27 June -- Venice
The flight over wasn't unusual. The expected lines and idiots.
I got clubbed over the head by a minimum-wage moron with a metal-detecting
wand. The scorns that patient merit from th' unworthy take. The
insolence of gormless.
Business class was comfortable. The food was still Delta food-like
substance, but the free wine was imported and I even scored a
single-malt with dessert. Non-peanut nuts and sparkling wine
before, too. And seats you can really sleep in, though Gay's
required the services of a technician to recline and, in the
Walked through customs and onto a waterbus which we didn't know
was going the wrong way. After we got that figured out, we got
off and went to a little cafe where we got water and wine and
Finally found the Hotel Rialto and our room, which is disappointingly
small for $235 a night. I'm typing in the bathroom, the only
place with a table large enough for a laptop. We have the view
of an alley and airconditioning that doesn't work. That was no
problem in Samoa, but here they've left off the ceiling fan and
But it's Venice, and Venice is gorgeous. We dropped our stuff
in the room, obeying the guidebook and hiding cash and valuables
in the safe, and hit the streets famished. Made the mistake of
going in the first place that looked cheap. It was a self-serve
cafeteria which specialized in a cuisine that in America is known
as "school food." Gay got a literally inedible piece of chicken
and I a pile of bland meatballs on rice, for twenty bucks. Well,
it was on the Grand Canal.
Better luck afterwards. Following signs to San Marco, we strolled
through the Mercerie, a chain of streets full of glitzy shops.
Most of them weren't interesting to me, jewels and furs and blown
glass, but one really made me wish I'd sold a movie recently.
A whole store full of leatherbound blank books. They ran from
about $20 for a little address book to $100 or more for one useful
for novel-writing. There was a too-gorgeous one full of high-quality
watercolor paper -- would I be able to paint in it? I might be
paralyzed by the fear that the painting wouldn't be worthy of
The church, the Basilica di San Marco, is astounding, both as
an affront to architectural taste and a monument to money and
pillage. Its scale and confusing lack of unifying style make
it beautiful to some, like me and John Ruskin, who called it
a "treasure-heap." Built on a site of ninth-century ruins, the
cathedral was sort of finished in 1094, but its special charm
is due to the add-ons that doges stuck on over the ages -- the
church is not the cathedral of Venice, but rather the chapel
of the doge, so all kinds of stuff that was pillaged in various
wars is now integrated into the junkyard facade of the place.
We didn't go in, reserving that for later, but walked around
window-shopping, and wound up sitting in a charming plaza between
the basilica and the Canal, listening to a good jazz trio while
drinking our ten-dollar coffee and beer. Yes, we could have eaten
for a week in Samoa for what that cost, but we wouldn't have
had millions of pigeons.
It was good jazz, and the woman leading the group played a soprano
saxophone, which connected to Gay -- in school she had wanted
to play the sax but they told her she wasn't big enough. Actually,
their sax wasn't _small_ enough.
We went back to the hotel to nap off a couple of hours' jet lag,
and then caught a vaporetto (water bus) to Accademia. A little
smarter now, we got sandwiches at a sidewalk joint for a couple
of bucks, and enjoyed the canal and people- and dog-watching
for awhile. Lots of exotic dogs in Venice.
We were at Accademia to pick up a music boat, which only plays
on Wednesday nights. If we don't do anything smarter all week,
that made it a smart week. We joined a group of about fifty people,
mostly German tourists, to listen to the Gruppo de Camera del
Collegium Ducale play chamber music whilst plying the Grand Canal
We were at the back of the line, and so were seated pretty far
back in the boat, but after the first number I complained to
Gay that I couldn't really hear the violincello, and there were
two seats empty right in front. So we moved down there, which
was a wonderful change. I was close enough to the first violin
to turn the pages for him (though I refrained); I could hear
the light finger-slaps of the violincello's left hand. It was
like being in the middle of a string quartet, which I've only
experienced once before (as a temporary guitar addition).
The guys were more than good. I guess the competition for gigs
like this is pretty fierce in this city. They were delicate and
powerful and so completely together it was like one person playing
an impossibly complex instrument.
Refreshments were served throughout the ninety-minute concert.
Sitting and sipping strong sweet coffee laced with grappa while
four experts celebrate Vivaldi, drifting down the Grand Canal
in a cool breeze while Venus presides over the deepening dusk
-- well, you could be in Cleveland poking yourself in the eye
with a stick, but this was better.
28 Jun 2002
We had a leisurely breakfast at the hotel. The guidebook cynically
says all the hotels give you bad coffee and a croissant and slap
ten dollars on your room price, but we were more fortunate, good
coffee plus lunchmeat and cheese and fruit cocktail.
Armed with a rough map, we set out in search of American Express
and a cybercafe. A rough map won't do in Venice, though. Too
many of the streets are a block or two long and wind up in a
watery grave. We did find American Express, eventually, and along
with a fairly good exchange rate, we got a map about a third
the size of Venice, with at least a tiny squiggle for every street.
The four cybercafes in the city are marked with an "@" sign on
the map, so we set off in the general direction of the closest,
and only got hopelessly lost a few times. But that was all right!
Venice is so uniformly gorgeous that you can stop anywhere and
look around, and in some direction there's a sight of truly arresting
beauty. (Sometimes it's a female policeman, but that's the next
topic.) It does present a problem to a painter, because most
of the scenes are pretty complex, all those churches and buildings
with windows and boats with people standing up in them, but I'll
just have to face it. Find a shady space to sit and give myself
a few hours.
Venice isn't Rome, and the difference isn't just all the water
in the streets. When we were in Rome for a few weeks writing
Robot-Jox-not-my-title, you couldn't help but notice that the
women tended to be absolute knockouts until about the age of
thirty. Then the pressure of marriage and children and the fact
that your husband had a mistress across town and couldn't divorce
you without going to hell all tended to put about twenty kilograms
of mama mia on your frame.
In Venice it doesn't work that way. Even middle-aged women are
lithe and sexy and tend to dress like fashion models or professional
women, take that as you will. The ones who are girls are All
Girl, and not for the faint of heart. (Gay points out that some
of them inexplicably speak French or German. How talented!)
Interesting that there were more cybercafes in Samoa, in the
tiny town of Apia, than in Venice. Of course a cybercafe in Samoa
is any joint with a computer and a phone line, and the down-payment
on one is a chicken and half a pig. In Venice you have to compete
with a hundred thousand businesses who can't relocate; the land
is all taken.
It was a pleasant modern place, about fifty computers, all chrome
and cool music. The computers were pretty new, the keyboards
crisp if a little confusing -- Euro layout rather than American
-- and the default screen was Bill Gates Standard, annoying but
easy to handle. I'd been surfing for five minutes when one of
the abovementioned pretty girls came by and asked if we'd like
something. I limited myself to a glass of white wine, and Gay
had a latte. It was nine bucks an hour, twice what we'd paid
in Apia, but worth it.
Afterwards we wandered out with no plan other than to find an
affordable nice place for lunch, and in an hour or so we found
one on a back road called something like Assassins' Avenue. It
was a cool shady alley where I suppose it wouldn't be that hard
to assassinate someone at night, but all we killed was a few
bucks for lasagna and penne carbonara, both excellent. Read the
newspaper over a half bottle of Chianti, and then set out for
the afternoon target, the Basilica di San Marco.
I won't say anything about religion here except to note that
the current pope is not a child molester and reads all my books.
The Basilica di San Marco is a huge monument to wealth and tastelessness,
and would be if it were Moslem or Christian Scientist. I found
it somewhat depressing to wander through it and think about legions
of children slaughtered or starved to provide its treasures through
the adventures of cruel professional murderers, but I'm just
an old poot. Lots of people prayed there, and paid good money
for the privilege of being in such a holy place.
We paid a few bucks, too. They let you into the church for free,
but all the goodies are sequestered here and there, and cost
you a euro or two to get through the turnstiles. Like the wonderful
bronze horses that were stolen from Constantinople in 1204 --
they were a thousand years old then, Roman masterworks, the only
such _quadriga_ to have survived. There are copies outside, but
the real ones are only $1.50 away.
The place must generate money like Disneyworld. A constant surging
line of people squeezing through from morning till night, each
of them dropping five or ten bucks to see the various treasures.
I got to see a tooth that belonged to St. Mark, or someone.
The Pala d'Oro, Golden Altar Panel, is worth mentioning. It's
an altar screen about the size of a garage door that took 339
years of looting to accumulate. Basically an artistic ground
for the display of thousands of jewels taken in the various Crusades.
It's garish but impressive, especially if you don't think of
airplanes crashing into buildings 700 years later in revenge.
Afterwards we had a cool drink in a coffeehouse that used to
be the hangout of Richard Wagner, and then back to the hotel
for a nap before confronting the evening.
We'd found a dinner place in our morning wanderings (it was also
written up in the Rough Guide), Le Bistrot de Venise. Despite
the foreign name and French ambience, its unique attraction is
that it serves dishes based on authentic ancient Venetian recipes,
thirteenth and fourteenth centuries.
It was absolutely fantastic. We both had a bean soup with pasta
and fish, more delicate than that sounds. It's actually a puree
of red bean soup prepared with fish broth, with diamond-shaped
fresh pasta cooked al dente. A delicate herb combination similar
to herbs Provence, and a splash of red wine. Then I had a stunning
sturgeon filet baked with plums and prunes, served with a dark
rich sauce of same, and Gay had delicious sauteed squids stuffed
with cubed potatoes and crisp bacon. We had salads and a reasonable
($14) bottle of Pinot Grigio. The whole thing came a little shy
of a hundred bucks, more than we'll normally pay for dinner unless
we want to row home, but worth it.
Then we set out to walk off a couple of hundred calories. Passed
through the San Marco piazza to the water, and walked along the
Grand Canal for an hour or so. Some marvelous oceangoing vessels
moored in an area apparently reserved for same, including wonderful
sailing vessels with complex tall rigging and a streamlined rocket
boat that looked like a George Lucas fantasy.
We got to a monument to Garribaldi, our turn-around point. It's
a wonderful sight, the usual monument to the guy standing up
there looking intrepid, but he's standing on a small mountain
of rock, with live plants growing out of it. One of his musketeers
keeps watch below. Small bats flutter through the light after
bugs. Totally charming, but perhaps not in the best part of town.
So we moved on.
We wanted to cover new territory, so we went inland, sort of
following the map. A tiny ancient alley of the ovens, Forni,
led us to an irresistible outdoor cafe looking out on the Arsenale
guarded by anthropomorphic lions. Had to stop for a Campari,
Hoofed an hour or so back into the main drag, and then a block
from the hotel had to stop at a jazz bar for a beer. It had a
Spanish/Cuban motif, so we also had to split a mojito, less authentic
but perhaps better than the ones we had in Havana.
And so to bed, tired but happy.
29 June --
A wandering day. After breakfast we crossed the Ponte Rialto
to the other side of the Grand Canal, where the Rialto Market
was revving up for the morning crowd. Carefully arranged and
brilliantly colorful displays of vegetables, but more fascinating
was the fish market, with huge swordfish on display, swords and
all, and eels writhing around in shallow trays, and lots of other
creatures still disturbingly alive, but undoubtedly fresh. Hundreds
of small snails were slowly making a dash for freedom in one
corner. Huge scallops snapped restlessly.
I went on a holy crusade to find a tube of mustard, but after
about ten stores had tubes of mayo, ketchup, anchovy paste, and
even toothpaste, I gave up and bought a small jar. Meanwhile
we dallied at a lot of interesting shops on the other side of
the canal, prices consistently cheaper than the trendy San Marco
side. (The women were also less spectacular; housewives out shopping,
of course, rather than the glitz 'n' glamour crowd.)
Found the best blank book and calligraphy shop in the world.
The books were too expensive for me to use writing novels, I
guess, beautiful heavy paper in hand-made bindings, a hundred
bucks a throw with two or three necessary for one novel. Maybe
we'll sell a movie before we leave.
We went to the Church of San Palo, which had some good paintings
by Tintoretto and an impressive set of stations of the cross
painted by Giandomenico Tiepolo when he was only twenty. Otherwise
it's a big old dreary church with an interesting achitectural
feature, a wooden ceiling that was "discovered" in the 1930's.
I'm not sure what they thought was up there the previous 500
Our vague ambition was to find the railway station and straighten
out our tickets to Stresa for the Hemingway conference. It was
a few miles of wandering around in random directions, a touristic
Brownian motion, but with delightful scenery everywhere.
(You don't need a map to get to the central parts of Venice;
there are signs with arrows at every large intersection that
point toward the rairoad or, on our side, the Rialto, San Marco,
(I was shocked to find out that our swanky Rialto district used
to be one of the major fleshpots of Europe -- in the sixteenth
century there were 11,000 prostitutes registered here. "One Rialto
brothel, the Casteletto" (says the Rough Guide) "was especially
esteemed for the iterary, musical, and sexual talents of its
staff, and a perennial Venetian bestseller was a catalogue giving
the addresses and prices of the city's most alluring courtesans.")
We spent about an hour in the railway station getting information
and tickets. Gay did that, while I practiced my specialty, thumbing
through the guidebook looking for a place to eat. It steered
us well, to a place that used to be called Alla Pallazina, situated
right by a beautiful bridge on the Cannaregio Canal. We got a
table outside and ordered, but lightning and thunder drove us
inside. The power went off just as our food was served, but it
came on just in time to keep me from eating my fish's eyeball.
It was an absolutely delicious grilled sole, along with grilled
polenta. Gay had an inky bowl of squid, the eating of which gave
her a trendy black-lipstick look. I had a second five-dollar
half liter of house wine while we waited for the rain to abate,
and we split a scrumptious tiramisu dessert. Venice is home of
that confection, and I've never had any like it elsewhere in
the world -- feather light yet rich with cream. The waiter gave
us each a shotglass of ice with some limoncello in it--"All Venetians
drink this," he said.
We picked our way through the light rain to a small internet
cafe, up to date but not as nice as yesterday's, and after getting
our business done proceeded through new territory north of the
city center, back to Rialto, where we napped for an hour, awakened
by a phone call from Brandy and Christina, our Gainesville buddies
who had just driven up from a Joyce conference in Genoa.
We met them out on the terrace to catch up and help them work
on a bottle of single-malt -- Brandy had been driving forever,
and was ready for some alcohol. Then we went off down the twisty
lanes in search of pizza, which we found with little enough trouble.
The "individual" nine-dollar pizzas were actually big enough
for two, but we all managed to choke them down. I had a "spicy
salami" one, and Gay had six cheeses, a more tasty choice, one
of the cheeses being Gorgonzola.
We walked around for awhile. Found Harry's Bar, of Hemingway
fame, but they wouldn't let us in wearing shorts. So we went
back to the Piazza di San Marco and sat with our Camparis and
lattes and listened to music for awhile. Then back to the hotel,
with only a tiny 200-calorie stop at an ice-cream (gelati) pusher.
30 June --
After typing on this and sorting through the previous day's digital
photos, it was almost dawn, so I hit the bricks, looking for
a 24-hour cafe.
Not easy to find. I went all around the alleys surrounding San
Marco, and then down to the waterfront. Finally found one that
was just opening at six.
Wrote for a couple of hours and then set off in a new direction,
thinking I could just follow the "Rialto -->" signs home. Wrong.
I was in a residential neighborhood, and of course all the residents
know where they are. But I used dead reckoning, ducking down
little streets and alleys. Unfortunately, most of the avenues
going in the right direction were canals, and I didn't bring
Finally I circled around to where the directional signs started
up again, and hurried home, not wanting to delay everybody's
breakfast. Everyone had overslept, though. I unleashed my new-found
mustard on the breakfast salami, to some people's alarm.
We took the vaporetto out to the Peggy Guggenheim art museum.
On the way found another great blank book store -- Venetians
must be real diarists -- and Brandy bought a couple as presents.
I found a gorgeous portfolio for carrying watercolors, but didn't
want to shlep it through the museum. (So of course the store
would be closed when we returned.)
The Peggy Guggenheim is a wonderful small museum of modern art.
All the big names are represented, but the pieces by relative
unknowns are arresting in their uniform high quality.
She inherited a small fortune, and through a circuitous route
wound up using a lot of it to buy up modern art, usually on the
basis of personal taste rather than consensus. For three years
she was married to Max Ernst, and although the marriage was tempestuous
and didn't end well, she credited him, along with her friends
Chagall and DuChamp, with giving her taste in art.
She had said of Jackson Pollock that "Mr. Pollock has many problems,
and one of them is painting," but Ernst convinced her otherwise,
and she wound up underwriting Pollock's career, and has some
wonderful examples of his work on her walls.
Her collection of Surrealism is especially strong, with instantly
recognizable paintings by Dali, Cezanne, and Chagall. A lot of
Mondrian, Picasso, Klee, Calder, and of course Ernst. A Futurist
I'd never heard of, Boccioni, had two stunning paintings.
We had a good lunch at the museum cafe, Gay and I both enjoying
duck salad. Then we went off to the internet cafe and arranged
to meet later.
First order of afternoon business, since we had long pants on,
was to get into Harry's Bar. A nice high-class joint that surprisingly
doesn't have any Hemingway mementoes.
Then we spent a couple of hours examining the treasures of the
Ducal Palace, where centuries of doges made their homes. Lots
of conspicuous wealth without conspicuous taste.
A couple of the rooms were interesting. One, the map room, had
two huge globes, easily two meters in diameter, Earth and the
heavens, and interesting old maps on the walls -- one with California
warned that there were cannibals there. Of course, they still
eat you alive in Hollywood.
The arsenal was interesting, lots of armor and swords, pikes,
crossbows, maces -- enough for the small army that would defend
the wealth against foreigners or peasant uprising. Some primitive
firearms were fascinating, including a kind of matchlock Gatling
gun. A "Bridge of Sighs" led to a medieval prison. (The name
was actually made up by some Romantics, after the prison was
no longer in use.)
We went back to the Bistrot de Venise, so Brandy and Christina
could sample the 14th-century cooking. My soup was excellent,
fennel with pine nuts, but the main course was a disappointment.
Various seafood grilled and then served with a sour sauce, but
it arrived cold (perhaps it was supposed to be served at room
temperature), and the eel especially was kind of unpalatable.
Service and wine good, though, and everybody else liked their
We walked a bit after dinner, sightseeing on the other side of
the bridge, and crashed pretty early.
1 July --
I was determined to get a watercolor done, so after I typed up
the diary entry, instead of writing I went down to San Marco
Square, about sunup. I had a subject in mind, a chimera poised
atop a tall column, and a piece of paper just the right format,
tall and narrow.
It was too cold and windy to sit there, though, so I went for
plan B: we had left a disk at the internet cafe, and it was open
24 hours, so I thought I'd go try to retrieve it. But I was thwarted
by the Sunday vaporetto schedule -- two of them came on time,
but discharged a bunch of passengers and then went on empty.
So plan C: cross the Rialto Bridge and try to find another scene
to paint, out of the wind. I finally did find one, sitting in
front of a restaurant that hadn't yet opened. But once I had
all my gear out and started to draw, the owner came out and shooed
me away for some reason.
By then it was almost 7, so I came back to our hotel restaurant
to write and have my free meal. Then I went back to the San Marco
chimera and, after a detour to find a place where I could dip
some canal water without falling in, finally did the painting.
It turned out pretty well.
(There's a companion column to the chimera, with a statue of
St. Theodore. The space between them used to be the site of public
executions, some ingenious, like being buried alive head down.
It's supposed to be bad luck to walk between them.)
I joined the gang for their breakfast about 9:30 , after which
we set off for the island of Murano, which specializes in glassblowing.
The hotel arranged a free water taxi, which was an interesting
experience. Basically a speedboat that holds eight or ten passengers,
it zoomed us across the lagoon in a few minutes. Of course there
was a catch to the "free" part; we were delivered into the clutches
of a glass manufacturer, and more or less obligated to sit through
their sell, which was not so bad.
First we had a demonstration of glass-blowing, amazingly fast.
A grizzled middle-aged guy whipped out first a vase and then
a model of a horse. I've seen it done before, in America and
Mexico, but never with such panache.
Then the pitch began. The salesman was at first disconcerted
to find out we weren't from a cruise, but he soldiered on, escorting
us through room after room of large decorative pieces that cost
thousands or tens of thousands of euros/dollars, the prices edging
down until we were in a place reserved for hoi polloi -- chandeliers
that went for only six to nine hundred; pitcher-and-goblet sets
that only cost more than my car is worth.
Finally, having resisted everything of quality, we were released
into a little shop on the ground floor that dispensed gimcrackery
for mere dozens of euros. Gay bought a family of tiny pigs for
a friend who collects them, six euros. The rest of us waited
to see what less fancy stores had to offer.
I was sunk when we found one that specialized in pens, dip pens
with points of spun glass. I have one in my collection, but not
as nice as the ones they were selling, and not with a matching
blown-glass inkwell. I also got a pen holder of exquisite glass
with a steel nib that writes a good italic line. It holds enough
ink for a moderate paragraph, so I can use it as well as admire
We visited a couple of other stores, mostly buying gifts, and
then hiked over to the Glass Museum. It had rooms and rooms of
blown glass items from the past two thousand years. The ancient
ones were fascinating, but what was startling was finding, from
the 14th century on, occasional pieces as delicate and "modern" as
a Brancusi sculpture.
There was a good room about the science and engineering aspects
of glass manufacture. It revealed the secret of the _murine in
canna_, which is like a coin made up of hundreds of impossibly
small circles of glass with tiny patterns inside. What they do
is bundle lots of glass rods into a cylinder and heat them up,
then carefully draw out the cylinder until it's a small fraction
of its original diameter. Let it cool and then cut into cross-sections.
After an hour or more of that we were all getting glassy-eyed,
so we retired to a cafe for sandwiches, and then deciphered the
vaporetto schedule. We were discharged on the other side of the
island, and so walked about a mile through new interesting territory.
Took a little rest and then met Brandy and Christina on the terrace
for a drink, watching the crowds below celebrate the World Cup
-- lots of Brazilians in Venice, it turns out. Then we all went
off to the internet cafe to catch up on the world.
Across the square there was an interesting sidewalk place called
The Cafe, which specialized in crepes and seemed to have reasonable
prices. I had a lovely beef salad that was like a carpaccio but
made with spiced cured beef, sliced paper thin, and then a dessert
crepe of birberry, which tasted like wild blueberries. Gay got
a miniature fondue of melted chocolate with various sinful things
to dip into it, and let us all sample it.
Before turning in, we went off in search of a gondola ride, eventually
winding up in the Rialto, by our hotel. The ride was $100 for
about a half-hour -- we didn't pay extra for bad music -- and
it was a wonderful experience, quietly gliding through the small
back canals as the sky darkened to black.
2 July --
I wandered the streets about sunup for an hour, looking for something
(a) easy to draw and (b) was in view of a place to sit out of
the wind. None was obvious, and I did have The Restless Urge
to Write, so I slipped into a cafe and drank coffee and beer
and shifted my mental bearings from the chill beauty of a Venice
morning to the relentless malignant heat of the Bataan Death
Today Brandy and Christina wanted to be on their own -- they've
been with other people since the Joyce conference -- so after
breakfast we went separate ways. Gay and I took the vaporetto
over to the Galleria dell'Academia, one of the best art collections
in Europe, which traces the development of Venetian art from
the fifteenth to the eighteenth centuries.
It's a stunning array of works of genius, of course, with some
of the best of Titian, Tintoretto, Bellini, Carpaccio, Veronese
-- but two that stand out for me were by people I'd never heard
of. Rosalba Carriera has a small room of delicate portraits in
pastel, mostly beautiful people made more beautiful by her skill
-- but the last piece is a haunting self-portrait of a woman
on the edge of what she called "a total loss of reason." A few
years later she was blind and insane. Also striking is a photo-realistic
piece by Lorenzo Lotto, "Portrait of a Gentleman in His Study," which
captures a pale young man looking up as if he has fallen into
a reverie, holding his place in a book, surrounded by symbols
of lost love and mortality.
There's an interesting matching pair of huge canvases by Veronese.
One was originally called _The Last Supper_, but it was rejected
by the Court of the Holy Office as being too vulgar and heretical.
Given three months to "fix" it, rather than repainting, Veronese
kept its brilliant vigor and retitled it _Christ in the House
of Levi_, which was acceptable. In stark contrast is his _Crucifixon_,
done nine years later, somber and conventional. In between the
two was the disastrous plague of 1575 and a marked shift in the
authorities' religious and political attitudes, even further
to the right.
There's a room and a hall full of marvelous "capriccio" architectural
renderings by Canaletto and Marieschi, completely realistic in
detail and perspective, but of nonexistent fantastic ruins. There
are a lot of similar paintings in a hall called "Trial Works
by the Academicians"; for a certain period an artist had to produce
a credible architectural fantasy to be admitted to the Academy.
There's a huge painting, 13 meters long, by Tiepolo, which was
taken down after the Napoleonic suppressions, and spent sixty
years rolled up in a corner somewhere, causing the paint to crack.
It was left in that vandalized condition, which adds to its total
weirdness: _Punishment of the Serpents_, it shows hundreds of
people writhing in agony as they're attacked by a herd of snakes
God sent down to demonstrate something. There are also painted
copies of beautiful wall and ceiling frescos Tiepolo did for
a church that was destroyed in 1915 by a bomb meant for the adjacent
railway station. The pieces were retrieved and pieced together
and reconstructed by various artists over the next seventy years.
He won the Hugo for "Unluckiest Painter of the Late Renaissance."
We spent about four foot-numbing hours there and then went over
the Accademia bridge to the store that had closed on us a couple
of days ago, where I picked up a couple of beautiful hand-made
portfolios, one for me and one for Judith Clute, just the right
size for quarter-sheets of watercolor paper, the size we most
often use. Then we returned to the "mainland" to sit in a cafe
and split a delicious four-cheese pizza, and then go do our email.
We got the sad news that Gay's Aunt Betty had died, after a long
battle with cancer. The funeral's tomorrow, and if we were anywhere
in the States, we would go to it. Hardly do-able from here. Instead,
we'll visit the family as soon as we return.
Feet somewhat restored, we returned to San Marco to go through
the National Archeological Museum, full of interesting Greek
and Roman (and Roman copies of Greek) statuary. I love the busts
of famous or wealthy people -- looking at the faces and trying
to decode through culture and time what the anonymous artist
has revealed about them. There's a startlingly explicit "Leda
and the swan," where Leda is obviously enjoying the experience.
There's a stunning huge aerial rendition of Venice, dating from
1500. The basic layout of the city is unchanged; most of the
buildings (including our hotel) seem about the same. Our Rialto
bridge is the only one over the Grand Canal at that time; there
are four others now.
There's a room dedicated to the supersecret Arsenale; lots of
weapons and a few blueprints and maps. We were surprised to see
that we happened to stop there a few nights ago, just to rest
our feet and have a Campari. We noted the interesting lions in
front of an old building, not knowing that they guarded the center
of Venice's military might.
There was a temporary exhibit about "Science, Magic, and the
Arts," which was dense with written material, basically about
the suppression of science during the Middle Ages and its preservation
through the offices of astrology and alchemy, transmitted back
to Europe through the Arab world in the early Renaissance. Dense
Lighter and equally fascinating was a section devoted to everyday
life in those days -- the crafts and sports and festivals. Games
that prefigured things like roulette and parchesi. The grotesque
bull-baiting, where bulls ran around restrained by heavy ropes
while dogs attacked them -- men taunting them with red capes
and then, when they were worn out, decapitating them with swords.
I wonder how Spaniards take that. They also had huge ritual fist-fights,
one neighborhood versus another, meeting on a bridge and trying
to beat each other senseless, tossing the insensate into the
canal to recover, or not. Well, they didn't have television.
We came back to the hotel to make the necessary phone calls about
Betty's death -- nothing but answering machines, which was just
as well -- and met Brandy and Christina on the terrace for a
sundown drink. Then Gay and I managed to wend our way to a restaurant
I'd been impressed by, Trattoria La Scala -- just a nice facade
and beautiful display of fresh fish on ice. Gay had an assortment
of lightly fried seafood and split an order of artichokes, Roman
style, with me. I had grilled sole with "Miller's sauce," a delicious
concoction of lemon and butter and herbs. We split a piece of
gorgonzola for dessert, and then took our weary feet home.
Off to Stresa in the morning. Wish we had another week or month
in this wonderful city!
3 July --
Going to the railway station on the vaporetto, we saw a new section
of the Grand Canal, as marvelous as the part we'd been appreciating,
going the other way. The suitcases were a bit of a burden, but
not as bad as down under. No snorkel gear or telescope and only
one climate to dress for.
We hung around the station for an hour, reading the papers, and
then got aboard our first-class car. Not fancy; I think the seats
may be bigger and they're reserved. I settled in and started
re-reading _A Farewell to Arms_, the central work for the Stresa
Changing trains at Milan was a hassle. I didn't correctly obey
the cafe protocols -- you pay at one place, then go to the sandwich
place, then go to the bar. I did all of that okay, but then was
evidently standing in the wrong place; the server took my receipt
but just yelled at me rather than getting my order. Eventually
I realized that I was standing at the part of the bar where the
waiters picked up their orders. So I let them keep the four bucks
and sat down with the suitcases, sending Gay outside to find
a restroom and a sandwich. A waiter came by and, rather than
serving, threw me out.
Standing outside with the suitcases, I was accosted by a drunk
leaning into my face. He was possibly not quite as drunk as he
seemed to be, and tried with no success to pick my pockets. He
could see I was stranded, not being able to move three suitcases
at once, and I told him in three languages to go fuck himself,
but he pretended not to understand. When Gay came back, sandwichless
(with a similar experience outside the station), he still clung
to us, trying to "help" Gay with her suitcase, as we maneuvered
toward a food stand. I finally grabbed him physically and pushed
him in the direction of three policemen, who watched with no
interest. We got a couple of dry sandwiches and a beer and found
our way to the train to Stresa, not eager to revisit Milan, at
least the railway station.
We sat with some Americans, a couple in their forties with sons
about 11 and 17, hungry and cosmically bored, respectively, and
talked with them for the hour or so to Stresa. Got out at a picturesque
little stop after a glimpse of huge mountains and a lake through
layers of fog. Polite cab ride down the hill to the hotel.
What a hotel, the Astoria. First class, looking over the lake.
It cost the same as our crackerbox in Venice, but the bathroom
is larger than our bedroom there (and has a Jacuzzi big enough
to do laps in). The bedroom/sitting room is modern and huge.
Panoramic windows look out from the fifth floor to the lake and
islands and mountains; motorized curtains draw either gauze or
totally opaque blinds. On the walls, instead of reproductions,
expert Chinese paintings on silk of exotic birds. Not a bad place
to spend a few days, right next to the conference center.
We went over to register and it was Old Home Week, sort of like
the Fort Lauderdale ICFA conference -- pals who've been getting
together every other year for the past twenty. Of course the
Hemingway conferences are usually in exotic places like Sun Valley
or Venice or Provence. Anyplace where Hemingway wrote at least
one paragraph is eligible.
We'd invited our friends Phil Anderson and Judith Summerfield
to join us -- they're not Hemingway scholars, but they're avid
readers and both academics, deans at New York colleges, so we
figured they'd fit in. (They were in Geneva the past week, with
family, anyhow.) They caught up with us at the welcome reception,
held on a lovely terrace while the sky glowered but didn't rain.
They'd motored over to Stresa a couple of days before, and guided
us toward the restaurant part of town.
The downtown area of Stresa is very much a tourist place, little
but food and drink and souvenirs obviously available. (I later
found side streets with things like grocery and hardware stores.)
They said that as far as they could tell, there weren't any bad
places to eat, so we just picked one at random. We ate with Jackson
Bryer and his wife Mary Hartig and daughter Margaret, and John
The prices were pleasantly low, about half what we had been paying
in Venice. I had a delicious plate of fried lake fish, perch,
and a big salad, for about ten bucks. Then we went back to the
hotel and shmoozed for a little while, turning in early.
4 July --
Happy anniversary, all you Yanks. I hope nothing interesting
Decent "free" breakfast at the hotel, cold cuts and cheese and
fruit cocktail, and then off to Hemingwize. Scott Donaldson,
the society prez, gave a pro forma welcome at 8:30.
They have two-track programming, which of course means that if
there are two panels you want to see on a given day, they're
always at the same time. I had to forego Linda Miller's "The
Lost Generation" for Susan Beegel's "Hemingway and Italy I."
I mainly wanted to see Stoney, H.R. Stoneback, a leonine eminence
grise whose presentations are always outstanding. This one had
the challenging title "Hemingway's Stresa -- Getting it Right:
Actual and Symbolic Landscape, Deep Structure, and the Borromean
Subtext." ("Borromean" is not some obscure literary term; the
area around Stresa was defined and controlled by the Borromean
dynasty in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries,)
It was actually pretty practical stuff. He talked about EH's
description of the city and the lake, the accuracy and hidden
depth of the research behind _A Farewell to Arms_. People have
wondered whether the antepenultimate chapter, with Frederic Henry
rowing manfully for eight hours to escape with his pregnant bride
from Italy into neutral Switzerland, was physically possible
-- it's a long way, on water that's described as rough and usually
is. Stoney interviewed fishermen and members of Italian rowing
clubs, and they confirmed that eight hours was right, if you
left at the right time of night, because you'd have a strong
wind coming down out of the mountains, pushing you toward the
(I have experiential quibbles with that. Henry was hospitalized
with wounds similar to my Vietnam ones a month or so before,
and by that time I was still walking with a cane and bedrest-weak;
I couldn't have rowed for one hour, let alone eight.)
Characteristically, Stoney dropped a bombshell at the end. A
nineteenth-century Italian novelist, Manzone, wrote a novel that
was immensely popular at the time, _Betrothed_, that had the
same plot as _Farewell_: A soldier is disillusioned with combat
and has made a woman pregnant, and to escape the Italian army
he rows with his bride across Lake Maggiore to neutral Switzerland.
Key scenes are repeated, and both characters quote Julius Caesar.
When EH's main character is in Milan, the only street he identifies
by name, and he does it several times, is Manzone.
The other papers on the panel were good, all about social and
literary influences on _Farewell_. One showed the relationship
between EH and the Italian Irredentist movement, a political
party dedicated to reclaiming captured parts of Italy. One was
about Italian Futurism, which aligned with EH's views on technology,
war, and sex. The last was about the connection between _Farewell_
and the conventions of courtly love -- his editor, Maxwell Perkins,
had complained to EH that the novel was two novels intertwined,
one about love and one about war, which was very much in the "courtly
love" tradition. EH was reading the chronicles of Crusaders and
Petrarch at the time he was writing the novel. A lot of the Aeneid
("I sing of arms and the man") shows up in _Farewell_.
(I can just visualize a critic in 2102 saying "While Haldeman
was writing Chapter 22 of _Sea Change_, he was reading _Bizarre_,
_Sky and Telescope_, _American Watercolor_, _New Scientist_,
and a James Lee Burke novel.")
The linchpin of the day's activities was a reading by GoH Tobias
Wolff from his novel in progress, _Old School_, a very amusing
scene about a boy in a private school who leaves his sickbed
to go to a lecture by Ayn Rand, one of his idols. EH is the other,
and Rand denigrates him, not to her credit. The boy has an apotheosis.
Had a quick pizza lunch (apotheosis and anchovies) and then returned
for _Hemingway and the Arts_, an interesting set of papers, the
highlight being Jim Nagel's investigation of EH's connection
with Impressionism. There was an amusing paper on Cubism in EH's
style, but I think it was a stretch. You want Cubism, go to Gertrude.
Then there was a "War Stories" panel, which didn't give me much
I didn't already know, except for an interesting study of the
parallels -- very close in surprising ways -- between _Farewell_
and _For Whom the Bell Tolls_. (I'd have to plead guilty on that
kind of connection, too, with strong parallels among _The Forever
War_ and its sequels, _1968_, and Mindbridge_.) A writer keeps
Went off to dinner at another random place, where I followed
my basic "Don't become a blimp in Italy" strategy: no pasta,
none of the delicious fried potatoes; just grilled fish and vegetables.
See how long that will last.
Hung around the hotel bar until about midnight, largely talking
about the day's papers -- just like any old science fiction convention
-- and reluctantly crashed.
5 July --
Today was truant day. Skipping classes. Phil and Judith joined
us on a boat trip to a nearby island, Isola Bella, which was
just a rock until Count Carlo III Borromeo spent zillions of
lire in the seventeenth century to turn it into a Monument to
Wretched Excess. The architect Crivelli brought over tons of
soil and whatever they used for jackhammers in those days, and
turned it into terraces of exotic gardens surrounding a huge
The palace is four tiers of weirdly melodramatic glitz, mostly
variations of cherubs and unicorns and more or less realistic
animals goring one another. There are a few good paintings and
some sexy statuary. (One painting is covered over with a cloth,
too high to peek under. You gotta wonder.)
The lowest level is made up of coral grottos with some interesting
exhibits of old weaponry and armor, and a prehistoric rowboat
they found preserved in the mud. There's a fascinating collection
of bizarre marionettes.
The ten percent of the island that is not palace is shops and
cafes. We picked up a nice cruet set and settled in for a light
lunch. The others went off to further explore while I sat and
did a watercolor of the mainland and the neighboring island,
Isola dei Pescatori, once an island of fishermen, EH's favorite.
Back from the island, we walked north along the shore to a place
where we'd heard there was an internet cafe, next to the funicular
that goes up almost to the top of the mountain. Turned out that
the establishment consisted of one broken computer, so we just
hopped into the next cart and allowed ourselves to be cranked
up about 5000 feet.
It was in interesting, slightly scary ride. By coincidence, we
took it along with Tobias Wolff and his wife. We got off and
walked on up to the top together, trading Vietnam stories. Our
tours overlapped; he went there in 1967 after having done language
school, and trained South Vietnamese soldiers, who he said were
no braver than they had to be, which suited him.
It's a fairly arduous climb to the top, but worth it. We were
blessed with a crystal clear day -- the only rainless one since
we'd arrived -- and could see Alps upon Alps ranging off into
Switzerland, and networks of interconnected lakes down on the
We had to hurry back to the hotel to meet Linda Wagner-Martin
and others for dinner. We wound up with a party of nine, but
that was no problem in this touristy town. I had tasty Lago Maggiore
fish and a salad too large to finish.
Then we went off to the 8:00 "Remembering Ernest Hemingway" panel.
There was a fascinating filmed interview between Donald Junkins
and Hemingway's 90-something sister Carol, but the high spot
was a reading of family correspondence by John Patrick Hemingway,
son of Hemingway's son Gregory. It was a series of letters where
EH tried to persuade Gregory to listen to Papa about an upcoming
safari, which became increasingly patronizing (EH) and rancorous
(G.), and exceedingly funny as insider gossip.
Hanging out in the bar afterwards, we talked with John Patrick
and his wife, both interesting people. John has lived in Milan
the past 18 years, and has become so Italian he reads English
as a foreign language. He's into amateur bicycle racing, so we
had that kind of gear talk. His wife has been seriously studying
ceramics for some years, art as well as craft, and is drop-dead
beautiful as well as intelligent and charming. So it was a pleasant
evening, into the wee small.
6 July --
We said goodbye to Phil and Judith after breakfast; they motored
on back to Geneva and family.
The 9:00 panel was "Hemingway Biography I," starting off with
our friend Rose Marie Burwell talking about Mary Hemingway and
her African safari diary, subtitled "The High Cost of Not Being
Taken Seriously." It was fascinating stuff about Mary realizing
that EH was trying to chase her off, as he had the three previous
wives, and how she hung on with grim determination, to have decades
of revenge after he died.
Then there was an interesting paper about Agnes von Kurowsky,
the nurse EH fell in love with while he was recovering from wounds
in WWI Italy. There's evidence that she actually did fall in
love with him, at least for awhile (contrary to the canon), but
she was kind of an adventurous lass, and EH was far from the
only one. (She was all-but-engaged to an older man back in Chicago,
a doctor she called Daddy, but that ebbed while she surrendered
to the excitement of being overseas.)
Kaimei Zheng talked about Hemingway in China, an interesting
short period that has been all but ignored by scholars. Just
before WWII, EH and his temporary wife Martha Gellhorn went to
China on separate magazine assignments. They were taken (blindfolded)
to Chou en Lai, and conversed in French for an hour or so. An
interpreter who was there noted that EH did ninety percent of
the talking. There are a couple of ways to see that. I suspect
Chou was the kind of guy who uses silence well.
We had a quick lunch with a few pals and then went down to the
dock to board a boat that was going up Lago Maggiore, to follow
the route of Frederic Henry and Cat[herine] Barkley, escaping
from Italy to neutral Switzerland.
The weather was gorgeous. Smooth sailing and grand scenery, mountains
and islands drifting by. There was a slightly drunken sing-along
with Stoney and his wife Sparrow, mostly spirituals and 60's
folk songs, which Gay and I and another hundred enjoyed. Stoney
had a Voyageur (sp?) travel guitar, the kind that looks like
a small lute, with a pickup voiced by a battery-powered tinny
speaker. A good travel kit, actually.
Gay in the Isola Bella shell room.