Friday, January 14, 2011

A Gondolier and his Gondola

Maria beginning to take shape

For a Venetian gondolier getting a new gondola is a very special occasion, and one that usually happens once or maybe twice in a lifetime. Some might compare it to buying a new car, but for these seafaring men it is much more. With only a handful of squero or gondola boatyards left in Venice it can take almost a year to build one of these sleek vessels, and once the boat is ordered the waiting period to begin building it can last more than two years. My husband Roberto’s time came in July 2009 when the head artisan at the San Trovaso squero, one of the oldest and most characteristic boatyards in Venice, finally said “tocca a te—it’s your turn”.

The partially engraved Nardin Family Crest

In the ten months that followed that joyful day we observed the incredible skill and craftsmanship that go into building a gondola. From the varieties of wood (oak, walnut, cherry, larch, elm, linden and spruce) that were bent, shaped, curved and carved into 280 perfect pieces and puzzled together to form the structure of the gondola, to the seven coats of black paint that were applied by hand to the smooth wood surface, to the brass and iron ornaments that make each gondola traditional yet unique. We were witnessing a work of art in progress.  
Then one sunshine filled morning in May 2010, before Venice’s calle or alleyways began to buzz with their usual foot traffic, Roberto arrived at the squero.  He had left the house earlier than usual that morning and seemed as excited as he had been on our wedding day, or when our children were born. He had waited a long time for his new gondola and today was il varo or the launch.
When I joined Roberto a few hours later our guests, friends and family members had begun to arrive.  The bigoli in salsa—pasta with anchovy sauce; tramezzini—finger sandwiches; whole salamis to slice; fresh bread and pastries were lined up on the banquet table alongside dozens of bottles of wine and prosecco. Roberto had decided that, though it was before noon, this was the menu worthy of his colleagues’ appetites and the celebration. I greeted our guests, and placed a small bouquet of flowers on the gondola’s loveseat. Then I was directed to break a dangling bottle of prosecco tied to the back of the gondola. I blinked back tears of joy at seeing Maria glide elegantly into the water with my husband standing tall at the stern. She, they were bellissimi!
A varo is a rare occasion in Venice, and one never seen by those not fortunate enough to be at the right place at the right time. That is why I would like to share that moment with all of you here. Please take a couple of minutes to take a look at Maria in her finished form, and step inside the intimate world of a gondolier and his gondola. Our dear friend Alison Victoria made a special trip from Rome to celebrate with us, and film Christening of a New Gondola: Varo.

A dusty shot, but not yet finished!

Friday, January 7, 2011

Celebrating Armenian Christmas in Venice, Italy

January 6, 2011
The Church of San Lazzaro, Venice Italy

Yesterday was a day reminiscent of my childhood. It brought to mind memories of me fidgeting in the front pew of the Armenian Holy Cross church in sunny Los Angeles; of ruffle itching dresses, bobby socks, and shiny patent leather shoes snug on my dangling feet.  I remember how I would pretend to not see my mother's silent looks of disapproval as my siblings and I would complain, usually with a not so subtle cough, about sitting so close to all that incense. This time the incense, a symbol of honor and dignity in the Armenian mass that represents our prayers ascending to heaven, didn't bother me. Instead it was a soothing reminder of a family tradition, and yesterday I shared that tradition with my husband and friends at the Monastic Headquarters of the Mekhitarian Order in the church of San Lazzaro or Saint Lazarus. It's on the homonymous--fog shrouded in the winter and sun kissed in the summer--island in the Venetian lagoon. More simply known to the Venetians as Isola degli Armeni or the Armenian Island. 

Khatchkar (stone cross)
Stop if you will for a moment and think about this: the Mekhitarian monks have inhabited, worshiped and spread their love of knowledge from their tiny island headquarters for just under 300 years!The United States of America wasn't yet independent when in 1717 the Venetian Senate gifted this island to the Armenian Abbot and scholar Mekhitar, giving him and his fellow monks refuge from the Turkish invasion of their former homeland. A gift that one might argue was made for political, intellectual, religious or even personal reasons. It is said Mekhitar was a friend of the Mocenigo family, at the time one of Venice's most prominent and powerful. But, whatever the reason, this gift reflects the close ties between the Venetians and the Armenians of that era and today. Here is a photograph taken yesterday of a more recent symbol of their close ties. The traditional, 14th century, khatchkar or stone cross that was a gift from the Armenian government to the city of Venice in 1987 (coincidentally the same year I moved to Venice) and in turn given by the city to the Mekhitarian Fathers; they being the most appropriate guardians of the cross. It can be seen surrounded by three pomegranate trees--another symbol of Armenia and her people--at the entrance to the monastery.

But back to yesterday. We received a warm, hospitable welcome from the Mekhitarian monks. They opened their island, and embraced a hundred or so worshippers and guests for the Epiphany or Armenian Christmas mass.  It was a morning of tradition, communion, canto fit for the finest theater and the ritual of blessing of the holy water for the year to come.  After the mass, and while still in church, there was an added ceremony of fraternity between the monks and the congregation. A small cup of the newly blessed holy water was given to everyone to drink. An extra blessing of sorts, that was lovely to partake in and observe.

Afterwards, everyone gathered in the refectory where the monks and seminary students served us a soul warming, home cooked meal of olives and pickles from their orchard and vegetable garden, rice pilaf, roast potatoes, veal and vegetable stew, and of course red or white wine. A lovely meal, in a spectacular room adorned with the wall size 18th century Da Vinci style painting of The Last Supper by Pietro Novelli. An interesting note: above the door to the refectory, written in Armenian are the words "Keep Silent Here". It is their practice to dine in silence, yet they were kind enough to break that rule for us and share in conversation and comradery, and I thank them.

Stomachs full, and hearts warmed by old and new friends, we started our tour of the monastery and its extraordinary library and museum, where volumes of centuries old manuscripts, books and artifacts are on display; too many to describe here. My only suggestion is that on your next trip to Venice you try and make time to visit this marvelous island and its community within a community.

The Internal Garden of the Cloister

Saturday, January 1, 2011

New Year's Day Concert at La Fenice...Concerto di Capodanno Teatro La Fenice

Though I've been to the Teatro La Fenice on many occasions I've yet to attend their annual New Year's Day concert in person. It's on my bucket list and, who knows, I may just do that come January 1, 2012. However, I always look forward to watching the live televised version whenever I'm in Italy on January 1st. This morning will be no exception. It's a tradition I've come to love, kind of like that of an Angelino watching the Rose Parade, only instead of sitting in the grand stands or along a parade route you're enveloped in one of the most beautiful opera houses in the world, listening to the sweet sounds and tradition of Giuseppe Verdi's "Va' Pensiero" from Nabucco and the raising of one's glass to "Libiam ne’ lieti calici" from La Traviata.  Here is a sample from last year's concert to give my readers an idea of what it's like to be off to my comfy couch, a warm cup of cafe latte in one hand and the remote in the other. Buon Anno Nuovo a tutti!