Losing or Gaining Venice?

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Where did Venice go?

How does one lose a city? Lose it to tourism? Lose it by falling out of love with it? Lose it to memory loss as one ages? Or, as the protagonist Mark thinks to himself, “What myriad assortment of fickle fate had led me to where I found myself, which frankly, was lost?”

I won’t tell you how the protagonist of Losing Venice loses Venice. You’ll have to read the book for that! But certainly I began the book pondering how it would end and what he would lose.

In the meantime, Scott Stavrou took me through his character’s peregrinations, both through his beloved Venice as well as through his heart. Mark is an American who has screwed up his life, and the lives of others, but somehow is rewarded by being exiled to a job posting in Venice. Life is rough! However, his faults and regrets are packed in his baggage, and he must carry them around or find a new spot to discard them. He wonders if he might find a woman to share his peregrinations with: “I wondered what color hair she would have and if she painted her toenails or not and how many other people would have known about the mole–,” he says. He does meet a mysterious stranger, who promptly disappears again.

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A good share of drinking features in the book

Though Mark is a cad and often a heavy drinker and a sometimes slacker, he has a compelling voice and wit that kept me reading to see how he would repair the damage he had caused. Mark has a playful streak, such as in this private moment in a street: “I even skipped part of the way down a dark calle when I was sure no one was around and I thought that I was far too old to be skipping like a teenager after his first kiss, far tool old to be skipping at all, but it felt pretty damned good and I thought it might well be the last time I ever skipped in my life, and that was pretty good too, to be aware of it.” Despite his flaws, Mark has many good qualities, one of them being his self-awareness. He sees himself as “Frail, fragile, flawed and imperfect,” and he “began to embrace [his] missteps. Sometimes that’s all there was.”

Marc often  thinks in stream-of-consciousness, like a contemplative beat poet. This keeps the action moving along, giving the book a swinging pace. Here Mark watches the boys playing soccer in the Campo Santa Margherita, where “The dog was much quicker than the boys but not as skilled in soccer and he ran up and down, back and forth, and I had the sense that they were aiming for him more than any goal, but he was quick and you couldn’t tell for sure.” I think some of Scott’s life must have slipped into his protagonist’s life, as I know Scott lived near the Campo Santa Margherita and has dogs of his own that he let romp through the campi and calli.

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Mark lives near the church of San Trovaso, its bells harassing him at all hours

Also like a poet, Mark speaks alliteratively, such as when he reflects on his “serial and slothful self indulgence.” He is also fond of puns, as in this line where Mark contemplates a message he is leaving for someone, where “my little note would be, well, little noted.” As an English teacher, I can’t help but appreciate amusing use of language.

Mark does not stay only in Venice. Scott Stavrou sends Mark to Prague for some shenanigans and to meet a man who will change the course of his life. Later Greece, Scott’s present home, becomes Mark’s newest adventure. We are dropped into lush descriptions of three glorious cities, gaining all three rather than losing any of them.

You can see that I’m not giving away too much of the story line. That’s for you to discover when you read Losing Venice yourself! If you want to know more about the author’s own initiation into loving Venice, you can read his chapter in First Spritz Is Free: Confessions of Venice Addicts, where you can learn more about how his dogs disrupted a campo.

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Get your own copy of Losing Venice in paperback or e-book format on Amazon or your local bookstore. You’ll gain, rather than lose, some hours in Venice as you accompany Mark in his contemplations.

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Venice, My Muse: An Interview with Luisella Romeo

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Luisella Romeo’s reputation preceded her. I had heard so much about her knowledge and passion for Venice before I got to meet her last summer. I was also delighted to have her contribute to First Spritz Is Free: Confessions of Venice Addicts, where she shared the story of rowing in a sandolo with her grandfather plus the moment she realized she could no longer get lost in Venice.  Luisella has been a licensed tourist guide in Venice since 2000. She started her own blog on Venice in 2015 as she discovered she liked sharing her passion for Venice and for its human stories, not just while she worked. Luisella has always loved writing, but also taking photos and living in Venice is a great experience in this sense thanks to its amazing light and reflections. Read more below to see how she responded to the “Venice, My Muse” interview questions.

 

How has Venice seduced you?

Venice is a city that seduced me for its ever present beauty, for its quiet waterways and silence already when I was a child. When walking on my own or crossing the canals on a boat I felt a sense of freedom and a sense of solitude that I loved! Nowadays it’s less easy to find these places, but they still exist just as in Corto Maltese’s stories.

What do you never fail to do in Venice?

That’s surprising. I never miss looking north, hoping to see the Dolomites, just like in the paintings by Titian, coloured pink or blue at sunrise or sunset, or after a storm. They appear magnificent over the lagoon water. So, yes, I need to see the mountains!

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The Dolomites become from afar….

What is your Venice soundtrack?

The sound of my footsteps along the street at night. But also the early baroque music by Claudio Monteverdi, the “maestro di cappella” in St. Mark’s Basilica in the 1600s, with its gentle notes.

Walk or take a boat?

As a tourist guide, I walk a lot, but I love rowing, it’s something really relaxing and connecting me to the lagoon and its environment.

Which church or campo best epitomizes you? Please explain.

I love the Campo dei Gesuiti. A long time ago, I started studying its history, and as it was my first historical research, it earned a special place in my heart. But the beauty about it is that after all these years, this square has still a lot of history to uncover for me, and I keep on learning more about it! A fascinating, never ending story!

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And the Gesuiti Church peeks from between the buildings….

Which is your favorite Venetian festival and why?

I would say the Salute festivity on November 21st. When my grandma was still alive, I used to accompany her to the holy service and help her with the candles and prevent her from being squeezed in the crowds of pilgrims.

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Peeking from within the Salute Church.

Spritz or Bellini?

None! Maybe spritz with Cynar, but I don’t dare spoil a glass of prosecco with anything else!

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

I tell them they should visit the city museums and the workshops of the local artisans. I find it incredible that there are museums in Venice that risk to close down because not enough people visit them. Not to mention how many visitors miss understanding artisans’ heritage.

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

Oh, that’s a cruel question to ask somebody like me that loves history and art! A long list. Writers, artists, famous politicians, notable women of the past, as Elena Corner Piscopia, the first woman to get a degree at the university. But, if we talk about having dinner with them, well, I have to confess that when I have dinner, I don’t like talking, as it distracts me from enjoying flavors! So I would need some gourmet companion appreciating silence while eating!

Casanova: genius or cad?

I think he was very good at promoting himself, but in fact it’s sad that he is mainly considered just as a “Casanova,” don’t you agree?

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The flowers and fruits on Sant’Erasmo 

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

I am not an expert in costs and business plans, but I would like to help organic farming on the island of Sant’Erasmo and promote the cultivation of local and healthy produce.

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

I would like to buy the Fondaco dei Tedeschi [a palace built in 1508 recently turned into a luxury mall] and turn it into a space promoting Venetian local crafts.

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The Fondaco dei Tedeschi was a post office for decades before being renovated as a shopping mall

Which gelato flavor are you?

Definitely ginger gelato — and there’s one place only where that is really good and well made!

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

Check out Luisella’s blog for more of her travel tips and highlights of Venice plus lots of history and art, at  seevenice.it/blog. 

You can also follow her on Facebook at SeeVenice Guided Tours by Luisella Romeo, on
Twitter: See Venice Tours @luisella_romeo, and on
Instagram @luisella_romeo

 

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Gondola Stuff: Pizzeria Ashtray

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Isn’t this the coolest gondola ashtray ever? I have only a couple of the fabulous Venetian ashtrays that restaurants used to use. (My friend Bob has quite a collection that I really covet.) But this one, shaped like a gondola, tops them all.

Along the side is the name of the restaurant: Ristorante Pizzeria Fuin da Lili.  You can tell it’s from way back in the day because the phone number is only six digits. I’m assuming it was in Venice because I bought it there in an antique shop some years ago, and because it’s shaped like a gondola!

Anyone know this place?

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A Cassone to Hope For

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A cassone is a large chest, often used for a women’s trousseau and sometimes called a wedding chest. They were a prized possession and status symbol for many families and were often displayed in the bedroom. These beautiful specimens here were on display at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston when I visited last year. IMG_0682

Titian’s famous painting, the Venus of Urbino, shows a cassone in the background, which has led some people to speculate that this is a wedding portrait, though the woman’s gaze and posture are far more racy than other wedding portraits of the time. The real woman who sat for Titian’s painting, we believe, is Angela del Moro, a courtesan and friend of Titian’s (with quite a story that I won’t go into here, though I wrote a chapter about her in A Beautiful Woman in Venice). You can see that a servant is kneeling before the cassone.

Someone once gave me a hope chest, I guess a sort of modern equivalent of the cassone. But I wish mine looked like one of these!

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Why Should Someone Read …

…my books?

You can find out the answer to this and other questions in an interview recently posted by the Italian American Press, an online resource listing dozens of books about Italian American topics. They include fiction, history, biography, memoir, mystery, romance, sports, travel, children/teens, cooking, and much more.

You can read my interview below, or access it on the website where there’s so much more to explore and discover. This is your chance to support writers of Italian American topics or find more ways to celebrate this vibrant culture.

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What inspired you to write your books? 

The city of Venice inspires me to write. When I can’t be there physically, I am instead there vicariously by reading and writing about it. When I walk through Venice’s streets or glide down her canals, I always wonder what is behind the doors and walls of these beautiful old buildings, so I began researching these places to find out their stories. I also love to learn about history through the lives of individuals who lived through it, and that’s easy to do with Venice because so many interesting people have lived there. I was inspired to learn more about the lives of the gondoliers and got to know them personally, which became the book Free Gondola Ride. Hearing their stories about Casanova’s house made me want to find out where Casanova really lived or visited, which sent me into a couple years of research to discover over 90 Venetian locations he had been in. The result was the book Seductive Venice: In Casanova’s Footsteps. Though dozens of books have been written about Venice’s history, it’s almost always from the male perspective, so I was curious to discover what women had done in the city and launched into research about them, producing A Beautiful Woman in Venice. When I learned about all these remarkable lives, it just makes me want to learn even more and to share their little-known stories with others.

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What is the most important attribute of your books? 

I strive to write books that are engaging and help the reader care about the people I’m writing about. Particularly when I write about historical figures like Venetian women or Casanova, I want the writing to be accessible so that anyone will enjoy picking up the book and be pulled into these stories or find some way to connect with the subjects, whether it’s through humor, sympathy, shock, astonishment, admiration, or some other emotion. I also always hope that readers will finish one of my books with a greater love for and interest in Venice, to preserve it for future people to enjoy.

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Why should someone read them?

History is composed of millions of stories, yet despite that, many people’s voices are missing, such as the women of Venice. People should read A Beautiful Woman in Venice to learn about the ways women were such an integral and necessary part of Venetian society, even though they don’t appear in most history books. Women’s lives add layers of beauty and complexity to our understanding of Italian history. I hope that people will read my book Seductive Venice for two reasons: to begin to see Giacomo Casanova as a full human being, not just a stereotypical gigolo, and also to see Venice with new eyes that will reveal the stories that happened in Venice’s streets, churches, theaters, and drawing rooms. Reading Free Gondola Ride will allow readers to get to know the gondoliers as real people, with all their playfulness, knowledge, and generosity. My books will help readers see a side of Venice beyond the crowded squares and the gift shops, peeking into Venice’s rich and delicious history and people.

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Buying books directly from my website is often faster than shopping on Amazon, and for books that I sell directly, I donate fifty cents of every sale to Save Venice or Venice in Peril. You can access all the books from my main website at www.kathleenanngonzalez.com.

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Nuns Like Tchotchkes, Too

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Who can resist taking a picture like this? Don’t you want to know what each of them bought? I vote for heart-shaped sunglasses, which were in this summer, or a striped gondolier shirt, or maybe friendship bracelets all around.

 

Shot at Campo San Geremia, summer 2018.

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Dear Evelina,

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Do you ever wish you could meet people from the past? Evelina van Millingen Pisani is one of those intriguing characters I’d like to share a cup of tea with. 

I got to know her in the book Evelina: A Victorian Heroine in Venice by Judith Harris, a writer based in Rome. The book opens with a flood about to engulf the land Evelina is protecting, the inheritance from her late husband, Count Almorò III Pisani. 

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But then we flashback to Evelina’s chaotic heritage; for example, her father, a British doctor, was accused of having murdered Lord Byron. Evelina’s French mother Marionca was both victim and perpetrator in her own turmoil, it seems: Harris tells us of her manipulations, affairs, and alarming reactions to events, but in the face of her husband’s neglect as well as machinations against her by other family members, some of her behavior seems understandable. Wherever the truth lies, Evelina escaped this chaos and found refuge in her adoring husband, a Venetian Count from the noble Pisani family.

I won’t try to summarize the whole story here–you can find that on Amazon or, better yet, you can read the book yourself! Harris meticulously digs through letters, news reports, and other historical documents to piece together this family’s curious history. Instead, I’ll share some of the highlights in the book for me, a more personal reaction rather than a book review.

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One thing that drew me to the book was Evelina’s connection to the Villa Pisani in Stra, where she lived with her husband. Designing the garden was a balm to her, and her home became a refuge where she could invite friends and escape the heat and humidity of Venice. I visited the villa some years ago, reveling in the gardens, particularly the hedge maze and the orangery, Victorian garden features that I admire. I’m happy to report that my partner RJ and I made it through the maze to the center building. 

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The gardens that Evelina created

Evelina also surrounded herself with other interesting folks from her era, including a close relationship with Margaret Symonds, daughter to writer John Addington Symonds, who visited her often at Villa Pisani. (Personally I loved Symonds’ biography on Frederick Rolfe, the English author who is buried in Venice; Symonds’ writing depicts this eccentric as both exasperating and sympathetic, a difficult feat.) Henry James was another admirer of Evelina’s pluck, determination, and management skills, and the Curtises, Daniel and Ariana, were her neighbors, with their constant flow of artists and writers visiting Palazzo Barbaro. Moreover, Isabella Stewart Gardner was also a close friend–and of particular interest to me since last summer I finally visited her former-home-now-museum in Boston, which is modeled after Palazzo Barbaro.

So you can see that books can inform us and entertain us and delight us, and when they intersect with the things we already know and love, that’s a bonus. In Evelina I’m sure you’ll find your own bonus, whether it’s reading about Lord Byron’s death, or life in Constantinople, or growing up in Rome. Have fun finding out!

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Author Judith Harris

Judith Harris also contributed to First Spritz Is Free: Confessions of Venice Addicts, with her chapter “Venice Between Poetry and Pragmatism.” Here’s an excerpt, where she tells more about the Curtises’ role in Venetian society:

“After the Napoleonic era, Venice increasingly attracted artists, writers, the ultra-cultivated and the merely wealthy from all over Europe as well as the United States. Especially the Americans found Venice a soothing instance of decadence and pleasing contrast from the manufacturing cities of the US Northeast, like Boston. Finding it meant buying it—and the great double Palazzo Barbaro on the Grand Canal passed into the hands of the rich Bostonian merchant banker Daniel Curtis and his wife, who became the doyennes of Venetian society.

At that time the Venetians themselves were in deep trouble. Many were also in debt, for the Austrian rulers (ousted only in 1866) neglected the Venetian ports in preference to Trieste. At the same time the manufacturing revolution sweeping Northern Italy bypassed Venice for the better-connected Milan and Turin. So many jobs were lost that the Venetian population declined by one quarter in just a dozen years.

The one hundred or so aristocratic Venetian families sold off their palazzi, paintings, and possessions, one by one. The Curtises, who first rented the fifteenth century Palazzo Barbaro in 1880, purchased it in 1885 for the equivalent of around $16,000. (In 2017 its top two floors were sold for $2 million.) The Curtises found the palazzo(in reality a double palazzo) in terrible condition, and painstakingly and expensively restored it to its former glory. The interior of its piano nobile was painted by John Singer Sargent, who happened to be a Curtis cousin.”

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Palazzo Barbaro

(Images from http://www.cnn.com/style/article/worlds-most-impressive-labyrinths-and-mazes/index.html, http://www.villapisani.it, judith-harris.com, and Wikipedia.)
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