Sunday, December 24, 2017

Italy | Venice | Church of San Zaccaria

Wandered by the Church of San Zaccaria, just east of St. Mark’s Square. Zaccaria (Zechariah), as you probably recall, appears both in the Bible, where he figures as the father of John the Baptist and the husband of Elizabeth, a relative of Mary, the mother of Jesus, and in the Quran, where he named as the guardian of Mary and also as the father of John the Baptist. The gruesome remains of his body, presumably mummified, can still be seen here. The church is located on Campo San Zaccaria, a square which was once considered the private property of the Benedictine convent that grew up around the church. The square can only be entered by two narrow alleyways, one coming from the Grand Canal to the south and another from the small Campo San Provolo to the west. In each of these alleyways was a gated portal that allowed the square to be locked up at night and other times when the nuns did not want to be bothered by the public. I enter the square via the lane from the Campo San Provolo. Above the lintel on the outer face of the portal can be seen a marble relief of the Madonna and Child between John the Baptist and St. Mark. A half-figure of St. Zaccaria himself is poised above the pointed arch of the portal.
Portal to Campo San Zaccaria (click on photos for enlargements)
There may have been church on the current site of San Zaccaria as early as the seventh century. We know for sure that Doge Agnello Partecipazio built a church on the site in 827 and that it was dedicated to St. Zaccaria, whose bones were sent as a gift to Venice by the Byzantine Emperor Leo V while the church was being built. Around this time a nunnery was also established. It became famous, and eventually notorious, as the depository of the unwed daughters of the Venetian aristocracy, not all of whom felt strictly bound by their oaths of celibacy. Many of its abbesses were the daughters of doges. Doges, however, were only allowed to visit the nunnery once a year, on Easter Monday.

One famous visitor to the convent was Pope Benedict III, who in 855 was granted refuge here during the upheavals surrounding the ascension of the notorious Antipope Anastasius, named pope over the objections of church hierarchy by Louis II, emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. Anastasius was eventually sent packing and Benedict III placed on the papal throne. In gratitude to the sisters who had succored him in his hour of need (I am not suggesting anything untoward here), Pope Benedict donated to the convent a significant collection of relics, including the remains of the Saint Athanasius of Alexandria (c. 296–298—373) and a piece, one of many, of the True Cross. (Athanasius is also a saint according to the Egyptian Coptic tradition. During a visit to Rome in 1973 Pope Paul VI gave the Coptic Pope Shenouda part of Athanasius’s remains, which were then taken back to Egypt. The relics are now in Saint Mark's Coptic Orthodox Cathedral in Cairo.) The convent built during the days of Doge Agnello Partecipazio burned down in 1105. One hundred nuns are said to have died in the inferno. A new convent was built and in the1170s the church was rebuilt or at least remodeled. During the years 1483–1504 a new church was alongside the old one, parts of which can still seen. The new church, which finally was consecrated in 1543, is the one the dominates the square today.
The latest version of the church, consecrated in 1543
The church opens at 10:00 a.m. and I enter with two dozen other visitors, including elderly Europeans, some of whom are clearly on their last legs, marking Venice off their bucket lists while they still mobile, and several groups of young and middle-aged Chinese. Many make a beeline for the Giovanni Bellini’s painting “Madonna and Four Saints” over the second altar on the left wall, probably the most famous of the many paintings which almost completely cover the walls of the church. It had been looted by Napoleon when he seized Venice in 1797 and carted off to Paris but was eventually returned. Several of the Chinese start taking photos despite the signs everywhere saying no photos. A docent appears and quietly—there are also signs stating that it is forbidden to talk loudly in the church—tells them to stop.

I head for the right wall, where stretched out on a shelf high on the wall can be seen the body—presumably, hopefully, mummified—of St. Zaccaria, donated to the church almost 1200 years ago by Byzantine Emperor Leo V. On a shelf below is the body of Saint Athanasius of Alexandrian, donated to the church by Pope Benedict in the 850s in gratitude for the succor he had received from the Benedictine nuns. Two Chinese girls, maybe sixteen years old, come and stand beside me. They gape wide-eyed and fearful at the relics, which could pass for props in some Gothic horror movie, Forget Bellini and the rest of the paintings—famous paintings are a dime a dozen in Venice—this is stuff to tell their girl friends back home about! One surreptitiously snaps a photo with her smart phone.

Further along on the left side is the entrance to two side chapels that have been turned into a museum. Entrance is €1.50 but photography (without flash) is allowed. The first, the Chapel of Saint Athanasius, contains an assortment of paintings, including two by Venetian stalwarts Tintoretto and Palma Giovane. The Tintoretto over the altar is said to be one of his early works and to my untutored eye is not particularly impressive. While I am examining it a woman in maybe her forties and a girl, presumably her daughter, come and stand behind me. The women is sheathed in a luxurious knee-length fur coat—could it actually be sable?—and has a perfectly coiffured helmet of short blonde hair. Her daughter, maybe fourteen years old, is less elegantly dressed in faded jeans ripped across the knees and thighs and a waist-length coat of mangy, piled purple wool that looks like it may have come from a thrift shop. A huge, unruly mass of russet ringlets surrounds her face and cascades down over her shoulders. She has a ring in her nose and lip and her eyelids are shaded purple, perhaps to match her coat. Her mother leans in and eyes on the sign on the painting. “It’s a Tintoretto,” she says. Rolling her eyes, her daughter announces, “If I see one more Tintoretto I-am-going-to-hurl.” I sidle over to a painting of the Madonna and Saints that the sign says was by Palma Vecchio. The most recent guidebooks say, however, that it has been re-attributed to one Marco Basaiti. In any case, the figures are clearly delineated and the colors are crisp and clear, making it in my eye much more attractive than the muddy looking Tintoretto. The mother and daughter move over to view it and I quickly move on. I do not want to be here if the purported Palma Vecchio makes the daughter hurl.
Painting by Palma Vecchio, or perhaps Marco Basaiti
Detail of painting by Palma Vecchio, or perhaps Marco Basaiti
A hallway to the left leads to the Chapel of St. Tarasius. This chapel was the real reason I was visiting the Church of San Zaccaria. I was curious to see if the relics of St. Tarasius had survived. Tarasius (c. 730—806) was born and raised in Constantinople and later the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople of the  Byzantine capital. He was a noted iconodule who believed in the veneration of icons, in staunch opposition to the iconoclasts who had come to power after Byzantine Emperor Leo III had ordered the destruction of many icons back the 720s and 730s. Before accepting the post of Patriarch of Constantinople in 784, Tarasius made the Empress Irene promise that she would restore the veneration of icons, which she did. He was also active in the movement to unite or at least reconcile the Roman and Orthodox churches. For this he was granted sainthood by both branches of the faith. His feast day is celebrated on February 25 by the Eastern Orthodox Church, using to the Julian Calendar, and on March 10 by Roman Catholics, the same day according the Gregorian Calendar.

Tarasius’s rule as a unifier of the two churches resonated strongly in Venice, which throughout the first centuries of its existence had swerved back and forth between allegiance to Constantinople and Rome. It was firmly in the Catholic camp in religious matters, but due to its trade ties with the East it was still inextricably linked with the Orthodox world of the Byzantines. Not for nothing was it known as the westernmost city of the Orient. These bonds, it was thought, would be further strengthened by having the body of Saint Tarasius, the unifier, in Venice where it would be properly venerated. No less, it would attract pilgrims from all over the Catholic world who would drop a lot of cash in the city, pilgrims at the time being the equivalent of today’s tourists.

Some enterprising Venetians merchants and priests in Constantinople soon located the body in a monastery near the city and concocted a plan to steal it. Surreptitiously they moved the remains of Tarasius to an awaiting ship belonging to Domenico Dandolo, who then transported it back to Venice. Dandolo was greeted with hosannahs and the body was transported with great ceremony to the Convent of St Zaccaria. This signaled the rise of the rise to prominence of the Dandolo family, one of whom, Enrico Dandolo, would mastermind the Fourth Crusade and oversee the sack of Constantinople in 1204.

Above the altar is a stupendously ornate gilded altarpiece and perched on the walls on either side are wooden statues of saints Benedict and Zaccaria. But there are no remains of St. Tarasius anywhere to be seen. Could they are inside the altar?
Chapel of St. Tarasius
Magnificent altarpiece in the Chapel of St. Tarasius
Altarpiece in the Chapel of St. Tarasius
The Chapel of St. Tarasius is actually the remodeled apse of one of the earlier versions of the church of San Zaccaria, possibly even the earliest version of the church built in the 800s. A section of the tile floor from the twelve-century church that burned down can still been in front of the altar, and fragments of the floor from the ninth century church have been preserved under glass.
Remains of the mosaic floor from the twelfth century church
Below the Chapel of St. Tarasius is crypt that contains the tombs of eight doges. There is usually several inches of water on the floor. 
Crypt with water on the floor
One of the eight doges’s tombs in the Crypt
Painting of the church and monastery by Francesco Guardi (1790)

Saturday, December 16, 2017

Italy | Venice | We Crociferi

From Kastraki I took the train to Athens, where I once again stayed at my Favorite Hotel in the city. I could not resist climbing the Hill of the Muses again for another view of the Acropolis and the Parthenon.
The Acropolis, topped by the Parthenon (click on photos for enlargements)
The Parthenon. Unfortunately it always seems to be under repair.
The Acropolis at night, from the balcony of my hotel. The Parthenon is not visible from this angle.
Then took an early morning flight to Istanbul. Would have loved to stop for some mutton kebabs at the take-out place next to my Favorite Hotel in Istanbul, but of course I cannot enter Turkey because of the recent Visa Snafu. So I caught a connecting flight to Venice. The plane left Ataturk Airport in Istanbul at 5:36 p.m. It was dark at ground level when we took off, but we emerged from the low, heavy cloud cover just in time to see the sun sinking halfway below the horizon, now banded with fiery reddish-orange light that gradually faded into a dome of deep cobalt blue. For the next hour or so we chased the sun westward. Several times it reappeared above the horizon only to sink again. We finally lost the race with the sun and arrived at the predictably named Marco Polo Airport in total darkness at 5:50 local time, for a flight of two hours and fourteen minutes. There is no line at Immigration and my portmanteau is the second piece of luggage to emerge on the conveyor belt.

Marco Polo Airport has undergone major remodeling since I was here last. A fifteen minute walk on a new sky-bridge ends at the dock where water-buses now leave for the island of Murano and Venice itself.  From the water-bus it is impossible to make out anything in the dark and the fog. After about thirty minutes the lights of Murano Island water-bus stop appear out of the gloom. A half dozen people get off and we continue on another fifteen minutes to the  Fondamente Nuove stop on the north side of Venice itself. I am the only person getting off. Most passengers are continuing on to the hotels around St. Mark’s Square, on the south side of Venice, which offer more convenient access the city’s more famous sights. During the day numerous water buses to the airport, outlying islands, and other parts of Venice itself all converge here, and the walkway, lined with ticket vendors and attendant kiosks selling selling water, snacks, and souvenirs is usually bustling with transients. Now the Fondamente Nuove is eerily quiet. I look up and down the 800-yard long fog-shrouded walkway and do not see a single person; it appears as if the city is  deserted. 

I veer off Fondamente Nuove onto Salizzada dei Specchieri (street of the looking-glass makers), which is also suspiciously, forbiddingly empty. After a hundred yards or the eight massive  Corinthian columns that make the facade of the Church of the Gesuiti (Jesuits) rear up out of the gloom on my left. Above the entablature carried by the columns statues of the twelve apostles and assorted angels appear out of the fog. I get the discombobulating feeling that they are gazing down in judgment at the lone wanderer on the street below. Not that I am the first to be put off by these statues. W. D. Howells (1837–1920), erstwhile editor of the “Atlantic Monthly” and author of Venetian Life (1866), observed that “the sight of those theatrical angels, with their shameless, unfinished backs, flying off the top of the rococo façade of the church of the Jesuits, has always been a spectacle to fill me with despondency and foreboding.” A later observer, James Lees-Milne, in his Venetian Evenings, noted: “To my mind these statues look more like lost souls about to throw themselves in despair to the bottomless pit, only prevented from doing so by the rusted iron bands which tie their loose limbs together and keep them in.” By now a surprisingly chilly and uncomfortably damp wind is gusting through the street, adding to my discomfiture. The tee-shirt and Mongolian cashmere sweater I had donned that morning in Athens are clearly inadequate.

The Salizzada dei Specchieri opens out into the Campo dei Gesuiti, a long narrow square likewise empty. On the left side of the square, abutting the Church of the Gesuiti, stands an immense white-walled five story building that was once a Jesuit monastery. It has been transformed into both living quarters for students and a hotel for the public. Veering off the square and through a portal I emerge into a huge courtyard lined by a colonnaded passageway. In the courtyard and passageway are huddled groups of people, presumably students, the first humans I have seen since arriving at the Fondamente Nuove. Lady Gaga booms from the sound system of a cafe off to the side, accompanied by a buzz of conversation and laughter. I am back among the living. 

The receptionist assigns me to a room on the fifth floor. You have to use your key card to use the elevator. After passing through three unmarked doors and wandering down several long corridors I finally locate my room in an isolated cul-de-sac. I cannot help but wonder if I have been purposely exiled to this out of way corner of the huge building, away from the younger and more livelier residents. If so, this suites me fine. The last thing I need is some noisy college students next door. According its website the We Crociferi has shared dormitory-style rooms, private rooms with bath, studio rooms, and small apartments complete with kitchens. It is not clear how many of these units it hosts, but the entire facility has 255 beds, all of them singles. The website is quick to point out that these single beds cannot be joined together. Perhaps this is a residual holdover from its days as a Jesuit monastery, and now an attempt to maintain some degree of propriety among the college students who stay here. Some on-line reviews, apparently from adult couples, grouse about the lack of any double beds in the rooms. Why these people find such a problem with a single bed is beyond me. If they want to couple they can do so on a single bed. I have done it more times than I can count. Then they can retire to separate single beds. Or they can just remain in the single bed, which may result in even greater intimacy, since you simply cannot roll over to your own side of the bed after coupling is completed. In any case, my room has three single beds, only one of which I will be using. As far as I know I will not be doing any coupling in Venice.

Room decor is minimalist; gray concrete floors with no carpets or rugs, and whitewashed brick walls. In keeping with its function as student quarters a built-in formica topped desk extends the entire length of the front wall. Study lamps on flex-arms light the desk area, there are no less than eight—eight!—electrical outlets, and the overhead lights are more than adequate. Actually this functional work space, often so sadly lacking in even much more expensive hotels, is the real reason I am staying at the We Crociferi.  As a bonus my room, although isolated, looks directly down on the Campo dei Gesuiti  and has a great view out over the roof tops of Venice, with the dome-topped 182-foot campanile, or bell tower, of the church of Madonna dell’Orto soaring up off in the distance.
The We Crociferi on the right, in daylight
One of three courtyard at the We Crociferi
Courtyard at the We Crociferi
Courtyard at the We Crociferi
Courtyard at the We Crociferi
Arcade at the We Cruciferi
The Church of the Gesuiti, to the left of the We Crociferi. The angels on the facade are less dread-inspiring in the daylight
182-foot campanile, or bell tower, of the church of Madonna dell’Orto visible over the rooftops of Venice

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Greece | Thessaly | Meteora | Kastraki

I am staying in the village of Kastraki, which is almost but not quite coterminous with the much larger town of Kalambaka. My hotel is .9 of a mile from the Kalambaka train station. I had intended to walk but just as I started off a downpour ensued. I had already gotten drenched walking to the train station in Thessaloniki but had pretty much dried my clothes with my body heat on the train. I did not want to get soaked again so I took a cab. My hotel, a small guesthouse, actually, is like many such places around here run by a couple who live on the premises. The on-line reviews said they “treat you like family,” which I definitely do not consider a recommendation. I prefer anonymous places with receptionists like those in “American Horror Story: Hotel.” It was one of the cheapest places in the village, however, so I thought I would take my chances with the dreaded “family treatment.” It turned out my fears were ungrounded. After checking in I came and went like a ghost and never saw the owners again for four days. 

The spires and peaks of Meteora loom over Kastraki. I am staying here because the village offers better access on foot to most of the Meteora monasteries than does Kalambaka. It is also much more quiet and laid back than bustling Kalambaka, which caters in large part to big tour groups. Indeed, zoning laws forbid buildings of more than two stories in Kastraki and any new buildings must be made from traditional local materials. This is an apparent attempt to keep out large hotels and maintain Kastraki’s ambience as a traditional Greek village.

On-lines guides rave about the cuisine in Kastraki and there does seem to be an inordinate amount of restaurants for a small village, but the tourist season has peaked and most now appear closed for the winter, even though it is only the last week of November. The one place I do find open at mid-afternoon serves only the most generic Greek grub at ridiculously inflated prices (the house wine, produced locally. is not bad at all, quality-wise, but at €5 a half-liter also overpriced). Fortunately the village boasts of a fine little bakery with excellent spinach and cheese pies and chocolate croissants. These sluiced down with a bottle of local red wine (€4.00 for three-fourths of a liter) make a sufficient repast, even after a long day’s hiking on the roads and trails out of town.
Kastraki from Great Meteora Monastery (click on photos for enlargements)
Another view of Kastraki
Another view of Kastraki
Another view of Kastraki
Another view of Kastraki
Another view of Kastraki
Small church in Kastraki
Massif behind Kastraki. The cliff face is dotted with caves and fissures that were once inhabited by solitary meditators, anchorites, recluses, and misanthropes.
Another view of the massif
Another view of the massif
Another view of the massif. If you look closely you can just make out the ruins of a hermitage in the exact center of the photo.

Church in Kastraki
Upper Kastraki
Valley above Kastraki