Random Journal Entry #6

It’s been a long time since I posted a piece in this occasional series, where I dip into my journals from past trips to Venice. While waiting in the airport to fly back to Venice this summer, I read through my journal from 1996–the first time I went to Venice! My very first trip was over spring break with students, and then I returned in the summer for two weeks by myself. This entry and the ones that follow are excerpts from that summer. I’m keeping my spelling errors as is (they crack me up!), but I’ve changed some names for the sake of friends’ privacy.

The Church of Santi Apostoli, whose bells I’d hear each night

August 3, 1996

Arrived yesterday in Venice with no baggage thanks to Alitalia. Washed my hair with bar soap this morning. I’ve found a wonderful spot right now on the Grand Canal. Not too many people, shade, and a glorious breeze that billows my skirt. The humidity here leaves me permanently sticky, so this wind is the best feeling yet.

My room [at Hotel Bernardi] is like a little monastery cell with a curtain. It seems like it’s below ground level because it has a thick outside wall and a very deep, high set window with bars on it. It’s actually on the ground floor, though, and despite the thick wall, every noise comes directly in. I went to bed early but was woken periodically by noise of Friday night merry-makers. A group of drunken men were singing opera [at Ai Promessi Sposi restaurant across the way] till the wee hours. One guy led while the others joined in. Whenever the lead reached his strongest notes, his dog would yowl along with him until the men broke into laughter. I drifted in and out of sleep listening to this.

The canal at the end of the street near Hotel Bernardi

I met a little black and white cat on my street, Calle d’Oca. I clucked my tongue and he waited for me to catch up to pet him. In the morning when I went out I noticed him just in time to see him throw up a hairball.

I’m listening to my new Puccini tape on the walkman right now. It makes me feel like life here has a soundtrack. After a while I forget I’m even wearing the headphones. I’ve no one to talk to anyway, except the postcard salesman who tried to pick up on me. He was cute, too, and stood too close on a warm day. I think I might just keep listening to Puccini for the whole two weeks I’m here.


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Returning to the Dream

Just because I have recently been in Venice doesn’t mean I’m not already dreaming of it again. In fact, this book helps me daydream my way back to the city.

Dream of Venice Architecture is the second in the series from JoAnn Locktov’s Bella Figura Publications. Marisa Convento had it on display in her jewelry shop, Venetian Dreams, tucked in among bowls of seed bead, vases, and photos of Venetian bead stringers. How appropriate, right? When I got home I got a copy for myself!


Admittedly, I don’t know a whole lot about architecture. I know what I like to look at, and that includes pretty much all the architecture in Venice. Before opening Dream of Venice Architecture, I expected to see the usual pictures of the Rialto Bridge, Piazza San Marco, the Grand Canal, some crumbling palazzi and a couple churches…. So I was pleasantly surprised to learn about numerous buildings that I never knew existed!

For example, Jonathan Glancey extols the beauty of the Giovanni Nicelli airport on Lido. It’s a little gem. I never would have guessed this was a photo taken in Venice. Or the interior or the library on San Giorgio Maggiore, or the Olivetti shop in Piazza San Marco. I’ve probably walked by that place hundreds of times and never paid any attention to its clean, inviting lines. And I’ve never heard of architect Egle Renata Trincanato, whose work is highlighted by James Biber. This book makes me realize that as much as I know about Venice, there is so much I don’t know. It’s good to get that kick in the rear to wake me up.

The Nicelli Airport on Lido

Similarly, Vincenzo Casali’s essay describes a Venice that is not the mouldering, melancholy city of the past that people most often portray; instead, he sees it as a vibrant city of now, with modern problems and people working to solve them. He made me wonder, “What could be new about Venice’s architecture?”

Constantin Boym muses about Venice’s doors, how they represent years. He wonders, “What’s behind each one?” He seems to evoke speculative fiction stories.

Don’t you wonder what’s behind each and every Venetian door?

Many of these writers, primarily architects themselves, laud Carlo Scarpa, probably best known in Venice for his reimagining of the Fondazione Querini-Stampalia with its garden out back and its tiered, aqueous entryway that invites rather than repels the acqua alta. Dianna Yakely, Robert McCarter, Guido Pietropoli, Michael P. Johnson, Valeriano Pastor, and others write lovingly about Scarpa’s work or their personal relationships with him. I always found the Q-S building refreshing, and I definitely developed a new appreciation for it.

The steps at the Querini-Stampalia make the canal appear tantalizing

Some of my other favorite sites go under the microscope here, too. Shun Kanda talks about the Church of San Canciano uniting interior and exterior spaces, like being “in a protective bosom within the labyrinth.” And Witold Rybczynski brings out attention to the Palazzo Pesaro degli Orfei where Mariano Fortuny lived, probably my favorite museum in Venice.

I’m tempted to quote from many of the brief essays proffered in DOVA: J. Michael Welton’s last sentence; Rocco Yim’s third paragraph about Venice’s allure; Jurgen Mayer H.’s idea that Venice is a “performative city.” Everything Annabelle Selldorf writes captures something I’ve felt about my favorite city. But I think I’d rather just suggest you enjoy these bits on your own. (I know, I’ve provoked you. Either I could include long quotes or you could seek these writers on your own, and that seemed like the better choice….)

Have you ever looked over the shoulder of a church?

The essays are engaging and thought provoking, but so are the images. Photos by Riccardo De Cal also surprise me by not being the usual Venice fare. He zeroes in on a door, or views a fondamenta by looking over the shoulder of a church. He lovlingly captures Scarpa’s work. It’s the last four images, of fog or a glassy canal or ancient wood or a hidden campo that make Venice into a city of myths. I can imagine any of those images prompting a story or a mood.

Something about the color and nooks in this photo make it seem mythical, even by Venetian standards

However, I will end by referencing Massimiliano Fuksas, where he describes the “snow globe” version of a city to the stereotypical image we hold of it. I think many travelers are used to the “snow globe” way of viewing Venice, through its iconic buildings, campi, and canals. But Dream of Venice Architecture gets us to think outside the snow globe, to see parts of Venice we haven’t seen, to pay attention to the unnoticed, to be surprised and delighted and curious again.

So the book title fits just right.


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Book discussion questions: A Beautiful Woman in Venice

Does your bookclub need some ideas for your next reading endeavor? Consider A Beautiful Woman in Venice, my collection of biographies about Venetian women.

Dip into 28 chapters on over 35 Venetian women spanning six centuries. From poets Veronica Franco and Gaspara Stampa, to orators like Cassandra Fedele, regatta winner Maria Boscola, and dogaressa Maria Morosini Grimani, you’ll read a wide variety of stories about their remarkable lives. Women often changed history or saved lives, like Giustina Rossi who helped quell a rebellion to Giovanna whose painting kept the Black Death at bay, plus a myriad of nuns and laywomen who founded institutions to care for orphans, widows, and the destitute.

A whole host of writers are represented here: from Arcangela Tarabotti, Modesta Pozzo, and Lucrezia Marinella, some of the earliest proto-feminists anywhere, to Elisabetta Caminer Turra, Luisa Bergalli Gozzi, Isabella Teotochi Albrizzi, Giustina Renier Michiel, and Giustiniana Wynne, who broke boundaries for women authors and paved the way for more to come. Besides authors were composers Barbara Strozzi and Antonia Bembo. Venice has recognized some of its talented daughters, such as Rosalba Carriera, the pastellist, and Cencia Scarpariola, the lace maker, with plaques and streets, and of course the city has honored Elena Cornaro Piscopia, the first woman in the world to earn a university degree.

A Beautiful Woman in Venice honors more than just those mentioned here. Read the book to discover which woman hid steaming polenta in her bosom, who had an affair with Casanova, who painted the Barovier wedding cup, who is depicted in Titian’s famous Venus of Urbino, and who had 37 violin concertos written for her by Antonio Vivaldi.

I offer these questions as a starting place for your book club. You can order copies of the book through my website at seductivevenice.com.

  1. Which woman do you admire the most? With which woman do you identify most closely? Which is most like you in her goals, experiences, or aspirations?
  2. What emotions did you feel as you read each story?
  3. How would you classify this book: biography, history, travel, feminist literature…? Why is this definition important–or not?
  4. How is each woman beautiful? Did you find yourself redefining beauty? After finishing the book, how do you define beauty now?
  5. Why is the title “A Beautiful Woman” singular rather than plural?
  6. Venetian women generally had two choices: maritar o monacar–plus the unspoken third option of being a sex worker. Discuss these options in light of Venetian society in different centuries, and compare this to women’s roles now. What would you do if given these choices?
  7. Although many cities had strong traditions surrounding marriage and dowries, Venice’s practices seemed particularly intense and distinct. Are there any positive consequences for women who are pressured into marriage or the convent? Did you read about women who were happy with these choices?
  8. Who were some of the strong men in these women’s lives? How did they support and champion women?
  9. Why do you think men oppressed women in so many ways? Based on some of these Venetian women’s writings, why do they think men oppressed women?
  10. How did some of these women overcome the roles assigned to them? What were the benefits and costs?
  11. Think about the women’s lives that are represented here. Why do writers’ lives outnumber others? And why do we know more about the nobility than the working class? What are the consequences of these effects on a society and history?
  12. This book spans almost six centuries yet contains the stories of roughly 35 women. Why so few? What does this tell us about history?
  13. Were there any quotations by these Venetian women that stuck with you? Why did those stand out and what did they mean for you?
  14. Has this book changed your thinking in any way?
  15. How does the setting figure into the book? What did you learn about Venice?
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Redefining Beauty Videos: Anna Maria dal Violin


The altar at the Pietá

On this day in 1782, a great violinist died. She was Anna Maria dal Violin, who was orphaned, left at the Ospedale Santa Maria della Pietá in the scaffetta, a revolving door where babies could be left anonymously. She showed an early proficiency as a musician and was then raised and trained at the Pietá. While in Venice this summer, the nice guy at the church’s entrance desk allowed me in to make this video about her:

Anna Maria dal Violin

The Pietá had a practice of choosing a first name for the baby, but the surname came from the instrument she was most proficient in. Besides Violin, records also show her surname as Cello, Mandolin, Oboe, Luta, and Theorbo, and she played the harpsichord and viola d’amore as well. But violin was Anna Maria’s specialty, and Antonio Vivaldi trained her personally, also writing 37 violin concertos just for her. In the video, I mention that these pieces were in a partbook that is now housed at the Fondo Esposti of the Conservatorio di Musica “Benedetto Marcello” at Campo Santo Stefano.

But I need to make a small correction to this video. I said that the original building where Anna Maria and the other girls lived and played music was next door at what is now the Hotel Monaco, but that is incorrect. It’s the Hotel Metropole, whose bar still has the scaffetta in the wall. (The Hotel Monaco, on the Grand Canal further down by Harry’s Bar, was the former site of the Ridotto where Casanova gambled. I have a separate video for that site.)


Scaffetta from inside the bar of Hotel Metropole

Here’s a paragraph about Anna Maria, from my book A Beautiful Woman in Venice, that puts into context the importance of Anna Maria and the other girls and women who lived at the Pietá:

“In a city where women had little power, minimal choices, and virtually no voice, the Piéta provided an extraordinary exception. Yes, it might be faulted for its strictures; from the outside, it appeared to be a veritable prison, all under the control of men. Yet Signora Lucieta Organo, Signora Pelegrina Oboe, Signora Prudenza Violin, and especially Signora Anna Maria dal Violin, among others, showed that women were worthy of an education, that women could be just as talented as men, that women could organize and operate a highly successful large institution, that women could contribute things of great value to their church and society. As Jane Baldauf-Berdes explains, “Women excelled as bearers of a music-centered tradition unique to the Venetian civilization.” Due to her close association with Antonio Vivaldi, Anna Maria also became one of the most “important agent[s] in the transmission of Vivaldi’s music and performing style,” and a great contributor to musical development and history.”


The last resting place for the women at the Pietá was beneath the marble floor of this church.

So enjoy this video, a little glimpse into Venetian women’s contributions, and honor Anna Maria today by viewing her last resting place on this day, 235 years after her death. Here’s a little sample of the music Vivaldi wrote for her while you toast her memory.

Concerto in B Minor for Anna Maria dal Violin


Vivaldi is memorialized at the Pietá, but I hope more people will honor the musicians who lived and played there as well

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It’s Always Marchini Time!


One of my favorite things to do in Venice these days is eat pastries! In the past for me it was only gelato gelato gelato gelato. But I have discovered these pasticcerie that make me incredibly happy.

Please excuse me for writing about things that will make you salivate, but just remembering the fantastic pastries I had there makes me giddy all over again.


So banal from the outside…

Marchini Time, in Campo San Luca, was on my (almost) daily walking path on my latest trip, so I stopped in there 3 of the 6 days I was in Venice. The first day I ordered an espresso deka (that’s decaf–I’m a caffeine wimp) and a little eclair filled with chocolate and topped with chocolate. I’m surprised I didn’t fall to the marble floor in a swoon. I kept rolling my eyes in bliss, hoping the baristi wouldn’t notice or call an ambulance. Little sips of  bitter coffee interspersed with little bites of gooey dark chocolate, oh my, I can’t write about it any more right now….

The next time I went in, I ordered this baby:


Zabaglione custard filled this little eclair. It’s an art to eat these without gooing all over your fingers or the counter (or the floor). I’ll admit that some of the crumbled nuts did escape my clutches.

My last time in, I went back to chocolate and got this one:


Crunchy sprinkles and gooey insides–a match made to please. A little bitter lemon soda over ice counteracts the rich chocolate just right.

And one last great thing about Marchini Time–the price. This little eclair is a whopping 1.50 euros, with an espresso adding one more euro. In some California pastry shops, the combo would cost you $10. We won’t discuss the calorie count here. That would be to deface the glory of the place. Suffice it to say that I walk many miles while in Venice, and one itty bitty eclair a day will not make a difference.

I’m kind of stuck on Marchini Time right now. I’ve tried out a few other pastry shops but am not satiated yet with Marchini Time, so for now that’s my go to spot. What are your favorites? Write in and make us jealous of your pastry pleasures!

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Losing Sleep in Venice

A lot of people lost a lot of sleep over this show!

My friend Adriano sent me a link to a recent RAI tv film about Venice. Although it’s all in Italian, even if you don’t speak that language, you can still enjoy the scenes and much of the history through the fabulous imagery. It’s all apparently filmed in the middle of the night–how they managed to film busy Venice without a single person in the Piazza or on the canals is remarkable. Then they use computer generated imaging to show building structures, such as the crypt below Basilica San Marco or how pilings were used to create a substructure under buildings. Periodically, Carlo Goldoni shows up to wax poetic over his beloved city and twirl his mask or flip his tabarro over his shoulder.

Goldoni says hi

Besides the usual suspects–Basilica San Marco, the Doges’ Palace–you also get to see things like how Canaletto the painter used a set of mirrors to project images of the city onto paper so he could create accurate drawings. You also get to see a bit of the Fondaco dei Turchi, and the narrator, Alberto Angela, has a long conversation with an astronaut! Vivaldi’s music is highlighted in La Fenice, performed by a violin virtuoso playing a Stradivarius. We also get a lesson on restoration as the narrator takes us into the Academia to see Carpaccio’s Sant’Orsola cycle being cleaned.

Inside the Scuola di San Rocco

And of course I’m quite happy that my man Casanova is featured, more than once. In case you haven’t done the Secret Itineraries tour in the Doges’ Palace, this film will take you there so you can glimpse Casanova’s cell (at about 39 minutes). It also reveals Campo SS Giovanni e Paolo to recreate the scene where Casanova meets a lover who is disguised as a man.

Casanova looking right at home

Later, in order to show what a casino was like (and by casino, I mean it in the Venetian sense, that it was the private rooms used for assignations, cards, and intimate gatherings), Casanova visits the Casino Venier, one of the few intact casini left in the city. There’s no record that I know of that Casanova actually visited that particular casino, but this program gives us a glimpse into the rooms that are not often open to the public.

A very special treat is a midnight trip to the Squero di San Trovaso, where gondolas have been made for hundreds of years. The narrator talks to a master gondola builder as he uses traditional flaming canes to temper the wood (at about 61 minutes).

Gliding up to the Squero di San Trovaso in a gondola, of course

Women are mostly missing from this history lesson. The one exception: Veronica Franco. I’m not surprised that the producers would want to highlight the courtesans of Venice, and they do a nice job of humanizing Veronica Franco rather than only focusing on her seduction skills. Her section is at about 1:51 in this two hour show.

Venice is cleaner than I’ve ever seen it. The tide is high, the canals reflect on every surface, it seems, and not a single plastic bottle floats by. The Piazza San Marco looks like it was scrubbed by legions of cleaners on their knees  with toothbrushes. The mosaics inside the Basilica sparkle with a brightness and vitality I’ve never seen before. Is this all a trick of the light (or would that be midnight?) Or post production shenanigans? Or a really great cleaning team? Whatever they did, it makes this worth seeing. Don’t get me wrong–one of the things I love about Venice is its well-worn textures, its wrinkles and cracks and age spots. This film is a bit like seeing your beloved grandmother when she was 23.

The Erbaria glistens and the palazzi sparkle

Here’s the link to the show, from RAI television. I don’t know how long it will be available, so don’t wait!


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Casanova’s Secret Wife

No, that’s not my clever title for a blog post. It’s the title of a new book out by Barbara Lynn-Davis about Caterina Capreta (sometimes Capretta), one of Casanova’s great loves.

I had  the great pleasure of zooming through this book over the weekend. Every time I was away from it, I found myself wondering about Caterina, what she was thinking, her anxieties and passions.

But maybe you need a little backstory first for this book of historical fiction.

Caterina Capreta was only 14 when her brother introduced her to Giacomo Casanova, who was then 28. She was quickly captivated by this charmer, as he was by her freshness and innocence. They manage to set secret meetings and even pledged that they were married before God… But I’m going to stop there because if you know the story, then you don’t need me to summarize it. And if you don’t know the story, then you should read Lynn-Davis’s book and let her unfold it for you!

I’ll not spoil the details, but I’d like to share some of my favorite aspects of the book. First, the cover is lovely, with a capricious beauty peeking out from a cutout frame. Don’t you just want to open the flap to see all of her?


Lynn-Davis peppers her story with similes that evoke Venice: “My dreams, once as fragile as blown glass…” and “…like fresh fish just pulled from the water. Their scales glistened like tiny mirrors, still reflecting their lost  home.” This brings me back to mornings at the Pescheria! Okay, I’m an English teacher and get excited by a good metaphor, and hers bring 18th century Venice to life in lovely ways. Lynn-Davis writes seamless dialogue and even has her characters explain complex ideas, like how Casanova used the cabbala to dupe people. I remember writing about the cabbala myself and struggling to simplify it, and here the character Elia sums it up in a few paragraphs.

Ilan Sefirot - Kabbalistic Divinity map. Amsterdam, 18th century, NLI

An 18th century image of the cabbala

I also love that Barbara Lynn-Davis did her homework. Her “Historical Notes” section at the back of the book gives a detailed account of Casanova and Caterina’s relationship–what scholars do and don’t know about them and other people mentioned in the novel. (In fact, I’d love to reprint the whole thing here to enlighten all about Caterina’s and Marina’s lives, but you can just buy the book and read it there!) I’ve read lots of books and papers about Casanova and still learned new material here. On some pages, I was delighted and jumped a little in my seat as I read Casanova’s words and ideas worked into the text. At one point Casanova describes his attitude towards gaining money from the cabbala this way: “Think of it as taking money destined to be spent on follies by others, and changing its applications to ourselves.” I felt like I was hearing him speak  to me again.

Of course, this book is historical fiction, so Lynn-Davis takes some liberties, such as moving Caterina’s house to a different part of Venice where she herself had lived. Writing teachers say, “Write what you know,” so this is a sound choice. But the convent scenes were set at Santa Maria degli Angeli on Murano, their true setting, long since destroyed. Lynn-Davis makes it feel like a lived in an vibrant place. Though some characters are entirely fictional, she also includes historical figures, such as Abbe de Bernis, who plays a part in Casanova’s and Caterina’s drama.


What remains of the convent walls behind which Caterina lived

What I enjoyed most about the historical fiction genre as Lynn-Davis used it was her ability to enter Caterina’s mind and imagine what a 14-year-old girl must have been thinking and feeling as she moved through this relationship with an older, more experienced man. I’ve read Casanova’s version of the story numerous times now–all we have to go on is his memoirs, not Caterina’s or M.M.’s letters or diaries or anything else. So Lynn-Davis dives past what Casanova has written to imagine what Caterina might have felt, which in her telling might include jealousy, confusion, anger, and vengeance. When I’ve written about Casanova’s relationship with Caterina and M.M., I have found myself just repeating his version of events. But here in Casanova’s Secret Wife, Caterina is a thinking person all her own. I like this passionate and headstrong girl and am intrigued by her flaws and failings.

Another detail that made me smile: the inclusion of other Venetian women. As the character Leda practices her portraiture skills, the women begin talking about Rosalba Carriera, the masterful pastel portraitist. After writing my own chapter on Rosalba, I’m thrilled any time I see someone else laud her work and life. On another page, a character yells, “All fathers are tyrants,” and I heard echoes of Arcangela Tarabotti, wondering if Lynn-Davis was inspired by her as well.

And as an added bonus, Lynn-Davis has written some imagined letters between Caterina and Casanova. You can see them here, in an article titled “Imagining a Courtship with Casanova”:

The Love Letters

Whether or not you know Casanova’s story of his dramatic affair with Caterina and M.M., you’ll enjoy Casanova’s Secret Wife, which will set you pondering the lives of 18th century women, their passions, cares, restrictions, and courage.

(Book cover art from Amazon, cabbala image from http://gizra.github.io/CDL/pages/7660CE39-5432-7D03-DF5C-1645E15FBAF7/; portrait of de Bernis from http://belcikowski.org/ladormeuse2/?p=4004. I took the convent image.)
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