The Mother of Invention
When I went to Venice, it appeared to be on the edge of a precipice. The torrent of rain it was suffering gave the city a gloomy appearance, as if the canal was originally a road that was flooded, with worse soon to come. It is in a precarious position as a collection of islands in a lagoon; the buildings are streaked with mold, and the bottom floors of many buildings are no longer usable, lost to the Grand Canal. However, when the sun broke through the clouds Wednesday morning, the city’s beauty and shrewdness was on display. The very fact that people are still living in Venice means that there must be a special quality about the city’s inhabitants. Human ingenuity saturates Venice, both for good and simply for profit. This quality is why Venice is so irresistible.
Where American cities compartmentalize business, art, and utility, Venice combines all three, adhering to their beloved Renaissance ideals. A gondolier will paddle a family down the Grand Canal, sing in a fantastic tenor the whole way, and charge you at least one hundred euro for the trip. Churches are a place of worship, provided you pay to light a candle in front of one of the artistic masterpieces tucked away in the aisles. However, I think this creative capitalism is why this city thrives today. A city detached from its mainland was once a profitable port; however, in the modern world it is much more convenient to ship goods to a more central location. As Venice’s major influx of wealth for centuries was due to its accessibility, the city had to reinvent itself or risk becoming a ghost town. However, Venice’s next move was a master stroke. Instead of choosing to invest in modernity, Venetians invested in what they already had—culture. Churches and museums are as common as water in Venice because of its affluent past. In order to continue attracting business, all Venetians had to do was add a fresh coat of paint. Tourists visit Venice to relive the past, just like a father pushing his son to play his revered sport.
Venice is laid out like a maze, which only adds to the city’s income. The moment our travels didn’t follow the Grand Canal, we were instantly faced with a plethora of identical unmarked roads. The hostel Emily and I had chosen was only a five minute walk from the train station, yet we spent an hour traversing narrow alleyways before giving up and returning to the train station for guidance. However, during our long walk, we grew tired and thirsty. If we weren’t college students, we probably would have stopped at the multiple trattorie and pizza places we passed. The sheer number of restaurants we passed could have fed a city with thrice the population of Venice. I think the owners count on foreigners getting lost and exhausted. Near St. Mark’s Square, the tiny capillaries held hundreds of shops, all glistening with Carnaval masks. It is rather fitting, considering the artistic façade covering the true lives of Venetians.
However, now that the mask is lifted, do I love Venice any less? The art, the architecture, the pure vivacity of this city is still a beautiful thing. For four hours, I wandered around San Polo by myself. I passed people on their way to work, their umbrellas hanging cautiously by their sides. I entered a café, was the only person that spoke English, and was rewarded with the best cappuccino and croissant I have had the whole trip. The churches I entered were absolutely breathtaking, and one is the subject of another journal. Even if the driving force behind the preservation of these masterpieces is desperation, who wouldn’t want to make a living preserving an entire city? I would imagine even the humble watertaxi captain has a higher job satisfaction than a taxi driver in America.
Murano glass is a fascinating metaphor for the Venetian lifestyle. Craftsmen work constantly for hours to continue the tradition of shaping molten glass into works of art. The similarities between glass and water in appearance are not ignored by these master craftsmen; in fact, many of their subjects are aquatically inspired. The woman who showed us her family’s showroom was a sixth generation glassmaker and obviously very proud of her position. Although I never regret choosing a scientific field, I know it would take many years of long and inventive research to leave behind something as lasting as the glass creations she concocts every day.
Another embodiment of Venetian ideals was Leonardo da Vinci. When I went to an exhibit of his ideas in one of the churches, I was surprised by the many facets of his life. I knew that he was an artist and an inventor, but I didn’t realize he designed so many simple yet practical machines. I also didn’t know he was a war engineer. From the flying machines to naval ships to even a bicycle, da Vinci truly dabbled in all realms of science.
Walking through this exhibit caused me to think about our current education system. Unlike da Vinci, college education is extremely specialized, and there are few cross-curriculum experiences. Departments at large universities are extremely protective of their students. In contrast, some of the greatest minds in history were brilliant in multiple fields of study. I am proud to be at Meredith, where a liberal arts education is emphasized. When I have room in my schedule, I do my best to choose classes to stay well-rounded.
If I ever have the opportunity to return to Italy by myself or with a few friends, I think I would choose to spend a week in Venice. I would go to all of the museums I passed on the Grand Canal, return to the restaurant whose specialty is spaghetti in a squid ink sauce, and yes, finally splurge on a fantastic gondola ride. Venice has been shaped by the water that surrounds and divides it, yet it does so without admitting the final defeat of drowning. In spite of the water, and possibly to spite the water, Venezia stands tall as a city of culture and of life.
Gioachino Rossini’s opera ‘La Cenerentola’ was performed in the Teatro Comunale di Bologna on June 21, 2011. This was only the second opera I’ve attended, so I wasn’t sure what to expect. However, I knew that this was an experience I would never forget the instant the orchestra began playing.
The plot revolved around the classic Cinderella plot; a good-hearted working-class woman forced to work for her stepfamily finds true love in a handsome prince. However, Rossini made several changes to this standard. Instead of a wicked stepmother, there was a bumbling stepfather, and instead of a fairy godmother, there is a member of the prince’s court disguised as a beggar. This may have been done in order to balance the number of male and female leading parts. While La Cenerentola did disguise herself in order to go to the ball, the prince also switched places with his servant in order to achieve anonymity. La Cenerentola left a bracelet behind instead of a shoe, probably so the actress’s movement on stage would remain unhampered.
‘La Cenerentola’ was a fantastic display of virtuosity and collectivity. The maestro seamlessly combined the orchestra and the singers, which is an amazing feat when neither party can really see each other. The singers also were well-coordinated with each other. The leading soprano, Chiara Amarú, was strong throughout the entire opera yet still soared on the notes of her final aria. Rossini wrote the part for a coloratura soprano, or a singer that uses her voice to sound like a flute. This is a rarely-used style today, but Amarú was classically trained this way, so she was fantastic. I was shocked when I learned the leading tenor, Michael Spyres, was from the Midwest. His Italian was amazing, and the audience loved him, which is unusual for an American singer in Italy.
The opera was in a merry major key, and often very allegro. There was a fun, airy element to the set, with moving staircases and a retro kitchen in four parts in the background. Doors in the walls of the stage opened for grand entrances or an outpouring of the supporting cast. Subtitles were unnecessary, because the actors portrayed their characters’ feelings and intentions very clearly.
The story was all about appearances. La Cenerentola was a servant; the Prince pretended to be a commoner. The sisters were laughable caricatures, falling over themselves to please the preening fake prince, and their father was displayed as a buffoon. Even the time period reflected this obsession with appearances. The 1950s are often viewed as the innocent decade before the onset of the free love of the 1960s, and since the chaste rather than the sexual characters triumphed, the director may be sending a message to return to those simple times.
This performance was also a commentary on current Italian politics. There were quite a few wild parties with the sisters and the fake prince, but the happiest people at the end of the show were the humble La Cenerentola and her prince. This seems to be a blatant slap in the face for Berlusconi and his scandals. The most important moments in the play were preceded by or while the characters were removing their clothes. The sisters stripped off their frills and highlighter-colored dresses to reveal their lingerie, but La Cenerentola only removed her apron to reveal her plain cap-sleeved gown. This motif seemed similar to the traditional operatic brindissi, but could also be a commentary on the moral decline Italians feel is descending on their country.
The opera was a lot of fun to watch. I enjoyed the musical style, and I thought the cast was extremely well-chosen. Amarú and Spyres were the perfect sweethearts, and had excellent chemistry. I loved every minute they were onstage together. The stepfather and the two stepsisters had me laughing the entire opera, and reminded me of several slapstick families in more recent comedies. Although I didn’t understand the language, I still felt a connection with the characters, even the faux-prince in his puff sleeves.
‘La Cenerentola’ has inspired me to see more operas. The joy and eagerness I felt when I watched this performance were strong feelings, stronger than I’ve felt about almost any performance I’ve seen in any other medium. I know each director and conductor will do this opera differently, and I would happily watch this opera over and over again just to see what changes are made. The blend of musicality, plot, and emotion that is found in an opera is an experience like no other.
Piazza di Berta
Life in an Italian town revolves around the city square. The Piazza di Berta in Sansepolcro was the main conduit for business as well as recreation. The best gelato in the city was sold there, and markets would appear every Saturday and Sunday, as well as at random times throughout our stay. I noticed the most cultural differences between Italian and American lifestyles when I was in the main square. Unlike in an American town, where the lifeblood is in the home, the pulse of Sansepolcro could be felt in its central piazza.
A community thrives on interactions between its inhabitants. In American cities, people come together in small environments for specific reasons. There may be a Super Bowl party, children’s soccer game, or shopping and lunch with a few friends. Normally, the event is confined to the people invited; only rarely does it spill outside of the planned event. A person can walk into a situation feeling secure because they know what will happen, how long it will last, and who will be there.
However, Sansepolcro has an entirely different vibe. The entire town took to the streets, especially when something was going on in the square. It would always be a surprise who one would see, and instead of a quick ‘hello’ and ‘goodbye,’ which would happen if I met one of my friends around Raleigh, Italians would continue talking, and even keep each other company on their errands. Chance has a much larger factor in the day of an Italian; the need to plan who is where, doing what, and when was nonexistent.
Even the way Italian parents treat their children is different, and reflects this much less structured lifestyle. In the piazza, I watched children run far away from their parents, meet their friends, and get into scrapes. When they did get into trouble, they were scolded first by the average person on the street, then belatedly by their parents. This freedom was once common for children in the United States; my grandparents talk about roaming the streets of Pittsburgh, collecting aluminum in the hopes of raising enough money to go to the movies. Even my mother talks about playing in the streets around her neighborhood, far from her home, and occasionally annoying one of her crotchety older neighbors. However, this has been replaced in the United States with the emergence of ‘helicopter parents.’ These parents put their children on leashes when they were toddlers and never truly let them go. I realize this is in part due to the dangerous world we live in, but watching the Italian children run freely around the square makes me wonder if we may be a little overprotective. This carefree childhood has been replaced by an endless march of sports games, birthday parties, and Play60 initiatives, all structuring what is supposed to be the most spontaneous time of life.
The musical scene in the piazza also highlighted the far more relaxed Italian style. A marching band played a piece that was barely recognizable as a John Philip Sousa march. The Italian flourishes and relaxed tempo were entirely different from the straightforward march heard in an American parade. This made me wonder how Italians feel when we play music by their composers. When playing classical music, most American musicians take much fewer liberties than their European counterparts. This may be because Europeans consider a musical score a living, changing document, and Americans believe music should be played as the composer intended. The only American exception is jazz, which one could argue was invented so Americans could have a set genre for musical freedom.
We also watched a concert sponsored by mayoral candidate Daniela Frullani. The concert featured Italian ballads and other dance music. The band’s tonality was similar to that of a mariachi band with a male and female lead singer. Their stage was in the center-back of the square, with chairs lining an area for dancing. Several couples were waltzing to their songs, and one song was similar to our ‘Electric Slide.’ In the United States, I think this type of concert would be held somewhere else, such as a park or pavilion. It would certainly be considered disruptive to have it in the middle of the main thoroughfare! However, it makes sense in Sansepolcro because everyone is so unscheduled. An Italian family could just be walking outside to get gelato, notice there is a concert, and stay for the evening. An American family would notice the concert, but continue on their way to their next scheduled activity.
Surprisingly enough, business in the piazza is very similar to some places back home. A cacophony of markets descended upon the Piazza di Berta; flower markets, antique stores, meat and olive oil stands, and brilliant displays of clothing, purses, and jewelry. The gaudy displays, noisy vendors, and customers intent on the best deal possible reminded me of the flea markets and farmers’ markets I’ve visited over the years. Although these markets were once shunned in favor of Wal-Marts and Targets, Americans are rediscovering them because of what the Italians never forgot: the freshest food, best furniture, and perfect dresses can’t be mass-produced. And if you try hard enough, you may even enjoy a bargain.
Severgnini says “An Italian piazza happens” (96). I think this applies to the life within the piazza as well. Children play, gelato is consumed, and business is sealed over a glass of wine or under the cover of a tent. Nothing is really planned, yet everyone is there when something important is happening. This is completely unlike our American insistence on to-do lists and by-the-hour planners. It is another small example of how chaos governs the life of an Italian.
Severgnini, Beppe. La Bella Figura: A Field Guide to the Italian Mind. Broadway, 2007. Print.
Concerto ‘Borsisti’ del 28 Maggio 2011 (Scholars’ Concert on May 28, 2011)
Sansepolcro – Auditorum of Ex-Chiesa di San Chiara
I was overjoyed to have the pleasure of seeing a children’s concert in the Tuscan town we are living in. According to my host family, the purpose of this concert was to introduce students in Sansepolcro’s School of Music to its Philharmonic Orchestra. Most of the performers appeared to be between four and thirteen years old, followed by a quartet of slightly older students. The audience consisted of parents and siblings of the performers. Most of the music was popular beginner’s music that I would expect to hear in America or Great Britain, but not in Italy. I enjoyed the concert not for any particular performance but rather for its overall charm and parallels to my own first concert.
Part one of the concert was divided into sections by class of instrument: clarinet and saxophone, flute, and trumpet. The pieces varied between popular music, Italian folk songs, and classical music. Mozart, Verdi, and Paul McCartney were among the artists played. A large difference between the sections was the accompaniment: the clarinet and saxophone solos had piano accompaniment, similar to a sonata; the trumpets played with a recording of the supporting parts that began by tapping the beat for the performer; and the flutes played with no accompaniment. A few duets were also performed.
Two ensembles performed in the second part. First, there was an ensemble containing eight students from the previous performances, a percussionist, and the saxophone professor. They played a variety of popular beginner’s music, including “Up on the House Top” and “La Bamba.” The pieces were short, and normally all of the students played the melody. This group was followed by the “Complesso Bandisti Filarmonica dei Perseveranti,” a group of four older students performing the piano, acoustic guitar, saxophone, and drums. They played three songs: “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” “Don’t Stop Believin’,” and “Let It Be.”
The concert held all of the charm of an elementary school talent show meshed with a middle school band concert, all delightfully wrapped up in the trademark Italian flair for the dramatic. Although the concert began about twenty minutes late, the emcee chose to begin the concert with a long-winded speech. The young performers had to navigate their way among scattered instruments and chairs to reach the performing platform. From there, some students walked away quietly; others, such as the daughter from my host family, chose to make a far more dramatic exit. During the concert, the audience was constantly moving. Children were talking and dancing in the aisles, and parents never let the fact that a performance was occurring affect their own agendas.
This concert evoked strong memories of my first middle school band concert. The band director, Mr. Bravine, had probably been using the same system for his fall concerts since the dawn of time: the fifth grade band played several thirty-second classics, from the ever-popular “Hot Cross Buns” to the incredibly intricate “Go Tell Aunt Rhodie;” the sixth grade band played a few songs that spanned an entire page; and the seventh and eighth grade band performed a mix of popular songs and film music. I remember my excitement upon hearing the final band perform. It was hard to believe our humble band would ever reach that level of technique and quality. It was easy to imagine the children on stage feeling the same way about their own musical futures.
Children’s concerts are one of many ways generations are brought together by music. The children learn a new skill, families attend and dutifully applaud, and others such as myself can reminisce over our own history with music. All of the Meredith people who attended had a wonderful time, proving that music is a language that even crosses oceans. Even if the concert wasn’t perfect, it was an experience unlike any other.