits and bytes of memory as any diligent German or ambitious Californian. And in a measure of past and present, the gondoliers, their hands and feet tied up in the operation of their rather bizarre profession, still banter to each other over the grimy waters in their deeply rooted dialect, whilst their dependents busily message each other on their ever in-hand cell phones. In Venice, hardly anyone looks up at the stone heads jutting from the keystones of every palatial portal; the tourists stare at each other and into the shop windows crowded with the latest fineries our consumerist world can produce and the shadows of fineries past while the armies of commuters  tap out instant messages and peer into tiny screens on their hand held devices for the staccato replies.

We're reminded, watching these tourists being paddled around, that when Marco Polo, certainly one of the most famous of all Venetians, got back from his journeys to Cathay, no one in his home city believed his stories of a major kingdom situated in the distant East where all manner of things were done in such a refined and civil way that, by comparison, rough and bustling Gothic Europe, barely on the brink of rediscovering its own classical past, seemed quaint and primitive.  In his native city, already demonstrating a unique blend of Arabic, Romanesque, Byzantine and European architecture, there was mainly disbelief and scorn for his stories. Marco, always the adventurer, ended up in the prison of rival Genoa, the other great sea power of the day, and to help do his time, wrote down a personal recount of his adventurers in the court of the great Khan. For that effort, he was dubbed by his fellow Venetians, Marco Millioni for the millions of lies he recounted in those pre-Gutenberg pages. Still, copies were made, and gobbled up eagerly throughout a Europe looking outward from the confinement of the Church's primitive cosmology and hungry for a good secular yarn.

For centuries Venice's last line of defense were the many secrets of its navigable channels. Attackers could not bring their warships too close for fear of meeting an unexpected underwater hazard. Something of the same can be said today of the city's maze of cobblestone streets. A tiny alley, hardly wide enough to wheel a suitcase through can be a main passage way from one end of the city to another, while another very promising way can easily end rudely on the banks of its many minor and major canals. In that regard, past a certain hour of the night, when the passerby's no longer make their way from the Rialto to the Academy Bridge or across Dorsoduro or San Polo to the Railway Station --the real way out for most of the people who come here to work and play every day-- the city returns fully to its watery self. Then you know that this city is not only different because their are no cars, no scooters, not even any bicycles but because it is a negative of any other city you have ever visited, a waterway with sketchy land paths not designed for more than neighborhood passage. As late as a couple hundred years ago, these land paths were rarely aimed to anything more than a landing and a back gate. Then, certain canals were filled in for the purposes of making dry, cross city travel feasible.

Still for most Venetians the way from one part of the city to another is marked by the vaporetto, or water bus, stops. Venetians will jump on and off these chugging workhorses of mass transit for one stop to avoid having to walk up and over one of the high step bridges at the Rialto or Academia. Gondolas, mainly a tourism relic, are still used to ferry people out on their daily rounds across strategic points along the Grand Canal where these ferry stops have existed for centuries.

For the Venetians, in their watery splendor, far enough off-shore to be safe, the rest of Italy was nothing more or less than "terra firma". As seafarers and merchants, they did best when they avoided entanglements on land and worst when they tried to dominate their neighbors to the West, on a Lombard plain that saw endless fighting to and fro throughout the most serene republics unprecedented millennium of mostly unthreatened independence.

We invite you to enjoy in the luxury of the season the pictures of this perforce incomplete catalogue of carved stone images, even in the tiniest proportion to our mostly casual pleasure in capturing them. The Carved in Stone collections are dedicated to the vast number of mainly anonymous stone carvers. 

Posted by dymaxion at 04:04 PM

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December 03, 2005

Nightline goes out with a Whimper

When Ted Koppel hosted the final broadcast of Nightline I last week, he chose to revisit a series he had first broadcast a decade ago called "Conversations with Morrie". That series, as Koppel reminded viewers, comprised the most popular and replayed segments in Nightline's storied 26 year history. Koppel clearly enjoyed reminding viewers that it was a series that had to be done over the strong objections of his bosses at ABC News that no one would be interested in an interview with somebody who was dying from a relentlessly, progressively painful and debilitating terminal illness.

Koppel and Nightline deservedly won a number of prizes for the Morrie series. It was a rather unique moment for TV News that allowed viewers to ponder questions of their own humanity: mortality, personal courage, candor, nobility, humility, humor, fear, etc.; all demonstrated in the waning days of an extraordinary person, who, if the TV show had not appeared, would have died of  Lou Gehrig's disease or ALS in near complete anonymity. Morrie Schwartz, teacher, son of immigrants, hardly known outside his family and college community, after all, was the opposite of the kinds of leading players who Koppel and his colleagues had interviewed over the show's long history, often with a deftness rare in broadcast journalism.

Ironically, Nightline, born of one Middle Eastern crisis, the Iran Hostage Crisis, was probably pushed off the ledge by another, the present Iraq War. Not that Nightline was somehow very much off the reservation when it came to the War. You could even argue, quite the opposite, at least in the opening days, when Koppel himself got imbedded with the invading Army and rode along with the shock and awe forces at the "Tip of the Sword" on their way to Baghdad while managing to look nearly as ridiculous as Michael Dukakis in tank gear. But Nightline was coming from a firm tradition, and even if had turned a bit gray around the whiskers, its crew of reporters, Dave Marish, Chris Bury, John Donovan, Michelle Martin, among others, had been schooled in an era of professional journalism. They could, once the initial blowout of enthusiasm had peaked, start following the real story as it unfolded on the ground. They reported on the looting that followed the fall of the regime, the logistical problems, including the proper armor for the Humvees, the waste and corruption as the military contracts were passed out, the rather undignified departure of Proconsul Paul Bremer and, in a unique turn of events that may have sealed their fate, the deaths of American military as the insurgency grew in force. It was Nightline that called attention to the energy the Pentagon was putting into hiding the transport of military remains back to the country and on the occurrence of the thousandth US military death, Nightline dedicated an entire program on Memorial Day to a remembrance of the dead military, in silence, showing their photos, ranks, names and hometowns.

Of course, it wasn't just their war coverage that did in the show; the ratings weren't all that good. Still  the new Nightline started precisely the week the Administration was rolling out a newly invigorated defense of the War's progress as a reaction to Congressman Jack Murtha's call for an immediate withdrawal and a more muted but significantly lopsided vote in the Senate that seemed to press the Administration, at a minimum, to state its goals to the American public. There was also inside the White House, of course, an understanding based on the polls that the American public was losing patience with a policy that seemed more based on promises and the currency of terms like "insurgent" than a dreary replay of facts on the ground.

First the Vice President came out swinging, all but calling any opposition to Administration policy, aid and comfort to the enemy. Then it was the President's turn, in what was called a major speech at the Naval Academy, to describe a scenario in which progress was being made in standing up an Iraqi Army and police force ready to substitute for American forces who could, once the Iraqis were ready to carry the burden, begin a troop pull down that would allow them to come home in what he newly defined as full victory.

Coincidentally, the new Nightline headed by Cynthia McFadden led off the week with stories by ABC's former chief White House reporter, Terry Moran on a quick tour in and out of Baghdad. Just a day or two before the President's speech laying out the standing up the Iraqi army criterion for withdrawal, Moran is able to show footage of an Iraqi patrol going out on its own with only the backing of US troops. Just as coincidentally, An IED goes off and the ABC camera crew is there to record wounded and dying Iraqi forces. The coincidence is made even more questionable in the light of what had been a near ban of any footage showing American's forces in action being wounded or killed on TV. The Pentagon, having learned the lesson of Vietnam, knowing that a constant flow of pictures of American's being killed or maimed helped turn public opinion back in the 1960's, has made sure those images have stayed off the little screen. Apparently, showing Iraqi forces dying is deemed to have the opposite effect.

The following night, Moran still in Baghdad, is shown on Nightline II standing in the surrealistic war memorial site that Saddam Hussein dedicated to his "victory" in the Iran/Iraq War, a war in which US aid to Saddam played a major role. The memorial, the one with the row of gigantic sabers that cross over the roadway, was completely empty indicating its location in a protected area of the city. The point of Moran's blithe report is that there is a major swing in mood in the country and that progress on the ground is palpable. In one of his more ingenuous sentences, he talks in a first hand way about the mood of conversation in the cafes and markets, as if he, or any other foreign reporter for that matter, would dare go out into the crowd and sample the mood. We are perhaps supposed to suspend all reality and believe that he speaks fluent Arabic. Moran then rolls his report on Ahmed Chalabi, the Administration's on again, off again, choice to straighten out the Herculean mess that is Iraq today.

There is undisputedly an enormous problem with Iraq. Hundreds of thousands of lives have been destroyed or heavily impacted by the war so far and the US prestige around the world is even lower than Bush's poll numbers at home. We have also spent over 300 billion dollars there so far and no matter what the final outcome will be, we'll be spending like sums for years to come. What Koppel's Nightline had been offering in relatively small doses was something that is badly needed today, some untainted reporting on a situation that looks like it is turning into the greatest US foreign policy debacle in history. The President's, and all of us',  problem is not finding words of encouragement or resolve or even selectively parsing the situation to put it in the best light. The problem in Iraq for the President and the country is facts on the ground.

In an insurgency, it doesn't matter if 80% of the territory is calm at any given moment, it's that insurgents somehow circulate freely within the various warring populations and that they are able to stay organized and have access to lethal arms and the money it takes to conduct and coordinate a successful gorilla war. Two and half years after declaring victory on the ground, it seems rather ironic to hear the President talking about securing Haifa St or the road out to the airport in the very capital of this large country. It is even worse when it turns out that what is considered secure, is only secure because militia's like the Mahdi army of  Muqtada El Sadr, not the Iraqi Army, are in control of those areas and many others across the country. American's don't want to leave a mess in Iraq, they know the consequences. What they need to know is what the US military can and cannot achieve and whether perhaps as Murtha suggests, the presence of US troops is in itself a provocative factor at this point.

We need facts, as best they can be revealed in such a roiled situation and good reporting is necessary. Koppel's Nightline, for all its lapses and signs of fatigue, was a source for some reliable information. We need all we can get, not less certainly and even more certainly, not the kind of cheerleading we got from Terry Moran last week.

Meanwhile, facts on the ground, the ultimate determinant, will continue to come out of Iraq no matter what the politicians say. As we write this, two days after the President's victory speech, the major news media report the detonation of an IED that killed 10 US marines and wounded another 11 in Fallujah, a city that cost the lives of so many others to "secure" just a short time ago.

Posted by dymaxion at 07:08 PM

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