The Gondola

One of the most frequent Venetian images is that of the gondola with its gondolier standing in the stern and propelling the boat forward with a single long oar. Recently while I was leafing through a children’s book about Venice I read a paragraph about the history of these boats that claimed that the gondola’s original design was inspired by Viking long boats.  The story went that in the Middle Ages there had been commercial contact between the Scandinavians and Venetians, both maritime cultures.  The Venetians thought that the flat-bottomed nordic boats would be ideal for their lagoons.  I had never heard of this fascinating link and tried to find some confirmation of it but have not had any success.  Most articles don’t cite any specific origin of the gondola other than to note a mention in a 1094 document and the first images in paintings from the 15th century.  These early depictions are of boats that are shorter, wider and less streamlined in appearance than those we know today.  In the 1600s the gondola, which was used for private transport, began to look more like the contemporary version both in terms of shape and color.  Pitch had always been used for waterproofing, but in 1609 a decree was passed  – to limit the excessively gaudy decoration (!) of the gondole – that the entire boat had to be black.  Also, until the 20th century the boats often included  a removable cabin (felze) which protected passengers both from the weather and from prying eyes.  Today gondole are built to standard specifications:  11 meters long, made out of 280 different pieces of wood, slightly asymmetrical (the left side is larger than the right), with a characteristic iron prow-head (fero) that is rich in symbolism.  The oar is made of beechwood and rests in an oarlock (forcola) made of walnut.  In the past there may have been up to 10,000 gondole that plied the waters of the lagoon; the 400 or so that are left today are no longer a major means of transportation but a tourist attraction and an icon of Venice.


While walking around the Union Square area I was struck by the number of chocolate stores, bars and cafes I saw.  The one with the largest crowd, extending to a queue outside waiting to go in was the newly opened Nutella Cafe. It made me wonder about the history of the chocolate-hazelnut spread that I’d always been vaguely aware of.  It turns out that Nutella descends from a hazelnut and cocoa paste that was fairly common in Piemonte in the period between the two world wars.  Chocolate was expensive and the paste was a cheaper treat. Pietro Ferrero, the founder of a family-owned pastry shop in Alba, used the paste in many of his successful creations.  His son Michele was responsible for the industrial level production of the paste, now known as Nutella, with its characteristic jars and logo. The popularity of Nutella spread throughout Italy and Europe starting in the early 1960s and reaching its current iconic status.  Many of my friends love Nutella in all its forms and various (younger) family members seem to consume vast quantities of it.  They would be delighted with the Cafe:  it features all sorts of Nutella based confections from cakes to ice cream, brioche sandwiches, parfaits and more.  There’s even a section to create your own dessert. Nutella fans can indulge and satisfy their wildest dreams!

Discovering Luigi Valadier

The Frick Collection is currently hosting an exhibition dedicated to Luigi Valadier, subtitled “Splendor in Eighteenth Century Rome.”  To me, the name Valadier evoked only the Casina Valadier, a building on the Pincio, in Villa Borghese, where I would meet friends for coffee.  (It has now been refurbished and is also a restaurant and event space.)  It turns out that the neoclassical Casina was built by the architect Giuseppe Valadier who was the son of the Luigi of the Frick show. Luigi (1726 – 1785) was a master draftsman and designer and a silver- and goldsmith.  His parents had moved from France to Rome and his father too was a silversmith – Luigi’s career began in his father’s workshop.  Luigi and his assistants produced objects, both religious and secular, for the pope, for noble families and for the tourists (foreign aristocrats) for whom Rome was an important destination on the Grand Tour.  Although Valadier’s workshop produced hundreds of objects, most of the silverware and gold was pillaged and melted down during the Napoleonic wars so relatively few works survive today.

The Frick show is divided into three sections.  One focuses on religious works, including the complete set of silver and gilt bronze statues from the altar of a cathedral in Monreale.  Another is dedicated to secular objects – my favorite is a silver coffee pot with a wooden handle.  The third part revolves around what I would call more whimsical works of art that use and include a remarkable range of materials.  For the pope, Valadier mounted spectacular antique cameos in a frame that includes other cameos and antique gems.  They are rather astounding.  Yet the highlight of this section is a “deser” or large table centerpiece comprised of small recreations of ancient temples, arches and obelisks made of an incredible array of stones, marbles and metals.  It’s an intricate and stunning masterpiece.  All in all, I was glad to learn about this artist who amazed me where I didn’t expect to be amazed.

Giacomo Puccini

Earlier this fall I saw two works by Giacomo Puccini at the Met Opera.  First, what I thought of as an old standard, La Boheme, in a surprisingly fresh and charming production.  Then, La Fanciulla del West, which I remembered as dull but which turned out to be really interesting musically.  Reflecting on these operas, I realized I didn’t know very much about Puccini’s life, so I did some reading.

Puccini was born in 1858 in Lucca.  For generations his family had been organists and composers linked to Lucca’s main cathedral.  Giacomo was expected to follow in this tradition and though initially an indifferent student, by the age of 14 he was an organist at the cathedral.  The story goes that after seeing a production of Aida in Pisa in 1876, he developed a passion for composing, threw himself into his studies and was admitted to the Conservatory in Milan in 1880.  (In those years he lived with Pietro Mascagni in a form of gayly artistic poverty which one can imagine as the source for the backdrop of La Boheme.)  His first opera was La Villi, which had a mixed reception with the public but brought him to the attention of the music publisher Giulio Ricordi who commissioned new operas from Puccini and supported him financially.  Puccini’s first major success was Manon Lescaut, followed by the “big three” operas:  La Boheme, Tosca and Madama Butterfly.  Later would come La Fanciulla, Il Trittico and eventually Turandot.  He died in 1924 in Brussels after treatment for throat cancer.  Puccini had become famous and financially secure.  He had travelled the world to see productions of his operas but his favorite place would remain his house at Torre del Lago, near Viareggio, where his remains are today.

The most interesting biographical info regards his personal life which was somewhat operatic in its drama.  In 1904 he married Elvira Gemignani with whom he had been in a relationship since 1884 – when their affair started she was married to someone else.  Of course, Giacomo was involved with other women and Elvira was unhappy and jealous.  In 1909 she publicly accused a servant, Doria,  of having an affair with her husband.  Doria, distraught, committed suicide and then it was proven that she was a virgin…  Her family brought charges of slander against Elvira, who was sent away to Milan by Giacomo.  Elvira was tried but in the interim Giacomo took her back and paid off Doria’s family and the charges were dropped.  Sound like the plot of an opera?

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