You Had Me At…

“… Venice is a state of mind. That is, the scintillating, kaleidoscopic, shifting colors of that watery realm remain alive inside me long after I depart the actual city.”

This from Frances Mayes’ Foreword to Dream of Venice, the 2014 book by editor JoAnn Locktov and photographer Charles Christopher. They’ve created a sumptuous and vibrant book that leads readers through Venice’s different moods, seasons, and emotions by pairing Christopher’s photos with quotes by Venetophiles.

Paging through Dream of Venice evoked all kinds of memories for me. Following the Foreword, the first photo shows the sculpture in the lagoon between Fondamente Nuove and the island of San Michele. Here’s my pic of it from 2011:


Seeing these two robed figures aboard their leaf-shaped vessel always tells me I’m approaching Venice. It is at about this time that my throat tightens, as I know for certain that I am arriving back to my city.

The facing quote by Alessandro Falassi calls Venice a “liminal space par excellence.” I recall first learning about liminal spaces when I was in a college anthropology course. To refresh my memory (college was some years ago!), I looked up liminality and found this:

Liminality is the in-between moments, the space between an inciting incident in a story and the protagonist’s resolution. It is often a period of discomfort, of waiting, and of transformation. Your characters’ old habits, beliefs, and even personal identity disintegrates. (

The zone where this sculpture floats is a liminal space, an in-between moment for me as I arrive at this city that never fails to transform me. Locktov’s choice of Falassi’s quote here was spot-on.

Then there’s a poem by Rachel Dacus where she writes, “I have taken to wearing Venice on my wrist.” She has found out my secret! Whenever I make a presentation about Venice, I always wear something Venetian, whether it’s on my wrist, or earrings in my ears, or my strappy heels on my feet. This is my way of keeping Venice with me, present in those moments, like I’ve brought along the city as my date for that evening.

Me wearing my favorite Venetian necklace

Me wearing my favorite Venetian necklace

Then Dianne Hales tells the story of the older man who compliments her in Italian. I had to stop reading so I might relive the memory (the memories!) of the men I had kissed impulsively in Venice. It’s a city for kissing. Christopher’s photo of a lopsided archway and a ghost-like couple represents the fleeting sensation of these kinds of encounters.

Dream of Venice captures all those dreamy moments that are so hard to freeze with static words, words that have a limited power. The combination of poems and quotes paired with pictures brings the city rushing back into my veins. What is there to say when instead I can feel?


I could go on like this for a while to recommend the book, but you should get to experience it for yourself instead. I’ll just tease you with a few details:

–A phrase new to me: “In piedi come un veneziano”–to walk like a Venetian.

–Rich colors in photos of water, of ceilings, of boats, of dusk and fog and midnight.

–Insights into the making of Wings of a Dove (which some of my gondolier friends worked on).

–Assassins transformed into cats? Read Erica Jong to find out.

–The delicious butt on the moor statue atop the clock tower.

–Venice compared to LSD!

Dream of Venice is not something to read in one sitting, but is something to be sipped like a good grappa. It made me pay attention to things like the possibility in the odor of mildew, or a fear of pilings for foundations. You can certainly transport yourself to Venice to enjoy some lovely moments with this book in your hands.

Photo in the book, as seen on the website

Photo in the book, as seen on the website

For more info, visit:

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Painter of Singular Souls

Isabella Teotochi Albrizzi

“Not used to being sick, I became so desperate that I could say I was more vegetating than living,” wrote Isabella Teotochi Albrizzi not long before her death on September 27, 1836, 179 years ago today. This lethargy must have especially pained her, as hers was a particularly vivacious life. Isabella, a writer who also ran a literary salon, helped to shape Venetian culture in her century.

The literary salons of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were different than their sixteenth and seventeenth century predecessors. Instead of the male-dominated and run academies, now the salons were often hosted by women and brought together both sexes for music, discussion, refreshments, and overall cultural cohesion. At a time when salons in Paris and London were known as dens of gossiping society women, Isabella Teotochi Albrizzi’s salon held a higher standard. As researcher Ricciarda Ricorda points out, “For Teotochi, too, it is a moment of self-affirmation and proof of her own potential” (112). The salon’s lingua franca, as the phrase suggests, was French, though of course Italian, along with its dialects, and Greek were often interspersed as well.


Typical Venetian drawing room, Palazzo Mocenigo


While the women generally occupied the seats, the men often stood behind the chairs, though they all mingled in the same room, unlike the more British fashion of segregating the sexes. Tables of inlaid wood were arranged beside chairs covered with embroidered cushions. The cool terrazzo floor added browns, beiges, and blacks below, while Murano glass chandeliers, ever more elaborate, provided color and sparkle overhead. Women’s dresses opted for a slimmer line and a high waist, with fabrics that flowed more than the heavy damasks of previous centuries. Due to the waning fortunes of the Venetian Republic, the lemonade might be weaker, the biscuits not as fresh, or the wine of lesser quality, but attendees were willing to forgo such treats to be replaced by scintillating conversation. Salons such as Isabella’s kept the arts alive at a time when society was crumbling.

Isabella often chose a topic to start a conversation, and those present volleyed ideas like a lively game of badminton. Typical topics might include ideal love, women’s education, or Aristotelian conundrums. Besides writers and artists, scientists, ambassadors, politicians and composers might attend. Isabella, or one of her guests, might read her own verses or scenes for entertainment as well as analysis. She also read from her travel journals; Ricorda comments that “The sober elegance of the pages describing her ‘tour’ suggests they were destined to be read aloud, an appropriate development for this sophisticated salon hostess” (111-12). Isabella’s salon presented an opportunity for her to display her varied talents while entertaining guests. She presided with grace and aplomb, like a cooling breeze against a humid evening.

salon of Isabella Teotochi Albrizzi

salon of Isabella Teotochi Albrizzi

salon of Isabella Teotochi Albrizzi

salon of Isabella Teotochi Albrizzi

Isabella’s best known work was I Ritratti, or portraits, primarily of the men with whom she surrounded herself. While Isabella was not the only person, male or female, to write such portraits in her era, hers show that she herself possessed the character traits to determine who had taste and good moral behavior; Susan Dalton concludes,

Consequently, while some eighteenth century thinkers argued that women’s difference [from men] defined them out of serious political and intellectual forums, others . . . believed that women could play an important social role because of sexual difference. The place that they occupied is illustrated in their social interactions, and the great interest in Isabella’s Ritratti is the way that it documents these practices, old and new, gendered and not, in all their complexity. (100)

If women were given a narrow, circumscribed role, or only a drawing room in which to develop their voices, then Isabella Teotochi Albrizzi filled her given space fully with her insights, organization, and instructive lessons. “Taste had to be educated,” she contended, “but once it had been, it would not only express itself in civil behavior, but also function as a means of identifying morality in others” (qtd. in Dalton 91). Her salons fulfilled a deeper societal function than merely a social gathering place; they built character by developing artistic sensibilities, which strengthened society’s moral fiber.

Giovanni Pindemonte called Isabella “the painter of singular souls” (Dalton 95). Though many have forgotten her, today we can remember her and consider all she–and salonniers like her–gave to preserve and develop Venetian society.

(Most of this post is excerpted directly from my chapter on Isabella Teotochi Albrizzi in my book A Beautiful Woman in Venice, available in Venice bookstores and at (I took the photos of the salon and museum.)

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Casanova and the Chicken Mystery–A Challenge to You

“You smell of Venice and not in a good way.”

This was my favorite line, though it’s not the one that first caught my attention.

My partner RJ has been making his way (rather alarmingly quickly, I might add) through the Dr. Who series. He’s up to season 5, I think, and called me into the living room because the next episode was set in Venice. “Wanna watch it with me?” he asked.

I had to do my hair that night (not kidding!), but watched a few minutes, enough to see the clever ways they combined exterior shots of courtyards with CG canals and gondolas blended in. Oh, and vampires. Dr. Who was bringing his friends to Venice as a wedding present and got sucked into a vampire ring run by aliens (or something like that. I didn’t watch the whole episode). (Here’s a wiki summarizing the episode:


The Doctor and friends were there in the fifteenth century, and he commented that it would be a couple hundred years before Casanova would be in Venice, which was a good thing, considering that the Doctor owed Casanova a chicken.


Of course I had to do a  little digging after that. RJ found a fan fiction page for me that recreates the scene where Dr. Who mentions Casanova. That’s where I found the line at the top of this blog, plus this one:

“The Doctor owes the charming Casanova a chicken.”

Here’s the whole fan fiction piece if you want to read it. (It’s more relevant for Dr. Who fans than Casanova fans, but anyway):

In case you don’t read it, here’s a summary: Apparently Dr. Who and his friend Jack were stuck in Venice, where they met Casanova and some “womanizing aliens.” They made a bet with him “about something you’d probably rather not know,” and the Doctor lost the bet. He was supposed to give Casanova a chicken, but since he didn’t have a chicken, he knocked C unconscious instead and ran off.

(By the way, there are many many webpages out there about this episode if you want to read on.)


So here’s my challenge to you, dear readers:

In 100 words or less, tell us the story of what the bet was about and what happened next, after Casanova woke up. You might guess that I’m most interested in what Casanova did rather than what Dr. Who did (no offense to Dr. Who fans, but I’m more of a Casanova fan). Send in your stories, and the person with the most entertaining one will get a prize! I’ll send you a copy of one of my books of your choice; (see here: or a copy of Venice Is a Fish, or a t-shirt from a great Venice bar, Il Santo Bevitore (size medium).

Deadline: Next Friday, Oct. 2. Looking forward to hearing a creative tale about Casanova!

(Images from and dr who vampires of venice)

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“Say arrivederci to warm drinks!”


That’s what it says on the package to Ven-Ice, my new ice cube maker that I got in Venice this summer.

Also on the packaging: “What’s more romantic than gliding down a Venetian canal? How about gliding down that canal with a frosty cold cocktail? Our charming Ven-Ice icetray even includes a drink stirring plastic oar!”


How have I lived without this in my life? I have a small but fun collection of gondolas I’ve bought over the years (see future blog posts for photos), and this is a fun new addition. But more importantly, I can have icy cold spritz in my own home! Stirred with a traditional (plastic) oar (that isn’t actually shaped like a Venetian oar, but 99% of the world won’t see that difference). Most importantly, my Veni-Ice tray will help me live vicariously in Venice every time I sip my cold drink in California. I’m only sad that the gondola doesn’t have a silver ferro on the front. I guess I’d better get out my silver nail polish and give it a paint job!



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The Sea Invisible


Approach to Venice (1844)

Ruskin said about this painting that it was “the most perfectly beautiful piece of color of all that I have seen produced by human hands, by any means, or at any period.” It is Approach to Venice, by J. M. W. Turner, the British painter from the nineteenth century who so gloriously captured colors and light in washes of paint, decades before the Impressionists came on the scene. Turner visited Venice three times and inspired the later painters Whistler and Monet with his dreamy vistas of the city and her boats.

This particular painting, part of the “Painting Set Free” exhibit at the De Young Museum in San Francisco right now, captured my attention when I saw it this weekend. Look closely and you’ll see clusters of gondolas and other boats as they depart from the mainland and head toward the mirage that is Venice.

It mirrors an opening scene from the forthcoming book Ascension, set in eighteenth century Venice. My friend Gregory Dowling, the author, shared the manuscript with me as it goes to print. The book opens with the protagonist meeting British travelers in Fusina to load their bags aboard gondolas and guide them to Venice. Just like in Turner’s painting. I can’t tell you more about the book since it is not yet published, but I will heartily urge you to get it! Gregory expertly brings the city to life down to every detail (which I can’t tell you about-airrgh!).

At the De Young, they posted these lines from “Italy” by Samuel Rogers (1828):

The path lies o’er the sea invisible,

And from the land we went

As to a floating city, steering in,

And gliding up her streets as in a dream

So smoothly, silently.

The Dogana, San Giorgio, Citella, from the Steps of the Europa

The Dogana, San Giorgio, Citella, from the Steps of the Europa

This painting was also part of the exhibit. Turner wrote Citella for the church more often known as Le Zitelle. He often stayed at the Hotel Europa on the Grand Canal.

So then I contacted Gregory to make sure it was okay to blog about his forthcoming book. Get this–it turns out that he wrote his opening scene with inspiration from a Turner painting, just not the one that I had connected with! Gregory was inspired by Venice from Fusina, shown here:

Venice from Fusina

Venice from Fusina

Turner’s foreground image is much crisper here than in Approach to Venice. You can actually make out the porters, gondoliers, and travelers, though Venice in the background is still a dreamy, floating city.

Gregory also informed me that Ascension is now available, a bit ahead of schedule. The official publishing date is September 17, but Amazon is already delivering orders. I supposed that means that I could tell you more about it after all, but I decided not to. I highly recommend it, and then you can mix Turner’s scene with Gregory’s creation in your head for a lovely new Venice cocktail.

Amazon page for Ascension:

(Images from:  and, and

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Beautiful Women at Dinner

In July I had the great fortune to be in Venice at the same time as a Beautiful Woman in Venice tour, led by my friend Vonda Wells. She is the person who gave me the idea to write my latest book, A Beautiful Woman in Venice, biographical sketches that capture the voices and lives of over thirty of Venice’s remarkable women who contributed to their community in a myriad of ways.

Though the book was Vonda’s brainchild, I researched and wrote it, but Vonda leads the tours to Venice for women to experience the city. I had dinner with her group at Ristorante ai Barbacani near Campo Santa Maria Formosa. You can see that fish is a specialty there.

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The staff treated us to prosecco to open the meal, and limoncello with Venetian cookies to close it. Everything was delicious, and all set in a traditional Venetian restaurant, complete with ceramic pitchers, exposed beam ceilings, and pots hanging over the stove. The building is over 700 years old! We had a lovely meal as we got to know each other.

DSCN1495 copy

The day before, I had also met up with Vonda and one of her travelers to watch the fireworks for the Redentore festival. We celebrated on a party boat in the middle of the lagoon, with an open bar and thumping techno for the ride out and back. We’re toasting the end of the Black Plague!

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If  you want to be part of a Beautiful Woman in Venice tour, check out Vonda’s website at You may even recognize some of these photos!

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Where Am I?

2015-07-18 02.40.10

Can you tell me where I was when I took this picture?

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