Category Archives: Italy

Antonio Vivaldi

Antonio Vivaldi remains unrivalled for his gift of instant memorability and his knack of cutting straight through to the listener’s musical heart. Vivaldi manuscripts were must-have souvenirs for gentleman travellers visiting La Serenissima as part of the Grand Tour.

Antonio Vivaldi (1678 - 1741)
Antonio Vivaldi (1678 – 1741)

Venice is awash with string ensembles, bewigged or otherwise, playing Vivaldi. One group that stands out is Interpreti Veneziani.

Formed in 1987 and comprising nine members — 5 violinists, violist, cellist, bassist, and harpsichordist — the Interpreti Veneziani play over 300 concerts to approximately 70,000 listeners each year, most of them in the Chiesa San Vidal, a church where Vivaldi himself often played. The group’s repertoire includes not only an impressive number of works by Vivaldi and other Venetian composers, but also pieces by composers such as Bach, Mozart, Sarasate, Saint-Saens, and Bartok — all played with consummate virtuosity, sensitivity and humor, and without a wig in sight.

The 17th century Church of San Vidal provides fantastic acoustics for concertos and sinfonias and an intimate historic setting with exquisite paintings, such as that of St Vitale on Horseback by Vittore Carpaccio over the main altar.

Interpreti Veneziani in the Chiesa San Vidal
Interpreti Veneziani in the Chiesa San Vidal

We chose a concert that included The Four Seasons. When in Venice…

The details of Vivaldi’s life are surprisingly sketchy. Even extensive modern scholarship leaves many wide gaps in his whereabouts and activities. Biographies typically devote at most a few dozen pages to his career and the rest to his works. Indeed, only in 1962 was his birthdate determined from baptismal records to have been 1678; prior writers had placed it as early as 1669.

Vivaldi learned the violin from his father, a Venetian barber who played in the orchestra of San Marco cathedral. He was ordained in 1703 and, thanks to his flaming hair, became known as the Red Priest, but his ecclesiastical functions were forestalled by bronchial asthma, which denied him the stamina to say a complete mass. The next year he became a violin teacher at the Ospedale della Pietà, an orphanage for a thousand girls, of whom a few dozen received intensive musical training. In 1716, he became the music director.

Among his duties was to provide two concertos per month (even while he was away) for concerts given each Sunday by the school orchestra (in which, to the amazement of visitors, the students played all the instruments, rather than just the ones deemed suitable for ladies). Despite a bumpy relationship with the school administrators, Vivaldi enjoyed considerable freedom, not only to fill his compositions with whimsy and technical hurdles to challenge his students and display their artistry, but to travel extensively to fulfil commissions and to stage his operas. Although Vivaldi negotiated sizable fees for his work, he spent prolifically and died in poverty during a 1741 trip to Vienna, where he was given a pauper’s funeral.

The rediscovery – quite literally – of Vivaldi’s music began in the early 19th century, as a by-product of the renewed interest in the music of J.S. Bach. The pioneering Bach scholar J.S. Forkel referred in his 1802 biography to the German composer’s indebtedness to Vivaldi, and to his transcription for keyboard of his violin concertos. Over 20 Bach transcriptions were soon unearthed, including his concerto for four harpsichords and string orchestra. In 1850, over a century after Vivaldi’s death, the original work was identified by C.L. Hilgenfeldt as the tenth concerto of the Venetian composer’s Opus 3 – a concerto for four violins. Vivaldi, the composer, was on the map again, and the next 50 years saw the discovery of a good portion of the instrumental music. In 1905, a history of the concerto by Arnold Schering paid Vivaldi the compliment of him being the “exemplary for the shaping of the violin concerto” (in its three-movement, fast-slow-fast model).

It wasn’t until a 97-volume collection of manuscripts, owned by a Salesian monastery, came up for sale in 1926 that a broader representation of Vivaldi’s music was discovered. The collection was traced back to a Count Durazzo, who had purchased the lot from the Ospedale della Pietà, donated half to the monastery and passed the remainder to his heirs. Lawsuits overrode the Count’s will, which forbade publication, and private donations kept the scores intact and off the antiques market. Among them were a huge number of Vivaldi’s handwritten originals, including over 300 previously unknown works. Scholars delved through the treasure and were astounded by the unsuspected diversity and range. Since World War II, a burgeoning of biographies, catalogues, analyses, performances and recordings have led to a thorough re-evaluation of Vivaldi’s significance and a new understanding and appreciation of the scope of his art.

There have been further discoveries in subsequent decades, and the Vivaldi catalogue now lists over 500 concertos. 324 are for a single solo instrument (214 for violin, his favourite instrument), and the remainder are for multiple combinations or for orchestra without soloist.

As his first biographer Marc Pincerle noted, Vivaldi’s concerti fall into a general three-part pattern in which a majestic, vital opening and a rapid, playful finale are separated by a slow, lyrical movement of unprecedented depth, thus greatly extending the convention of the time of providing a brief, calming, functional interlude between the excitement of the outer movements. Pincherle suggests that the vitality, colour, rapidity, emotion and dramatic instinct of Vivaldi’s writing all anticipated the individualistic expression that ultimately would supplant formalism. Within his consistency of style, Vivaldi infused his work with constant variety, and although the violin was his favourite, he wrote concerti featuring nearly every instrument (other than the keyboard, curiously). Thus, Luigi Dellapiccola’s famous crack that Vivaldi didn’t write hundreds of concerti but only one concerto hundreds of times is true only in the most superficial sense and ignores the considerable invention of his work. Nowhere is this more evident than in The Four Seasons.

The Four Seasons is possibly the most popular classical piece of all time. There have been at least 200 recordings, and counting, and it continues to be irresistible to TV advertisers and mobile phone companies. It is piped promiscuously as telephone-hold music and into shopping malls from Buenos Aires to Bombay, and it has even infiltrated the American pop charts. Yet such is The Four Seasons’ picturesque charm and visceral energy that it has survived unscathed more than half a century of kitsch and commercialisation.

In 1725 in Amsterdam, Vivaldi published twelve violin concerti entitled Il Cimento dell’armonia e dell’inventione (literally translated, The Contest of Harmony and Invention). The first four were designated Le Quattro Staggioni (The Four Seasons). In his dedication, Vivaldi alludes to his patron having enjoyed them long ago and asks that they be accepted as if they were new, thus suggesting that they had been composed and performed much earlier.

While song and opera tie music closely to words, instrumental music at best reflects an abstract overall mood, but with The Four Seasons Vivaldi decisively bridged that gap. Each of the four concertos is prefaced by a sonnet (presumably written by the composer) full of allusions ripe for sonic depiction. Thus, the first greets Spring with a profusion of birds, the breath of gentle breezes, a murmuring stream, swaying plants, a goat herd lulled to sleep and shepherds holding a celebratory bagpipe dance. Summer brings torrid heat, buzzing insects and a violent storm. Fall brings a harvest celebration and a hunt and Winter chattering teeth, stamping feet, slipping on ice, shelter by an inside fire and, for a zesty conclusion, a howling windstorm.

Not only are the individual verses printed in the score alongside the music they are intended to depict, but Vivaldi adds further phrases (“the barking dog”, “the tears of the peasant boy”, “the drunkard”) to clarify specific allusions. His music depicts some rather literally (accurate imitations of specific bird calls and pizzicato raindrops) and others metaphorically (dissonance to underline a winter chill, rapid scales to portray swirling winds.) While all this may sound like a dry schematic for a sound effects track, it all fits musically and centuries later is still enthralling to hear and enjoy. While The Four Seasons may have originated as a routine assignment for his girls to play once, Vivaldi clearly poured his heart and soul into this work.

Vivaldi himself was reputed to be a daring, “freakish” technician; one of the few accounts of his playing predicted Paganini, by describing his fingers so close to the bridge that there was barely room for the bow. Scholars who have studied Vivaldi’s autograph scores note that the published versions are often simplified to encourage accessibility, thus suggesting that actual performances were more daring. They further assume that what appears to be tedious repetitive sequencing was enlivened with extemporized variety. Yet, these works were meant for girls in a convent to display their poise before well-heeled patrons, and what may have passed for wild abandon in its time could be quite mild by modern standards.

Nigel Kennedy became well known to most people through his ground-breaking interpretation of Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons, and his 1989 recording of it became one of the best selling classical albums of all time. Kennedy has made a career out of being an enfant terrible and defying the musical establishment. At least underneath his clowning is a huge talent. His unique talent and improvisational technique has done much to popularise classical music, particularly among young people. But his unconventional style has put off traditionalists. Known for stretching the boundaries of classical music, Kennedy espouses the need to take on new technical challenges – “If you’re playing within your capability, what’s the point?” he asks. “If you’re not pushing your own technique to its own limits with the risk that it might just crumble at any moment, then you’re not really doing your job.” He considers it part of his job to take risks musically. He could do that without the condescension he shows traditionalists. He claims he was never going to adhere to stereotypes, yet he has no trouble stereotyping others, and, worse, calling them names. All so he can project his carefully built image of rebel with a cause. Yehudi Menuhin is probably turning over in his grave.

Earlier this month, we attended the three-hour performance of The New Four Seasons at the Perth Concert Hall. Kennedy and his 11-piece orchestra performed their new interpretation of The Four Seasons plus dedications, straddling the baroque, Russian and Polish folk, as well as a unique and powerful take on the rock ‘n’ roll of Jimi Hendrix (at which point some people walked out. Truth be told, we would have as well, but there were too many people to get past!). A quarter century after recording Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons with the English Chamber Orchestra, this new acoustic, live version of the Italian composer’s violin concerti comes with all of Kennedy’s extraordinary skill, passion and on-stage clowning, and significantly less swearing. When you go to a Nigel Kennedy concert you know you’re not going to get period Vivaldi. During his first concert in Perth in March 2006, in Kings Park, the audience also didn’t get suitable language for a family friendly concert. Or so thought the people who complained after the concert about the frequent use of the f word. That might explain why he hasn’t come back to Perth for 11 years!

Nigel Kennedy and band
Nigel Kennedy and band

Limelight reviewed the concert.

Kennedy’s New Four Seasons takes Vivaldi’s concertos as a starting point for what becomes a kind of Baroque-jazz-folk-rock fusion. The violinist treated each movement like a jazz standard. The melodies and chord progressions of The Four Seasons are so familiar that – as with well-loved jazz chart – there’s pleasure to be had in surprising departures, novel approaches and a thrill of recognition as an unusual turn leads back to the head. Pawel Tomaszewski’s amplified piano and Kupiec’s bass give the music night-club feel over the growl of Ezmi Pepper’s cello in Summer, while broken guitar chords fill in for harpsichord. Tribal beats underpin droning bass-lines as Kennedy winds exotic improvisations over the top. In the faster passages he practically head-bangs to Vivaldi’s surging rhythms. Autumn opens with Kennedy strumming his violin like ukulele against a walking bass, jazz chords from the piano setting the stage for some wild blue-grass soloing, Kennedy not afraid to rough up the sound and get gritty. Kennedy playfully sprinkles his improvisations with references, dropping a fragment from Beethoven Five into the first movement and Jimi Hendrix’s Star Spangled Banner into the finale, in which his cadenza is almost an electric guitar solo. Kennedy breaks the cycle of The Four Seasons to squeeze in a lively tribute to Stéphane Grappelli – Grappelli’s upbeat blue-grass Swing 39 – before Dominic Kelly’s oboe solos kick off Winter, Kennedy showing he’s still got plenty of fiddle chops as he solos furiously in a series of fantasias on Vivaldi’s movements before a blistering finale. While this treatment of The Four Seasons might not be to everyone’s taste, the world will never lack for traditional servings, so it’s wonderfully refreshing to hear a fresh take on it. And though this rendition isn’t as heavy on electronic effects as Kennedy’s 2014 album (a 25th anniversary release of the 1989 album), the live energy of his performance is still convincing.

Nigel Kennedy
Nigel Kennedy

One of our favourite performances of The Four Seasons was by I Musici, Italy’s oldest chamber group, and also one of the most respected ensembles in existence today. Their 2015 visit to Brisbane was part of the 2015 Queensland Music Festival and the Queensland Performing Arts Centre’s 30th anniversary. An appreciative and enthusiastic audience received warmly the tight knit, twelve-part chamber group (who have, since their inception, existed without a conductor so as to ensure an egalitarian relationship among the twelve). I Musici’s performance of Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons was fresh, dynamic and brimming with energy. All this without any clowning.

I Musici
I Musici

Limelight reviewed this concert as well.

The first half of the concert included popular favourites from Vivaldi (Sinfonia in C Major) Rossini (Overture to The Barber of Seville), Mascagni (Intermezzo from Cavalleria Rusticana) and Verdi (opening Sinfonia Nabucco). Sinfonia in C Major was a fitting first work to establish from the outset the group’s precision, range, and stylistic purity. I Musici’s affinity as an ensemble was evident throughout, each group of instruments sounding as one rich voice. It was evident that lacking a conductor is no impediment when the members of a group are so attuned to one another; with frequent glances across the ensemble and absolute professionalism, I Musici demonstrated that unanimity on technical and interpretive questions is achievable amongst twelve individual musicians.

The second half of the concert was dedicated to I Musici’s performance of Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons. I Musici are credited with introducing 18th century Italian music to the world through their recordings of this piece, the first of which was made as early as 1955 (the group was established in 1951). Numerous recordings later, the group has a certain authority with regard to the work and delivering authentic performances of it. Hearing such a masterful performance of Vivaldi’s original work from I Musici served as a reminder that just because a piece of music has become somewhat ubiquitous does not mean that it cannot sound fresh, invigorating and incredibly alive, in a traditional performance.

The opening concerto, Spring, with its jaunty ritornello, is instantly recognizable, and I Musici’s performance was crisp and fresh. In the ensuing passage, reminiscent of birdsong, solo violinist Antonio Anselmi allowed the halting melody to follow its own natural rhythm, as opposed to slavishly observing the constant and continuous Baroque motor, conjuring a natural, idyllic sense. Some excellent work from the violas in the second movement before the dancing Allegro of the third movement brings the season to a close.

The beginning of Summer, in the minor key, was played languidly and liltingly, evoking images of woozy, drifting post-Spring celebrations. The tumultuous storm sequence in the third Presto movement featured some superb playing from Anselmi, and perfectly controlled accents and dynamics from all. The jolly Autumn opening movement featured dainty, light sections from first violin, cello and harpsichord, and the Allegro movement was powerful and triumphant.

The magnificent Winter concerto provided an excellent finish to a spectacular performance. Anselmi handled the frantic, virtuosic melodic solo line perfectly, without shying from the furious pace of the first movement. The beautiful Largo movement evoked images of warm fireplaces, and the final, frenzied Allegro maintained the groups energy to the last.

Taking stylistic liberties, but never to the point of indulgence, I Musici were true to both Baroque conventions and to the spirit of Vivaldi’s masterpiece, which sought to capture the ‘natural’ world in music. Sixty years after the release of their first recording, I Musici still play this famous suite of four concertos in a unique way, full of surprises in tone colour, tempo and ornamentation.

After four encores – three Vivaldi, one Donizettti – and a well-deserved standing ovation, the lights came up in the Concert Hall while the audience was still applauding.

Red Priest deliver a viscerally dramatic version of The Four Seasons. Since Vivaldi himself was “a maverick and a showman”, the members of the baroque ensemble Red Priest (Piers Adams, recorders; Julia Bishop, violin; Angela East, cello; and Howard Beach, harpsichord) choose to “cast aside the rulebook”. The result is refreshing. And for those wondering, the ensemble named itself after Vivaldi, who was a redhead and a priest.

Red Priest
Red Priest

Red Priest’s idiosyncratic approach is rooted in historic performance practice. The musicians merge a range of techniques, ornamentation, improvisation, articulation, bow strokes and vibrato to evoke a maximum amount of colour and make every nuance and emotion in the music larger than life. Baroque composers delighted in re-arranging music by others, quoting themes by earlier composers, or even themselves in making arrangements older works and material. Red Priest take this fluidity one step further by drawing unexpected parallels between composers from different countries and different schools to create unified concert experiences that are at once both theatrical and acutely musical. We have seen Red Priest in 2003 as part of their Musica Viva tour. They didn’t play The Four Seasons, but they played Vivaldi and Bach as part of a Baroque Fantasy concert and almost 14 years later we still remember vividly how much we enjoyed the concert.

Also in 2003, we heard Australian Brandenburg Orchestra’s authentic interpretation of The Four Seasons. This was no routine, run-of-the-mill performance. The most enduringly popular of all baroque concertos for the violin came across as if freshly minted but always within the line and contour of the 18th century. Superbly synchronised, soloist and orchestra were throughout pitted against each other in insightful ways. Many factors contribute to performance, not least technical finesse and stylistic integrity, both of which were present in abundance. Over and above these crucial factors, though, was a youthful exuberance, a shared enthusiasm that elevated whatever the ABO touched to impressive levels of achievement.

Australian Brandenburg Orchestra
Australian Brandenburg Orchestra

Vivaldi’s Four Seasons has undergone many reincarnations since it was first played by the talented orphans of the Ospedale della Pietà in 18th century Venice. In 2015, the Australian Chamber Orchestra
explored the musical connections between East and West, pairing Vivaldi’s Baroque masterpiece with original compositions by ARIA Award-winning oud virtuoso, Joseph Tawadros. The program notes for the concert quoted Islamic art specialist and Art Gallery of WA director Stefano Carboni’s book Venice and the Islamic World, 828-1797:

“The artistic consequences of the dynamic relationship that Venice forged with its Islamic trading partners, especially the Mamluks of Egypt and Syria, the Ottomans of Turkey, and the Safavids of Iran, were felt over nearly a thousand-year period. The same merchant galleys that carried spices, soap, cotton, and industrial supplies from the bazaars of the Islamic Near East to the markets of Venice also brought with them luxurious carpets, velvets, silks, glass, porcelain, gilded bookbindings, illustrated manuscripts, and inlaid metalwork. Not surprisingly, these and other portable works of Islamic art, which were often superior in quality to what was available in Europe, made an indelible impression upon artistic taste and production in Venice. From the medieval to the Baroque eras, Venetians acquired Islamic art and adapted and imitated its techniques. In turn, albeit to a lesser extent, the arts of Venice became of interest to the Islamic world.”

Australian Chamber Orchestra
Australian Chamber Orchestra

East-West connections were evident throughout the program, which kicked off with an antiphonal sonata for three violins by Gabrieli before alternating, in another form of antiphony, between Joe Tawadros’ Arabic traditional, rock, jazz and blues-inflected originals as orchestrated by Tognetti and the four concertos with comprise Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons. Richard Tognetti on violin, Joseph Tawadros on the oud and James Tawadros on the riq and the bendir (the former a tambourine like instrument, the latter resembling the Celtic bouro) formed the nucleus of a lineup of ten ACO string players with harpsichordist and organist Neal Peres Da Costa and lutenist and guitarist Tommie Andersson on continuo duties, that performed one of the most rhapsodic, lyrical, explosive and imaginative Four Seasons you’re ever likely to hear.

Joseph Tawadros
Joseph Tawadros

The classic pear-shape of Joe’s oud echoed the shape of Andersson’s theorbo, essentially a large lute, which instrument, and its name, is derived from the oud. Joe’s florid improvisations and elaborations of composed material echoed Tognetti’s stylish embellishments of Vivaldi’s solo-violin lines, which Joe sometimes doubled or ornamented. The driving rhythms, often underscored by James on the tambourine-like riq or bendir of Vivaldi’s sequences and hypnotic repetitions echoed Joe’s repeated bass lines and hypnotic harmonies.

More fundamentally human connections came to the fore in such works as Joe’s moving “farewell waltz” Point of Departure, written in memory of his parents, and in fleshing out the descriptive qualities of Vivaldi’s Seasons. In terms of sheer visceral virtuosity however, it was in the stormy outer movements of ‘Summer’ and the intense finale of ‘Winter’ that the whole band cut loose, with Tognetti’s and Joe Tawadros’s lightning-fast passages and improvisations taking instrumental technique to its very limits while James Tawadros and the rest of the band obliged with equally dazzling feats of ultra-tight ensemble playing. This was a Four Seasons for all seasons.

Shopping in Piazza San Marco

Shopping in Piazza San Marco

We arrived on a Friday morning and went shopping! Venice is a dream for shoppers, full of exquisite and irresistible boutiques selling everything from postcards to hand-made glassware from Murano. The most exclusive (and expensive) shops cluster around Piazza San Marco. In a palace on Calle Longa 4391/A, Pauly & Co offers a sophisticated collection of hats, glasses, furniture and marble objects. Their second shop in Piazza San Marco sells Murano glassware and that’s where we found this stunning Murano glass cherry necklace.

Shopping in Piazza San Marco

Pauly & Co, Piazza San Marco
Pauly & Co, Piazza San Marco

Murano Island is probably the most famous island of the venetian Lagoon, and it’s actually composed of seven minor islands. After repeated fires at the factories levelled parts of the city, the doge moved all glassmaking enterprises to the small island of Murano in 1291, creating what some call the world’s first industrial park. Besides containing the risk of fire, the move controlled comings and goings to ensure that rival empires did not pilfer talent or techniques.

Aerial view of Murano Island and Venetian lagoon
Aerial view of Murano Island and Venetian lagoon

Glassware has been around for millenniums — the Romans produced beautiful pieces — but the knowledge and techniques were eventually forgotten and lost in Europe during the Middle Ages. Its revival can be traced to the Republic of Venice’s trade with the Middle East, where glassmaking traditions had continued in Byzantium and the Muslim world. Through their trading partners, the Venetians learned the secrets of production and established a thriving industry that produced elegant blown glass and mirrors, which quickly became coveted symbols of style and status across Europe.

For over a thousand years, Piazza San Marco (St. Mark’s Square) has symbolised Venice’s wealth and power. In the heart of the city, the square has long been a meeting place, with its celebrated cafes and shops.

Piazza San Marco
Piazza San Marco with the bell tower of St. Mark’s Basilica

The we went to Il Papiro where I found a little book of photographs of Venice. It’s travel size for my convenience!

Shopping in Piazza San Marco

Il Papiro sells elegant and unique stationary materials – letterhead, postcards, delicate watermarked paper, monogrammed paper or cards, initial seals and so much more. It’s enough to tempt you to take up calligraphy!

Il Papiro
Il Papiro

Venetia Stvdivm has beautiful silk items – lamps, handbags and scarves, elegant velvet items – cushion covers and table runners, and other products influenced by the “history of Venice and its links to the Byzantium and the East”. We left the shop with three silk scarves and a velvet evening bag (still not used ten years later, but still very pretty!).

Shopping in Piazza San Marco

Venetia Stvdivm
Venetia Stvdivm
Venetia Stvdivm
Venetia Stvdivm

Piazza San Marco was constructed in the 9th century as a small square dotted with trees. The square was laid out in front of the original St. Mark’s Basilica, at the time a small chapel which was part of the Doge’s Palace. As the largest square in the city and the only one given the designation of “piazza” (the others are all referred to as “campi”), Piazza San Marco has always been the location of important government buildings and other facilities central to the goings on in Venice.

The centrepiece of the piazza is the magnificent St. Mark’s Basilica. Commissioned in 1071 by doge Domenico Contarini, this amazing church is built in Venetian-Byzantine style, a mixture of western and eastern styles. Nicknamed Chiesa d’Oro (Church of Gold) because of its opulence, it has been the seat of the Patriarch of Venice, archbishop of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Venice, since 1807. The basilica has a separate campanile – bell tower – that stands 98.6 meters tall and is one of the city’s most recognizable landmarks. Originally built in the 9th century, the current version was rebuilt in 1912 after the original tower collapsed in 1902.

View of Piazza San Marco and Campanile from
View of Piazza San Marco and Campanile from tower of Chiesa di San Giorgio Maggiore

With its Byzantine domes and 8500 square metres of luminous mosaics, Venice’s basilica is an unforgettable sight. It dates to the 9th century when, according to legend, two merchants smuggled the corpse of St Mark out of Egypt in a barrel of pork fat. While at sea, a storm almost drowned the grave robbers and their precious cargo. According to legend, St. Mark himself appeared to the captain and told him to lower the sails. The ship was saved, and the merchants said they owed their safety to the miracle. The entire story is pictured on the 13th century mosaic above the left door as you enter the basilica.

Stinky
Stinky barrel of pork fat!
St Mark's Basilica
St Mark’s Basilica

When the original burnt down in 932, Venice rebuilt the basilica in its own cosmopolitan image, with Byzantine domes, a Greek cross layout and walls clad in marbles from Syria, Egypt and Palestine.

The front of the basilica ripples and crests like a wave, its five niched portals capped with shimmering mosaics and frothy stonework arches. Grand entrances are made through the central portal, under an ornate triple arch with Egyptian purple porphyry columns and 13th to 14th century reliefs of vines, virtues and astrological signs.

St Mark's Basilica
St Mark’s Basilica

Blinking is natural upon your first glimpse of the basilica’s glittering mosaics, many made with 24-carat gold leaf fused onto the back of the glass to represent divine light. Just inside the vestibule are the basilica’s oldest mosaics: Apostles with the Madonna, standing sentry by the main door for more than 950 years. Mystical transfusions occur in the Dome of the Holy Spirit, where a dove’s blood streams onto the heads of saints. In the central 13th century Cupola of the Ascension, angels swirl overhead while dreamy-eyed St. Mark rests on the pendentive. Scenes from St. Mark’s life unfold over the main altar, in vaults flanking the Dome of the Prophets.

St. Mark's Basilica aka Chiesa d'oro
St. Mark’s Basilica aka Chiesa d’Oro
Mosaics in St. Mark's Basilica
Mosaics in St. Mark’s Basilica

Pala d’Oro is the gold altarpiece studded with 2000 emeralds, amethysts, sapphires, rubies, pearls and other gemstones. It houses the sarcophagus of St. Mark’s and is guarded by wide-eyed saints in vibrant cloisonné, begun in Constantinople in 976 and elaborated by Venetian goldsmiths in 1209. Other holy bones and booty from the Crusades fill the Tesoro; while ducal treasures on show in the museum would put a king’s ransom to shame. A highlight is the Quadriga of St. Mark’s, a group of four bronze horses originally plundered from Constantinople and later carted off to Paris by Napoleon before being returned to the basilica and installed in the first floor gallery. Portals lead from the gallery on to the Loggia dei Cavalli, where reproductions of the horses gallop off the balcony over Piazza San Marco.

Pala d'Oro in St. Mark's Basilica
Pala d’Oro in St. Mark’s Basilica
Horses
Loggia dei Cavalli

The other dominant building in Piazza San Marco is Palazzo Ducale (Doge’s Palace). A beautiful Gothic structure, it faces the Venetian lagoon and was completed in the early fifteenth century, though portions of it were rebuilt after a fire in 1574.

View of Palazzo Ducale from
View of Palazzo Ducale from tower of Chiesa di San Giorgio Maggiore
Palazzo Ducale
Palazzo Ducale

Palazzo Ducale was the Doge’s official residence from the 9th century, and seat of the Venetian Republic’s government (and prisons) for nearly seven centuries. The intricate Byzantine and Gothic design, along with St Mark’s Basilica’s imposing campanile, was intended to strike awe into visitors as they approached the city from across the Lagoon.

The Doge’s Apartments are on the first floor, but it’s the lavishly decorated second floor chambers that are the real highlight. These culminate in the echoing Sala del Maggior Consiglio (Grand Council Hall), home to the Doge’s throne and a 22m-by-7m Paradise painting by Tintoretto’s son Domenico.

After fire gutted the original palace in 1577, Venice considered Palladio’s offer to build one of his signature neoclassical temples in its place. Instead, Antonio da Ponte won the commission to restore the palace’s Gothic façade with white Istrian stone and Veronese pink marble. Da Ponte’s palazzo effortlessly mixes past with present and business with pleasure, capping a graceful colonnade with medieval capitals depicting key Venetian guilds.

Scala dei Censori (Stairs of the Censors) go up to the Doge’s Apartments on the first floor. The 18 roaring lions decorating the doge’s Sala degli Stucci are reminders that Venice’s most powerful figurehead lived like a caged lion in his gilded suite, which he could not leave without permission. Still, consider the real estate: a terrace garden with private entry to the basilica, and a dozen salons with splendidly restored marble fireplaces carved by Tullio and Antonio Lombardo. The Sala del Scudo (Shield Room) is covered with world maps that reveal the extents of Venetian power c. 1483 and 1762.

Palazzo Ducale, Scala dei Censori
Palazzo Ducale, Scala dei Censori
Palazzo Ducale, Sala dello Scudo
Palazzo Ducale, Sala dello Scudo

Sansovino’s 24-carat gilt stuccowork Scala d’Oro (Golden Staircase) goes up to the second floor rooms. In the Palladio-designed Sala delle Quattro Porte (Hall of the Four Doors), ambassadors awaited ducal audiences under a lavish display of Venice’s virtues by Giovanni Cambi, Titian and Tiepolo.

Palazzo Ducale, Scala d'Oro
Palazzo Ducale, Scala d’Oro
Palazzo Ducale, Sala delle Quattro Porte
Palazzo Ducale, Sala delle Quattro Porte

Few were granted an audience in the Palladio-designed Collegio (Council Room), where Veronese’s 1575–78 Virtues of the Republic ceiling shows Venice as a bewitching blonde waving her sceptre like a wand over Justice and Peace. Father-son team Jacopo and Domenico Tintoretto attempt similar flattery, showing Venice keeping company with Apollo, Mars and Mercury in their Triumph of Venice ceiling for the Sala del Senato (Senate Hall).

Palazzo Ducale, Collegio
Palazzo Ducale, Collegio
Palazzo Ducale, Sala del Senato
Palazzo Ducale, Sala del Senato

Government cover-ups were never so appealing as in the Sala Consiglio dei Dieci (Trial Chambers of the Council of Ten), where Venice’s star chamber plotted under Veronese’s Juno Bestowing Her Gifts on Venice, a glowing goddess strewing gold ducats. Over the slot where anonymous treason accusations were slipped into the Sala della Bussola (Compass Room) is his St Mark in Glory ceiling.

Palazzo Ducale, Sala Consiglio dei Dieci
Palazzo Ducale, Sala Consiglio dei Dieci

The cavernous 1419 Sala del Maggior Consiglio (Grand Council Hall) provides the setting for Domenico Tintoretto’s swirling Paradise, a work that’s more politically correct than pretty: heaven is crammed with 500 prominent Venetians, including several Tintoretto patrons. Veronese’s political posturing is more elegant in his oval Apotheosis of Venice ceiling, where gods marvel at Venice’s coronation by angels, with foreign dignitaries and Venetian blondes rubbernecking on the balcony below.

Palazzo Ducale, Sala
Palazzo Ducale, Sala del Maggior Consiglio
Palazzo Ducale, Sala del Maggior Consiglio, Paradise
Palazzo Ducale, Sala del Maggior Consiglio, Paradise
Palazzo Ducale, Sala del Maggior Consiglio,
Palazzo Ducale, Sala del Maggior Consiglio, Apotheosis of Venice

One of the most notorious trademarks of Venice is the Bridge of Sighs, suspended over the Rio di Palazzo (Palace River). The bridge was designed by Antonio Contino in 1602 to connect the Doge’s Palace to the New Prison. According to legend, the enclosed bridge derives its name from the sighs of convicted criminals, catching a last glimpse of Venice through the windows as they were led to captivity. It was immortalised by Byron in his poem Childe Harold, where he writes, “I stood in Venice on the Bridge of Sighs/ A palace and prison on each hand”.

Palazzo Ducale, Bridge of Sighs
Palazzo Ducale, Bridge of Sighs
Venice, 10 November 2007
Venice, 10 November 2007

It’s time for cupcakes!

Shopping in Piazza San Marco

Shopping in Piazza San Marco

The Genius of Venice

The seafaring republic borrowed from cultures far and wide but ultimately created a city that was perfectly unique.

The Genius of Venice

In the Correr Museum at the end of St. Mark’s Square, there’s a spectacular city map. It was produced in 1500 by Jacopo de’Barbari to celebrate the half millennium and the glory of Venice. At nearly three meters (ten feet) long, printed from six giant woodblocks on sheets of paper of unprecedented size, it was also an advertisement for Venice’s supremacy in the newfangled art of printing. The method behind its perspective was equally ingenious: Barbari had surveyed the city from the tops of bell towers to portray it in bird’s-eye view as if from a great height. Houses, churches, ships, the S-shaped meander of the Grand Canal — everything is laid out in magisterial detail, and the whole scene is watched over by Mercury and Neptune, the gods of commerce and the sea.

Photo of Jacopo de' Barbari's woodcut, the Map of Venice.  Google Art Project
Photo of Jacopo de’Barbari’s woodcut, “Grande Pianta Prospettica” (Map of Venice), a circa 1500 map of Venice unusual for its bird’s-eye vantage
Google Art Project

The Barbari map projects the image of a blessed place. Venice appears to be immortal, its greatness ordained in the classical past, its effortless wealth resting on a mastery of trade and navigation. This was very much how it struck visitors at the time. When the French ambassador, Philippe de Commynes, arrived in 1494, he was plainly astonished. To float down the Grand Canal past the grand palazzi of the merchant princes, such as the Ca’ d’Oro shimmering in its covering of gold leaf, was to be witness to an extraordinary drama of activity, colour and light. “I saw 400-ton vessels pass close by the houses that border a canal, which I hold to be the most beautiful street,” he wrote. To attend Mass in St. Mark’s Basilica or observe one of the splendid ceremonies of the Venetian year — the marriage of the sea on Ascension Day, the inauguration of a doge or the appointment of an admiral, the parading of captured war trophies, the great processions around St. Mark’s Square — these theatrical displays seemed like manifestations of a state that was uniquely favoured. “I have never seen a city so triumphant,” declared Commynes. Our modern reaction on sighting Venice for the first time is almost identical, no matter how many prior images we’ve been exposed to. We are also astonished.

Yet the story Venice told about itself, the story behind the map, was a creative invention, like the city itself. It claimed the preordained patronage of St. Mark, but it had no connection with early Christianity nor any link with the classical past. Venice was comparatively new. It was the only city in Italy not to have existed in Roman times. People probably fled into the Venetian lagoon to escape the chaos of the empire’s collapse. Its rise from a muddy marsh to a miraculously free republic of unequalled prosperity was not the gravity-defying marvel it appeared. It was the result of centuries of self-disciplined effort by a hard-headed, practical people.

The original genius of Venice lay in its physical construction. Painstakingly reclaiming marshland, stabilizing islands by sinking oak piles in the mud, draining basins and repairing canals, maintaining barriers against the threatening sea: All required ingenuity and high levels of group cooperation. The ever shifting lagoon not only shaped the city but also gave rise to a unique society and way of life. Beyond the fish and salt of the lagoon, Venice could produce nothing. Without land, there could be no feudal system, no knights and serfs, so there was a measure of equality. Without agriculture, seafaring and trade were its only options, so the Venetians had to be merchants and sailors. They were literally all in the same boat.

Neptune rides a sea monster in a detail from Jacopo de’Barbari’s “Grande Pianta Prospettica,” a circa 1500 map of Venice unusual for its bird’s-eye vantage.
Neptune rides a sea monster, detail from Jacopo de’Barbari’s “Grande Pianta Prospettica”

From the start, building and living on a marsh required original solutions. Houses raised on wooden pontoons had to be lightweight and flexible. The brick or stone facades of even the great palazzi are a thin skin, the bricks supporting the roofs are hollow, the floors constructed of an elastic mixture of mortar and shards of stone or marble. Equally challenging was the provision of drinking water. One of the many paradoxes of living in this unpromising place was its absence. “Venice is in the water but has no water,” it used to be said. The ornate wellheads that you can find in almost any campo conceal a complex scheme for water collection. Beneath the square a substantial clay-lined cistern was constructed, connected to an immense network of pipes and gutters that fed rainwater off the roofs and hard surfaces, through a sand filtration system and into the well. By the early 14th century, a hundred thousand people depended on these wells; at Venice’s height, more than 200,000.

The ingenuity involved in building the city’s infrastructure may be hidden from view, but it’s as original as anything else the Venetians created. Even so, the wells were never sufficient. In the summer months, flotillas of boats plied back and forth bringing freshwater from the mainland. If we are startled now by the array of vessels shuttling about, the formerly absolute dependence on shipping has been reduced by the causeway that connects Venice to the rest of Italy. You have to look at Canaletto’s paintings to get any sense of Venice’s historical relationship with the sea. They depict a world of masts and spars, barrels and sails, ship repair yards and literally thousands of vessels, from tiny skiffs and gondolas to large sailing vessels and oared galleys. Embarkation was a central metaphor of the city’s life, frequently repeated in art. The walls of the Doges’ Palace, the very centre of the state, are embellished with colossal paintings depicting the city’s maritime victories, maps of the oceans and allegorical representations of Neptune offering Venice the wealth of the sea.

Sailing was Venice’s lifeblood. Everything that people bought, sold, built, ate, or made came in a ship: the fish and the salt, the marble, the weapons, the oak palings, the looted relics and the old gold; Barbari’s woodblocks and Titian’s paint; the ore to be forged into anchors and nails, the stone for palaces on the Grand Canal, the fruit, the wheat, the meat, the timber for oars and the hemp for rope. Ships brought people too: visiting merchants, pilgrims, tourists, emperors and popes. Because maritime supply was critical to survival, the Venetian Republic was obsessively attentive to detail and engineered revolutionary construction and management techniques.

The hub of all maritime activity was the state arsenal. To stand outside its magnificent front gate, embellished with an array of lions, is to behold one of the wonders of the Middle Ages. By 1500, the 60-acre site enclosed by high brick walls was the largest industrial complex in the world. Here the Venetians built and repaired everything necessary for maritime trade and war. Along with turning out merchant ships and war galleys, the arsenal produced ropes, sails, gunpowder, oars, weapons and cannons by methods that were hundreds of years ahead of their time. The Venetians analysed every stage of the manufacturing process and broke it down into a prototype of assembly-line construction. Galleys were built in kit form by craftsmen who specialized in the individual components, so that in times of crisis ships could be put together at lightning speed. To impress the visiting French King Henry III in 1574, the arsenal workers assembled a complete galley during the length of a banquet.

Canaletto's talented student Michele Marieschi painted the arsenal, Venice’s 60-acre armory and site of most Venetian merchant shipbuilding.
Canaletto’s talented student Michele Marieschi painted the arsenal, Venice’s 60-acre armoury and site of most Venetian merchant shipbuilding

Their concern for quality control was similarly cutting-edge. All work was subject to rigorous inspection; ropes were colour tagged according to their intended use; every ship had a specified carrying capacity with a load line marked on its side, a forerunner of the Plimsoll mark. This care was a function of the city’s deep understanding of the demands of the sea. A vessel, its crew and thousands of ducats of valuable merchandise could founder on shoddy work. For all its visual splendour, Venice was a sober place. Its survival ultimately depended on practical materials—wood, iron, rope, sails, rudders and oars—and it made unconditional demands. Caulkers should be held accountable for split seams, carpenters for snapped masts. Poor work was punishable by dismissal.

If Venice seems unique, it was the wide area of its maritime trade that allowed it to be so. This most original of cities is paradoxically a treasure trove of borrowings. Along with obtaining food and merchandise, the Venetians acquired from overseas architectural styles and consumer tastes, the relics of saints and industrial techniques. They spirited the bones of St. Mark away from Alexandria, hidden from the gaze of Muslim customs officials in a barrel of pork, and made him their protector. Out of such imported elements they conjured a city of fantasy, complete with its legends, saints and mythology. Gothic arches, orientalist domes and Byzantine mosaics carry reminders of other places — Bruges, Cairo, or Constantinople — but ultimately Venice is itself.

No place expresses this alchemy so strongly as St. Mark’s Basilica. It’s a rich assortment of artistic elements, many stolen during the notorious Fourth Crusade that set out to retake Jerusalem and ended up sacking and plundering Christian Constantinople. The building is modelled on that city’s great churches but embeds an assemblage of visual styles. The domes feel Islamic; the façade is studded with columns from Syria; there’s a quaint statue of four small Roman emperors on one corner; the horses (now only replicas) that once graced the Constantinople hippodrome paw the soft lagoon air as reinvented symbols of Venetian freedom.

Old Master painter Canaletto immortalized St. Mark’s Square and other early 18th-century Venetian scenes with his detailed oil landscapes, known as vedute.
Old Master painter Canaletto immortalized St. Mark’s Square and other early 18th century Venetian scenes with his detailed oil landscapes, known as vedute

The two pillars nearby that greet visitors at the waterfront are equally extraordinary concoctions. The columns are of granite from the Middle East, crowned with capitals in a Byzantine style. On the top of one is the figure of St. Theodore, fashioned from a classical Greek head joined to a slightly newer Roman torso, with his feet on a crocodile sculpted in Venice in the 14th century. On the adjacent column, the immense lion, weighing three tons, may be of ancient Middle Eastern or even Chinese origin. The wings were most likely added in Venice and an open Bible inserted between its paws to create that most potent symbol of Venetian power: the lion of St. Mark. The Venetian genius was to transform what its traders and merchants imported from far and wide into something expressly its own, with the purpose of advancing “honour and profit”, as city fathers liked to put it. The Venetians were particularly active in the theft or purchase of holy relics from across the eastern Mediterranean. These conferred respect on the city and attracted pious tourists. So plentiful was this collection that at times they forgot what they had. The American historian Kenneth Setton discovered “the head of St. George” in a church cupboard in 1971.

Many of the innovations that revolutionized Venice’s trade and industry also had their origins elsewhere. Gold currency, marine charts, insurance contracts, the use of the stern rudder, public mechanical clocks, double-entry bookkeeping — all were in use in Genoa first. Printing came from Germany. The manufacture of soap, glass, silk and paper, and the production of sugar in Venetian Cyprus were learned from the Middle East. It was the use to which they were put that set Venice apart. In the case of silk manufacture, the city acquired raw silk and dyes through its unique trading links and encouraged the immigration of skilled workers from the mainland city of Lucca, which had an initial lead in the industry. From this base, it developed a novel trade in luxury silk fabrics that it exported back to the East — to the silk’s point of origin.

The city’s advantage was its access to these raw materials from across the world. Its genius was to master technical skills and exploit their economic potential. Glass manufacture on the island of Murano — still one of the most celebrated artisanal skills — is a supreme example. The know-how and ingredients were imported. Production began with window glass and everyday utensils; in time, through skilful innovation, the glassmakers developed a high-end business. Venice became famous for enamelled and exotic coloured ware and glass beads. The glassmakers revolutionized the mirror industry with the introduction of crystalline glass, and they produced eyeglasses (another outside invention) and fine chandeliers. State management and monopoly were the keys to industrial development. Glassmaking was tightly regulated and trade secrets jealously guarded. Its workers were forbidden to emigrate; those absconding risked having their right hands cut off or being hunted down and killed. Venetian glass came to dominate the European market for nearly two centuries and was exported all the way to China.

Even more dramatic was the development of printing. The city was not particularly noted as a centre of learning, but it attracted skilled German printers and foreign capital. Within half a century of printing’s introduction into Europe, Venice had almost cornered the market. The city’s printers developed innovative presses and woodcut techniques. They published the classics, in Greek as well as Latin, with texts prepared by the scholars of the day; they saw the potential for printed sheet music and illustrated medical texts. And they improved reader experience: Aldus Manutius and his descendants invented punctuation and italic type, and they designed elegant typefaces. Sensing a desire for both fine editions and affordable reading, they anticipated the paperback by 500 years, quickly following up initial publication with cheaper pocketbook versions in innovative bindings. Print runs soared. By 1500, there were more than a hundred print shops in Venice; they produced a million books in two decades and put a rocket under the spread of Renaissance learning. All of Europe turned to Venice for books as it did for mirrors, woven silk, fine metalwork and spices.

It was in the streets around the Rialto Bridge — now stone, once wood — that the fullest expression of Venice’s commercial skill could be appreciated. Today, the area is still a hubbub: the water alive with boats; the bridge thronged with people; the fish and vegetable markets a colourful swirl of activity. At its height it was astonishing.

Detail of Vittore Carpaccio’s painting “Miracle of the Relic of the True Cross on the Rialto Bridge" shows inclined ramps on the original wooden bridge circa 1496
Detail of Vittore Carpaccio’s painting “Miracle of the Relic of the True Cross on the Rialto Bridge” shows inclined ramps on the original wooden bridge circa 1496

Goods arriving at the customs house on the point opposite the Doges’ Palace were transshipped up the Grand Canal and unloaded here. The Rialto, situated at the midpoint of the canal, was the centre of the whole commercial system. This meeting point became the axis and turntable of world trade. It was, as the diarist Marino Sanudo put it, “the richest place on Earth.”

The abundance dazzled and confounded. It seemed as if everything that the world might contain was landed here, bought and sold, or repackaged and re-embarked for sale somewhere else. The Rialto, like a distorted reflection of Aleppo, Damascus, or medieval Baghdad, was the souk of the world. There were quays for unloading bulk items: oil, coal, wine, iron; warehouses for flour and timber; bales and barrels and sacks that seemed to contain everything—carpets, silk, ginger, frankincense, furs, fruit, cotton, pepper, glass, fish, flowers.

The water was jammed with barges and gondolas; the quays thronged by boatmen, merchants, porters, customs officials, thieves, pickpockets, prostitutes and pilgrims; the whole scene a spectacle of chaotic unloading, shouting, hefting and petty theft.

In the nearby square of San Giacomo, under the gaze of its enormous clock, the bankers conducted business in long ledgers. Unlike the bawl of the retail markets, everything was undertaken demurely in a low voice, without disputes or noise, as befitted the honour of Venice. In the loggia opposite, they had a painted map of the world, as if to confirm that all its goods might be concentrated here. The square was the centre of international trade. To be banned from it was to be excluded from commercial life. Around lay the streets of specialist activities: marine insurance, gold smithing, jewellery.

It was the sensuous exuberance of physical stuff, the evidence of plenty that overwhelmed visitors to the quarter. It hit them like a physical shock. “So many cloths of every make,” wrote one amazed onlooker, “so many warehouses full of spices, groceries, and drugs, and so much beautiful white wax! These things stupefy the beholder … Here wealth flows like water in a fountain.” It was as if, on top of everything else, the Venetians had invented consumer desire.

But perhaps the most radical invention of the Venetian spirit was the creation of a state and society focused entirely on economic goals. Its three centres of power, the Doges’ Palace, the Rialto and the arsenal — the seats of government, trade and shipping — were situated so close together they were almost within shouting distance. They worked in partnership. Outsiders were particularly impressed by the good order of St. Mark’s Republic. It seemed like the model of wise government—a system free from tyranny where people were bound together in a spirit of cooperation. They were led by a doge whom they elected through a complex voting system designed to prevent vote rigging, then shackled with restraints. He was forbidden to leave Venetian territory or to receive gifts more substantial than a pot of herbs. The aim was political stability for a common end: the pursuit of business.

Trading was hardwired into the Venetian psyche. “We cannot live otherwise and know not how except by trade,” the city fathers wrote in a petition to a pope to lift a ban on trading with the Islamic world. Venetians hailed the man of business as a new kind of hero. Everyone traded: doges, artisans, women, servants, priests. Anyone with a little cash could lend it on a merchant venture. There was no merchant guild in the city. Everyone was a merchant and sold whatever people would buy and to whomsoever: Indian pepper to England and Flanders; Cotswold wool and Russian furs to the Mamluks of Cairo; Syrian cotton to the burghers of Germany; Chinese silk to the mistresses of Medici bankers and Cyprus sugar for their food; Murano glass for the mosque lamps of Aleppo; war materials to Islamic states. Merchants were frequently lambasted for their commercial ethics. There was even a trade in ground-up mummies from Egypt’s Valley of the Kings, sold as medicinal cures, and around 1420 the Venetians spotted a market in carrying pilgrims to the Holy Land and launched the first all-inclusive “package cruises.

The Venetians possessed a precocious grasp of economic laws. Following Genoa’s lead, they created a stable currency, the ducat, three and a half grams of pure gold. It became the dollar of its day, recognized and valued all the way to India, and retained its integrity for 500 years. They understood the need for rational taxation, disciplined and long-term policies and just-in-time delivery, ensuring their merchant convoys delivered goods on schedule for the great trade fairs that attracted buyers across Europe. And they lived with an unusually acute sense of time.

Venice’s public timepieces — the ornate clock tower in St. Mark’s Square, the merchant’s clock in San Giacomo’s — were both prestige statements and working tools. They set the pattern of the daily round; the ringing of the Marangona, the carpenter’s bell, from the campanile in St. Mark’s Square called the shipwrights to their tasks; auctions were conducted on the life of a candle. Time itself was a commodity. It could make the difference between profit and loss, riches and ruin. Venetian people counted carefully the dates for repaying debts, for the return of the spice fleets from Alexandria and Beirut, for trade fairs, festivals and religious processions.

The Venice of 1500 was almost the first virtual economy, an offshore bonded warehouse with no visible means of support. It rested on an abstract: money. The lion of St. Mark was its corporate logo. It’s all somehow shockingly modern. And yet, as visitors, we don’t perceive this. In quiet back alleys beside still canals, you can lose all sense of time; you feel you might slip between centuries and come out in some other age. And returning from the Lido on a vaporetto, Venice appears hazily in the distance, with the angel Gabriel gleaming golden from the summit of the campanile. It seems an unfeasible mirage. You have to rub your eyes and look twice.

From the Smithsonian Travel Journeys.

Teatro La Fenice – The Phoenix

You say you went there?

Teatro La Fenice

We did, we went to a chamber music concert with Leonidas Kavakos and Dénes Várjon.

Teatro La Fenice

After three days in Milano and the opera at La Scala, we arrived in Venezia on a Friday morning, wondering if we had to paddle across San Marco square. We spent the time on the Eurostar reading our chosen travel guide and it was warning us about the aqua alta (high water), the result of a combination tides and high winds which cause the Venetian canals to flood. They were recommending high boots!

We arrived to discover we could get by without any boots, and, far more importantly, that there was a chamber music concert at Teatro La Fenice on Monday night. We got a map from the hotel and some directions – apparently it was a straight line all the way to Piazza San Marco.

I still can’t find the straight line! But we found the theatre and got the tickets.

Teatro La Fenice

Greek violinist Leonidas Kavakos and Hungarian pianist Dénes Várjon (on pianoforte for the performance), added flair to the works of Beethoven (Sonata No. 2 in A major, Op. 12, n. 2 for violin and piano), Brahms (Sonata in G major, Op. 78 for violin and piano), Szymanowski (Myths for violin and piano, op. 30) and Stravinsky (Divertimento for violin and piano).

Leonidas Kavakos and Dénes Várjon
Leonidas Kavakos and Dénes Várjon

Teatro La Fenice has truly lived up to its name, rising from the ashes twice since it was first built in 1792.

Facade of La Fenice in 2007
Facade of La Fenice in 2007

Venice’s association with opera extends back to the very origins of the art form. More importantly, as a republic, Venice was the location of the first public opera house – the first opera house open to the public, rather than being solely for royal or noble audiences – the Teatro Tron in the parish of San Cassiano, which opened in 1637. The tradition and the many theatres that followed put Venice on the operatic map.

In 1752, the Teatro San Benedetto was constructed and it soon became the premier theatre of opera seria in Venice. Comic operas were performed in the city’s other theatres. The Teatro San Benedetto burned to the ground in 1774 and was rebuilt, but in 1787, after a lawsuit, the ownership of the theatre had to be ceded to the owners of the site on which it was built. The new owners quickly raised the capital to build a brand new theatre, the Teatro La Fenice. A competition was announced in November 1789 (as soon as a way around the sumptuary law limiting the number of theatres in Venice to seven had been found 🙂 ). Twenty-eight entries were received and the new theatre promptly began under the direction of winning architect Gian Antonio Selva. The area was cleared in April 1790 and the theatre completed in April 1792, ready for its inauguration in May.

The decoration drew much praise, especially the painted ceiling that depicted the sky and genii. There were two curtains: the first, by Francesco Fontanesi, showed Harmony in a coach drawn by two swans, Venus and Cupid, and three Graces. Personifications of the Arts followed the coach. This curtain was raised at the beginning of the evening and fell at the end. The other curtain was used for the intervals between acts and was by Pietro Gonzaga. It depicted a rotunda with statues of the most famous Greek poets surrounded by priests, the Muses and genii. It was a most effective illusion and caused “admiration and delight”. The foyer was also decorated with frescoes and stucco work. The decoration is generally assigned to the Bolognese School, since the specific details of who was responsible for that were not recorded.

Interior of first theatre, 1829
Interior of first theatre, 1829

Teatro La Fenice soon became the theatre of Venice. It saw opera by Simon Mayr, Giovanni Paisiello, Domenico Cimarosa, and several other important opera composers of the day. Napoleon Bonaparte visited the theatre in 1807, and for the occasion Selva created a temporary imperial box (there being no royal box in the initial design). The interior was also redecorated after the visit, and another competition – this time to design a permanent imperial box – was held. The winning concept was Apollo on a coach surrounded by the Muses. This decoration was completed in time for the 1808 season and the new box became the focal point of the auditorium. These decorations did not last and new scenes were painted in 1828. A chandelier also became a feature of the auditorium at this time.

There have been too many famous operas premiered at Teatro La Fenice to count. Rossini’s first opera there was Tancredi and the theatre also saw the premieres of his Sigismondo and Semiramide. Teatro La Fenice produced the premiere of Giacomo Meyerbeer’s Il crociato in Egitto, the last opera for which a castrato lead was written – Armando for Giovanni Battista Velluti, the last castrato to appear on the operatic stage.

The other theatres in Venice could not compete with the popularity of Teatro La Fenice and turned to the one-act farse that Teatro La Fenice for the most part shunned. Most of these smaller theatres did not survive the 19th century.

During the Napoleonic era and long after it, Venice fell under foreign control: Austrian, French and Austrian again. Despite the political upheaval, Teatro La Fenice remained one of the most important theatres in Italy. The company that owned it elected three presidents for three-year terms. Sometimes the theatre was run without impresarios, and sometimes with these charismatic men at the helm. Verdi negotiated directly with the theatre’s president during the production of Ernani and again for Rigoletto and La Traviata, rather than with the impressario. When Alessandro Lanari was the impresario at Teatro La Fenice in the early 19th century, he was given greater freedoms and managed to secure two Bellini premieres, two Donizetti premieres and one by Verdi.

In December 1836, the theatre burned down because of a recently installed Austrian stove. The fire burned for three days and nights, and smoldering fragments were found 18 days later. The season that year was transferred to the Teatro di Apollo. Teatro La Fenice was rebuilt mostly according to its original plans by the Meduna brothers, and the theatre was ready for the opening of the 1837 season. Its decorations were again redesigned, this time by Tranquillo Orsi. The ceiling was now painted with interweaving plants from a central rosette by Sebastiano Santi and Luigi Zandomeneghi. These decorations divided critics: some declared them perfect, while others lamented that the theatre lacked an imposing beauty that the space itself required. More redecorations occurred in 1854. All of these combined various Neoclassical, Baroque and Rococo elements, which some considered successful while others did not.

Interior of La Fenice in 1837
Interior of La Fenice in 1837

The Venetian opera season usually coincided with Carnival, beginning on December 26 and running until Shrove Tuesday. In 1837, Teatro La Fenice reopened with Giuseppe Lillo’s Rosmunda in Ravenna. This work was chosen to avoid rivalry between Donizetti and Saverio Mercadante. Verdi’s association with La Fenice began in 1844, with the premiere performance of Ernani during the carnival season. Over the next thirteen years, the premieres of Attila, Rigoletto, La traviata and Simon Boccanegra took place there. In 1859, when the Treaty of Villafranca ceded the Veneto region to Austria, the owners decided to close Teatro La Fenice until that situation changed. It reopened in October 1866, when Veneto was reunited with Italy.

The economic difficulties of Italy in the second half of the 19th century meant that the quality of operatic productions declined. However, in 1883, just two months after Richard Wagner had died in Venice, Teatro La Fenice was the first Italian theatre to produce Wagner’s Ring cycle.

The new generation of Italian composers after Verdi (Pietro Mascagni, Ruggero Leoncavallo, Umberto Giordano, Alfredo Catalani, Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari, Giancomo Puccini and Gian Francesco Malipiero) essentially passed by Teatro La Fenice. Only Leoncavallo’s La boheme and Mascagni’s Isabeau had their Italian premieres there.

The theatre was closed during World War I. In 1937, restoration work mainly involved changes to the foyer and upper rooms; the only alteration to the auditorium was the entrance to the stalls. After World War II, Venice once again became an important city. Its Festival of Contemporary Music saw the reemergence of Teatro La Fenice as a significant theatre for the premiere of new operas. It premiered both Igor Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress and Benjamin Britten’s The Turn of the Screw and in 1955, it produced the first complete performance of Sergei Prokofiev’s The Fiery Angel.

In the late 1970’s, the festival was renamed Biennale Musica. From this time, several prominent directors ensured Teatro La Fenice’s continuing reputation as a first class opera theatre, among them Mario Messinis, Carlo Fontana and Italo Gomez. Gomez led the movement for revivals of bel canto repertoire and neglected works such as operas by George Frederic Handel, Verdi’s Stiffelio and the original version of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly.

In January 1996, Teatro La Fenice was once again destroyed by fire. Soon after the fire, all necessary rescue work was completed to secure the building remains so that they would not collapse. A competition was held to design the reconstruction, which was won by Aldo Rossi (who died not long after, in a car accident in 1997). However, the rebuilding of the theatre did not begin until 2001, the same year that two electricians, Enrico Carella and Massimiliano Marchetti, were found guilty of arson.

Interior detail
Interior detail
Interior detail
Interior detail

Teatro La Fenice

Delays and lawsuits led to replacement of the firm that was to carry out the work, but after 650 days and 90 million euros, the theatre was reconstructed “as and where it stood”. A great deal of time was spent early in the project on researching all the details of the theatre, to ensure that everything will be recreated “as it was, where it was”. The architects relied heavily on photographs from the film Senso by Luchino Visconti, which featured scenes that were filmed in the theatre. The work on the reconstruction was around the clock, and the same 19th century materials were used: papier-mache, wood and plaster for all the ornamentation. The architects wanted to recreate the original theatre, particularly its specific technical solution based mainly on the use of wood, carefully chosen and treated to obtain the best acoustic response. The rebuilt theatre split the critics once again: some were satisfied with the building, while others considered the acoustics poor and the restored colours too gaudy.

Interior of La Fenice in 2015
Interior of La Fenice in 2015
Interior detail
Interior detail

Teatro La Fenice

However, the reconstruction allowed seating to be increased to 1,000, the original water entrance from the canal facing the theatre to be restored and the backstage area to be improved, as well as adding air conditioning and sound proof rehearsal rooms under the theatre – and these alterations ensured the return of Teatro La Fenice to its rightful place in the operatic firmament.

Teatro La Fenice reopened in December 2003 and its first opera was Verdi’s La traviata in November 2004, 151 years after the opera first premiered there in March 1853.

Teatro La Fenice

Teatro alla Scala – The Temple of Wonders

La Scala

To most people, Teatro alla Scala – better known as La Scala – is the opera house that is synonymous with Italian opera, it is the theatre which knows no equal. La Scala held a central place in the development of Italian opera as an art form and has seen the premieres of some of the most famous operas of Giuseppe Verdi and Giacomo Puccini, as well as works by Gioacchino Rossini, Gaetano Donizetti, Vincenzo Bellini, Amilcare Ponchielli, Arrigo Boitao and Francis Poulenc.

La Scala is the classic Italian opera house, shaped like a horse shoe with tiers of boxes, and features one of the biggest stages in Italy measuring 20.4m in width. Above its tiers of boxes are the two loggioni (galleries) where less wealthy but more knowledgeable (and vocal) critics known as the loggionisti attend the opera. They can make or break the career of a composer or singer by their vociferous reaction either in favour of or against a work or performance.

La Scala

The antics of this section of La Scala’s audience are legendary (and perhaps apocryphal). One story that exists in several versions is of a tenor who sings his aria and is then called upon to encore it. At the end of his encore he is met again with tumultuous applause and demands that he sing the aria again. The tenor approaches the footlights and addresses the audience “Ladies and gentlemen, I have sung this aria for you twice…” He is then interrupted by a member of the loggionisti, who calls out “And you’ll keep singing it till you get it right!”

For their failures, artists receive a “baptism of fire” from the loggionisti, and fiascos are long remembered! In the history of operatic hissy fits, what happened at Teatro Alla Scala during Aida in December 2006, was a bravura performance. Boos from La Scala’s notoriously un-shy loggionisti greeted the tenor Roberto Alagna after Celeste Aida, his opening aria as Radames. He gave an unscripted military salute and promptly stalked off the stage. While the conductor Riccardo Chailly continued the performance, the stand-in, Antonello Palombi, was thrust on stage to finish the act in jeans! Alagna vowed never to return at La Scala. It was a surprise when it was announced in 2014 that would return in the title-role of Massenet’s Werther, but then with a month to go, Alagna announced he will withdraw, feeling that the loggionisti’s gladiatorial catcalling represented a level of hostility he could not expose himself to. Boo hoo!

La Scala

Booing is something every major opera singer has to learn to take on the chin: you can’t please everyone and passions run high in the gods. Alagna hasn’t been singled out – indeed if you look at the list of singers (Callas, Pavarotti, Caballé, Scotto and Fleming among them) who have on occasion been humiliated by the wrath of the loggionisti, it’s a roll of honour. In 1992, Pavarotti was booed at La Scala when he cracked a note as he attempted the role of Verdi’s Don Carlo. As it turned out Pavarotti never played Don Carlo again, but he carried on with the performance and later admitted the loggionisti were right to boo him.

Despite these scandalous stories, La Scala has seen more legendary performances of opera than almost any other theatre, and it will always be known as the preeminent Italian opera house.

In any Italian opera house, let alone La Scala at the start of the season, audiences tend to be vocal about vocal failure. If someone fails to sing a favourite passage quite well enough, the audience will talk about it there and then. There will be a buzz of distress and a general muttering. In other places, where the audience are embarrassed to do such things, they suffer such shortcomings in silence.

A buzz of great distress was caused in 2012 by the decision of La Scala to open its 2012 season with Wagner’s Lohengrin, instead of a Verdi opera. Both composers were born in 1813 and their joint bicentenary was celebrated globally in 2013. Naples and Rome had opened their opera seasons with Verdi. La Scala had practical reasons for performing Wagner. Daniel Barenboim, its music director, is internationally renowned as a Wagner conductor, probably the world’s greatest. He rarely conducts Italian opera and would have been reluctant, on such an auspicious occasion, to submit his Verdi interpretation for judgment by the self-appointed guardians of the composer’s legacy: La Scala’s loggionisti.

The controversy also underlined the growing internationalism of Italian opera. La Scala’s co-production arrangements with London, Paris and Vienna are a necessity of 21st century operatic economics. Its CEO and artistic director, Alexander Pereira, is Austrian. The previous general manager and artistic director, Stéphane Lissner, is French. The previous music director, Daniel Barenboim, is Israeli. The current music director, Riccardo Chailly, is Italian (for a change), and bonus, a Milanese. It’s a long way from the team of proud Italians that held sway in 2001 under the music directorship of Riccardo Muti, when La Scala mounted a cycle of Verdi operas to mark the centenary of the composer’s death.

In Italy in general – and at La Scala in particular – opera is still a bloodsport! La Scala in December is a ritual unlike anything else in the operatic world. The first night of the season always takes place on December 7 – the feast of Sant’Ambrogio, Milan’s patron saint – and it is a night of self-indulgence on all fronts. The first night is a celebration of celebrity inside the theatre and a pandemonium of protest outside. The rich run the gauntlet of TV cameras (which they like) and demonstrators (whom they hate). It’s an evening for exhibitionists of every stripe.

Inside the theatre
Inside the theatre
Outside the theatre
Outside the theatre

Fire destroyed Milan’s Teatro Regio Ducale in February 1776, after a performance of Tommaso Traetta’s Merope. Arson was suspected since there had long been a desire for a more elegant and modern theatre. Nonetheless, the owners of 90 palchi (private boxes) applied for, and received permission from the Austrian Empress Maria Theresa to construct a new theatre. The cost was met by the sale of palchi, with the new theatre eventually having 194 such boxes arranged in five tiers. The new theatre was officially called the Regio Ducal Teatro alla Scala, named after the church Santa Maria della Scala that was demolished to make room for the theatre. The architect was Giuseppe Piermarini (who had also designed the temporary wooden theatre, the Teatro Interinale, which was built to fill in the void in Milan’s theatres in 1776). Giuseppe Levati and Giuseppe Reina painted the interior, while Domenico Riccardi designed the curtain which depicted Parnassus.

The theatre’s 194 boxes each had their own cloakroom and, until 1830, curtains that could be drawn against the performance and prying eyes. There was also a royal box opposite the stage. Owners could decorate their boxes, and did so lavishly – bringing in their own furniture, hangings and coats of arms. Some even contained mirrors so that the stage action could be followed when sitting at a hand of cards. There were also a loggione (gallery) and stalls. Initially the orchestra was in full view, as the orchestra pit was not added until later. In the tradition of the times, the platea (the main floor) had no chairs and spectators watched the shows standing up. The exterior featured Neoclassical facade, with a pediment above a three-arched portico. Initially the theatre fronted a narrow street; it wasn’t until 1857 that the present piazza was opened out.

As with most of the theatres at that time, La Scala was also a casino, with gamblers sitting in the foyer. Conditions in the auditorium, too, could be frustrating for the opera lover, as Mary Shelley discovered in September 1840:

At the Opera they were giving Otto Nicolai’s Templario. Unfortunately, as is well-known, the theatre of La Scala serves, not only as the universal drawing-room for all the society of Milan, but every sort of trading transaction, from horse-dealing to stock-jobbing, is carried on in the pit; so that brief and far between are the snatches of melody one can catch.

La Scala soon became the centre of both Italian operatic life and Milanese social and cultural life. It was also central to political life – La Scala saw festivities for the birth of the heir to Emperor Franz II in 1793, the end of Austrian rule was celebrated there in 1797 with the foundation of the Cisalpine Republic, and Napoleon Bonaparte attended a cantata at the theatre in June 1805. During this period, the major composer whose works were performed at La Scala was Simon Mayr, who later become Donizetti’s teacher and mentor.

In 1815, Milan and Lombardy were returned to Austrian control, and the aristocratic upper classes enthusiastically supported the theatre and its peerless productions. At various times in its history thereafter, tensions between the Austrian ruling class and the burgeoning national consciousness of the Italian audiences came into conflict. In many cases, opera was at the forefront of this struggle – Verdi’s famous Va pensiero from Nabucco received its first performance at La Scala in 1842 and it was a chorus that came to symbolize Italy’s struggle for nationhood. Many of Verdi’s other operas that premiered at La Scala also have passages that were interpreted by its audience as referring to Italy’s quest for political autonomy.

Initially, the theatre was fully administered by the proceeds of the theatre company that used it. Later, from 1806 until 1918, the theatre was supported by its joint owners – the state (followed by the city), the box holders, impresarios and patrons. Several prominent impresarios took up the challenge of La Scala, including Milan-born Domenico Barbaja, who was to gain great fame was the manager or the royal theatres of Naples. In 1806, he acquired the lease for the gambling tables in the foyer of La Scala. Here he made a fortune. Later, from 1826 to 1832, he acted as the impresario for La Scala, seeing Bellini’s Il pirata (1827) and La straniera (1829) successfully to the stage.

The next great impresario to take up the reins was Bergamo native Bartolomeo Merelli who was responsible for bringing Bellini’s Norma (1831) to the stage, and commissioned several of Verdi’s works for La Scala. Although the two later fell out, it was Merelli who revitalised Verdi’s career, almost forcing him to compose Nabucco by shoving the libretto into the composer’s coat pocket and pushing him out the door to compose it.

La Scala has undergone several major renovations over the years. The stage was enlarged in 1807, and the whole theatre was renovated in 1838. In 1857, the houses that blocked a view of the facade were removed. In 1860, gas lighting was installed to replace the original and hazardous oil lamps, while in 1883 electric lighting was installed.

In February 1880, Edison was approached by a prominent firm of New York lawyers, Burrill, Davidson & Burrill, who informed him that a company of Italian gentlemen of the highest position were considering the possibility of introducing his lamps and his system in Italy.

The contact yielded no result and the identity of the gentlemen remains unknown. However, it is a telling indicator of the interest in Edison’s work that when plans began to be laid for a national exhibition to be held in Milan in 1881, the organising committee tried to secure Edison’s participation. Edison was unable to participate, but the Esposizione Nationale was the occasion for a display of arc lighting, not just in the Piazza del Duomo, but also at La Scala. In March 1881, the curtains were raised on the Ballo Excelsion. Described as a sequence of moving tableaux, the piece, which combined dance, music and mime, was a grand celebration of technological progress, one of the tableaus was specifically devoted to the origins and development of applied electricity, from Volta to telegraphy. The performance culminated in a ballet performed by dancers decorated with small light bulbs switching on and off. It was a great success.

In 1883, the first electrical power station in continental Europe was completed on Via Santa Radegonda in Milan. The initiators of the first power station were two important Milanese engineers who were fascinated by the innovations of the modern European rubber-processing industry and by Edison’s research in the US: Giuseppe Colombo and Giovanni Battista Pirelli. Colombo studied Edison’s inventions and bought the machinery, suggesting that Pirelli should build the rubber cables to carry electricity. The electricity produced by the DC power plant was distributed throughout a small area between Duomo Square, Piazza della Scala and the Galleria by means of underground conductor cables. La Scala became the first opera house with electric lighting.

A reviewer of the opening night of the season in December 1883, paid more attention in his article on the new system of 1893 Edison lamps 🙂 than on the performance of Gioconda and of the ballet Flik e Flok, neither a novelty by comparison.

With the spreading of AC current, the power station became obsolete and was effectively demolished in 1926. Today, a commemorative plaque in the porticoes of Duomo Square acts as a reminder: “with the builder Giuseppe Colombo, the dawn of a new era for the civic and industrial progress of our Nation”.

Major damage was caused to the theatre during World War II by a bombing raid on 15 August 1943, which was part of the controversial Allied tactic of eroding enemy morale by destroying cultural icons. The exterior and auditorium were badly damaged as were the sets for 71 operas, all the costumes and 25,000 pairs of shoes! The stage and part of the backstage area survived. La Scala was one of the first buildings in Milan to be rebuilt after the war, reconstructed according to original designs.

It reopened in May 11, 1946, with a concert conducted by Arturo Toscanini, Italy’s greatest living musician, who had made major contributions to the theatre’s rebuilding. The auditorium was sold out well in advance, despite the incredibly expensive tickets and tens of thousands more listened to the concert in the piazza outside the theatre. The concert was also broadcast all over Italy and Europe. For the occasion, the former royal box (the royal insignia of the House of Savoy had been removed) was filled with retired singers from the 1920s who had since taken up residence in the old musicians’ retirement home in Milan, the Casa Verdi. These former La Scala luminaries saw the theatre that they remembered, except that the colours were fresh and the scarlet plush covering the seats was no longer faded.

The theatre underwent a major renovation from early 2002 to late 2004. The renovation by renowned architect Mario Botta, saw the removal of heavy carpets and concrete and the improvement of the sound quality and the structure of the theatre. The state was entirely reconstructed, a stage machine was added, the backstage area was increased in size (permitting more productions) and seating was replaced. The carvings, mirrors and some hangings were restored to their original 1778 state.

The theatre reopened on 7 December 2004, with a production, conducted by Riccardo Muti, of Antonio Salieri’s L’Europa riconosciuta – the opera with which the house had opened in 1778. Tickets for the re-opening fetched up to €2,000. With this level of ticket prices, the theatre made up in two years the budget shortfall left by the €61 million renovation cost.

If you can’t afford a ticket for the prima, the inaugural performance of the opera season, or don’t feel like travelling in winter or dealing with the protesters on the opening night of the opera season, you can attend other performances at La Scala. Little bears attended a performance of Cosi fan tutte on 6 November 2007, a production of Accademia Teatro alla Scala.

Cosi fan tutte, La Scala 2007
Cosi fan tutte, La Scala 2007

The theatre has an associate school, known as the La Scala Theatre Academy (Italian: Accademia Teatro alla Scala), which offers professional training in music, dance, stage craft and stage management with guidance from internationally renowned performers and instructors. The Academy Project is an opera production included in the La Scala season, entirely produced by the students, including the orchestra and choir. In 2007, the Academy Project was Cosi fan tutte.

It was a fun evening and we got to read the libretto in English on the monitor built-in the seat in front. Following the 2002-2004 renovation, seats now include monitors for the electronic libretto system provided by Radio Marconi, an Italian company, allowing audiences to follow opera libretti in English and Italian in addition to the original language.

We’ll have to go back for a Verdi opera. A Verdi night at La Scala is an unrivalled experience. The chorus and orchestra perform with a degree of intensity and lyricism found nowhere else.

Visiting Ancient Pompeii with Indiana Bones

On 7 April 1768, the Austrian Emperor Joseph II visited Pompeii. To mark the occasion, a house was named in his honour and he was invited to witness the excavation of its contents. As he watched the workmen remove the pumice stones that covered the kitchen on the lower level of the house, a human skeleton was revealed. Perhaps the bones were draped just a little too artistically over several amphorae. Whatever the reason, it was instantly apparent that a deception had been perpetrated and that it was not of the highest order. Joseph II was not impressed.

This occurrence was not unique, though other dignitaries were more gullible than the Austrian Emperor and failed to recognise that the scenes of the final moments in the lives of victims that emerged from pumice and ash had been faked.

Such tableaux were the result of the tendency for those in charge of the site in the 18th and early 19th centuries to re-excavate spectacular finds and produce vignettes for the benefit of celebrity guests; for example, the Casa del Chirurgo (House of the Surgeon) was “discovered” three times in the presence of royalty. The designated area was liberally salted with valuables, such as coins and statues, and then re-covered with ash and pumice stones or lapilli. Skeletons were often employed as they provided wonderful props for this kind of entertainment.

This is one of the many stories we heard from Dr Estelle Lazer, a forensic archaeologist who has spent months at a time researching in the ancient city of Pompeii, crouching on a dusty floor, sifting through piles of bone fragments in semi-darkness with only the dim light from a bicycle lamp for company.

Estelle undertook the first modern systematic study of the human skeletal remains of the victims from Pompeii. When she started, the skeletons were stored in ancient buildings, which they shared with different kinds of wildlife, and had become disarticulated over time. Excavated during the preceding centuries, the intrinsic value of human skeletons as an archaeological resource had never been recognised. But even compromised archaeological material can yield valuable results: using modern forensic techniques and statistical studies, Estelle has overturned the long accepted assumption that the people who did not manage to escape the wrath of Vesuvius were the old, the infirm, the very young and women. The skeletal remains, in fact, show that the victims reflect a random sample of a normally distributed population.

Perhaps the most iconic images from Pompeii are the casts of the forms of the victims. Past interpretations have been based on visual examination and circumstantial evidence, which means that they owe more to storytelling than science. But Estelle obtained permission from the Soprintendenza to scientifically study the casts with X-ray and other medical imaging techniques. This non-invasive work was done in situ to ensure that the fragile casts are not damaged, and it has provided solid information about the actual lives and deaths of these victims.

Indiana Bones, aka Dr Estelle Lazer, at her "office" in the Sarno Baths
Indiana Bones, aka Dr Estelle Lazer, at her “office” in the Sarno Baths

Her book Resurrecting Pompeii (Routledge 2009) provides a detailed analysis of her research into the skeletal remains at Pompeii and she was invited to give a lecture at the British Museum on this topic during the most important exhibition on Pompeii in almost 40 years: Life and death in Pompeii and Herculaneum (2013).

Ancient Pompeii

You know you’ve made it when you are immortalised in Lego 🙂

Dr Estelle Lazer, aka Indiana Bones, in Lego Pompeii @ The Nicholson
Dr Estelle Lazer, aka Indiana Bones, in Lego Pompeii @ The Nicholson

🙂

Ancient Pompeii

Since 1748, when a team of Royal Engineers dispatched by the King of Naples began the first systematic excavation of the ruins, archaeologists, scholars and ordinary tourists have crowded Pompeii’s cobblestone streets for glimpses of quotidian Roman life cut off in medias res, when the eruption of Mount Vesuvius suffocated and crushed thousands of unlucky people. From the amphitheater where gladiators engaged in lethal combat, to the brothel decorated with frescoes of couples in erotic poses and graffiti on the walls providing feedback on the services offered, Pompeii offers unparalleled glimpses of a distant time. “Many disasters have befallen the world, but few have brought posterity so much joy,” Goethe wrote after touring Pompeii in the 1780s.

We visited Pompeii, with Estelle, on a cold and rainy Sunday in October 2007. The silver lining on all the rainy clouds was that there no hordes of tourists getting in the way.

Pompeii street, 21 October 2007
Pompeii street, 21 October 2007

It was so cold that it snowed on Mt Vesuvius!

Wintery Mt Vesuvius on 21 October 2007
Wintery Mt Vesuvius on 21 October 2007

We made our way carefully along Via dell’Abbondanza, the main thoroughfare in first-century Pompeii.

Via dell’Abbondanza
Via dell’Abbondanza

Pedestrians used the blocks in the road to cross the street without having to step onto the road, which doubled up as Pompeii’s drainage and sewage disposal system. The spaces between the blocks let vehicles pass along the road. The ramp is a modern addition!

Pedestrian crossing
Pedestrian crossing

We passed stone houses richly decorated with interior mosaics and frescoes, and a two-millennial-old snack bar, or Thermopolium, where workmen long ago stopped for lunchtime pick-me-ups of cheese and honey.

Thermopolium
Thermopolium

Shops of all kinds lined the bustling main streets of Pompeii; even today, they are identifiable by the remains of the sliding shutters which merchants used to close their storefronts at night. The shopping in Pompeii was world-class for its time: when tallying customers’ purchases, shopkeepers used standardised weights which had to be periodically checked against the official weights kept in the Forum. The bakery was a daily stop for most residents; many bakeries contained mills to grind their own grain, and the bread was baked and sold on the same premises. Bars (cauponae) selling snacks and drinks were also common; they consisted of an L-shaped counter in which were sunk large jars, or dolia, containing foodstuffs. Sometimes they offered a back room for customers to eat a meal, drink and perhaps even gamble. A number of inns probably offered more intimate entertainment in the form of prostitution, and archaeologists have even discovered a large purpose-built brothel, complete with small cubicles and wall paintings showing the variety of services offered. And graffiti providing feedback on the services offered!

Wine was an important commodity in Pompeii. The wines of Pompeii were well-known in the Roman world (although according to the historian Pliny, they produced equally notable hangovers). Wine must have been produced in great quantity as archaeologists still discover rustic villas complete with wine presses throughout the region, and amphorae bearing trade stamps from Pompeii have turned up as far away as Gaul (modern-day France), Spain and even Carthage in North Africa.

The archaeological digs at Pompeii extend to the street level of the 79 CE volcanic event; deeper digs in older parts of Pompeii and core samples of nearby drillings have exposed layers of jumbled sediment that suggest that the city had suffered from other seismic events before the eruption of 79. Three sheets of sediment have been found on top of the lava that lies below the city and, mixed in with the sediment, archaeologists have found bits of animal bone, pottery shards and plants. Carbon dating has placed the oldest of these layers from the 8th–6th centuries BCE (around the time the city was founded). The other two strata are separated either by well-developed soil layers or Roman pavement, and were laid in the 4th century BCE and 2nd century BCE. It is theorized that the layers of the jumbled sediment were created by large landslides, perhaps triggered by extended rainfall.

The town was founded around the 6th–7th century BCE by the Osci or Oscans, a people of central Italy, on what was an important crossroad between Cumae, Nola and Stabiae. It had already been used as a safe port by Greek and Phoenician sailors. According to Strabo, Pompeii was also captured by the Etruscans, and excavations have shown the presence of Etruscan inscriptions and a 6th century BCE necropolis. Pompeii was captured for the first time by the Greek colony of Cumae, allied with Syracuse, between 525 and 474 BCE.

In the 5th century BCE, the Samnites conquered it (along with all the other towns of Campania) and the new rulers imposed their architecture and enlarged the town. After the Samnite Wars (4th century BCE), Pompeii was forced to accept the status of socium of Rome, maintaining, however, linguistic and administrative autonomy.

The present Temple of Apollo was built in the 2nd century BCE as the city’s most important religious structure.

Illustrated reconstruction, from a CyArk/University of Ferrara research partnership, of how the Temple of Apollo may have looked before Mt. Vesuvius erupted
Illustrated reconstruction, from a CyArk/University of Ferrara research partnership, of how the Temple of Apollo may have looked before Mt. Vesuvius erupted
Temple of Apollo today
Temple of Apollo today
Statue at Temple of Apollo
Statue at Temple of Apollo

Pompeii took part in the war that the towns of Campania initiated against Rome, but in 89 BCE it was besieged by Sulla. Although the battle-hardened troops of the Social League, headed by Lucius Cluentius, helped in resisting the Romans, in 80 BCE Pompeii was forced to surrender after the conquest of Nola, culminating in many of Sulla’s veterans’ being given land and property, while many of those who went against Rome were ousted from their homes. It became a Roman colony with the name of Colonia Cornelia Veneria Pompeianorum. The town became an important passage for goods that arrived by sea and had to be sent toward Rome or Southern Italy along the nearby Appian Way.

It was fed with water by a spur from Aqua Augusta (Naples) built c. 20 BCE by Agrippa; the main line supplied several other large towns, and finally the naval base at Misenum. The castellum in Pompeii is well preserved, and includes many details of the distribution network and its controls.

Castellum aquae
Castellum aquae

In 89 BCE, after the final occupation of the city by Roman General Lucius Cornelius Sulla, Pompeii was finally annexed by the Roman Republic. During this period, Pompeii underwent a vast process of infrastructural development, most of which was built during the Augustan period. These include an amphitheatre, a palaestra with a central natatorium (cella natatoriua) or swimming pool and an aqueduct that provided water for more than 25 street fountains, at least four public baths, and a large number of private houses (domūs) and businesses. The amphitheatre has been cited by modern scholars as a model of sophisticated design, particularly in the area of crowd control.

Amphitheatre
Amphitheatre – outside
Amphitheatre tunnel
Amphitheatre tunnel
Amphitheatre - inside
Amphitheatre – inside

The aqueduct branched through three main pipes from the Castellum Aquae, where the waters were collected before being distributed to the city. In extreme drought, the water supply would first fail to reach the public baths (the least vital service), then private houses and businesses—and if there were no water flow at all, the system would fail to supply the public fountains (the most vital service!) in the streets of Pompeii.

Fountain
Fountain
Fountain - mosaic detail
Fountain – mosaic detail

It was on the afternoon of August 24, 79, that people living around long-dormant Mount Vesuvius watched in awe as flames shot suddenly from the 1300m volcano, followed by a huge black cloud. “It rose to a great height on a sort of trunk and then split off into branches, I imagine because it was thrust upwards by the first blast and then left unsupported as the pressure subsided,” wrote Pliny the Younger, who, in a letter to his friend, the historian Tacitus, recorded the events he witnessed from Misenum on the northern arm of the Bay of Naples, about 30km west of Vesuvius. “Sometimes it looked white, sometimes blotched and dirty, according to the amount of soil and ashes it carried with it.”

Volcanologists estimate that the eruptive column was expelled from the cone with such force that it rose as high as 32km. Soon a rain of soft pumice, or lapilli, and ash began falling over the countryside. That evening, Pliny observed, “on Mount Vesuvius broad sheets of fire and leaping flames blazed at several points, their bright glare emphasized by the darkness of night.”

Many people fled as soon as they saw the eruption. But the lapilli gathered deadly force, the weight collapsing roofs and crushing stragglers as they sought protection beneath staircases and under beds. Others choked to death on thickening ash and noxious clouds of sulfurous gas.

In Herculaneum, a coastal resort town about one-third Pompeii’s size, located on the western flank of Vesuvius, those who elected to stay behind met a different fate. Shortly after midnight on August 25, the eruption column collapsed, and a turbulent, superheated flood of hot gases and molten rock—a pyroclastic surge—rolled down the slopes of Vesuvius, instantly killing everyone in its path.

Pliny the Younger observed the suffocating ash that had engulfed Pompeii as it swept across the bay toward Misenum on the morning of August 25. “The cloud sank down to earth and covered the sea; it had already blotted out Capri and hidden the promontory of Misenum from sight. Then my mother implored, entreated and commanded me to escape as best I could….I refused to save myself without her and grasping her hand forced her to quicken her pace….I looked round; a dense black cloud was coming up behind us, spreading over the earth like a flood.” Mother and son joined a crowd of wailing, shrieking and shouting refugees who fled from the city. “At last the darkness thinned and dispersed into smoke or cloud; then there was genuine daylight….We returned to Misenum…and spent an anxious night alternating between hope and fear.” Mother and son both survived. But the area around Vesuvius was now a wasteland, and Herculaneum and Pompeii lay entombed beneath a congealing layer of volcanic material.

The two towns remained largely undisturbed, lost to history, through the rise of Byzantium, the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. In 1738, Maria Amalia Christine, a nobleman’s daughter from Saxony, wed Charles of Bourbon, the King of Naples, and became entranced by classical sculptures displayed in the garden of the royal palace in Naples. A French prince digging in the vicinity of his villa on Mount Vesuvius had discovered the antiquities nearly 30 years earlier, but had never conducted a systematic excavation. So Charles dispatched teams of laborers and engineers equipped with tools and blasting powder to the site of the original dig to hunt more treasures for his queen. For months, they tunneled through 60 feet of rock-hard lava, unearthing painted columns, sculptures of Roman figures draped in togas, the bronze torso of a horse—and a flight of stairs. Not far from the staircase they came to an inscription, “Theatrum Herculanense.” They had uncovered a Roman-era town, Herculaneum.

Digging began in Pompeii ten years later. Workers burrowed far more easily through the softer deposits of pumice and ash, unearthing streets, villas, frescoes, mosaics and the remains of the dead. “Stretched out full-length on the floor was a skeleton,” C.W. Ceram writes in Gods, Graves and Scholars: The Story of Archaeology, a definitive account of the excavations, “with gold and silver coins that had rolled out of bony hands still seeking, it seemed, to clutch them fast.”

In the 1860s a pioneering Italian archaeologist at Pompeii, Giuseppe Fiorelli, poured liquid plaster into the cavities in the solidified ash created by the decomposing flesh, creating perfect casts of Pompeii’s victims at the moment of their deaths, down to the folds in their togas, the straps of their sandals, their agonized facial expressions. Early visitors on the Grand Tour were thrilled by these morbid tableaux. “How dreadful are the thoughts which such a sight suggests,” mused the English writer Hester Lynch Piozzi, who visited Pompeii in the 1780s. “How horrible the certainty that such a scene might be all acted over again tomorrow; and that, who today are spectators, may become spectacles to travelers of a succeeding century.” Pompeii became all the rage across the continent, inspiring a gaudy revival in Classical art and architecture.

But for archaeologists and present-day visitors, the real thrill of Pompeii is that the most mundane aspects of ancient Roman life have been preserved for centuries beneath fine-grained volcanic ash. Graffiti still covers walls; some of the excavated bakeries had bread loaves in their ovens. (The National Archaeological Museum in nearby Naples displays many of the most important finds.) Visitors to the city can tour homes such as the House of the Vettii — a residence of wealthy merchants, with walls adorned with frescoes depicting scenes from classical mythology.

If you want to make bread like the Romans 2000 years ago, try Giorgio Locatelli’s recipe.

The excavated city offers a snapshot of Roman life in the 1st century, frozen at the moment it was buried on 24 August AD 79. The forum, the baths, many houses, and some out-of-town villas like the Villa of the Mysteries remain well preserved. Among the most moving sights is the Garden of the Fugitives, which displays plaster casts of some of the victims in their final moments of life.

Annotated map of Pompeii
Annotated map of Pompeii
The Forum with Mt Vesuvius in the distance
The Forum with Mt Vesuvius in the distance
Basilica, ancient Pompeii’s law court and a center of commerce, with its lower-level colonnade fairly intact
Basilica, ancient Pompeii’s law court and a center of commerce, with its lower-level colonnade fairly intact
Temple of Jupiter
Temple of Jupiter
Stabian Baths
Stabian Baths
Stabian Baths
Stabian Baths
Stabian Baths - cold room (frigidarium)
Stabian Baths – cold room (frigidarium)
Macellum
Macellum

The numerous graffiti carved on the walls and inside rooms provides a wealth of information regarding Vulgar Latin, the form of Latin spoken colloquially rather than the literary language of the classical writers.

Ancient Pompeii

In ancient Rome, domestic interiors were often small and claustrophobic. Some Roman houses were very dark and didn’t even have windows. Romans used wall paintings, or frescoes, as a way to open up and lighten their space. The majority of ancient Roman frescoes are found in Pompeii and surrounding cities thanks to the preserving effect of Mount Vesuvius’ eruption. From excavations of such frescoes, art historians have defined four styles of fresco wall paintings. The four styles are divided both chronologically and according to certain defining traits.

The First Style (ca. 200–60 BCE) was largely an exploration of simulating marble of various colors and types on painted plaster. Artists of the Late Republican period (second to first century BCE) drew upon examples of early Hellenistic (late fourth to third century BCE) painting and architecture in order to simulate masonry. Typically, the wall was divided into three horizontal, painted zones crowned with a stucco cornice of dentils based upon the Doric architectural order. The decline of the First Style coincided with the Roman colonization of Pompeii in 80 BCE, which transformed what had essentially been an Italic town with Greek influences into a Roman city. Going beyond the simple representation of costlier building materials, artists began to borrow from the figural repertoire of Hellenistic wall painting, depicting gods, mortals, and heroes in various contexts.

Samnite House, Herculaneum (First style)
Samnite House, Herculaneum (First style)
Fresco - Arrival of the Trojan Horse from the House of Menander
House of Menander, Arrival of the Trojan Horse fresco (First style)

The Second Style in Roman wall painting emerged in the early first century BCE, during which time fresco artists imitated architectural forms purely by pictorial means. In place of stucco architectural details, they used flat plaster on which projection and recession were suggested entirely by shading and perspective; as the style progressed, forms grew more complex. The Villa P. Fannius Synistor at Boscoreale is an exceptional example of the fully mature Second Style. Throughout the villa there are visual ambiguities to tease the eye, painted masonry, pillars, and columns that cast shadows into the viewer’s space, and more conventional trompe l’oeil devices. Objects of daily life are depicted in such a way as to seem real, with metal and glass vases on shelves, and tables appearing to project out from the wall. At Boscoreale, the walls dissolve into elaborate displays of illusionist architecture and realms of fantasy. Some of the frescoes provide copies of lost, but presumably once famous, Hellenistic paintings. In the villa’s triclinium, painted columns frame a series of figurative paintings presented as if seen through a window in the wall or as if lodged in the architecture. The intention of the owner was to create a kind of picture gallery, with the choice of subjects most likely based on the quality and renown of the original paintings.

Roman fresco at Villa dei Misteri
Roman fresco at Villa dei Misteri (Second style)

Under Emperor Augustus (27 BCE – 14 CE) in the second half of the first century BCE, there was a new impulse to innovate, rather than re-create, in architecture, sculpture, and painting. The Third Style (ca. 20 BCE – 20 CE), which coincided with Augustus’ reign, rejected illusion in favor of surface ornamentation. Wall paintings from this period typically comprise a single monochrome background — such as red, black, or white — with elaborate architectural and vegetal details. Small figural and landscape scenes appear in the center of the wall as a part of, not the dominant element in, the overall decorative scheme. The finest known achievements of the early Third Style are the frescoes from the Imperial villa at Boscotrecase, where attenuated candelabra and columns support exquisitely rendered vignettes. The early Third Style, which was in effect the court style of Emperor Augustus and his friend Agrippa, eventually gave way to a rekindled interest in elaboration for its own sake.

"Mythological Room" of the Imperial Villa at Boscotrecase - Landscape with Polyphemus and Galatea (last decade of 1st century BCE)
“Mythological Room” of the Imperial Villa at Boscotrecase – Landscape with Polyphemus and Galatea (last decade of 1st century BCE) (Third style)

Characterized as a baroque reaction to the Third Style’s mannerism, the Fourth Style in Roman wall painting (ca. 20–79 CE) is generally less disciplined than its predecessor. It revives large-scale narrative painting and panoramic vistas, while retaining the architectural details of the Third Style. In the Julio-Claudian phase (ca. 20–54), a textile-like quality dominates and tendrils seem to connect all the elements on the wall. The colors warm up once again, and they are used to advantage in the depiction of scenes drawn from mythology.

Fresco in the House of the Vettii (Fourth style)
Fresco in the House of the Vettii (Fourth style)

Roman houses often made use of a mixture of the different styles of wall paintings. Besides opening and lightening the walls, these types of frescoes served other important functions. For a contemporary visitor, the decoration allowed a social orientation of two types. First, it acted as a guide around the house. The distinguished guests would follow the fancy, colorful decoration, while the slaves and servants would follow the dark corridors. Second, the frescoes indicated the social status within the community. Both the number of frescoes and their quality indicated the level of available resources and the social aspirations of the household.

A fresco in the House of the Amorini Dorati, or the House of the Gilded Cupids
A fresco in the House of the Amorini Dorati, or the House of the Gilded Cupids

Mosaic ornamentation was also widely used in the decoration of the houses in Pompeii and saw various stages of development. The oldest examples are works executed with simple motifs, using tesserae of rough workmanship and of modest material; those of subsequent epochs, on the other hand, show refinement in their composition, in their taste in colour and in the preciousness of the tesserae used. In the first period the works are characterized by the repetition of simple geometric motifs or they repeat the pictorial patterns of the second, third and fourth phases. Mosaics were often used as flooring. There are some admirable examples: the famous “cave canem” placed at the entrance to many houses is perhaps the best-known among the many which have survived. The panel depicting “The Battle of Alexander” housed in the Archaeological Museum in Naples and originating from the House of the Faun, is, though, one of the most important and magnificent examples.

House of the Faun
House of the Faun – The Battle of Alexander mosaic
House of the Faun - The Battle of Alexander mosaic detail
House of the Faun – The Battle of Alexander mosaic detail

What a day!

Ancient Pompeii

In Search of the Best Margherita

Little bears got hungry and they decided to have a pizza Margherita, the simple Neapolitan classic topped with tomato sauce, mozzarella cheese and basil leaves, mimicking the red, white and green colors of the Italian flag, created by Neapolitan chef Raffaele Esposito to celebrate a visit to the city by Queen Margherita of Savoy in 1889. They took off north, in the general direction to Napoli 🙂 … and ended up in Mundaring, at Little Caesars Pizzeria. Have Vespa, will travel 🙂

In Search of the Best Margherita

Little Caesars Pizzeria in Mundaring has been owned and operated by champion pizza maker Theo Kalogeracos since 1996. He has recently opened a new pizzeria in Victoria Park.
http://littlecaesarspizzeria.com.au/

In Search of the Best Margherita

Little Caesars Pizzeria - Margherita
Little Caesars Pizzeria – Margherita

The menu also includes dessert pizzas and the girls could not go past the Black Forest Pizza, with choc-cherry cake, dark chocolate, icing sugar, vanilla ice cream and cherry syrup 🙂 Apparently it’s to take home…

In Search of the Best Margherita

If you love Neapolitan pizza, you need to make your way to Napoli asap, as the Napoli Pizza Village has transformed the Lungomare Caracciolo (Napoli’ sea promenade) into the “the greatest pizzeria of the world”. 50 of Naples’ most renowned pizzerias have set up shop on the promenade. In addition, spectacular “pizza performances”, workshops, a world championship, music and shows will all contribute to make this an entertaining – and tasty – event revolving around pizza. On the 1st and 2nd of September, the 14th edition of the Pizzaiolo World Championship will crown the world’s best pizza chef, who will take home the Trofeo Caputo, from the name of the Naples-based company producing high-quality “00” flour for pizza. You will also have the chance to learn the art of pizza-making assisted by 12 master pizzaioli.

Napoli Pizza Village
Napoli Pizza Village

http://pizzavillage.it/en/

The number one reason to visit Napoli is, of course, the food. It’s amazing! We have very fond memories of the Hotel Constantinopoli 104 breakfast bar…

Hotel Costantinopoli 104, Napoli - Breakfast buffet
Hotel Costantinopoli 104, Napoli – Breakfast buffet
Hotel Costantinopoli 104, Napoli - Breakfast room
Hotel Costantinopoli 104, Napoli – Breakfast room

Not to mention the mozzarella di bufala… Could not get enough of it! And now I can’t get it at all, since Neapolitan mozzarella di bufala is not pasteurized, and therefore not available in Australia, or the US or other places outside Europe.

Mozzarella di Bufala Campana
Mozzarella di Bufala Campana

We stayed at Hotel Costantinopoli 104, which we recommend. The hotel which has only 19 rooms is a period villa from the nineteenth century and was the property of the Marchese Spinelli, who had it built on the site of a huge monastic complex. The piperno stone entrance of the garden, the crests of the Marchese on the facade and the marblework balustrades are still a testimony to the antique splendour of the house. Next to the polychrome stained glass window, surrounded by flower beds and centuries’ old trees, the garden is an oasis of peace in the historical centre of Naples. A small swimming pool is available for guests.

Hotel Costantinopoli 104, Napoli
Hotel Costantinopoli 104, Napoli
Hotel Costantinopoli 104, Napoli
Hotel Costantinopoli 104, Napoli
Hotel Costantinopoli 104, Napoli
Hotel Costantinopoli 104, Napoli

We had a room on the second floor where there was another terrace.

Hotel Constantinopoli 104, Napoli Puffles and Honey, BC (Before Clothes :smile: )
Hotel Constantinopoli 104, Napoli
Puffles and Honey, BC (Before Clothes 🙂 )

The hotel is within walking distance to Teatro San Carlo, the Royal Palace of Naples, the National Archaeological Museum, San Severo Chapel, Naples Underground, and The Cathedral Complex Santa Chiara.

The cuisine of Naples has a variety of dishes for any food lover. With flavors from the sea, and ingredients enhanced from the sun and rich volcanic soil, there’s something for every taste; seafood, slow-cooked, succulent, sweet, simple, fussed-over, fried, and of course, pizza for the pizza lover.

Margherita in Napoli
Margherita in Napoli

Naples’ history is replete with pizza legends. A local pizzaiolo is said to have made the first Margherita in 1889, adding mozzarella to the tomatoes and basil to give the pizza, which he reportedly named after a visiting Italian queen, the colors of the Italian flag—red, white and green.

Although the flatbread-with-topping idea is generally attributed to the Greeks, for centuries pizza has for been associated with Naples and its long struggle with poverty. Cheap to make and requiring few ingredients, pizza was a staple by the 18th century, sold on city streets and served on ships sailing from the Port of Naples (that’s how Marinara got its name). In the post-World War II era, residents were so poor that many bought pizza on credit, paying for it eight days later, when they got another one. This practice, called oggiaotto, was featured in the 1954 film L’Oro di Napoli (The Gold of Naples) and is still honored by some pizzerias.

Who gets the credit for inventing pizza is a moot point when the answer to who makes the best pizza is obvious: Naples, Naples and more Naples. There is simply nothing like Neapolitan pizza made of hand-kneaded dough too fragile to toss, topped with fresh, authentic ingredients and baked fast on the surface of a bell-shaped, wood-burning oven. When the pizza maker (or pizzaiolo) pulls it out on a paddle and slides it onto a plate, who can wait? The mozzarella is a milky puddle, with a mat of red sauce and a frame of incomparably chewy crust, flexible enough to fold in half and eat like a sandwich on the street. In famous Naples restaurants like Brandi, Da Umberto and Trianon da Ciro, pizza-making is high art, but you’d have to be cursed by the gods to find a bad pizza any place in town.

To make a Neapolitan pizza you need one thing, a Neapolitan pizzaiolo. Someone who understands all the details, how to stretch and raise the dough to keep it aerated, which is what makes it chewy. You also have to eat the real thing immediately, straight out of the oven, at the pizzeria. If the pizza is removed from the pizzeria to be eaten later, it is no longer a true Neapolitan pizza.

So little bears sat down to eat the pizza at the restaurant… Oohh, how thoughtful, they saved me a slice… Might not have been from Napoli, but it was still delicious!

In Search of the Best Margherita

The stars of the Neapolitan dishes are the San Marzano tomatoes, frutti di mare, mozzarella di bufala, basil, and lemons. There are many other ingredients that play strong supporting roles including eggplant, olives from Gaeta, walnuts and salami. Some of the best of these dishes are found in the homes of the Napoletani where nonna and mamma make the dish using the decade’s old, if not century’s old, family recipe (each family having their own unique version of the dish). In some cases in Naples, mamma’s cooking is so good that criminals on the run can’t stay away 🙂

We, of course, have a weakness for sweets, and there are plenty to be had in Naples. Sfogliatella Mary, at the corner of Via Toledo in the Galleria Umbert I, in the heart of Naples, has some of the best sfogliatelle in Naples. Apparently we were stuffing our face with sfogliatelle from this shop on the 27th of October, 2007. Fond memories…

Sfogliatella Mary, corner of Via Toledo in the Galleria Umbert I
Sfogliatella Mary, corner of Via Toledo in the Galleria Umbert I
Sfogliatella Mary, corner of Via Toledo in the Galleria Umbert I
Sfogliatella Mary, corner of Via Toledo in the Galleria Umbert I
Sfogliatella Mary, corner of Via Toledo in the Galleria Umbert I
Sfogliatella Mary, corner of Via Toledo in the Galleria Umbert I

For an amazing coffee, try the Gran Caffè Gambrinus at Via Chiaia 1. The chandeliered Gambrinus is Naples’ oldest and most venerable cafe. It’s rumoured that Oscar Wilde knocked back a few here and Mussolini had some of the rooms shut to keep out left-wing intellectuals.

In Search of the Best Margherita

There is a full pasticerria, of course, which we sampled, also belle Époque tea rooms which we didn’t sample. Looks like we’re going back to Naples on a future holiday! We’ll have to try the eponymous drink of the house (the caffè gambrinus), which is smothered in whipped cream.

©WideScenes Photography http://www.widescenes.photoshelter.com
©WideScenes Photography http://www.widescenes.photoshelter.com

In Search of the Best Margherita

In Search of the Best Margherita

I also have fond memories of pushing in front of all the queues at Gambrinus. When in Italy…

Back to the desserts, to thoroughly appreciate the sfogliatelle, you need to eat it right out of the oven while it’s still warm. (Like Parisian croissants and other viennoiserie, sfogliatella loses its deliciousness after a few hours.) The crust is crunchy and flaky and the filling creamy and not overly sweet. The crust is a sort of puff pastry, where thin layers of pastry are rolled into a cylinder. Between each layer of pastry is a thin layer of lard (don’t think about it). The pastry is formed into its famous clam-like shell and filled with a custard-like mixture of semolina, ricotta, eggs, sugar, candied citrus and a pinch of cinnamon.

Sfogliatelle
Sfogliatelle

The sister to the sfogliatelle (riccia), the sfogliatelle frolla uses pasta frolla (shortbread crust) instead of the flaky sfoglia crust. The filling is the same: a mixture of semolina, ricotta, eggs, sugar, candied citrus and cinnamon.

Sfogliatelle Frolla
Sfogliatelle Frolla

Sfogliatella Mary also has really delicious baba au rhum, a yeast-levened cake soaked in a rum simple syrup. You can find baba au rhum plain, or filled with fruit and sweetened whipped cream, Nutella, pastry cream, and even ricotta cream.

Baba au Rhum
Baba au Rhum

Puffles and Honey had a massive baba au rhum with a LOT of real rum, not just syrup, at restaurant Vagenende on Boulevard Saint-Germain in Paris on their last visit.

Baba au Rhum at Vagenende Restaurant
Baba au Rhum at Vagenende Restaurant

The baba au rhum and sfogliatelle are the sweet symbols of Napoli. We haven’t found any sfogliatelle in Perth yet, so dessert pizza will have to do for now.

In Search of the Best Margherita