Did you know...?

...that La Traviata had its world...
...that beauty marks had a language? ...that the domes of San Marco are not...
...that the first equestrian statue in...
...there are elephants in the Piazza?


... that La Traviata had its world premiere at La Fenice and, according to Verdi, it was a fiasco?

La Traviata opened at La Fenice on March 6, 1853. Based on the acclaimed novel-turned-play La Dame aux Camélias by Alexandre Dumas fils, La Traviata tells the story of a Parisian courtesan, Violetta, who sacrifices true love for what she is made to be believe by her lover's father, is the happiness of her beloved, Alfredo. In the process they all discovered that true love is a torment and a delight that cannot be stopped and must follow its course.

The subject of a prostitute, no matter how high her rank, taking the high road and becoming a moral example was considered too provocative for its time and Francesco Maria Piave, the author of the libretto, to please the censors and much to Verdi's chagrin, moved the action from the mid 1800's to the year 1700. Verdi had envisioned La Traviata as a contemporary opera and setting it in the reign of Louis XIV robbed it of intimacy and connection to the audience. This might have contributed to La Traviata's bad reception by the public at the opening night, but it was certainly not the only factor. The leading soprano, Fanny Salvini-Donatelli, was miscast in her role of Violetta. Apparently too healthy and totally out of character to play a woman dying of tuberculosis, her Violetta was not credible to the point that when at the end of the last act she was given only a few more hours to live, the audience burst into laughter. The tenor and the baritone did not fare much better. Ludovico Graziani, playing Alfredo, went hoarse in Act II and Felice Varesi, playing Alfredo's father, did not like what he considered a small role and it showed. It seems that one of the most moving arias ever written for a baritone, Di Provenza il Mar, was not enough for Mr. Varesi. None of these factors by themselves can sink an opera as beautiful on so many levels as La Traviata, but add them up and stir in the mix an overexcited audience and the results could be as Verdi put it: a fiasco. Verdi was already a celebrity with big successes under his belt (Rigoletto had premiered to great acclaim in Venice in 1851 and Il Trovatore in Rome at the beginning of 1853), so it was no surprise that he was called out for bows repeatedly during the performance. This must have killed the continuity of the storyline and further separated the audience from the nuances of the drama.

The next day Verdi wrote "La Traviata last night -  fiasco. Was the fault mine or that of the singers? Time will be the judge" Despite good reviews from the press, after a few performances the opera was pulled from the stage and Verdi slightly revised it, especially the second act, but did not change the score. It reopened, again in Venice, in the small Teatro Gallo di San Benedetto (in the location of the now defunct Cinema Rossini across from the church of San Luca) with a new cast a year later. It was a great success, a success that has lasted over 150 years. It's been estimated that La Traviata is being performed at least once a day, every day of the year, somewhere in the world. Time has been the judge.

...that beauty marks had a language?

In Eighteenth-Century Europe false beauty marks or face patches were all the rage. Initially used to cover smallpox scars and blemishes, these small patches made of velvet, silk, taffeta and leather were worn by aristocratic women and even men to draw attention to their faces. They came in a variety of shapes and sizes: hearts, crescent moons, stars and clubs, and were stored in especially made boxes that noble women kept on their dressing tables. When applied on the face, neck or bosom, usually by expert hairdressers, they spoke a very special language. In England they spoke the language of politics: the Whigs wore their patches on the right and the Tories on the left. In France, they spoke the language of love, as described by Madame Du Barry, Louis XV's courtesan, and in Venice, the language of amorous intrigue.
A patch on the nose, called the sfrontata, meant forwardness or boldness; a patch on the corner of the eye, the passionata, meant the lady was burning with passion; worn on a dimple, called the civetta, it implied that she was feeling flirtatious. When she wore it by the corner of her mouth, she was ready for anything; it was the assassina.

 The Parlor of San Zaccaria, Francesco Guardi, 1750. Ca' Rezzonico

...that the domes of San Marco are not aligned with the façade's midpoint?

Next time you, A Lover of Venice, are in Piazza San Marco instead of wandering around aimlessly like a tourist, or crossing it hurriedly like a Venetian, walk through it purposely like a scholar, even though the camera and the Fodor's may give you away, and try to find the line where you are perpendicular to the middle of the Basilica's façade. The middle being marked by the statue of Saint Mark (no pun intended) presiding over the Piazza at the top of the central lunette. Finding that line is not easy unless you make what seems to be a reasonable assumption: that the middle flagstaff in front of the Basilica is on the same line. You walk as far away from the Basilica as the Piazza allows and align yourself with the flagstaff until the Evangelist disappears behind it and voilà!... you found the spot. You are by the corner of the Procuratie Vecchie and the Ala Napoleonica. You are about to take the picture when a bout of self doubt strikes you as you notice that the domes are not aligned. They are to the right of the flagstaff. Darn! It seems that you have not found the spot after all. You try to align everything: flagstaff, Evangelist, domes and of course you can't. The best you can do is to align yourself with the Evangelist and the flagstaff or with the two domes. To be in line with the two domes you must move to about the seventeenth arch of the Procuratie Vecchie, counting from the corner with the Ala Napoleonica. At that point the Evangelist and the flagstaff are to the right of the domes' center.

You are confused and left to wonder what it all means. It's clear that the domes and the Evangelist are not aligned but you are not sure why. You start to doubt your assumption too. Is the middle flagstaff truly perpendicular to the midpoint of the façade? Nothing seems centered.

Being the scholar that you are, you decide to investigate further. You walk to the front of the Basilica and discover that the three flagstaffs are at different distances from the façade. The north flagstaff is considerably farther away than the south one. By how much? Before you start counting the steps, drawing lines on the Piazza with chalk or using laser measuring devices against San Marco, let me tell you that your assumption was off and the middle flagstaff is not perfectly perpendicular to the midpoint of the façade; it is off by about 3 degrees. At least that's what my calculations, based on a satellite picture of the Piazza at a 5000: 1 scale - courtesy of Google maps - determined. The image also confirmed that the domes are slightly off the perpendicular from the façade by about 3 degrees as well. When I say the domes I'm talking about the central and the west domes of the Basilica. The east dome is a different story but since we cannot see it from the Piazza, let's not worry about it. The three flagstaffs are at approximately 26; 24 and 21 meters from the façade on a line that is off the parallel to the Basilica by about 10 degrees. And one wonders why. Why off by 10 degrees? One is tempted to think that perhaps the flagstaffs are parallel to the other side of the Piazza, to the Ala Napoleonica, but simple inspection of the white paving stones, all perfectly placed at right angles, reveals that they are not. So, why were the flagstaffs placed at such an angle? Were they arbitrarily placed or strategically planned? Again Google comes to the rescue. Inspection of the satellite image shows that if the lines of the façade and of the flagstaffs are continued towards the Molo, they intersect between the columns of Saint Mark and Saint Theodore, right in the middle.

On festive days when the banners of San Marco flew from the three flagstaffs, the view from the Molo to all those who disembarked by the quay would have been imposing, with the Basilica and the banners symmetrically framing their entrance into the city. But even more striking would have been the view from the Clock Tower towards the Molo with the focal point perfectly centered between the two columns.

Piazza San Marco after the Storm, Giovanni Migliara, 1836. Pinacoteca Tosio Martinengo, Brescia. Notice the Austrian flags.

It is not clear who determined the placement of the flagstaffs. It may have been Mauro Codussi, who worked on the construction of the Clock Tower in 1498. Perhaps he planned their location as a frame for his tower. However, wooden flagstaffs were already present in the Piazza as far back as 1376. They can be seen in Gentile Bellini's Procession in Piazza San Marco of 1496 although they must have been removed at a certain point because they are not in de' Barbari's engraving of 1500 (whether they were removed between 1496 and 1500 or before, it is unclear from Bellini's painting because he was depicting a scene that took place in the Piazza in 1444 and he may have tried to render it as it looked back then in 1444, when he was 15 years old; another less likely possibility is that de' Barbari just omitted them). We also know that the flagstaffs' bronze bases were made by Alessandro Leopardi in 1505, a few years after the Clock Tower was finished. All this being said, it's clear that whoever chose the location of the flagstaffs was well aware of the fact that the columns by the Molo were placed exactly equidistant from the line of the Basilica's façade and he acknowledged that by mirroring the façade with the flagstaffs. Genius!

    Procession in Piazza San Marco (detail), Gentile Bellini, 1496. Accademia Galleries           View of Venice (detail), Jacopo de' Barbari, 1500. Museo Correr

Finally, coming back to that line where you are perfectly perpendicular to the middle of the Basilica, no need to guess after all. Alberto Toso Fei in his wonderful Venezia Enigma, says that you can find it by the fifth arch of the Procuratie Vecchie (right in the middle, I should add) indicated by a bronze marker (no bigger than a 1 euro coin) on the ground. My satellite calculations confirmed that location. Thank goodness.

Nothing is what it seems in Venice and nothing is perfect. There is a different beauty mark on each of the many faces she shows. But what we think is arbitrarily placed, may be strategically planned after all, like the Assassina at the corner of a noble woman's mouth. That's part of Venice's beauty, appeal and secret.

...that the first equestrian statue in Venice is in Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari?

Monument to Bartolomeo Colleoni, designed by Verrocchio and finished by Alessandro Leopardi (1496). Campo Santi Giovanni e Paolo

The statue of the condottiere Bartolomeo Colleoni on horseback in Campo Santi Giovanni e Paolo may be the most famous equestrian monument in Venice, but it wasn't the first of its type to be erected in the city. At the beginning of the XVth century, a funerary monument was built in the church of Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari in honor of Paolo Savelli, a condottiere at the service of Venice who died of the plague in 1405 in Padua while fighting against Carrara.

        Monument to Paolo Savelli, S. M Gloriosa dei Frari (1405)                                       Monument to Paolo Savelli, oil on canvas, by Vincenzo Abbati (1857)

The Savelli were a rich and influential Roman family from which many prominent figures emerged from the XIIth century on, including popes, cardinals and condottieri. The monument is located on the end wall of the right transept of the church, to the left of the sacristy door. Horse and rider are made of polychrome wood, a work of Jacopo della Quercia (a Sienese artist of the XVth century). The sarcophagus, in polychrome stone, is ornamented
with three beautiful statues: Mary with Baby Jesus flanked by the Annunciation, with Gabriel on one side and Mary on the other. They have been attributed to the school of Jacobello dalle Masegne (an altarpiece also by the same artist can be admired in the chapel of Saint Peter, on the left-hand side of the church) or to Rinaldino of France. The monument was restored in the early 1990's. Other condottieri have also been honored with equestrian monuments, all in the church of Santi Giovanni e Paolo: Orazio Baglioni (d. 1617), Pompeo Giustiniani (d. 1616), Leonardo da Prato (d. 1511) and Nicolò Orsini (d. 1509).

I can't help but imagine that that other Venetian condottiere, Gattamelata, who is honored by Donatello's magnificent bronze equestrian statue in the center of Padua, must have seen Savelli's modest monument at the Frari (after all Gattamelata lived in a palazzo in Campo San Polo, not too far away from the church) and in one of their pillow talks
he must have told his wife, Giacoma da Leonessa, that he wanted a statue like Savelli's but bigger and better. After his death in 1443, Giacoma was instrumental, at least financially, in the construction of the monument in Padua, which was approved by the Venetian senate. In turn, Gattamelata's statue must have been the inspiration for Colleoni's request that an equestrian statue of himself be erected in an even more grandiose space: in front of Saint Mark's (the Basilica that is). This time the Venetian senate approved it but only halfway. The statue was erected in front of Saint Mark's, the Scuola not the Basilica. Vanitas Vanitatum.

Monument to Gattamelata by Donatello, Padua (1447-1453)

...that there are elephants in the Piazza?

If you walk past Caffè Florian under the arches of the Procuratie Nove, you will notice a door that leads to another open space. Just walk through it and you will find yourself in the middle of a quiet courtyard and the headquarters of the Polizia Municipale di Venezia. To your left is a statue of an angel, petting and walking alongside a baby elephant. The elephant has always been associated with Strength and Prudence, two virtues that also characterize a good police force, and that's, perhaps, why this statue was placed here, at the police headquarters. If you look close, you would notice that the elephant is not just an ordinary elephant, it's a Venetian Elephant. Its feet have evolved into lion's paws. According to the National Geographic Traveler, another such elephant with lion's paws can be found in a Byzantine carving on the right wall of Ca' D'Oro's balcony facing the Grand Canal.

Ca' D'Oro, Byzantine carving

Another elephant can be admired in the bronze base of the middle flagpole near the Basilica. The work is by Alessandro Leopardi (1505) and along the elephant is Justice with the sword, a symbol of Venice. This elephant seems to belong to the normal evolutionary branch.

Many thanks to Erica, from Switzerland, who first brought the Angel with Elephant statue to my attention.