*** NEW: A Special View of La Serenissima – Venice in Winter (Free Italy Travel Advice) ***

One
of life’s subtlest acquired pleasures is the Venice of
winter, of mists and puddles, umbrellas and empty alleys and gondolas
in the rain. This book magically acquires the pleasure for
us—and no less miraculously—enables us to enjoy it
all the year round.

 
—Jan Morris, author of style=”font-style: italic;”>The World of Venice

 
|image1| The
new book
href=”http://www.veniceinwinter.com” target=”_blank”>Serenissima:
Venice in Winter style=”font-style: italic;”> is the work of husband
and wife photographers Frank Van Riper and Judith Goodman—a
unique combination of fine art and journalistic photography twinned
with lyrical text to capture the visual magic that occurs when
“the most serene republic” reclaims itself as a
living, breathing city and once more becomes a place “of
water-filled streets…velvet shadows and footsteps echoing
off paving stones in the post-midnight silence…”
style=”font-style: italic;”>
Six
years in the making and shot entirely in black and white,
Serenissima:
Venice in Winter style=”font-style: italic;”> combines architectural
imagery with documentary photography in the tradition of Henri
Cartier-Bresson, Robert Frank and the great Italian photojournalist
Gianni Berengo Gardin. Frank Van Riper’s text reflects the
same literary mastery that won him a Nieman Fellowship to Harvard and
national acclaim as a biographer, political journalist, Washington Post
photography columnist and bestselling author. style=”font-style: italic;”>

Their
love of Italy and things Italian comes naturally to Frank and Judy.
They honeymooned in Italy (starting in Venice) in 1984, and rekindled
their love of La Serenissima in 1998 when they led a photography tour
there during Carnevale. In addition, Frank is half-Italian, his
maternal family coming from Monteleone di Puglia
style=”font-style: italic;”>. In October, Frank and
Judy will return to Italy—this time to Umbria—to
lead style=”font-style: italic;”
href=”http://www.experienceumbria.com” target=”_blank”>a
photography workshop style=”font-style: italic;”> headquartered in Cannara
at the fully restored 17th-century villa Fattoria del Gelso.

Here’s an excerpt from the book followed by information on how you can
get a discounted, signed copy:

|image3| When it was The Most Serene Republic, a community of art and
achievement that valued the individual and barely tolerated href=”http://www.dreamofitaly.com/public/307.cfm”>the
Pope in href=”http://www.dreamofitaly.com/public/department56.cfm”>Rome;
when it was the undisputed nexus of eastern and western trade; when
Lord Byron or Wagner or Dickens tarried in creative leisure among its style=”font-style: italic;”>palazzi and
canali--when
Thomas Mann’s doomed, depressive Aschenbach came to seek
solace, only to find death–the traditional approach to the city was by
boat and virtually the only point of entry was through the plaza that
honors St. Mark.

Today, all but the final journey into href=”http://www.dreamofitaly.com/public/department57.cfm”>Venice‘s
pulsating, floating heart can be made by train, plane or automobile,
and the final leg of the trip across the Adriatic lagoon will not
necessarily take one into style=”font-style: italic;”>Piazza San Marco–through
what Napoleon famously called the drawing room of Europe.

The traveler by train will cross a rail causeway from the
mainland—built by Venice’s onetime Austrian rulers
in 1846 to considerable local displeasure—and disembark at
the severely functional Santa Lucia railway station, built nearly a
century later, before boarding a lumbering water bus.

The air traveler will descend into Marco Polo airport and, after a
frenzied, yet reassuringly human-scale, scramble to retrieve luggage,
also will board a style=”font-style: italic;”>vaporetto 
(diesel-powered now, but once powered by vapore, or steam) or perhaps a
private water taxi.

Those who come by car will have the least romantic time of it. They
will make the journey from style=”font-style: italic;”>Mestre
(the mainland, or style=”font-style: italic;”>terra firma)
along a motorway parallel to the rail line and deposit their cars at style=”font-style: italic;”>Piazzale Roma,
a mammoth nondescript car park in the northwest corner of the city,
whose security and available space never is
guaranteed.            

Only then, shorn of all connection to fast modern travel, will these
wanderers finally, perhaps even gratefully, immerse themselves in
Serenissima’s ancient, liquid tranquility.
 
———–
 
It is the only city in the world built for beauty, not defense.

A city of water-filled streets and of water-borne commerce; of velvet
shadows, and footsteps echoing off paving stones in the post-midnight
silence—a walking city for random wandering in surprising
safety.

A human-scale place of welcoming mystery.

There can be a palpable sadness about Venice, reinforced by times of
gloom and fog, by rumors of its seemingly inevitable demise, and
reinforced too by a history that, for all its worldliness, cannot deny
medieval brutality and autocratic rule: by its powerful dukes, or
doges, and later by its French and Austrian conquerers. Yet one also
senses a feeling of abandon and freedom in Venice—an air of
possibility, triggered perhaps by what Henry James called
Venice’s unique role as a “repository of
consolations” for any who would visit.

Today that difference is manifest in something as simple as silence and
in the inevitable slowness of life lived on the breast of the sea. The
pace of life is different, the body clock set more to the tides than to
a timetable. No cars, no subways, no crosstown buses. Lunch is three
hours (the shops and offices are closed during that time) and a coffee
break can just as easily involve a quick ombra (a shot of young wine)
as it can a single style=”font-style: italic;”>espresso.

Above all, there is separateness–from the rest of Italy, if not the
rest of the world. Which is understandable given
Serenissima’s unique geography.

Before the Austrians and their land bridge, Venice in its lagoon was
like a castle surrounded by a gargantuan moat, impervious to attack,
disdainful of threat. Though it produced a formidable navy in its
storied Arsenale, these ships went all over the known world to conquer
and to trade, not to protect.  

Venice, which now retains its grandeur amid genteel ruin, fashioned its
palaces and its courtyards, its squares and its churches, with scant
regard for the fortifications of medieval and Renaissance Europe. The
grand Piazza San Marco, for example, is beautiful for its openness, not
for huge gates or high walls. Not only does one side of this great,
lopsided rectangle open to the sea, it does so confidently, even
arrogantly, as if daring the visitor to enter and not be overwhelmed
and conquered. Over centuries, different styles of architecture have
lived together in Venice cheek by jowel, mortise to tenon. Yet somehow
today the mixture works splendidly.

The happiness of accident, or perhaps more correctly, of miracle,
accounts for this, beginning with mud, water and barbarians some 1500
years ago. That is when inhabitants of the southern European mainland
began fleeing a succession of marauding tribes laying waste to the
remnants of the once-formidable Roman Empire. For more than a century,
Huns, Visigoths, Ostrogoths and finally the Germanic Lombards plundered
this part of Europe, forcing frantic mainlanders into the sea. What we
now call Venice grew out of the thick ooze of the Adriatic lagoon and
flourished there because the water that enveloped the malarial mudflats
where the mainlanders huddled was too deep for marauding armies to
follow; too shallow for enemy ships to lay siege. [Even today it must
be remembered that many of Venice’s canals are not more than
six feet deep.]

|image4| Originally this was to be a place for the mainlanders to hide and to
wait out the latest plunder before returning home to rebuild amid smoke
and ruin. These were, after all, town dwellers—urbanites, if you
will—not the primitive fisherpeople who already lived there.
But few mainlanders wanted to risk the tender mercies of any straggling
invaders. Ultimately, a larger community took root in the mud, one
alder pole at a
time.            

 Amazingly, the architectural antecedents of the style=”font-style: italic;”>Doges’ Palace,
Ca’ Foscari and
the magnificent Church of style=”font-style: italic;”> San Zanipolo
were literally huts on stilts. These stilts were rough-hewn poles of
alder driven by hand through the muddy sediment into solid earth to
provide a crude but remarkably strong building foundation for
Venice’s early dwellings. First by the dozens, then by the
hundreds, and finally by the hundreds of thousands, these poles became
Venice’s invisible support. Centuries later, and much
thicker, they would underpin palaces. In each case the airless vacuum
of the underwater mud would make the  poles
stronger–virtually petrified. And, in the muddy, plastic medium that
was and is the lagoon, this meant that glorious buildings sitting atop
thousands of individually placed poles could withstand natural
disasters like earthquake far better than if they had been built on
comparatively more brittle solid foundations.

Thus the first Venetians and their builder descendants produced what
became the first of Serenissima’s confounding
contradictions—bedrock that bends. It is not too far wrong to
say that the same technology that gave early settlers a simple place to
sleep and eventually to live, also was the means by which builders
centuries later created the most beautiful city in the world, that
seems to float on the water, and which, as a commercial and political
dynasty, would flourish for a thousand years.

Doomsayers to the contrary, Venice is not sinking. It is settling, as
the thick layer of silt that forms part of Venice’s base
compresses.

But the water surrounding its stunning architecture is rising, at an
alarming and ever-increasing rate. And that in the end may be much the
worse catastrophe, that threatens Venice in ways never imagined by her
ancient enemies.

———–

|image2|The low moaning of the sirens gives the first public warning, though,
like sailors taught to divine the weather from the clouds, Venetians
know from experience—and perhaps even in their bones–when
the water is about to rise.

High water, style=”font-style: italic;”>acqua alta,
is a continuing presence in Venice, most often occurring with the
confluence of high tide, full moon, high winds and rain. And, though
rarely flooding sidewalks or squares more than a foot or so, it can
force pedestrians in low-lying areas to don boots or to traverse
boardwalks to get to and fro. It is an increasing phenomenon, too, if
one tracks the weather and the tide charts over decades. Where once
measurable high water occurred mostly in winter, today it is possible
to experience a submerged Serenissima in summer and fall as well, even
under clear skies.

One need only troll the worldwide web to find pictures of hefty
Hawaiian-shirted tourists (one assumes they are American) wading
through Piazza San Marco, or to see an enterprising person in a T-shirt
paddling a brightly colored kayak through the drawing room of Europe.
Venetian photojournalist style=”font-style: italic;”>Gianfranco Tagliapietra
once made a colorful shot of the American movie star Julia Roberts,
attending the Venice Film Festival, splashing happily through the
Piazza in a light summer dress and high rubber boots.

Because high water in Venice has been around for centuries (and since
it affects only the lowest-lying, albeit some of the oldest and most
historic, parts of the city) locals seem to regard high water with a
nonchalance bordering on disdain. “Venice welcome[s] water in
any form, at home with drizzle or downpour,” novelist Michael
Dibdin notes. With glass in hand and ensconced in a friendly bar or
bacaro, locals can wait out the deluge “secretly glad of this
assurance that their great ark [will] never run aground.”

Still, as seemingly routine as acqua alta may be to many
locals—when the weather is bright, you often can see people
taking the sun as they sit or recline on the emergency boardwalks–it
can and does have serious repercussions on daily life. Children have
difficulty getting to school and adults to work, and most important,
Venice’s fireboats, ambulances, police launches and other
emergency vessels may be thwarted in reaching their destinations
because where the water is highest they no longer can pass under the
city’s myriad pedestrian bridges.

Still it is Venice’s blessing and curse (a curse because it
encourages inaction) to  weather high water with aplomb. Even
in the devastating style=”font-style: italic;”>Acqua Grande
of Nov. 4, 1966—a Perfect Storm of high winds and rain
creating monster flooding that brought the city to a halt, laid waste
to many of Venice’s art treasures, devastated many of its
ancient buildings, and, in its only salutary effect, helped create the
worldwide Save Venice movement–nobody died. Further south in Florence,
the same storm exploded the Arno over its banks and the death toll
stood at a hundred.

And so the concierge at the style=”font-style: italic;”> Danieli routinely
hands out boots and umbrellas to patrons worried about venturing into
the wet. Those who do not dwell in palaces or in luxe
hotels—which is to say all the other people in
Venice—deal with rising damp and rising water with a becoming
practicality. Virtually every street-level doorway in sections of the
city likely to be dunked features tell-tale metal grooves into which
residents insert  two-foot high waterproof baffles at the
first sounding of the sirens. These rubber-edged metal barriers, placed
in front of exterior doors, allow for dry entry and exit, albeit with a
little dexterous high-stepping in and out….

But the increasing frequency and intensity of acqua alta, combined with
the unfortunate compression of Venice’s marshy subsoil,
inevitably raise the question: Could Venice actually sink, if it is not
sinking already?

“Streets full of water. Please advise,” the late
humorist Robert Benchley said in a telegram back to the States decades
ago. Benchley’s famous wire, to the then-editor of the New
Yorker, the legendary Harold Ross, reflected the quaint charm of the
floating city to the first-time (and not really that naïve)
visitor.

Ironically, the water that gave birth to Venice and protected it for
centuries now threatens to destroy it.

Venice really is but a series of more than a hundred small
islands—mudflats, actually–held together by bridges and
canals at the center of a 200-square mile lagoon. Several factors, some
natural, some Venice’s own doing, have contributed to its
perilous condition and have put Serenissima at the greatest risk it
ever has faced in its long, long history.…

Project MOSE (inevitably called Project Moses, as in parting the Red
Sea) is a system of 78 huge hollow steel floodgates (each measuring
some 6500 square feet) that will lie out of sight on the floor of the
Venetian lagoon, then rise hydraulically at the first indication of
severe high water. (“MOSE” actually refers to one
of the project’s experimental prototypes: modulo sperimentale
elettromeccanico.) The idea will be to mitigate, if not actually block,
the incoming tide. When completed, the 78 gates will stretch across the
mouths of three inlets on the eastern edge of the lagoon, ready to rise
literally at the flick of a remote switch. That feat will be
accomplished by forcing compressed air into the hollow interior of each
gate, thereby causing the gates to rise on their submerged, anchored
hinges.

The idea of floodgates to protect cities at sea-level hardly is new.
One drawbridge-style invention to hold back the water was designed by
Venetian engineers in 1740. Much more recently, in the 1980s, both
London and Rotterdam completed their own floodgate systems to protect
their low-lying cities. [A sobering realization in London following an
ominous overflowing of the Thames in the 1970s was that a really
disastrous flood would inundate the city’s storied
Underground, and potentially kill or injure thousands.]

Though hailed at its inception by Italian Prime Minister style=”font-style: italic;”>Silvio Berlusconi
as “the most important environmental protection measure in
the world,” MOSE has been dogged by critics for nearly three
decades, less on grounds of its multi-billion dollar cost than on its
potential negative impact on the Venetian lagoon’s already
fragile ecosystem….

For all the romantic imagery of Venice as a floating city reveling in
its connection to the sea, the hard economic fact remains that
out-of-control flooding not only costs the city millions each year, it
also makes Venice less attractive to any people or businesses thinking
of returning or relocating there. There is no escaping the fact that
Venice’s population has been shrinking, falling by more than
100,000 people in recent decades to its current level of merely 60,000
damp, hardy souls.

“Flooding paralyzes the city and our life,”
declared mayor Paolo Costa in 2003 as he labored to cobble together the
coalitions and other political support that ultimately helped get
Project MOSE started. “If you consider acqua alta as an
attraction, fine,” he went on, “but that is
Disneyland. And then Venice is not a city for people.”

At its current rate of population decline, the most beautiful city in
the world will be virtually empty in a generation—an image of
urban death even more troubling than that of a stagnant, if tamed,
Venetian lagoon.

To those who love the city, either prospect is unthinkable.


Frank Van Riper
Photos by Judith Goodman and Frank Van Riper

Note:
Serenissima:
Venice in Winter
is available
through local booksellers and through BarnesandNoble.com and
Amazon.com. Those wishing to purchase a signed and inscribed copy of
the book (at the special 20% style=”font-style: italic; font-weight: bold;”>Dream
of Italy discount price of
$40 plus $5 s/h) can contact Frank and Judy directly through 
www.veniceinwinter.com