Thursday, November 26, 2009

Art Tatum lives (and so does Rachmaninoff)

What music lover hasn't fantasized occasionally about taking a time trip to hear an exceptional performer of the past in person at a real, live concert?

Time travel is still on scientists' to-do list, but by golly, technology has begun to give us a pretty good approximation.

A few years ago, Telarc offered us modern recordings of Sergei Rachmaninoff's pianism. Rachmaninoff made a number of piano-roll transcriptions of his playing. A sound engineer found that the piano rolls were actually an excellent recording medium -- they were just a lousy playback source. Using computer technology and a new, high-tech system for controlling the keyboard of a modern concert grand, the label gave us newly recorded versions of Rachmaninoff's playing.


It's unlikely we will get any more such marvels from Telarc, which has been absorbed into the very commercial Concord Music Group. But a new company, Zenph, has stepped in with its own new-old recordings.

Zenph uses a different, and presumably less expensive, technology to achieve similar results. Here's how they describe it:
Zenph Studios takes audio recordings and turns them back into live performances, precisely replicating what was originally recorded. The Zemph software-based process extracts every musical nuance of a recorded performance, and stores the data in a high-resolution digital file. These re-performance files contain every detail of how every note in the composition was played, including pedal actions, volume, and articulations -- all with micro-second timings.

The re-performance files are played back on a real acoustic piano fitted with sophisticated computers and hardware, letting the listener "sit in the room" as if he or she were there when the original recording was made. The re-performance is then recorded afresh, using the latest microphones and recording techniques ... .

Zenph's sonic updating of an Art Tatum album contains three pieces recorded in 1933 and 10 others recorded in 1949. They sound as "present" as any jazz piano tracks laid down last week.

Tatum's fans, of whom I'm one, now have a new kind of treat -- hearing Tatum's playing just as if he were here now. He is universally considered one of the greatest jazz keyboard artists of all time, if not the greatest.


His style is (and where the Zenph re-recording is concerned, I use the present tense deliberately) unique. Generally it's based on the stride-piano format that was popular in his early years, but that's only a launching pad. From there he goes in almost every direction imaginable, and some that are unimaginable. The melody line is broken into fragments -- a kind of musical cubism -- and diversions, played with trans-human speed and articulation. His imagination is unlimited and prolific. Even while you are trying to absorb one astonishing effect, he's moved on to another.

These tracks were played and recorded on the stage of the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles, the exact location of the 1949 concert. So even the hall acoustics are authentic, just what the audience heard at the time.


Zenph has given us more Rachmaninoff "live." Rachmaninoff's later fame as a composer has eclipsed the fact that he was regarded as a pre-eminent piano virtuoso in his day.


These selections were recorded between 1921 and 1942, but they also sound completely up to date. They are all rather short, since they were intended to fit on a side of a 78 rpm record, and some are popular bits of fluff from back in the day -- including Rimsky-Korsakoff's dreaded "Flight of the Bumblebee." But even in the lightweight stuff, you can appreciate his sensitive technique.

Five selections are of Rachmaninoff playing his own compositions. I agree with the annotator: the style is a long way from that of modern Rachmaninoff interpreters, who tend toward hyper-drama, gravitas, depression, lots of keyboard pounding and use of the sustaining pedal. At least for these pieces, the composer himself spun out the notes calmly and fluidly. At times you could think he was playing Debussy.


Next, modern re-recordings of vintage orchestra performances? Wouldn't that be something. Elgar conducting his own symphonies, Beecham and Barbirolli in the 1930s ... I might even get over my prejudice against Toscanini if I could hear how his orchestra really sounded, rather than through the hideous recordings RCA gave him.

For all I know, it might be technically feasible, although the cost would make any producer blanch. Meanwhile, let's have more of the great piano performances in modern sound.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Unhealthy obsession

"Senator, if you'll just refer to
section 1230(h)(3) on page 1,526 … "

I've had little to say about the Government Healthcare Takeover Bill because it has received so much attention from others with more time than I to probe both its substance and implications. But does anyone really comprehend the details of this grab bag of new welfare entitlements, more layers of bureaucracy, and backhanders to convince wavering politicians to vote the "right" way? Surely fewer people can fathom its fullness than can explain the theory of relativity.

No doubt, some honestly believe this gargantuan extension of the federal government into the lives and choices of its citizens is for the good. But the majority of its supporters, in Congress especially, know only what it symbolizes: another step toward the state-run Utopia that their ideology urges, as well as plums for whatever lobby or interest group pays for their re-election campaigns.


It looks to me like the Government Healthcare Takeover Bill is in the running to be the worst piece of legislation since the country's debut. Its only rival is President for Life Obama's $787 billion stimulus bill whisked through last February, which up to this moment has stimulated some corporate profits and the stock market, without the slightest benefit to the individuals and families who are most hurting.

Nine months after the stimulus, the official unemployment rate stands at 10.2 percent, certainly an understatement since the official figures exclude people who are working part time when they want to work full time, and those who have just given up. Thanks partly to the stimulus sucker bait, the national debt has reached new, obscene and nearly unmanageable levels.

In a way, the most alarming thing about the healthcare bill is that it is being rammed through purely as a power play. Look at Saturday's Senate vote: 60 to 39, strictly along party lines. Such a split wouldn't happen if the bill had been seriously studied, analyzed, debated, and thoughtfully considered. There would be crossover votes (from both parties), by Senators who had consulted the wishes of the people they allegedly represent and perhaps their own consciences and powers of reasoning.


Should welfare state healthcare be forced through, against the preference of the majority of citizens, we will be a different kind of country; not only because of the contents of the legislation, but even more because of the high-handed, high-pressure tactics used to get it enacted. This is how they do things in third world coups d'état.

How long till there are tanks and soldiers on the Capitol and White House lawn to protect the President for Life and his legislative junta from the wrath of a defeated people?


Sorry, but this is irresistible. From the Newspaper of Record's always overflowing Corrections section:
An article on Oct. 25 about the recent governor’s race in New Jersey misidentified the illegal activity that some Sephardic rabbis had been accused of and that the article characterized as part of the state’s infamous corruption. The rabbis were charged with money laundering, not with selling body parts and then using the money to bribe politicians.
The rabbis are lucky they will only face money laundering charges. Under the proposed government healthcare scheme, selling body parts and using the money to bribe politicians will be a monopoly of the federal government.


Friday, November 20, 2009

Watering the flowers


Alexandra Zaharova and Ilya Plotnikov, Russian advertising photographers, offer striking shots of flower-shaped water.


I guess they're created with Photoshop or equivalent software, but still … remarkable.


And where you find water flowers, you may well find a water butterfly.
So far as I know, they have not photographed a water buffalo.


Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Trialing indicators

American Thinker publishes a lot of warmed-over mush, but now and then something better. A posting by J.R. Dunn summarizes well the madness of putting Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and other 9/11 conspirators in a civil court in downtown Manhattan.
What can the administration's purpose be here? … The simplest answer is that it makes things easy. It's a much simpler matter to transfer so many generic "criminals" from Gitmo to Yourtown, USA as opposed to a detachment of theologically-crazed mass murderers. Similarly, when some of their number are acquitted, as will inevitably occur, it will cause much less uproar when they have to be released. Mirandizing the Jihadis is a first step in gearing down the War on Terror so that Obama can afford to ignore it and instead concentrate his attention on more interesting tasks such as wrecking the economy and turning the US into an international laughingstock.
By "Mirandizing the Jihadis" Dunn means turning them into ordinary criminal "suspects," like convenience store robbers, who were entitled to procedures such as having their Miranda rights read to them when they were "arrested."

But of course they were not arrested. They were captured in a theater of war. It is past absurd for captives to be treated as unlawful enemy combatants and interrogated as such for eight years and then, ex post facto, be given the protections that we rightly insist on for people accused of domestic crimes. Obviously those protections were not observed at the time and in the circumstances when they were captured. So if they want to, all the defendants can skate on procedural grounds.
It's easy to see how the pattern will work itself out. As in most criminal cases over the past thirty years -- OJ or Phil Spector can serve as illustrations -- the heart of the case will be buried under paper and legalisms. Much will be made of the discomfort Khalid suffered during his "torture" sessions -- the Couric-Moore-Olbermann axis will carry the ball here. Proceedings will drag on interminably, featuring numbing detail and endless repetition, contradictions, open fraud, and bogus controversy. By the end, a bewildered America will have tuned out, unwilling to hear any more. … The verdict, whatever it may be, will come obscured by a fog of trivia, and the entire exercise will climax in a whimper.
That's possible, but it could pan out in other ways. The Obama Gang may have badly miscalculated on this one. September 11 was starting to fade into history, something to be mourned like Pearl Harbor but not a live issue for most people. There are kids in middle school who were too young at the time for them to remember it now. The Bowing President and his Mus-symp brigade want the whole country to forget 9/11 as an act of war.

But a show trial will reopen the wounds. Khalid and company can spew out anti–Great Satan rhetoric at the trial, but thousands of bloggers and media outlets will push back with descriptions, videos, and photos of the 9/11 carnage. Outrage will be rekindled. Except among far-left head cases, nothing the defendants say or do is likely to win friends and influence people — other than influencing the American public to call for their execution and burial in a tub of pig fat.

As Dunn says:
… Whatever they may think, the chain of events is not under the control of Obama and his people. As I have pointed out previously, their activities have served to open a door, a door that reveals only darkness. Out of that darkness will come something that will blow away all the daydreams, all the games, all the bogus little ideals and rituals. We are being made to look weak, childish, and silly in the eyes of the barbarians. There is price for that, and that price will be paid … . History possesses its own dynamic, and it will not be denied.

Monday, November 16, 2009

The American Stonehenge


Nobody seems quite sure who built the monument or why. But the Georgia Guidestones, in the northwest Georgia sticks, have aroused both admiration and suspicion.

Yoko Ono is quoted as saying, "I want people to know about the stones ... We're headed toward a world where we might blow ourselves up and maybe the globe will not exist ... it's a nice time to reaffirm ourselves, knowing all the beautiful things that are in this country and the Georgia Stones symbolize that." We come from a planet far, far away to help you, knowing you Earthlings are in danger of destroying yourselves …

Then again, many see it as threatening, if not outright satanic. A site called Radio Liberty counsels:

Certainly the group that commissioned the Georgia Guidestones is one of many similar groups working together toward a New World Order, a new world economic system, and a new world spirituality. Behind those groups, however, are dark spiritual forces. Without understanding the nature of those dark forces it is impossible to understand the unfolding of world events.

The fact that most Americans have never heard of the Georgia Guidestones or their message to humanity reflects the degree of control that exists today over what the American people think. We ignore that message at our peril.

Dark forces. Wow. No wonder I sometimes have trouble finding my car keys.

So, what is the inspirational/wicked message from the "covert group" (per Radio Liberty) responsible for the Guidestones? It promotes 10 principles, about equally divided between good sense and foolish or fuzzy thoughts.

"1. Maintain humanity under 500,000,000 in perpetual balance with nature." This is an excellent idea. Overpopulation has done more to degrade the quality of life — that's quality, not quantity of material goods — than any other single factor other than war. How you reduce the population to 500 million without dispatching the rest to early graves is a dilemma, but the principle is a good one.

"2. Guide reproduction wisely - improving fitness and diversity." Too vague to mean much. Even assuming it was a good idea, how would you guide reproduction toward diversity?

"3. Unite humanity with a living new language." What, is every tongue spoken on earth a dead language? Presumably this means a new common language to be spoken by everyone, like Esperanto, which hasn't had such a good run. But even if there were a single worldwide language, it would take politicians and salespeople about a week to learn how to use it to mislead.

"4. Rule passion - faith - tradition - and all things with tempered reason." Right. That's what this blog is an example of, tempered reason. Sometimes, admittedly, bad tempered.

"5. Protect people and nations with fair laws and just courts." Check.

"6. Let all nations rule internally resolving external disputes in a world court." Fine. Just explain to me how you make a world court non-political.

"7. Avoid petty laws and useless officials." This conflicts with the commandment for a world court.

"8. Balance personal rights with social duties." We're working on that one. It's not going well.

"9. Prize truth - beauty - love - seeking harmony with the infinite." That's my goal, as soon as I find my car keys.

"10. Be not a cancer on the earth - Leave room for nature - Leave room for nature." We have it on the authority of Susan Sontag that the white race is the cancer of human history, and my sun sign is Cancer, so I suppose it's too late for me. Did I mention that you should leave room for nature?


Friday, November 13, 2009

The mouth that roared

Grim times for what remains of the Republic.

One ray of hope: the controversy over Fort Hood and its aftermath is not quietly dying down, as the radical-left Obi mob and its running dogs in the mainstream media no doubt would like.

It's just possible it might have been shuffled off to the back pages and relegated to weepy news stories about the victims had not a certain top U.S. Army general, George Casey, opened his mouth and made a statement that instantly became legendary:
Our diversity, not only in our Army, but in our country, is a strength. And as horrific as this tragedy was, if our diversity becomes a casualty, I think that’s worse.
It is now in the electronic ether, a symbol, reverberating, as plain as can be.


There can be no more evasions, wink-wink, ideological doubletalk. The general let the truth out. "Diversity" is now the idol that we must all bow to, regardless of consequences. The soldiers whose lives were snuffed out at Fort Hood -- hey, rum luck for them, but that's the price we pay for Diversity. Sort of an offering to the idol. Human sacrifice kind of thing.

What is this Diversity? As Bob Dylan wrote in the lyrics for "All Along the Watchtower": Let us not talk falsely now, the hour is getting late.


Diversity is population replacement. Diversity is race replacement. The people who now run this country do not like the kind of people who created, strengthened, and sustained it for so long. They want a type of country that so much of the world is cursed with. Divided and conquered. Balkanized so that various racial and ethnic groups will cancel out each other's interests, leaving the We Are the World quasi-Marxists in charge with no effective opposition. Diversity is also a euphemism for officially sanctioned discrimination against white people -- Crow Jim.

I am scared of this Establishment, but I'm glad the general put the cards on the table. With episodes like that, and the decision to bring the 9/11 terrorists to New York for a civilian trial, the revulsion against this dementia is strengthening. I don't believe that is wishful thinking. Aside from the usual suspects (New York Times, PBS, etc.), the tone of the debate about the national question is changing. Unless I read the signs wrong, many are beginning to look around nervously and ask, what have we done to ourselves?


Can we undo so much misrule? Who knows. But the question will not leave us alone.


Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Words to live by


Feeling relaxed, dear? Good. I want you to be very relaxed. If you feel like going to sleep, even better.

I am your therapist, employed by the government, our institutions of higher learning, the New York Times, and George Casey, the U.S. Army chief of staff, and I'm here to help you.


Now, I've explained the purpose of this therapy, but I'll review it quickly so that you will be motivated to cooperate fully. You have been heard on several occasions by reliable witnesses to talk openly of — ahem, I don't like to speak these words, but since it is part of your cure, I must — a fantasy called "Islamic jihad."

You have doubted the wisdom of inviting Muslims to settle in the United States and to be recruited by our disarmed forces while we are working overseas to win the hearts and minds of the tiny fraction of Muslim extremists. As I'm sure you know in your lucid moments, these are thought crimes that could get you in hot water.

First we will practice a little aversion therapy. I will ask you to whisper (not out loud, please, someone in another ward might hear), "militant Islam" and "immigration restriction." You will then receive, through the apparatus, a shock to your nervous system. No big deal. I have set the dial to Intensity 2.5. That is relatively mild, I promise you. Only hard cases experience anything above Intensity 4.


We are not vindictive. As I say, we are here to help you. We will steer you gently back into the loving embrace of the Master State. Now, while you are deeply relaxed … more relaxed than you have been in your life … allow yourself to float on a beautiful pink cloud with the word "Multi-culturalism" written on it. It is the most lovely thing you have ever seen.

Now look up. Up, that's right. See what is written across the sky. What do you see there? Yes, that's right: "There is no God but Diversity, and Barack is its Prophet."

When I snap my fingers and tell you to wake up, you will remember those words. Or else.


Sunday, November 08, 2009

Commander in chief goes AWOL

The Glorified One has disgraced himself. Not even his remarkable ability to fly away on the wings of his silky baritone is going to get him out of this one.

We are speaking, of course, of his self-revealing actions following the Fort Hood massacre.


Even his spaniels in the mainstream media can't quite stomach it. Here's a quote from NBC's Chicago bureau:

After news broke out of the shooting at the Fort Hood Army post in Texas, the nation watched in horror as the toll of dead and injured climbed. The White House was notified immediately and by late afternoon, word went out that the president would speak about the incident prior to a previously scheduled appearance. At about 5 p.m., cable stations went to the president. The situation called for not only his trademark eloquence, but also grace and perspective.

But instead of a somber chief executive offering reassuring words and expressions of sympathy and compassion, viewers saw a wildly disconnected and inappropriately light president making introductory remarks. At the event, a Tribal Nations Conference hosted by the Department of Interior's Bureau of Indian affairs, the president thanked various staffers and offered a "shout-out" to "Dr. Joe Medicine Crow -- that Congressional Medal of Honor winner." Three minutes in, the president spoke about the shooting, in measured and appropriate terms. Who is advising him?
Who is advising him? Is this a live president or a computer graphic image whose comments must wait for the animators? A grown-up or a child to be instructed on how to behave in adult company? I expect that if you learned of the bloodbath at Fort Hood you would not need to be primed by advisors, your mind and heart would tell you what to say within moments. It might not be eloquent, but it would be authentic.

And when The Glorified One reached the point in his agenda where he was called on to make a few sounds about Fort Hood, he said: "We don’t know all the answers yet. And I would caution against jumping to conclusions until we have all the facts."

Nowhere in human life does anyone have all the facts about a situation. Even in a criminal court case, the jury is to decide on whether the accused is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, not to demand every possible relevant fact be proven. If we waited for all the facts before making a decision or choosing an action, we would be paralyzed.


Obi could have said, "Military justice will take its course. As commander in chief of the army, I cannot comment because it might prejudice the legal case." That would have been a reasonable and dignified response from a president. His implication, though, is that no individual -- as opposed to the legal system -- should reach any conclusion based on what we already know.

Had there been a visible cartoon-like thought bubble above Obi's head, it probably would have read something like: "Hold your horses while I get my lawyers and advisors together to work out how we're going to play this."

How is he going to play it? Mark my words. He will murmur sympathies for the families of the victims of this "tragedy." He will pass the message down the line that Hasan (I have broken him from the rank of major, even without having all the facts; deal with it, Obi) is to be tried on purely criminal charges; his politico-religious system and his jihadist tendencies that already had him under FBI investigation will meticulously expunged.


I don't know if a military trial can exclude the press, but the judge can probably limit the reporters on hand to a few trusted left wingers from the likes of the New York Times and Washington Post. Or maybe an army psychiatrist, with his career on the line, will receive hints that he might do well to find Hasan mentally incompetent to be tried.

This could be a game changer for The Glorified One, however. The facts that he wants to obscure are too obvious. And even in our country's comatose tolerance of all enemies, foreign and domestic, the murder of our own soldiers who are about to risk their lives overseas is something Americans will draw the line at. At least some of our hitherto gullible citizens will find themselves forced to reconsider the man they elected as president, and what his real values are.


Friday, November 06, 2009

"Allahu Akbar," said shooter


The Muslim U.S. Army major who had a jihad moment and killed 13 people, mostly his fellow soldiers, yesterday shouted "Allahu Akbar" before his deed, it is reported -- by the leftist, multi-culturalist AP, no less.
Soldiers who witnessed the shooting rampage at Fort Hood that left 13 people dead reported that the gunman shouted "Allahu Akbar!" — an Arabic phrase for "God is great!" — before opening fire, the base commander said Friday.

Lt. Gen. Robert Cone said officials had not yet confirmed that the suspected shooter, Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, made the comment before the rampage Thursday. Hasan was among 30 people wounded in the shooting spree and remained hospitalized on a ventilator.

Let me save you the time and trouble of reading any further mainstream media news stories about this event. Here is a quick summary of what is to come.

Left liberals and right liberals will join lips to assure the country that this was a one-off, and had nothing to do with the Religion of Peace and the overwhelming majority of patriotic, peaceful U.S. Muslims. Hasan -- I refuse to give him his military title -- was under strain because some people imagine that his politico-religious system is on a worldwide mission of Islamization. As the AP story notes:

In an interview with The Washington Post, Hasan's aunt, Noel Hasan of Falls Church, Va., said he had been harassed about being a Muslim in the years after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, and he wanted out of the Army.

"Some people can take it and some people cannot," she said. "He had listened to all of that and he wanted out of the military."

Poor guy. I don't know what his terms of service were, but it seems likely that he could have resigned from the Army sometime since 2001. Wonder why he didn't? Surely he wasn't planning something?

Left liberals will proclaim Hasan a victim. If we didn't have an army, he would not have suffered second-hand combat stress. Right liberals will say this illustrates the importance of integrating Muslims into American society, for instance accepting them into the army, paying for their medical school training, and giving them officer rank. Both will agree that it would be unthinkable to stop Muslim immigration. That would be discrimination, which is acceptable only against indigenous white males.

The story will quickly become a "tragedy," a "terrible event," an occasion for sorrow. Not the act of a man (or men), but a disaster like a tornado.

After a few days of setting the narrative -- a sensitive man who finally snapped because of anti-Muslim harassment -- the mainstream media will "move on" and the "incident" will be flushed away until CAIR sues the army on behalf of Brother Hasan.


The inevitable headline:

Muslim groups fear backlash

I haven't checked the New York Times, but it looks like Al Jazeera beat them to the punch.


Thursday, November 05, 2009


Piazza Garibaldi, Parma

The Italy visit has been the subject of a bunch of posts now, and I recognize that when reading about other people's vacations, a little goes a long way. This will be the last about the trip. But I don't want to end the account on a sour note such as the previous entry, on Venice's misbehavior.

I quite enjoyed Parma, the last major city we spent some time in. It has its own style, which is partly French. The French ruled here in the 19th century, and in fact Napoleon I's widow, Marie Louise, lived out her life as the Duchess of Parma. She was and apparently still is popular, to judge by all the things named after her (including a restaurant where we ate lunch, with a view very similar to that in the photo above).

Aside from that, the French influence can be felt in what I can only describe as Parma's rationality, by Italian standards. The streets and signage almost make sense, and there are even a few wide, straight boulevards. The main parking garage near the historic center is actually underground, rather than a concrete bunker as in most Italian cities. In fact, the garage has a feature I've never seen anywhere else: each parking space has a sensor in the roof, which turns on a red light if occupied, green if unoccupied. From your car you can quickly spot the available spaces. Maybe I'm indulging in cultural stereotypes, but that strikes me as French rather than Italian.

It's a cultured and musical city. An annual Verdi festival was just winding up. Verdi was born here (as was Arturo Toscanini). They've made a fine art museum out of the rather forbidding old Farnese Palace. It includes a drawing of a woman's face by Leonardo (or "attributed to" Leonardo), hardly larger than a page of a hardback book. Whether by the great man himself or an assistant or follower, it is one of the most beautiful objects I have ever seen.

The palace building also contains a splendid Renaissance theater, built almost entirely of wood. It was destroyed in a bombing raid in 1944. By 1956, the Parmans had rebuilt it exactly as before. It's questionable whether that would be done today under comparable circumstances, say, a terrorist demolition. "Jeez, shame about that. But look, prime real estate in the city center, wow! Let's clear the rubble and get on with a mall. I've already had inquiries from Benetton and Dolce & Gabanna."

Plus, in the same city, you get a marvelous Duomo (cathedral), medieval baptistry, and other interesting churches …

If I've been a little hard on Italy in these postings, it's mainly because I'm disappointed the country doesn't always do right by its own cultural heritage. Otherwise, my only serious complaint is that the direction markings in cities are poorly designed, either telling you too much or not enough, and informing you only once you are already at the decision point rather than before so you can plan. But that's the verdict of an outsider; Italians may see their way as perfectly normal and sensible.

I'm looking forward to the next visit. Arrivederci, Italia!


Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Venice is sinking itself

All the famous sights are still there — San Marco, the Doges' palace, dozens of remarkable Gothic-Renaissance-Byzantine churches, La Fenice, the palaces on the Grand Canal. What is gone, at least for now, is the mystique, the atmosphere. It has been replaced by ugly commercialism.

You emerge from the vaporetto near Piazza San Marco and head toward the world's most famous piazza, the "drawing room of Europe," with its sophisticated cafes where aristocrats and artists and visitors have admired the view and checked out one another for centuries. If you haven't been to Venice in a long time (it was 30 years in my case), shock sets in. The pavement from the boat landing to the piazza is lined end to end with cheap-jack souvenir stalls of the sort you see in the aisles of shopping malls, peddling gadgets and tatty jewelry.

Nor does it end there; the coffee mug and T-shirt stands spill over into the space between the Grand Canal and the Piazza, beside the magnificent Doges' palace. Aside from their revolting contrast with the world-famous architecture, the shoddy, circus-like sales booths impede the movement of the vast numbers of people thronging the city's center, causing more congestion.

At the other end of the commercial scale, big business — mainly expensive fashion — has gotten into the act. At any given time, some of the buildings in Venice are covered with scaffolding for repairs, annoying but necessary for preservation. These days, though, the scaffolding is hung with huge banner advertisements. The medieval streets and canals, the church towers shrink to secondary roles next to giant pitches for models in their underwear.

Below is a shot I took of the famous Bridge of Sighs, where convicts were led from the court in the Doges' Palace to the prison next door and sighed as they got their last look at the city and its lagoon.


On the left is a wall of the Doges' Palace; to the right is the former prison; that bit in the top center is the bridge. At the moment, it serves as a commercial for Geox, whatever that is.

True, the ads on the restoration sites are temporary, but when the work is done, others like them will appear on different sites undergoing repair.

And it's also true that this commercial rape isn't everywhere in Venice, you can get away from it, it's only in the popular tourist spots. But while much of the city's interest lies in out-of-the-way neighborhoods, the fact is that the end-to-end souvenir shops and garish ads deface the areas that have been Venice's heart and soul for hundreds of years: not only the Piazza of San Marco, but such traditional strolling paths as the Riva degli Schiavoni and the Zattere on Dorsoduro, across the canal from San Marco.

Oh, and the graffiti. You see more graffiti in European cities then anywhere in the U.S. except the worst, half-abandoned neighborhoods. In Venice, walls (including those of churches) and bridges (including the famous Rialto) have been "tagged" like a New York subway car in 1980. Practically the only buildings I saw not defaced by graffiti were the offices of the Questura (local police). It is unimaginable that any city in the United States today would allow its treasured monuments to be marked like tatooed New Guinea natives. But Europeans are so much more tolerant and open-minded, so understanding of the need for young artists to express their creativity, than we uptight Yanks.

Your blogger in the traditional pose
viewing the Grand Canal.

In the past, Venetians were fiercely proud of their city, as they had every right to be. When its independence was lost after 800 years in 1797 to the Austrians and later to the French, they were devastated. Later they fought, and some lost their lives, to get it back. What does it say about the present city politicians that they have allowed their city to be turned into a combination of Disney World, thrift store, and bridge underpass?

Most of the relatively few Venetian residents who remain are probably disgusted with the state of things, but Italy is not a place where you fight city hall. One consolation is that all the conditions I have mentioned could be reversed some day if politics or values change.

This is certainly not meant to discourage anyone from going to Venice. It's still a city of artistic and architectural marvels, and despite my disappointment at some aspects of it, I'm thankful for having been privileged to visit again.


Sunday, November 01, 2009

Lake Garda


What is it about large lakes clasped by mountains that brings up in us feelings we can't fully explain, which the 19th century romantics called "the sublime"? Is it the effect, in a single vista, of three of the four "elements" (earth, air, water) in no small measure? Whatever -- Lake Garda, northwest of Verona, like its near neighbor Lake Como, have attracted the rich and artistic since ancient times.

We arrived in Sirmione, at the southern end of Lake Garda, shortly before sundown. Once we got past the parking hassle that is typical of Italy, Sirmione quickly proved entrancing. It has a medieval castle on the water's margin, well maintained period houses, churches, and commercial areas. A good place to stroll, especially as dusk lowers its shade and Garda becomes a field of diamonds sparkling on purple velvet.


Catullus, the Roman poet, had a villa here. There is an archeological dig that is recovering its remains, which can be visited, although we didn't because of the lateness of the hour. The location must have appealed strongly to Catullus's finer sensibilities; this is a long way from Rome, many days' journey in his time. That he felt safe in traveling to this remote place and living here shows just how secure its citizens felt under the Roman Empire in its early years.

I was pleased to see that Sirmione has a Hotel Catulle. As a would-be classicist, I like to see modern commercial enterprises that know their history. In Rome, on a previous trip, we stayed at the Mecenate Palace hotel, named after Maecenas, Augustus's associate and patron of the arts, on the Esquiline Hill where Maecenas had his house and grounds.


Earlier in the day we drove up the western side of Lake Garda, which has been beautified with various non-native subtropical plants like oleander and bougainvillea. It resembled southern California in places. We passed through the famous resort town of Saló, which must have been cracking in its day: fine old mansions, gracious-looking hotels, exuberant public buildings, monuments, and spaces. I imagine it hit its peak just before the Great War.

It's still attractive, but unlike Sirmione -- where, I would guess, its very rich residents have imposed restrictions on new construction -- Saló and environs are sadly overdeveloped. It's the usual syndrome in ritzy places where money overcomes aesthetics. Large, flossy new hotels, luxury apartment buildings, shopping malls, high-end car dealerships. They can't quite overcome the charm of the area and haven't completely blocked the views of Lake Garda, but they make you heartsick for the loss of the atmosphere of tranquil refinement it surely once had.


At Gardone Riviera, just north of Saló, we paid a visit to the Vittoriale degli Italiani, the strange mansion that was home from 1922 to his death in 1938 of Gabriele d'Annunzio, the eccentric novelist, poet, playwright, pilot, lover of actress Eleanora Duse, and for a few years leader of his own army. I haven't read any d'Annunzio, although I have an old copy of his novel The Flame of Life that I picked up at a garage sale in Tucson and will get around to one of these days.

The Vittoriale fully met my expectations for being over the top. Guidebook writers are invariably condescending about the place, letting you know of their own superior taste by putting down that of d'Annunzio. Well, it is something of a madhouse, filled to overflowing with ornate exotica. After d'Annunzio survived a murder attempt (he was thrown out of a high window, possibly by Mussolini's thugs because Il Duce was afraid d'Annunzio might be a more popular political rival), he turned the Vittoriale into his surrealistic retreat.


Almost no natural lighting slips inside because d'Annunzio had an ocular condition that made sunlight painful. The rooms are mostly surprisingly small, made more confining by the profusion of decor, and you have to duck to get through some of the doors. There are two waiting rooms with separate entrances: one for people he wanted to see, another for those he didn't.

As for all that "tasteless" accumulation of objets d'art -- yes, it's overwhelming, lily gilding, sometimes garish. But individually, the pieces are often lovely and unusual; the furnishings archaic and unique. Whatever his character failings (it's still debated whether he was a prototype of Mussolini), you can't visit the Vittoriale without acknowledging that he was strongly driven by his muse. He loved objects that appealed to his artistic sense, so much that he couldn't, apparently, bear to part with any of them even when they turned his home into a dreamlike museum.

One of the many half-lit rooms contains a tiny bed. D'Annunzio left instructions that his body be placed here for a day after he died, on the bed he called "something like a cradle, something like a coffin."