Exploding Head


The campo is full of people, mostly locals

Can you see the flames leaping out of my head? My head is exploding!

Last night I attended the sagra, the neighborhood festival at Campo San Giovanni in Bragora. Part of the entertainment included “singing from the balconies,” a short presentation by a group of women. One woman told a story from one balcony, and in between the episodes, the other group of women sang from their own balcony. The whole thing was in Venetian dialect, so I started to zone out a bit until I heard…

… Hermonia Vivarini!

I turned to my friend B and asked, “Did she just say Hermonia Vivarini?!”

You see, Hermonia was a glassmaker on Murano, one of the only women ever mentioned in any records of glassmaking. She designed a navicella, a delicate water pitcher that looked like a boat. I wrote a chapter about her in my book A Beautiful Woman in Venice. There’s not a lot of information out there about her; in fact, when I visited the glass museum a few years ago, one of the employees there had not even heard of her.

So I was astonished that here was a woman on a balcony telling her story!

When the story finished, the other women sang. Then the first woman began a new story, also in dialect, and I heard the name…

… Marietta Barovier!

She’s the other amazing woman glassmaker from the 16th century. She is better known because her family’s glass factor still lives on to this day. She invented the rosetta bead, too, which was used as currency throughout Europe and even parts of Africa.

This was when my head began to explode, sparks popping out my ears.

So of course I waited until the performance ended and the singers came out of the building. I approached the storyteller and introduced myself. But before I could finish she said, “But we know each other.”

“No…,” I said.

“I know! I have seen you on YouTube! You have the videos about Hermonia and Marietta!”

So now the top of my head went flying off into the sky.

“Meetings like this are not an accident,” she said. “They are meant to be.” She then introduced me to her colleague who did the research on the women glassmakers and wrote this script. My new friend is both an actress and a glassmaker on Murano, so she was the perfect person to play this part in the festa entertainment.

Now remember, my head had just exploded, so you must forgive me my lapse. I gave them both my business card, but they did not give me theirs, and I didn’t even get their names.  So I’m hoping they will indeed contact me so I can find out more about their work and maybe even collaborate in the future.

navicella copy

A replica of Hermonia’s navicella

(Click on the names in blue to see the YouTube videos.)

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Becoming Casanova


I looked down and saw that my hands were writing a manuscript. My legs were clad in pale blue damask breeches, my feet in black shoes with silver buckles. My hand that held the pen was tickled by my lace cuffs. I had become Casanova.


I’m about to enter the museum experience


Casanova ponders life

This is one part of the Casanova Museum and Experience, which opened this spring in the Cannaregio district of Venice. It is the first such museum dedicated to Casanova (though the one in Duchov in the Czech Republic, where many of C’s papers are held, has an area dedicated to his works). What makes this museum different is its more experiential nature. The audio tour coupled with many videos and even virtual reality goggles immerses visitors in 18th century Venice, Casanova’s playground.

That’s how I came to see my hand writing a manuscript.

In my virtual reality experience, I drank with Senator Bragadin, women flirted with me or tapped me on the chest, I gambled, I rode in a gondola, and I wrote, all in Venice’s streets or buildings. I recognized the staircase at the Ca’ Sagredo, with its enormous murals.


A nun flirts with me during my virtual reality experience

One room is dedicated to films made about C’s life, with video clips running continuously. Another room discusses C’s writings. Numerous artifacts from the 18th century are on display, from various sources, as well as mannikins showing clothing of the time period. I even got to sit on lovely replica chairs.


Two older films about Casanova

I previously posted about the bedroom scene–a rumpled bed with a sheer screen where they project an image of Casanova and a lover moving towards each other and then falling upon the bed. Of course a museum dedicated to C must include information about his love affairs, for that is what most people know about him, but fortunately it is not the only element presented about his life. For many people, this is how they get to know something about Casanova, and hopefully they will be inspired to study further and learn more about the whole man.


The museum also owns one Casanova manuscript, a letter. I wish it had said more about this letter, its provenance and contents. I’ll write more about this later. Hopefully as time goes on, the museum will be able to purchase more such manuscripts.


The museum bookshop has opened only recently, so they do not yet carry my book. But hopefully that will change soon! On the day I made my visit, they were having an event with an author of a novel about C, published by Mondadori, who hired a dozen actors clad in period costume to pose on the staircase and walk the Venetian streets.


The ground floor staircase of the Palazzo Pesaro Papafava

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And Again the Spritz Is Free!

Rain rolled in overnight, and I woke to thunder and winds blowing in my window–a welcome freshness that lasted until the evening.


I am with Marisa Convento, the Impiraressa, enjoying a spritz

Last night I had a lovely meet up with contributors to the forthcoming book, First Spritz Is Free: Confessions of Venice Addicts. We gathered at Taverna Remer, which has one of the best Grand Canal views of any bar in Venice.


The jeweler Marisa Convento and the chef and guide Monica Cesarato had arrived just before me, and we started with a round of spritz. Quite soon, Luisella Romeo, the queen of Venetian guides according to Monica, arrived to join us. She carried an artichoke flower she had gotten on the island of Sant’Erasmo where she took clients today.


Luisella with her artichoke

I have not met many of the contributors to First Spritz, though we’ve been emailing each other for some months now. But as Venice is a small and often insular world, many of them had met each other before. We had a few minutes to get acquainted before the next two people arrived: Monica Daniele, who runs a shop selling traditional cloaks (tabarri) and hats, and her husband Albert Gardin, translator and the next Doge of Venice (see my previous blog on that topic). The table grew even livelier, and drinks arrived for the newcomers.


Finally, Gregory Dowling showed up, claiming he had been waylaid by a rubbish issue. Albert regaled us with a recitation of The Iliad in Venetian, as translated by Giacomo Casanova, which Albert had published.


Monica and Albert



Me and Gregory

But alas, our time was short, as folks had other commitments to head off to. We moved out to the campiello, where the air was fresh, the tide was high, and some men at the pier were threatening to fight! We managed to take this group shot together before we dispersed.


L to R: Kathleen Gonzalez, Monice Cesarato, Marisa Convento, Luisella Romeo, Monica Daniele, Gregory Dowling, and Albert Gardin

I look forward to the First Spritz meet up in the San Francisco Bay Area next. If anyone wants to buy my plane ticket to Boston, we can have one there, too, as a number of the contributors are from that area.  🙂

Keep watching this space for the ebook! It should be available in the next week.

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Two Women, One University


Venice’s influence in Padova is quite evident, as this lion shows

Today I spent a lovely day in Padova with Tiziana, the person who translated my Casanova guidebook, Seductive Venice, into Italian. We walked around the city to see the most beautiful sites, from the Caffe Pedrocchi, to the Palazzo delle Erbe, the Piazza dei Signori and the Prato della Valle. But our main goal, besides just getting to spend time together, was to see the Palazzo Bo, otherwise known as the University of Padua.

Tiziana looks cool and beautiful whereas the heated had wilted me!

I’ve wanted to visit this site for a long time but have been foiled by rain, or holiday closures, or bad timing. But Tiziana made a reservation for us, and I finally got to see the anatomical gallery. This was the place where professors trained doctors by dissecting cadavers. Since it was difficult to find enough bodies, some professors donated their own after their deaths! A row of their skulls sat along the side of one room.


In the university halls are coats of arms from past students

The gallery itself is quite unusual. We viewed it from the bottom, through the rectangular hole where the dissecting table would have been. The gallery sides are extremely steep, with wooden barriers that came up to the students’ chests so if they fainted, they wouldn’t tip head first into the gallery. The standing spaces were also very narrow. “Natural selection,” said our guide. “The students must be quite thin.” Students often stood for up to 15 hours watching a dissection, which occurred only in January and February, when it was cold enough to preserve the bodies longer. All of this was done by candlelight, of course. One man on our tour said, “I would rather have the doctor who stood at the bottom nearer to the body than the one at the top of the gallery.”

They don’t allow photos inside, so I couldn’t take my own. But this can give you an idea.

The view from above


The view from below

The other big thrill for me was to see the statue that honors Elena Cornaro Piscopia, the first woman in the world to earn a university degree. I included a chapter about her in my book A Beautiful Woman in Venice, and her story is one that especially breaks my heart. She was brilliant in many areas: languages, mathematics, philosophy, theology, music, and art–and her father made sure she had the best tutors. But he also used her to show off the family’s status, causing her such stress that she resorted to self-flagellation and “holy anorexia” in a sort of penance for being paraded in public. You see, she was a Benedictine oblate, meaning that she had chosen to live her life according to the Rule of St. Benedict, and the public fame went against the humility she tried to cultivate. She died at age 38, due mostly to her self-inflicted health issues.

Elena Cornaro Piscopia

Our tour guide, though, pointed out Elena’s great accomplishments and urged us all to remember her. Turns out our guide belongs to an organization that raises money to preserve the monument to Elena and other notable figures. What a lovely coincidence!

But if you read my title above, you may be wondering by now, “Who is the other woman?” Though Elena Cornaro was the first to earn a degree, there was another illustrious woman who shone at the University of Padova before her: Cassandra Fedele. She was an orator and delivered a well-received speech, ostensibly to honor her nephew’s graduation, but also to promote women’s education. I have not previously shared this video about her, so here it is, filmed in Venice near the convent where she spent the last years of her life. As far as I know, there’s no statue or plaque commemorating Cassandra at the university, so this is a nice moment to remember her contributions to equal rights.

Cassandra Fedele

Cassandra Fedele engraving

By the way, did anyone get my pun in the title? The two women could be Elena Cornaro and Cassandra Fedele, or it could be me and Tiziana….

(Images of the anatomical gallery come from http://www.chimica.unipd.it/ispe12/city_of_padova.html and http://joetourist.ca/archive/Italy/Padua.htm)
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Casanova in da House, Yo!

I’m a busy kid in Venice! I visited the Palazzo Zaguri exhibit, “Venice Secrets.” It’s huge–many floors filled with torture devices and their grisly descriptions. Chairs where they set people on fire, beds like grills, pokey things and spiky things. Many of the examples come from other cities besides Venice, but there are also a number of stories and examples from the Venetian archives. I’ll report on those more later.

But today I want to focus on the items related to Casanova.


The exhibit begins at the top floor, after you climb lots and lots of stairs. There they’ve created a replica of Casanova’s prison cell from the Leads–a little odd, considering that the real cell is on display about 10 minutes’ walk away at the Palazzo Ducale. I visited that one some years ago, so I don’t remember how accurate this replica is in comparison. But it does have a bed covered with straw and an armchair and footrest. Casanova famously hid a metal rod that he used to pick his way out of his cell in this chair, so that was a nice detail.


The long staircase to the beginning of the exhibit. The ticket counter clerk said she gets tired of hearing the voice that recites the introduction to the exhibit all day, so she was happy to listen to the disco music from the shop next door.


Replica of C’s prison cell


The bed and chair in C’s cell. Looks too nice for a prison!

They also had a mannikin wearing clothes supposedly like Casanova’s when he escaped from prison, even with dirt and wear marks on them, as you can see here. I was sorry to see that they didn’t include the hat with a feather in it, which C described in his memoirs.

Most interesting were the two documents in C’s hand–notes for his memoirs. Originals (though it didn’t mention how they were authenticated), This is quite exciting to me, as most of C’s original papers are either in Czechoslovakia, where he lived at the end of his life, or in Paris because the National library bought the memoirs. Also displayed were copies of Manuzzi’s accusations against C after spying on him; the real documents are in the state archives.


Notes for Ch. 1 of the memoirs, from the private collection of Pistore


Notes for Ch. 3-4

Copies of spy reports


Replica of the spy Manuzzi’s report against Casanova, which led to C’s arrest

There was also information about C’s friendship with Pietro Zaguri, one of the past owners of the palazzo. C went there a number of times and also encountered Lorenzo DaPonte, who is described in one of the rooms. After doing so much research on these folks, it’s so interesting to inhabit the spaces they inhabited.


I’ll post separately about the other goodies housed in this museum. I’m sad to report that they did not have my books on display, even though I write about Casanova in one book, and in the other about Veronica Franco and Giustina Rossi, who are both part of the exhibit. I must rectify this situation….

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Always Free!

Woohoo! I’m in Venice! Sadly, my suitcase is not…

But that didn’t stop me from setting out today to explore things new and old. First, the old.


I stopped by at Bar Tiziano for my first spritz of the trip. Bepi was there. Don’t know why he bothered asking what I wanted. It’s always a spritz Aperol. And he set out the basket of potato chips, as usual. In fact, it was a replay of years past, twenty-one years and counting, that I’ve been having my spritz there from him. In many ways, this ritual is the seed of my new book: First Spritz Is Free. Here is an excerpt from my chapter:

“California! Welcome back!” Bepi sees me coming and puts the chips basket atop the glass counter. “Spritz Aperol?” he asks, but why? He knows that’s what I come here for.

Spritz and a sense of coming home.

Bar Tiziano doesn’t look like much: It’s not an open-beamed gem from the fifteenth century; no copper pots hang over the oven, no spindly, spiny cicchetti peek out of the glass case. Instead, big windows light the bright interior, and a black and white photo on the wall shows a well-dressed American woman walking down the street while a man on a Vespa cranes his neck to ogle her. Tourists stream in to grab bottles of acqua naturale from the refrigerated case, and locals with their fluffy little dogs gesticulate with the hand not holding their drink.

I’ve known both Bepi and Claudio, the other long-time barista, since 1997 when I spent six weeks in the nearby Santi Apostoli neighborhood. One time we all went out for white pizza, but usually I just stop in for my first spritz upon returning to Venice. When I ask, “Quanto le devo?” Bepi rolls his eyes and walks away with my empty glass. Claudio turns up the corners of his mouth in a semi-smile. “For you . . . ,” they say and shrug.

The photo of the woman is no longer there. And Bepi no longer has much hair. But the spritz was delicious! Bepi asked how long I would be in Venice. “Dieci giorni,” I said, ten days.

Where is your “uomo,” your man, he asked. “Still in California,” I replied.

He joked to another patron, “Then I have some days to go to the gym and get ready for you!”

“But you have a wife,” I said, knowing he had divorced some years ago, but he had joked for a few years that his dog was now his wife.

“No!” he called out. “I don’t have one wife, I have two!” he said as he reached for his phone to show me a picture of his two beautiful dogs sitting side by side in a meadow backed by mountains.


Bepi took a brief break to eat some spaghetti between customers. “You want some spaghetti?” he offered. I think he offered five times because my “No, grazie” apparently didn’t register. But he did convince me to have a tramezzino instead, a little white bread sandwich stuffed with eggplant and peppers, all gooey with mayonnaise.

Quanto le devo?” I asked, as usual. What do you think was his reply?

“Come here for a kiss!” he said, scooting around the counter and giving me a kiss for each cheek. So you can see how this can inspire me to write a good book….


First Spritz Is Free is nearly finished and will be available soon! Keep watching this space for your copy! In the mean time, here is the website:  First Spritz Is Free

I mentioned “things new and old.” Watch this space for a forthcoming post about the new thing I explored today! It involved that storied adventurer, Casanova.

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Gondola Stuff: Salt ‘n Pepper



As part of the continuing series of gondola stuff I own, here’s one of my most interesting pieces–a salt and pepper shaker shaped like a traditional gondola with a felze. The felze comes apart into two pieces–the two shakers–that sit atop the gondola.


And here’s a detail that makes it especially interesting: the stamp on the bottom tells us that it was made in Occupied Japan during WWII. The sticker indicates that it was sold at the Japanese Tea Garden in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco.


I live in the Bay Area and have been to the tea garden a number of times. But I actually bought this gondola in Bisbee, Arizona, in an antiques shop. So it is very well travelled!


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