“The Fayrest That Ever I Saw”


“…Certaine little boates, which they call Gondolas the fayrest that ever I saw in any place,” wrote Thomas Coryat of his travels in Venice in 1611.

I’ve posted excerpts from Thomas Coryat’s diaries, his descriptions of Venetian gondoliers and canals. In this excerpt, he describes the gondola, which I’ll embellish with some pictures.

“For none of them are open above, but fairly covered, first with some fifteene or sixteene little round peeces of timber that reach from one end to the other, and make a pretty kinde of Arch or vault in the Gondola; then with faire blacke cloth which is turned up at both ends of the boate, to the end that if the passenger meaneth to be private, he may draw downe the same, and after row so secretly that no man can see him:…”

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In these details from Carpaccio’s Miracle of the Relic of the True Cross at the Rialto Bridge (1494), you can see the wooden frame or felze that Coryat describes, as well as the covering, sometimes of rasse or rushes, and sometimes of cloth, usually linen. Though Carpaccio’s scene predates Coryat’s visit, these details didn’t change dramatically in the interim.

Here’s another detail, this one from a painting by Joseph Heinz, showing the felze in the same era as Coryat. The painting of Doge Federico Corner is at the Museo Correr.



Gabriel Bella’s paintings, which you can see at the Fondazione Querini Stampalia in Venice, fascinate me with their detailed images of Venetian life. In this depiction of the courtesans out on the canal to advertise their wares (a detail from it), we can see more gondolas from this era. Notice how flat the boats are; the asymmetrical design wasn’t developed until the late 1800s, so though Bella lived in the 1700s, the gondolas he painted here would be similar to what Coryat saw.

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“…In the inside the benches are finely covered with blacke leather, and the bottomes of many of them together with the sides under the benches are very neatly garnished with fine linnen cloth, the edge whereof is laced with bonelace : the ends are beautified with two pretty and ingenuous devices. For each end hath a crooked thing made in the forme of a Dolphins tayle, with the fins very artificially represented, and it seemeth to be Watermen tinned over.”

At first I thought Coryat was describing the boat hooks at the side of the gondola, often in the shape of a serpent or dolphin. But then I realized he’s referring to the ferro. Here’s a modern-day ferro, but you can see in the older paintings that they looked a bit different in Coryat’s day.


Coryat next describes the gondoliers standing at either end of the gondola, in the days when having two gondoliers was the norm. That ended as families’ fortunes waned and households began employing one gondolier only, with the ferro to counterbalance his weight.

“The Water-men that row these never sit as ours do in London, but alwaies stand, and that at the farther end of the Gondola, sometimes one, but most commonly two ; and in my opinion they are altogether as swift as our rowers about London. Of these Gondolas they say there are ten thousand about the citie, whereof sixe thousand are private, serving for the Gentlemen and others, and foure thousand for mercenary men, which get their living by the trade of rowing.”

I’m grateful to Thomas Coryat for giving me this window into Venice’s past.

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Another Truth

I know, I know—tourists are ruining Venice. We hear it all the time. They come in and stay too short a time, eat a slice of pizza, drop their empty water bottles all over the place, stop atop every bridge to gawk, and don’t contribute in substantive ways to the economy. There’s a certain truth to this.

But here’s another truth: Venice’s culture is also thriving.


Hear me out here. In June I spent ten days in Venice. I attended two sagre—the neighborhood festivals where parishes come together to raise money for charitable needs in their area. Some of the entertainment was in Venetian dialect. I also attended a regatta, one of Venice’s oldest traditions that showcases its unique culture and carries on generational traditions. Multiple times I saw rowers in traditional boats, dressed in their rowing club colors, enjoying their pastime in the canals or out on the lagoon. I overheard multiple families talking about signing up to learn how to row with Row Venice, a woman-owned local business. And I went on a cicchetti tour that highlighted bacarò bars where food is made the old way. All of these are either keeping alive the traditions or pulling the old into the newest century.

And I’d like to add another consideration: the flourishing art life of Venice.

ArtNight has become a new tradition where museums open their doors for free or usually off-limits spaces invite people in for a glimpse of what they can offer. All across the city, people stroll and pop into these spots, yes, taking advantage of the free entrance, but also sharing in a strong cultural phenomenon.

I began my evening at Happenstance, a free form art space in the Palazzo Zenobio in Dorsoduro, where the organizers have offered the garden to different musicians, artists, and creators every day. I had wandered in earlier in the day to see the wooden installation that looked like an adult-sized playset, and the inside where the remnants of other art projects sat stacked against the walls. I caught the first 30 minutes of the Soul Liberation gospel chorus composed of young African immigrants fostering peace through song. Later in the evening, a free film would be projected against the back wall of the palace.


Besides visiting Marisa Convento’s jewelry shop, which I’ll write about next, I also popped into the Istituto di Scienze, Lettere ed Arte in Campo Santo Stefano. I’ve only ever seen the lobby before, with its collection of busts showcasing important Venetians, from Cassandra Fedele to Marco Polo and Tintoretto. A dj was spinning disco music, while a cadre of young people handed out cups of Prosecco. Heading upstairs, I was treated to the exhibit of ceramics, jars, masks, and jewelry from Mexico, Peru, Guatemala, and other parts of Central and South America.

Over at the Palazzo Cavalli Franchetti, I followed the crowds upstairs to see the paintings that were produced live that night, a mosaic composed of corks and bottle caps, and the view from the top floor. From there, I could see other palaces along the Grand Canal lit blue and purple and gold. I had a lovely conversation with the Brazilian artist who created the mosaic with the theme “What we leave behind,” and then she introduced me around as her friend. Someone at the door handed me an ArtNight pin as I exited.

I was sorry to miss other events, such as a skateboarding demonstration inside the Palazzo Grassi and free entrance at the Peggy Guggenheim and the Fondazione Cini in Dorsoduro, both of which had lines of people down the street. I also passed a baroque concert and other spots offering free Prosecco.

I walked home the long way past the Salute Church, peeking into the Seminario Patriarcale to see the cloisters, then around the Punta della Dogana to pass the warehouses along the Zattere. I lost count—did I enter three or four of these spaces transformed into exhibits of local artists, meeting places, impromptu bars, and a gathering spot for protesters? The young of the city are out and are sharing their voices and views.

In every place I visited, the majority of voices were Italian. Yes, tourists visited these events too, but so did lots of Venetians and folks from the mainland. A friend told me, in fact, that the city swells with visitors from the Veneto for ArtNight.

So yes, in some ways Venice’s culture is endangered and the city is overwhelmed. But clearly something good is going on as well. Venice is a cultural mecca, with multiple events on any given day, art and music and film and dance and parties created by locals and highlighting so many talents. These spaces invite creativity and dialogue about what Venice can be, what Venice’s future can look like. They inspire hope.

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Venice, My Muse: Donna Jo Napoli


Over twenty years ago, I was in a traditional trattoria and was charmed by a retired sandolista named Guido. He told me his life story about being a child during World War II who was rounded up and sent away to a work camp. Turns out that his story was fictionalized as the novel Stones in Water by Donna Jo Napoli. I got to know Donna Jo via email and have now asked her to share her love of Venice in this month’s “Venice, My Muse” interview. She is a Professor of Linguistics and Social Justice at Swarthmore College, where she is also involved in social justice work for deaf children.  She told me, “I work on advocacy for their language rights and on making materials to help them gain preliteracy skills.” About her writing, she adds that “as a fiction writer, my stories more often than not deal with issues of social justice.” See the links at the bottom to learn more about her work and her writing.

How has Venice seduced you?

My list would take pages and pages.  So let me just say that what I appreciate perhaps most of all is that when I’m in Venice, I feel normal.  I grew up with reduced vision and, though I have had surgeries in recent years that have transformed my world, I am not a driver and never will be.  But no one in Venice drives anywhere.  So I can do everything necessary for an ordinary life without leaning on others to schlep me here or there.

What do you never fail to do in Venice?

Say hello to the two remaining bocche. In the days of the Republic, denunciations of criminal activity were made via putting a written description in the mouth of the head of a stone lion mounted in a wall–where the denunciation was picked up on the other side of the wall by officials.  At one point there were over 100 in Venice.  But those that survived through the years were taken away and put in museums (most in the museum of the Palazzo del Duca).  But two remain.  And I always pay my respects to them.


Scene from Roman Holiday with Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck in front of a bocca delle veritá

What is your Venice soundtrack?

Just the soft sound of the water lapping in the canals in the middle of the night.

Walk or take a boat?


Which church or campo best epitomizes you? Please explain.

I love the floors of the churches in Venice.  So, of course, I love la Basilica di San Marco.  But my next favorite is Santa Maria della Salute.

Venice floor tiles on the refrigerator door

Donna Jo’s collection of floor tile magnets, which are displayed on her refrigerator

Which is your favorite Venetian festival and why?

I just love the various feste dell’unità.  When my children were little, we always used to work at the feste and serve food to people.  It felt right.

Spritz or Bellini?


What do you always tell friends to do when they visit the city?

Wander and get lost.  Really lost.

If you could have dinner with any Venetian, living or dead, who would it be and why? What would dinner be?

Elena Lucrezia Cornaro Piscopia.  She was the first woman in history to get a doctorate degree.  And I’d eat anything she suggested.

Elena Cornaro Piscopia

Dinner with Elena Cornaro may be a frugal affair. She often gave away her meals to the less fortunate.

Casanova: genius or cad?

No idea. I haven’t researched him.

What would you do with $30,000 U.S. to spend in Venice?

Donate it to the various animal sanctuaries, such as the refuges for sick and injured cats on the Lido. (My daughter Eva used to work at one.)


The Palazzo Dario–maybe not the safest palace to purchase, as legend says that numerous previous owners died mysterious and untimely deaths. 

If money were no object, which palazzo would you buy?

Maybe Palazzo Dario?  Maybe Mocenigo?

Which gelato flavor are you?

Pistacchio – no question about that.


Mr. Pistacchi (Mr. Pistachio) owns the Alaska gelato shop in Venice.

How can readers learn more about you and your creative pursuits?

http://donnajonapoli.com/  (to meet the writer-me)


https://www.swarthmore.edu/donna-jo-napoli (to meet the linguist-me)


https://riseebooks.wixsite.com/access (to meet the deaf-advocate-me)


This month we’re once again offering a tombola–a raffle! You could win a copy of Donna Jo Napoli’s book Dark Shimmer, about a young girl living as an outcast on a remote island in Venice. Set in the 1500s, Napoli’s story explores love and acceptance amidst the world of mirror making. To be entered in the raffle, please “like” this blog post AND add a comment. Deadline is September 30, midnight Pacific time. 


(Image of Alaska gelato shop from http://venicetravelblog.com/2010/05/gelateria-alaska.html.)
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Light and Shadow Dancing


“Both light and shadow are the dance of Love.” –Rumi. Image by Pietro De Albertis, 2016.


The many ways that water lives in the city–this is captured in JoAnn Locktov’s new paean to Venice: Dream of Venice in Black and White.

Puddles, fog, snow, rain, canals–of course, waves, reflections, clouds, splashes, mist on stones, droplets in a fishnet, droplets on boots, ripples, a drinking glass on a table. Black and white make me slow down and notice more.

The many ways Venetians live in the city–an old man reading the paper, a father walking  beside his child under a sotoportego, children standing above the acqua alta water line, a gondolier pushing off from the wall with his leg, elderly women watching the regatta.

The many reflections–a tower, a ferro, a face, a facade. Venice is captured not once but twice.

The many hands of Venice–carving a forcola, mending a fishing net, sorting fish.


So evocative, like a story starter. What is this story about? Image by Robert Herman, 2008.

With so many images of Venice captured by its many visitors and lovers, I wondered what new things would stand out to me as I opened the cover. But once again, JoAnn has collected images that delight and surprise me. How wonderful to see my friend, Marisa Convento the bead expert, poised at her work station in her shop on Calle de le Mandola. And I wanted to do a fist pump to see a protest poster for No Grandi Navi, the grassroots organization that fights to protect Venice from the cruise ship industry. Or even something as simple as people’s backs–walking away, or gliding away in gondolas, or contemplating a view, make me sigh for the city I love so much.

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Venetians take a stand–keep the dialect alive! Image by Michela Ceola, 2016.

Tiziano Scarpa, the illustrious Italian writer and winner of Italy’s Strega Prize, provides the introduction to this collection. You know you have cachet if you can attract a writer like Scarpa to work on your project!


Noir. Surprise cat in corner. Image by Giancarlo Carbon, 1960. This is probably my favorite in the book.

Brava, JoAnn, and thank you for surprising and delighting me once again with your views of Venice!

And if you wish to meet JoAnn, she’ll be at BookPassages in Corte Madera, California, this coming Sunday, September 9, at 1:00.


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An Obsession, a Craving, an Infatuation

“But the thing that unites all 35 Venetophiles in First Spritz is Free is an obsession, a craving, an infatuation, an addiction for the mystical city of Venice. If you’ve ever dreamt of visiting Venice, have family roots there or are just curious to know more this is the book for you. But be careful, it may lead to addiction!”

Liz Salthouse, one of the illustrious contributors to First Spritz Is Free, also writes for the website L’Italo-Americano. The lines above open her book review that came out last week. Click here to read the whole thing.


Liz highlights a number of the writers, including Manuel Carrión, Iris Loredana, Monica Cesarato, Marisa Convento, and Greg Mohr, sharing bits of their stories and lives.


Back in 2014, Liz and I met up in Venice. Here we are in front of the Church of San Lio. We haven’t been able to line up our trips to Venice again since then, though Liz is currently in Venice and meeting up with other First Spritz authors. Watch this space to see photos from their gathering. What do you think they’ll be drinking?


(First two photos from the article on L’Italo-Americano.org. Photo of Liz and me by a random stranger.)
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Redefining Beauty: Giovanna

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Entrance to the sotoportego of the Corte Nova

Do you believe in miracles?

Giovanna did.

During the plague of 1630, she wanted to protect her neighbors in the Corte Nova in Venice’s Castello district. Watch this video to learn more about what Giovanna did and see where she did it!


The corte where Giovanna lived

I tell the whole story in A Beautiful Woman in Venice, where you can learn more about the capitelli or little altars you see all around Venice. I also found interesting research into the bubonic plague outbreak of 1630-31; about a third of the population was killed off, though many of them actually died of smallpox and even forms of violence.

Giovanni reached out to the Virgin Mary and saints Sebastiano and Rocco to ask for their intercession to save herself and her neighbors from the plague. She did this with a painting, and just last year Save Venice restored the sotoportego and has installed restored paintings in the walkway. Check these out:

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And if you’re superstitious, be sure to step on the red stone on the ground. Or wait, don’t! Hmm, the myths seem to disagree if it’s good luck or bad to step on this stone, so I’ll leave you to take your own chances!

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Not sure if I’ll have good luck or bad…

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How A Book Led To A Book

Sharing the post by fellow author Claudia Oliver as she describes her participation in First Spritz Is Free. Just click on the link below.20180826_173231 How A Book Lead To A Book

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