In Memoriam–The Steaming Lady

176 years ago today, Marina Querini Benzon died. She is the subject of the famous song “La Biondina in Gondoleta” about a languorous blond with her lover, floating down the canals. She was quite a liberated woman for the late eighteenth-early nineteenth century. She witnessed the fall of the Venetian Republic and Venice’s takeover by the French and then Austrians. But she still ran a literary salon at her palace, entertaining her guests with refreshments that weren’t always so fresh, plus music and conversation. Her most famous guest and good friend: Lord Byron.

But I have a favorite story about Marina. As she grew older, she would have her gondolier take her to visit friends at their palaces. The gondoliers developed a nickname for her. “Xe qua el fumeto!” “Here comes the steaming lady!” they said. She kept a slice of hot polenta hidden in her bosom, and the steam escaped. She’d pull out the polenta for a little nibble now and then.

Marina Benzon

The original portrait of her was apparently lost, but this copy gives you a sense of what she looked like. Minus the polenta.  (from the website

I’ll have a whole chapter on her in my forthcoming book, A Beautiful Woman in Venice, due out by summer.

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Quattro Minuti con Casanova: San Samuele

Casanova’s earliest origins–San Samuele is the church where his parents were married, where Casanova was baptized, and where he gave his first one and a half sermons. Watch this video to get the full story of what he found in the collection plate and why he decided that the life of a priest wasn’t for him.

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Random Journal Entry

Here is one in a very occasional series where I type up one of my journal entries from when I was in Venice. This is from last summer, a Saturday in July when I apparently didn’t know what the date was:

“I’m sitting in the window of my apartment as I write, recuperating after a long day of walking and exploring. Listening to Brazilian music (Tum Tum Tum), eating brie and crackers, and sipping a soave.

My apartment windows just above the white awning.

My apartment windows just above the white awning.

I started the day with too much internet and book time in the morning, and then finally got out the door and took the vap to Giardini. Started with S Francesco di Paola and draped a wrap on my shoulders so I could enter. Honestly, I forgot which of the women from my research I was supposed to be looking for, but I knew it was on my list.

Next was the church and ex-convent of Sant’Anna, where Arcangela Tarabotti lived. The church is all sealed up, though through a chink in the door I could see some interior. Not much to see but some rubble and columns. There’s a small corte alongside the church, then a slightly larger area adjacent, with some grass and a tree or two. An elderly woman stood on her balcony in front of her laundry, so I asked her if this was the “ex-convento.” Even though I repeated myself three times (and though my Italian is not great, I’m sure I was intelligible), I don’t think she heard me. Her cat took a look at me and kept going, and I think the lady might have offered me to enter her fence. Sweet, but I had to reason to visit, and the cat who had spurned me had already moved on.

Interior of Sant'Anna

Interior of Sant’Anna

The area of the former convent is now built up into apartments. I think they might have built up the land itself; when I looked at the area in comparison to Barbari’s 1500 map, it now seems bigger. But it looks like the original cloister courtyard is still there. Each archway facing it is bricked up, as are the windows at the back of the church. But they may have been that way during Arcangela’s time.

Ex-convent of Sant'Anna

Ex-convent of Sant’Anna

The thing that struck me was the isolation. In her time, that was a pretty remote corner of Venice, the convent wall and garden facing the canal and S Pietro, which doesn’t have much going on. Then to wall up the windows as well must’ve been like putting a bird in a cage and then covering the cage. Horrid, like she said, unnatural.

Exterior of Sant'Anna

Exterior of Sant’Anna

I poked around S Pietro a bit until I got hungry. Polenta with gorgonzola on it is pretty yummy. I went over my notes while I rested and digested, then realized there was another site nearby related to my research–a hospice founded by women for women.

Former hospice

Former hospice

Then the long walk back to S Marco. I saw two women coming from the Biennale, wearing their museum tickets as nose guards held in place by their sunglasses.

My street has no name.

But it has a skull. On my first day I looked down to see what I thought was crumpled gray paper but discovered was a tiny, fragile bird’s skull. I placed it in the corner at the base of the door, a talisman. But a couple days later I found it crushed.”

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Where Am I?


Can you name the actual building I was in when I took this picture?

If you can do that, can you also guess why I was in that building? I’ll give you a hint: it was last July 2014.

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Acqua Alta, Acqua Viva?

You may have noticed the new banner I posted. It shows a number of bottles on a shelf, one of which contains water from the historically high acqua alta in December 2008. This cafe bottled some and stuck it up on the shelf. It was still there last time I visited.

If you want to see it for yourself, here are some directions. It’s on the main street between Campo San Aponal and Campo San Polo, almost facing Da Sandro. I’m sorry I don’t know the name of the cafe. It’s one of the traditional looking ones, not modernized. If someone knows the name, please post it so I can give them credit for their creative approach to memorializing this acqua alta event.

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The Floating City Misnomer

A friend recently lent me Dan Brown’s Inferno, saying, “Lots of it is set in Venice!” So I had to read it. It took a few hundred pages for the protagonist Robert Langdon to get himself to Venice, but he finally arrived. Besides his knowledge of Florence and Rome, Langdon showed he knows Venice as well… until I came to these lines:

“Is there water under St. Mark’s? The question, he realized, was foolish. There was water under the entire city. Every building in Venice was slowly sinking and leaking.” (page 365-66)


While we often hear that “Venice is sinking,” that’s a misnomer, or at least an oversimplification of the problem. But a city built on water? Just a moment of rational thought would make anyone realize that stone buildings weighing a few tons couldn’t possibly be floating. Venice is primarily built on wooden pilings that have petrified over the years. I won’t attempt to give a detailed description here, but if you want a good one, check out this site:

(Notice that this article is titled “The Construction of Venice, the Floating City!”)

It even has a drawing that shows workmen tamping in a wooden piling. You can still see the machinery doing this kind of work today when they are replacing old wood.

I know it’s difficult to get all of your facts straight when writing a book. I’m writing a history book right now myself, and I’m sure there will be some things that I’ll flub up. I also don’t want to go bashing authors. But I just couldn’t pass up Robert Langdon’s (Dan Brown’s) comment without reacting, especially since the books are generally so factually dense and accurate (as far as I know).

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Quattro Minuti con Casanova–Palazzo Businello Giustiniani

Ah, the infamous story of the aroph! What’s an aroph, you ask? Here’s what Wictionary says: (the word was not in my other dictionary!)

Etymology: Contraction of aroma philosophorum, from Latin.

Noun: aroph (uncountable)

  1. (chemistry, obsolete) Any of various medical remedies.

Casanova concocted an aroph to help a frantic friend induce a miscarriage. Serious stuff, except the way Casanova told it in his memoirs, it was more of a farce! This episode of Quattro Minuti con Casanova takes place at the home of Giustiniana Wynne, the woman in question, though the aroph episode happened in Paris. I tell the story here:

When I first read Casanova’s memoirs, I laughed over this rather humorous episode. He seems to trick Giustiniana, though if C’s retelling is accurate, she willingly went along with the “joke.” Of course, can we trust his version?

I later read much more about Giustiniana Wynne, a brilliant and sensitive woman not given the opportunities until late in life to really dig into her writing career. She is credited by some scholars as having written the first, or at least a very early, Italian novel. She also wrote a smattering of poems, a book of sentimental essays, and a couple other books as well. I’ll have a complete chapter on her in my forthcoming book on Venetian women. I developed new respect for Giustiniana–but the aroph story is still pretty entertaining.

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