Sunday, November 21, 1999

People who live on glass islands...

The changing face of Venice amid the acque alte

Just about every day I was in Venice, we had Acque Alte. That's when the lagoon backwashes into the city streets, starting with Piazza San Marco (the lowest point of Venice) and then filling in the low-lying calle around the Grand Canal.

The air raid sirens go off when the rising waters cause the first gondola moored at Piazzetta San Marco to start nudging over the embankment, usually somewhere around 5 a.m. Since this is an ancient and oft-repeated emergency, the Venetians are perennially prepared during the autumnal Acque Alte season.

Along key arteries of the city they string out a raised wood-plank walkway in long lines of picnic table–looking devices that allow pedestrians to glide over the surface of the water. Once the waters recede, these wide walkways on their stubby aluminum tube legs are stranded high and dry, dividing the streets down the middle, looking sort of like Venice is about to throw a huge outdoor feast for an army of dwarves.

Tuesday, November 16, 1999

The Melandris & The Mud Angels

Dinner in a frescoed palazzo accompanied by stories of the '66 Florence flood

I had dinner tonight at the apartment of Massimo and Vittoria Melandri in Florence. Their place was beautiful, a 14th-century building restructured in the 19th century, which is when they frescoed all the ceilings and the walls.


What happened to the frescoes

The ceiling paintings in the main salon where we dined were a bit obscured by soot, since (as explained mamma, Massmimo's 86-year-old mother, who lives on the top floor of the building and who joined us for dinner) two families were living in that small space during World War II, and as the electricity and gas were cut off, they cooked by building little fires in the middle of the room.

Massimo can't clean them up properly since they aren't technically frescoes but rather paintings on the dry plaster, so to remove the soot would also remove the paint.

Massimo had managed, however, to clean the 20th-century whitewash off the walls, which are (buon) frescoed with tromp l'oeil architectural elements.

However, the surface of the plaster is microscopically pocked and flaking, so the frescoes are milky and faded looking.

"They need to be wet to see them properly," said Massimo, and walked over from his chair to swipe a patch of wall with a damp rag. Suddenly, the colors burst off the wall in all their 19th-century splendor, only to fade slowly again as the plaster dried.