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    August 21st, 2011adminHistory, Italy, Touristy Stuff

    Buildings on the Ponte Vecchio ("Old Bridge") - a medieval bridge that goes over the Arno River. This is the only original Florentine bridge to survive the bombings of WWII.

    The Ponte Vecchio shops were first installed under the edict of Cosimo de Medici. The famous Italian painter, architect and historian (a true “Renaissance man”) built the corridor.

    Interesting historical tidbit:

    “It is said that the economic concept of bankruptcy originated here: when a merchant could not pay his debts, the table on which he sold his wares (the ‘banco’) was physically broken (‘rotto’) by soldiers, and this practice was called “bancorotto” (broken table; possibly it can come from ‘banca rotta’ which means ‘broken bank’). Not having a table anymore, the merchant was not able to sell anything.”

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    I’m now back in Istanbul after a week in Italy. Today, I’m posting photos of Venetian masks, which is a new fascination of mine after this trip. They’re simply striking; I love the high theater and drama. And, while, the Venetian Carnival is in February, the masks are displayed and sold throughout the year.

    Walking the back streets of Venice, I came upon a dress and mask shop. I saw a woman hand-sewing a traditional Venetian baroque costume, all the work completed with a simple sewing  machine and her hands.

    Honestly, it was a relief. So many of the stores along the waterfront sold items that were ostensibly “Italian” or “Venetian.” But it didn’t take a brain-surgeon to guess otherwise. The material was cheap and obviously mass-produced. Half the stuff was probably imported from China or Bangladesh. In perhaps one of the most touristy places in the world (Old City Venice in August!), one would be a fool to not know they were being taken as a fool. So, to witness something so basic as a personal handicraft, completed on an old shop desk, on a forgotten side street, was really quite remarkable.

    I chatted with the store owner, too. The business was an old family-run operation, and he participated in Carnevale every year. He asked if I was religious, told me he was an atheist, and talked about psychological research conducted by a professor at my former alma mater. Then, pulling out his computer files, he showed me his recent photos — there he was, decked in fine white silk, and his son — like a baby baroque charmer — and an older Dutch woman, who has participated in the Venetian Carnival for over 20 years, and even an old gay couple, with one man in female costume.

    I bought a handmade, paper-mache bauta (full-face mask.) It was a rare character, explained the shop girl (who was religious) — someone who is always getting involved in everyone else’s business. “Oh, a gossip!” I exclaimed. She continued, “One of the main characters in the Commedia dell’arte is Harlequin,” motioning at the Harlequin masks. “How about women?” I asked. “Oh, there is Colombina,” she said, “who is smarter than Harlequin.” My mask is now sitting on my bookshelf; it has a long-nose, beautiful sea-blue paint and a traditional Venetian floral design on a paper surface.

    When I’m traveling, I like to talk to everyone, from dapper cafe dwellers to bored plumbers. There’s a pleasure in being an “outsider,” and as a result, not even noticing (or at least fully participating in) the class distinctions. Similarly, Carnevale was developed with the same spirit; the masks rid of traditional social distinctions. You cannot see who is who. So, in theory, everyone can rejoice freely. And, yet, how true was this? Did common servants walk in lavish costumes, exquisite jewelry and finely-painted masks? I would think not.

    The same holds for today. A poor kid, trying to make ends meet, will not fly to Venice, purchase magnificent historical costume, and have the financial means to forgot himself in a week of high-end drunken splendor. Sorry, Venice. Just wouldn’t happen.

    Venice has become a holiday destination for the idle rich, who purchase sinking architectural masterpieces along the Grand Canal. It has become a playground for who? Maybe Russian oligarchs or Euro socialites. Maybe American billionaires or bored heiresses. I don’t quite know who. But I certainly do know that this beautiful city — once the home of Marco Polo, Bellini, Titian and Casanova — is now a home to a very select few: the long-standing locals and the rich.

    And, combined with the hordes of tourists, Venice can also be a nasty thing. I was reading quotes on Venice, and came upon some funny ones.  Henry James on Venice: “Though there are some disagreeable things in Venice there is nothing so disagreeable as the visitors.” And, Truman Capote: “Venice is like eating an entire box of chocolate liqueurs in one go.”

    But, ah, I’m veering! I’m supposed to be writing about the MASKS. And I do genuinely find them gorgeous.

    I learned that the Commedia dell’ arte, which is the origin of many Venetian masks, has ancient roots, going back to Greek theater and Etruscan festivals. This tradition was carried on to the Roman Empire, though the first record of such performances was in 16th century Rome. The performances were earthy affairs, played on the streets and in public venues, by traveling actors. And, unlike other European theater of the time, female characters were played by actual women — imagine that! In fact, Ben Jonson supposedly referred to one female player as a “tumbling whore.” Fantastic.

    I especially love the characters. They are full of humor and real life relevance. I can imagine people today, in my life (especially in Istanbul!), who could stand as examples of such characters. There’s the Zanni, the a-little-too-clever servant, with country roots and a wooden sword. There’s the Innamorati (“the lovers”), constantly and melodramatically in love. And, as the shop girl said, Colombina, the flirtatious, female intellect.

    In the next few days, I’ll post more photos from my Italian Week of Food, Wine and Beautiful Things. I visited Rome, Florence, Venice, Padova, Verona and Lake Garda. I remembered how much I loved Italian food. Like prosciutto with melon. And wine. And fresh mozzarella. I remembered pizza and pasta. I tried new foods for the first time, like tripe soup and horse meat! And I was charmed by a bevy of cafe baristas and shop owners and candy shop keepers. Thank you, Italy.