The Nauseating Nature of Italian Politics

Longtime readers of "MMC" will know that I typically avoid political discussions, and I am practically never, ever partisan... I believe that people tend to come to their individual political conclusions - whatever they may be - as a result of their own personal reasoned deliberations, and that needs to be respected.

But I guess every rule has an exception... Admittedly, politics is a messy business everywhere, and surely good taste is not a prerequisite. But exceedingly poor (even disgusting) taste seems to be becoming the political rule of the day here. Yesterday, the New York Times reported that Prime Minister Berlusconi's Hijinks Have Finally Raised Eyebrows in Italy, and today the Italian neo-fascist party is holding an election rally right around the corner from my house in Venice; they'd originally wanted to march very near - if not through - the historic Jewish quarter of the city! (That was cancelled, but needless to say, I'm not at my house today.)

But it doesn't end there. Check out the posters for the European Parliament elections which are coming up next week... You may have heard in the news that Italian has had a tremendous problem recently with embarkations of illegal immigrants. Well, the party of the Northern League, whatever valid points its platform may or may not have, tends to be notoriously jingoist about Northern Italians and denegrates nearly everyone from south of (and including!) Rome. The poster on the bottom left shows an American Indian and states, "They faced immigration. Now they live on reservations!" As an American, I was shocked and appalled that such an enormous miscarriage of justice by my own forefathers was being completely mischaracterized by the Lega for the sake of grossly misleading political propaganda.

But I believe that even that pales in comparison to what the party of the Radicali, practically the Italian equivalent of the Libertarians, are doing right now. Their politicians are wearing YELLOW STARS OF DAVID! Initially, I believed that they were doing it as an act of solidarity with the illegal immigrants who are being rounded up and kept in containment camps before being deported... and while I still found it deeply questionable equating this admittedly difficult human rights issue with the genocide of six million people, I thought at least I could understand why they were doing it. Instead, it turns out that they're wearing them just because they feel like their party is under-represented in the media!!! While I used to have respect for their leader, Marco Pannella, despite his sensationalist antics sometimes (he was instrumental for example in the legalization of divorce in Italy in the 1970s), this was the last straw!

I am officially disgusted... no, actually nauseated, by Italian politics.

Venice's Marriage to the Sea, or "Liquefied Is My Soul!"

Today was the annual celebration of Venice's "Marriage to the Sea," and a wonderful reminder of why I love this city.

It was Nan McElroy's blog Living Venice that reminded me that this weekend was the Feast of the Ascension, celebrated in quite a particular way by Venetians.

The "Festa della Sensa," as Venetians call it, has been celebrated for nearly a millennium. Probably the best read you can find about it is in Ed Muir's Civic Ritual in Renaissance Venice, but - as a quick intro - I can tell you that every year on the traditional Catholic feast day celebrating Christ's Ascension into Heaven after his Crucifixion, the city would take to its boats and row out to the end of the Lido barrier island, right in front of the Benedictine church and monastery of San Nicolò (as you can see in the image by eighteenth-century Venetian painter Gabriele Bella).

There, the Doge (the ceremonial head of the government) would drop a ring into the water, precisely where the Venetian lagoon met the Adriatic Sea, saying "We wed thee, O sea, as a sign of our true and perpetual dominion." (What can I say? Venetians were legendary for being more pragmatic than romantic!)

Today, a similar ceremony occurs, with the mayor standing in for the doge. But what really got me today was getting to wander around the old monastery complex of San Nicolò and the concert of seventeenth-century music which concluded the day's festivities.

Firstly, a couple of iPhone pics of San Nicolò... While most of the complex that one sees today (at left) is later than the sixteenth century, I have a soft spot in my heart for any and all remnants of the early Middle Ages. Sure enough, there is preserved a section of Romanesque-Byzantine mosaic pavement and some columns from the ruins of the nave of the older church, about a thousand years old! Even better is an easy-to-overlook tiny fragment of relief of an eagle, probably meant to be a symbol of the Saint John who is believed to have written one of the Gospels.
But the evening's concert held in the church was the best part of the day! Firstly, as is the case with so many cultural events here sponsored by groups like Musica Venezia, it was FREE! (Particularly amazing when you consider that you'd be hard pressed to find anything of the like stateside at nearly any price!)

Secondly, the musicians (from the group VeniDilecteMi) were fantastic (6 male & female vocalists, 2 violinists, a viola, 1 lutist, and an organist), and performed music composed more or less at the same time as the present church of San Nicolò was itself was built, that is, during the 1600s.

As you can see, it was the perfect setting for these beautiful sounds, many of which had been taken directly from seventeenth-century music books and had never been performed in recent times!* (BTW, while the church is about 400 years old, the crucifix you see in the photo at left dates back about SIX HUNDRED YEARS, to the fifteenth century!)

Most of the works performed were very short, just a few minutes long, and written by minor, lesser-known composers of the time. But still Venice was a major cultural center of Europe, and was absolutely saturated with wonderful music by composers of all levels!

Here, for posterity's sake, is the great program they performed (with the pieces that really struck me in bold):
  1. G.B. Bassani, Suonata IX (1683)
  2. A. Balbi, "Laudabo nomen Dei" (1606)
  3. A. Grandi, "Vocem Iucunditatis" (1637)
  4. A. Grandi, "Quasi Cedrus" (1630)
  5. A. Balbi, "Exsurgat Deus" (1606)
  6. J.H. Kapsberger, "Toccata III" (1604)
  7. F. Lucio, "Jubilate Deo" (1649)
  8. A. Grandi, "In dedicatione templi" (1618)
  9. A. Gabrieli, "Ego rogabo" (1576)
  10. A. Grandi, "Bone Jesu Verbum Patris" (1621)
  11. B. Marini, "Zarabanda III" (1655)
  12. A. Grandi, "Benedictus Dominus" (1610)
  13. J.H. Kapsberger, "Preludio in sol" (1640)
  14. A. Grandi, "Deus canticum novum" (1628)
  15. B. Marini, "Sinfonia IV tuono" (1655)
  16. A. Grandi, "Anima mea liquidfacta est" (1630)
  17. F. Cavalli, "Canzona a 3" (1656)
  18. C. Monteverdi, "O Jesu vita mia" (1603)
  19. G.B. Bassani, "Suonata VI (1683)
  20. A. Grandi, "Memoriam fecit" (1621)
  21. A. Grandi, "Ave maris stella" (1637)
  22. C. Monteverdi, "Cantate Domino" (1620)
I'll just say one more thing: I learned today that there were a number of lesser-known composers whose work I really enjoyed. But then there was Monteverdi! (Along with Andrea Gabrieli, Monteverdi was the only other composer played today who was at all well-known; indeed, he is considered one of the earliest innovators of opera and is buried with honor in Venice's splendid Frari church).

As the program today said in his biography, "Claudio Monteverdi is one of the absolute musical geniuses of all time." Turns out that this is no understatement. After listening to several perfectly nice pieces by the minor composers of the era, I was utterly blown away by Monteverdi's "O Jesu vita mea"! There was simply no comparison between the unabashed virtuosity of his piece and the others. In fact, one of the earlier works had been called "Anima mea liquefacta est," which means "My soul is liquefied," and that was exactly how Monteverdi's composition - consummately performed in a lovely church constructed at just about the same time as his writing - made me feel! (Have I mentioned lately that God, I love this city?!)

*BTW, anyone interested in recuperating and performing this ancient music can find the musical notation for these pieces and others like them here!

Predictably Irrational!

I'm spending these couple of days easing into my new (Italian) milieu and catching up on some reading, which - it must be said - I'm doing on the iPhone through a mix of available apps, including eReader, Amazon's Kindle and Stanza. Sure, it lacks the satisfaction of the physical experience of reading a REAL book, but, let me tell you from past experience, it weighs a heck of a lot less than if I'd lugged every book I might possibly want to read over the summer to Italy with me!

The Billionaire's Vinegar: The Mystery of the World's Most Expensive Bottle of Wine was quite entertaining, about the real-life events and intrique that unfold following the $156,000 record-breaking auction in 1985 of a bottle of Château Lafite supposedly owned by Thomas Jefferson (not least of which was whether this bottle, and several siblings which also surfaced thereafter, was in fact a fake). My only wish for this fun read would have been for its conclusion to be, well, more conclusive. I understand the legal actions are not all finished, but I can't help but think that the author could have nevertheless given a greater sense of closure at the end for the readers who had followed him and the whole story all that way...

Why spend $156,000 for an object which cannot realize the destiny for which it was made without being destroyed? Not to mention for an object which is practically impossible to guarantee complete authenticity? The next book I read might give us a few clues... Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions is the popularization of the groundbreaking research in behavioral economics by MIT prof Dan Ariely. I first encountered his work through a fascinating podcast for the series "All in the Mind." I've since seen him speak live (via stream) at TED2009 about the economics of honesty and on the PBS Newshour about the current economic crisis, and I remain a great fan of his keen and creative intellect.

For further info, Ariely's going to be in the spotlight a lot again soon! TED just posted this afternoon his talk from the EG ("Entertainment Gathering") 2008 conference, and an expanded and updated edition of his bestseller is out TODAY, with additional information regarding his scholarship and experiments, not to mention addressing the astoundingly predictably irrational current stock market crisis!

Hope they pique your interest as much as they did mine! Enjoy!!