Ode to Titian and the Frari Church

I’ve put off writing this post for a week now because, quite frankly, I have no idea where to start. I loved every part of my time in Venice, but I think I would have to call the Frari Church my favorite. Now, where to begin…

Like Burano, the Frari church is largely unknown by most of Venice’s visitors. This is criminal in my mind, for it really is an important place. This Romanesque hall of worship, which was built as the Franciscan “Church of the Brothers”, offers its guests a unique opportunity. It allows one see the works of three important Renaissance artists in the original, intended venue. Here one can find Donatello’s woodcarving of St. John the Baptist, Bellini’s Madonna and Child with Saints and Angels, and (most notably) Titian’s The Assumption of Mary. I absolutely loved that place.

Stepping out of the warm morning sunshine and into the cool shade of the church was made all the more exhilarating by its impressive décor. Typical to Romanesque churches, it was quite lofty and had piers, giant order columns, and pointed domes galore. Incense burners hung down from the high roof, suspended by thin chains, and added a certain air of religious significance to the building.

And there, in the main room, was Titian’s tomb. I was tickled pink to be standing before the tomb of such an important artist, who is also one of my

Titians Final Resting Place

personal favorites. With his vibrant colors and elaborate usage of compositional elements, I have always found Titian’s works to be some of the most powerful from the High Renaissance period of art. In fact, he was recognized by his contemporaries as “the Sun among small stars,” that’s how fantastic his works are. However somber and powerful standing before the grave of such an important man is, God still has a sense of humor and he finds ways to make us laugh even in such a grandiose setting. You see, directly across the room from Titian’s tomb sits another ossuary that contains the remains of the ARCHITECT Canova. I say it is comical because of the story behind these two gravesites.

Back in the day, the church leaders commissioned Canova, an important architect of the period, to construct a tomb for their beloved Titian. He immediately set about the task but, upon its completion, the patriarchs

Canova in his "Modern Monstrosity"

decided it was too modern for Titian and had another burial chamber built. However, they still had a large, “too modern” eyesore sitting unused directly across the room from Titian’s place of rest. So, when Canova passed away, they had him buried there so that the mausoleum would not be a total waste. I couldn’t help but laugh when my friend, Felix, explained this to me. I began to envision a large group of clergymen, in ceremonial robes, huddling around the tomb saying “Great! What do we do with that thing!” followed by a messenger running in and shouting “Canova’s dead!” at which point all the clergymen look to each other and say “Well. We could stick him in that thing” while making a nonchalant gesture to the crypt.

After my little chuckle, I began to peruse the building. Sadly, I had to do so with a time limit. Nonetheless, I still got to gaze at most of the art there, including Donatello’s incredible John the Baptist. Clad in robes of animal hair, and thin as a rail I was quite pleased with Donatello’s ability to depict the nomadic and malnourished prophet. With a think beard, ragged clothing and sunken cheeks due to a diet of locusts and honey, Donatello’s John seemed to step straight out of the scriptures. I found Bellini to lack certain qualities of greatness that Donatello and Titian possess, but his portrayal of Mary and Jesus with the angels was still quite interesting and thought provoking.

As pleasant as Donatello and Bellini were, the highlight of the cathedral’s art collection was undoubtedly Titian’s The Assumption of Mary. Towering above the apse of the church, Titian’s scene reigns supreme throughout the airy building. I was stunned by its size when I approached the altar, and was driven to the point of awe by its powerful portrayal of the scene. I had no choice but to send up a little prayer in response to the sight.  With the clouds and heavenly hosts successfully separating the heavenly scene of Mary being united with her son from the men of the world below her, the work is a nice commentary on the division of the things of heaven and of earth. Color also plays a central role in communicating this idea by using a blue sky for earth

Frari's Apse and Titian's Painting

and a golden glow for the heavenly setting.

I also loved how Titian used the element of line in the form of the angel’s postures, the arms and movements of those left on earth, and the clouds to draw his viewer’s eyes directly to Mary. Once their eyes are there, he also used the “U” shape of the clouds and the heavenly host to create a type of frame, or nest, around Mary to keep his audience’s gaze focused on her; his main subject.

 

The Beautiful Colors of Burano

After dilly dallying around Murano for what was a gloriously long time, our group decided to hurry up and hop on the vaporetti to Burano; the lace making island. It was nearing sunset as our boat approached the islet, and we only had about another hour or two of decent light, but that did not hinder the brilliance of the colors on Burano! I think the only way to explain it is as though a box of Crayola crayons had been turned into a village.

Seriously, Crayola should consider endorsing the town. The first thing that struck me when we drew near was the bright greens, blues, and purples of the homes and stores. I was talking to Brandon when we rounded the bend and came into sight of the town. He had his back to the spectacle, and I had to cut him off in mid-sentence with “Dude! You’re not going to believe this!”

The pictures I’ve included don’t do Burano justice, but let me assure you it’s a magnificent place. Imagine if Disney Land and Crayola teamed up and made a real, working town in the middle of a lagoon.  That would be Burano.

We immediately hopped off the boat and immersed ourselves in Burano’s fairy tale-esque splendor. Partially because we were starving and desperately needed a pizzeria, but also because its just so darn cool. I really don’t understand why it gets no attention when people speak of Venice. Almost everyone has heard of Murano, why don’t more know about Burano?! The place is as authentically Italian as it gets, with its own unique white wine and leaning tower, and it is home to some of the highest quality lacemaking in the world. Add in the brilliant colors and decorations of the buildings and it really is an incredible little oasis. More people should go!

Despite its obscurity in the public eye, we thoroughly enjoyed this multicolor isle as we walked around popping into small shops and looking for pizza. There are tons of lace, Carnevale mask, and Murano glass shops in the narrow streets bordering the canal; with each one being cooler than the last. The food is great as well. The pizza we had was delicious! I actually didn’t talk the whole dinner simply because I couldn’t wait to shovel the next bite into my mouth.

If you’re ever in Venice, make sure to get beyond the tourist traps and go to Burano. I only wish we had planned more time for it and that the lace making display and museum hadn’t been under repair.

Murano and its Glass

Say Venice and I guarantee someone will retort with Murano. This little island has become synonymous with the city in recent times due to its glass making expertise. Murano glass is considered to be the finest in the world, and I must say I agree. After seeing the craftsmanship of the glass blowing process, I will forever be a convert to this notion.

The incredible part of Murano glass blowing is that it is a skill which is passed down from father to son. There is no school or organized craftsman’s guild that teaches the technique. Amazingly, it has survived the centuries simply through the loving instructions of Fathers to their sons. I found this pretty incredible since it is such a delicate and intricate art form. You would assume there would need to be some sort of formal instruction; but no. It is all based on what the father has learned in his own experience and from what his dad showed him. No rules, no standards, just generations of experience.

After fighting against the surge of tourists getting off the vaporetti, we set out to find a non-tourist trap establishment within which to see this legendary process. It took us a while of wondering the streets and shops, but eventually we found one. I should note that we discovered an establishment no thanks to the pigeon who decided he was our tour guide and strutted out in front of us. He was really terrible at giving instructions.

Once we found a proper forge we sat down on the worn wooden benches in excited anticipation of the show. We watched as what started out as a glowing red blob on the end of a pipe was blown, twisted, poked, prodded, and spun into a flower vase, and then watched the process repeated to render a horse. The pressure is on these artists as they have under a minute to complete their work before the glass loses its malleability. I was impressed with this fact as I thought about all the countless hours it took me to turn a pile of clay into a

Crafting the horse

human head, or my grandfather to turn a block of wood into a duck. Yet, these craftsmen can turn a lump of what looks like red hot chewing gum into a beautiful horse in under sixty seconds. Simply unfathomable.

We were astounded even further when the showman dropped a piece of paper onto the completed figures and it immediately burst into flames. Apparently, the glass is hot enough to cause flammable materials to combust on contact

A blue glass horse with red heat raging within

for a few minutes after the figures are completed. This gave the objects a primal beauty since you could see the pretty colors of the glass on the exterior while a red hot glow of extreme heat ebbed and flowed within their core.

Of course, after this spectacle, we did a little light shopping in the glass shops next to the canal and waltzed around like true Italians. Through perusing the stores it became shocking just how detailed and pretty these craftsmen could make their glass. I saw

gorgeous sailboats, extravagant glass jewelry, and even whole scenes of clear glass blocks with glass sea creatures within them.Even the simplest beads and dining wares were far more intricate and beautiful than I could have ever imagined.

I bought a glass duck to go with the wooden mallard my grandpa carved me.

San Marco

Our second stop during our day in Venice was St. Mark’s Basilica or, as it is known in Italian, Basilica di San Marco. Of course, this church is most famous for being the home of the bones of Saint Mark, which were smuggled into the city around 830 A.D. Since Venice was a very secular trading city it was not exactly smiled upon by the Pope. So, by procuring the bones of such an important Saint, the citizens ensured themselves religious importance so that they would not be subject to the whims of the clergy. Quite an aggressive strategy to be sure, but when you are the most influential center of trade in Italy you can get away with these sorts of acts.

However, I did not find this fascinating history of sacred blackmail to be the most interesting part of my visit to the Basilica. For me, the most awe inspiring part was the building itself. From the massive porch which overlooks Piazza San Marco, to the small museum which houses the infamous bronze horses of Alexander the great, and (my favorite) incredible mosaics it truly was glamorous.

Thanks to “Rick Steve’s” guidebook to Italy, we were able to bypass the intimidatingly long line outside of the church by using a free baggage claim ticket. A little known fact to most tourists is that slightly behind and to the left of the basilica is a place to store your bag while touring San Marco’s. Simply go there and they will give you a claim slip that is valid for one hour and allows you to skip the line. What they do with the bag after an hour I don’t know. However, that little stub was worth its weight in gold as it allowed us to get into the basilica with ease.

Once inside, we quickly made our way up to the veranda to look at the veritable sea of people filling the piazza for Carnevale. Napoleon allegedly called Piazza San Marco “Europe’s greatest drawing room.” I don’t think he ever saw it during Carnevale, as the place was a madhouse. I honestly don’t believe I have ever seen that many people jammed into one spot.

Nonetheless, we enjoyed the view from the balcony, along with the replicas of Alexander’s bronze horses, and then headed inside to see the real stallions. While plenty beautiful to look at by themselves, knowing the history behind them enhanced the experience that much more. Made during the reign of

The Horses

Alexander the great, they were later taken to Rome by Nero. Next they were commandeered by Constantine and taken to Constantinople and then later brought back to their original home of Venice by Venetian crusaders. They then went on one last sabbatical some years later when Napoleon took them to Paris, but finally came home for good after his reign. Today, the originals sit in the museum located in the church away from the elements and let their replicas stand guard at their post on the porch.

The museum within the church is not solely home to the horses, but also showcases many tapestries and paintings made to adorn the basilica throughout the ages. I spent quite a lot of time reveling in the tapestries showing the creation story and Christ’s crucifixion, and gazing intently at all the beautiful paintings of saints, Mary, and other biblical figures. However, awesome as these were, they simply quailed in comparison to the Mosaics adorning the entire church.

Glistening down from the ceilings and walls, the golden mosaics are simply sumptuous. While the biblical scenes they depicted did not seem to be placed in any sort of order, they were still very easy to follow. The artists were adept enough at their job that captions are not needed. You can simply look up and go “Oh! There’s Noah and his ark” or “look there’s that slimy coward Judas.”

A large part of this was a result of the incredible attention to detail in the murals. A mosaic is simply a portrait composed of shards of stone, glass, and metal. Yet, the artists were able to achieve incredible detail in their works; even down to shading! I doubt many people who enter the cathedral could even achieve such detail using a pencil and paper. Just imagine how difficult it was to do with rocks!

Adding to this whole ambience of splendor was the sounds of a choir singing traditional Catholic chants and music. There was a service going on while we were there, after all it was Sunday. So not only did I have the privilege of seeing the Basilica of Saint Mark’s mosaics, but I got to do so with an authentic soundtrack. I had to pinch myself to make sure that I hadn’t gotten hit by a crazy Italian driver and was actually in Heaven’s halls. It was truly a fantastic experience; one I hope to never ever forget.

Campinale

Not for the faint of heart, the Campinale bell tower’s soaring heights offer spectacular views of Venice and its lagoon. At over three hundred feet tall,

The Tower

this gargantuan structure definitely dominates the skyline of Venice from its perch at the corner of Piazza San Marco. Built to replace the lighthouse which collapsed in 1903, it has been a major tourist attraction since its completion.

So, of course, we needed to ride the elevator to the top like every good tourist should. Boy was it worth it. I was impressed with the Palazzo Madama’s tower, but it is nothing compared to the Campinale. With the wind whipping in your face, you can see all of Venice at once. You can even discern the famous fish shape of the city and its island. We all thoroughly enjoyed the view as we admired San Marco’s impressive domes and the beautiful figures of churches dispersed throughout the city. We even saw a Carnevale parade passing through the square from our top row seats.

However, the best part of this experience was the bells. Our group was lucky enough to be on top of Campinale at the turning of an hour, when the carillons chime the event. Though chime may not be the correct word, since when you are next to them while they toll it is more like an ear splitting bellow. For once in my mind I did not mind having only partial hearing in my left ear. While many people had to cover their auricles, I was fine and thoroughly able to revel in the spectacle. The strong and forceful tones which had marked the time in Venice for hundreds of years (they originated with the collapsed lighthouse) were now resounding in front of me. Fantastic.

 

Venice “Venezia”

All I can say that is it was an awesome feeling to step off the bus, which had been my prison for the past six hours, and into one of Italy’s most iconic cities. Here I was, in Venice!

We all collected our bags from the bowels of the bus, and began the trek as a USAC group to the Hotel Basilea, where we would be staying. As one can imagine, while we walked we gawked at the canals and ancient buildings in disbelief that we were actually there. Once we arrived at the inn, the program leaders gave us about thirty minutes before we had to head out for our tour.

I quickly dumped my luggage and grabbed whatever effects I thought I might need. I wanted to get outside and see the city, even if all that amounted to at the moment was standing by a canal and waiting to leave for the tour. Once everyone was ready, we once again stormed off as a USAC herd towards the Piazza San Marco; the main square in Venice. At times, we literally had to

The afore mentioned crowds

elbow our way through the crowd. It seemed so thick at that moment; little did we know just how bad the congestion would be in Piazza San Marco. At times you literally could not even move your hands out of your pockets it

was so thick. Nonetheless, we managed to meet our tour guides and begin the sightseeing process.

 

The tour was interesting, but not incredibly earthshattering. It was a nice orientation to Venice and we got to learn some of the history of the city and see a few sights while the guide ranted about life there. It was pretty funny how we had to essentially jump from clear spot to clear spot on side streets during the tour since we were instantly disbanded as soon as we entered the chaotically crowded main lanes.

After the tour, a small assemblage of us picked a direction and began walking. We wanted to find some dinner! However, none of us wanted to get sucked into a tourist trap, so we just started wandering into the city’s heart and away from the mayhem. It took us over an hour of trekking to find a suitable establishment, though none of us complained since we were lost in Venice. Who can be frustrated there?

We just looked for signs for the train station to keep our orientation. No map, no guidebook, just intuition and visceral reactions towards forks in the road. Eventually we found a trattoria that seemed authentic and didn’t threaten to

Me, on the Rialto Bridge

kill our pocketbooks. I had lasagna, and it was beyond delicious.

From here on out in this post, I will be merely mentioning different places I saw and not going into detail. This is partially for brevity’s sake, but mainly because I feel that it would not do these places justice to just lump them into one giant column. You will find shorter, more detailed, descriptions of each of these places in the following posts.

Sunday morning found me at the free breakfast buffet gorging myself on crème filled donuts and cappuccinos. I figured I’m only in Venice once so, my waistline be darned, I was going to eat an insane amount of pastries! This relaxed breakfast of donuts and watching gondolas pass by was in no way a good indicator of the rest of the day. After it we were running and gunning at a break neck pace all day long.

After purchasing our twenty-four hour tickets for the boat buses (called vaporetti), we hoped on the first one headed to Piazza San Marco. There, we climbed to the top of the Campinale bell tower to drink in some breathtaking sights of Venice. It was a little pricey, but worth every dime for the views. After this, we wandered the awe inspiring halls of the gargantuan San Marco Basilica. This ancient church is not only home to the bones of Saint Mark, but also the best preserved Byzantine mosaics outside of Istanbul. After managing to overcome the shock induced by the Basilica, we hopped on the next vaporetti out to the famous isle of Murano; the home of globally renowned Venetian glass. On this island glass is still made using ancient glass blowing techniques passed down from father to son. We then hopped over to the, less famous, lace making island of Burano. I still struggle to understand why Burano is so unkown as I found it to be one of the coolest places in Venice.

We ate a light supper in Burano and then headed back to the hotel. After less than an hour of relaxation we were back at it again. This time the plan was simple. We bought a bottle of Venetian Merlot, jumped on a vaporetti, and sipped it as we cruised the Grand Canal at night. We went to the far end of the island and slowly worked our way back to the hotel taking time to enjoy the sights and partake in Carnevale celebrations. I even bought myself one of the traditional masks one is supposed to wear during the festival.

One of my friends, Hunter, and I wanted to stop into “Harry’s Bar” since it was Ernest Hemingway’s favorite and we both greatly enjoy his works. However, the bar has realized their marketability, and was asking more money for one drink than I am willing to pay for a used car. We settled for a picture in front of it instead.

After some much needed sleep I woke up early on Monday. I once again capitalized on the free donuts and coffee before Brandon and I set out. We only had two hours to see a couple more places, but we made the most of it. We ran down to the Frari church, which may arguably be my favorite part of my time in Venizia. It’s the home of the tomb of Titian, one of my favorite artists, and also houses the works of two other important artists in their original venue. I found this to be very remarkable since so many pieces of art can only be observed in a sterile, white, and overly bright gallery. We then sprinted down to the Rialto Bridge to take some typical tourist photos before finally meeting the rest of the group at the hotel to leave for Verona.

All in all it was a fantastic trip. Now time for some details on the places I’ve mentioned.

 

A Gift From da ‘eart (A Gift From the Heart)

Brandon and I were trolling around Piazza Castello the other day, chatting away as we walked, when something I will never forget happened. You see, there was a rather tall and dreadlocked individual decked out in raggedy clothes and carrying tribal beads ahead of us on the sidewalk. Randomly, he wheeled around and began excitedly talking to us in very rapid Italian. Needless to say, we were a little taken aback and had no idea how to respond. He apparently noticed this and asked us in Italian if we were from Scandinavia, to which we couldn’t help but laugh. When we had made it clear we weren’t Scandinavian, he decided we must be Afrikaans to which we retorted “No, siamo Americani.” (No, we are Americans)

His eyes immediately sprang wide open in amazement and he got really, really excitable. He started giving us high fives and handshakes as he introduced himself. Apparently his name is D’Kaab and he is some form of African Peace Soldier from a now extinct country in South Africa. We guess at the Peace Soldier status since he kept asking us to come to a rally in Milan or downtown Torino (didn’t quite understand where) the next day. He said we should come show our “support for da movement” for a better, more peaceful, Africa. He then began asking us all kinds of questions about America and voiced his admiration for our country because “it is beautiful place with no racism. Everybody love everybody like a brotha.”

He was quite excited to meet us and decided we were his new “White African brothas” and pulled two small turtle figurines out of his pocket. He presented them to Brandon and I as “a gift from da ‘eart to my new White African brothas.” He then gave each of us more handshakes and hugs, and a few minutes later we said our goodbyes to D’Kaab.

I’m still not sure what to make of this exchange. However, I’m sure every time I look on my bookshelf and see that carved, ruby red, turtle I’ll think of my new African brother; D’Kaab.