A dream book of Venice

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Venice photos by Riccardo de Cal; courtesy of JoAnn Locktov.

A book of lovely photographs that capture the spirit of Venice was sent to me a while back by its editor, JoAnn Locktov, after I’d reviewed If Venice Dies, by Salvatore Settis, the Italian art historian. In Locktov’s book, Dream of Venice Architecture, each photo by Riccardo De Cal accompanies a brief essay on Venice by a noted contemporary architect, designer, artist or historian. In some cases the photos express something of the subject of the essays. (The pages are not numbered and the pictures have no captions.) Oddly enough, De Cal’s work tends to capture the venerable indistinctness of a Venice whose age is cloaked in fog or darkness. Again, they are lovely shots, but few are sunny or colorful. Many of the essays, however, describe the vivacity of its inhabitants and renew hope for the revival of a Venice that, in the pages of If Venice Dies, tilts toward a spiritual death brought on by tourism.

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The effect of nature, time and weather on the vividly unique quality of Venice architecture shines through in the photographs. I’ve chosen several to reprint with this post, and most of the 43 photos speak, however darkly, to the Venetian beauty that attracts so many visitors from around the world. An essay on the doorways of Venice by Constantin Boym, a Russian designer teaching at New York’s Pratt Institute, struck my fancy. After describing “the variations in wood paneling; the location and style of handles; the placement of bronze mail slots; or the tiny lookout windows” of a taxonomy of Venetian doorways that awaits compilation (or so he appears to believe), Boym describes the following daydream:

A few years ago I happened to be passing by the house numbered 1937, which featured a particularly distressed and ominous-looking door. Suddenly I had a strange vision that the horrific memories of the year 1937 – Guernica, Kristallnacht, Stalin’s Great Purge – are hidden behind that locked portal. It took a good half-a-bottle of wine before I could let this disquieting fantasy go.

Speaking of disquieting fantasies, in 1910, Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, founder of Italy’s avant-garde movement (known as Futurism), wrote his “Manifesto Against Past-Loving Venice.” Describing the watery city as “a great sewer of traditionalism,” he called upon Venetians to “fill the stinking little canals with the rubble of the tottering leprous old palaces. Let us burn the gondolas, rocking chairs for idiots, and raise to the sky the majestic geometry of metal bridges and smoke-crowned factories, abolishing the sagging curves of ancient buildings.” Why? To “prepare for the birth of an industrial and militarized Venice, capable of dominating the great Adriatic.” In 1910, he and his stooges threw 80,000 leaflets of his manifesto from the Campanile down into St. Mark’s Square. (At least two sources say that the year was 1910, even though the Campanile collapsed in 1902 and was not reopened until 1912. Maybe they snuck in before it was done.)

Nice! Just a few years later, in 1925, founding modernist Le Corbusier unveiled his proposal to demolish central Paris and replace it with 60-story towers separated by parks and highways. People in authority didn’t listen to Marinetti or Corbusier then. They do today, and with reverence.

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Plaza by Carlo Scarpa (de Cal)

These examples of the modernists’ violent hatred for “past-loving” cities such as Venice, Paris and Providence popped to mind every time an essayist in Dream of Venice Architecture paid tribute to the Italian modernist Carlo Scarpa, a modernist whose work displays far more intelligent (or at least intelligible) creativity than does that of Corbusier and almost every other modern architect. I would say at least half of the essays in Dream emit some sort of hosannah to Scarpa. Yet however enchanting his work may be to those whose educations enable and whose careers demand its appreciation, most people, inhabitants or tourists, who stumble upon one of his interventions surely experience them as rude interruptions of the beauty they are in Venice to admire. (In researching this post I came across a 2014 book called Killing the Moonlight: Modernism in Venice, by Jennifer Scappettone. I could hardly imagine that such a book is even allowed to exist, so well does the modernist cult patrol the field it dominates. … [Turns out upon further reading that this book is the sort of modernist tract that belies its own title, which derives from the Futurist manifesto I criticized above. Damn!])

Can we expect these essayists, virtually all of whom lean toward modernism, to express a reverence for, say, Palladio, Giorgio Massari or the other mostly anonymous dead architects and builders whose spirit remains, and remains dominant, in Venice? Probably not. Very few expressions of reverence for Venice’s legacy architects show up in the Dream essays – except via the implicit fact that the essayists would not have written about Venice, or managed to fall in love with it, were it not for the architects great and small who built this splendid city over a period that spanned a millennium. If Carlo Scarpa and his inferior minions had done to Venice what they’ve done to so many cities globally, nobody would be visiting Venice on vacation today, any more than folks visit Houston when there’s no Super Bowl on the calendar.

So it is clear that in Dream of Venice Architecture, JoAnn Locktov has accomplished the most evocative stroll along the skinniest of tightropes. She has assembled a book of Venice that expresses reverence for a beauty that many of its authors fail, in very fundamental ways, to understand. It is hard to say whether photographer Riccardo De Cal understands, but to the extent that his camera cannot lie, his lens certainly understands.

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About David Brussat

This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. History Press asked me to write and in August 2017 published my first book, "Lost Providence." I am now writing my second book. My freelance writing on architecture and other topics addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to employ my writing and editing to improve your work, please email me at my consultancy, dbrussat@gmail.com, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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