52 Churches: Basilica Cattedrale Patriachale di San Marco, Venice

A morning mass is the best way to gain fast entry to this famous basilica without having to stand in line for an hour with the mobs of cruise ship tours that infest Venice and seem to be an even greater peril to its future than global warming and the rising seas that flood San Marco Plaza every evening. The lines are atrocious, but to be fair are the only way to take in the entire experience of the 1000-year old church, one of the world’s most famous and certainly one of the most outrageous, with its homage to Venice’s Byzantine roots, its ties to the Holy Roman Church and the Patriarchate of Constantinople, and the rise of the maritime city-state into the greatest naval power of its time.

I rose early and walked alone from the Hotel Flora to St. Mark’s in the morning quiet, accompanied only by a few locals on their way to work and the first wave of workers trundling in pallets of bottle water, washing machines, hams, postcards, and cigarettes to restock the trattorias and tabacherria’s depleted by the previous day’s assault. A few puddles stood on the paving stones, left over from the previous evening’s high full-moon tides. The pigeons were gone, some high overhead growling and cooing in the smog blackened cornices of the piazza, ready to come back down and flock over some salmonella loving tourist’s hands and arms later in the afternoon. St. Mark’s is one of the world’s more ubiquitous tourism clichés, a place so filmed and described that one feels silly pressing the shutter button on one’s own digital camera.  Hemingway wrote, in Across and the River and Into the Trees, that the church looked like a “cinema palace” and the square, when flooded and devoid of pigeons was an unappealing place for breakfast with one’s 19-year old lover at the city’s oldest continuous café, the Florian. I didn’t mind, I was happy to see it open and empty as the sky pinked over the domes and spires of the fantastic church.

St. Mark, one of the 12 apostles, was a big score for the people of Venice, even after the Byzantine Emperor strongly suggested the city’s patron saint should be Saint Theodore, who, judging from his pose atop the column at the foot of the harbor, killed some crocodile type of beast. But the people of Venice wanted one of Jesus’ board of directors so to speak, so, upon the discovery of the long deceased saint’s corpse in Egypt, managed to smuggle it out of the country buried under an order of fresh pork, effectively masking it from Muslim detection until it was safe ashore. With a full apostle’s relics in their possession, the people of Venice pulled out the stops constructing a Basilica that surely must rank among the greatest religious structures in the world, certainly in Christianity.

The Church

The present structure is the third to bear the name St. Mark’s. Here is the Wikipedia being smart so I don’t have to be:

“The first St Mark’s was a temporary building in the Doge’s Palace, constructed in 828, when Venetian merchants stole the supposed relics of Mark the Evangelist from Alexandria. This was replaced by a new church on its present site in 832; from the same century dates the first St Mark’s Campanile (bell tower). The new church was burned in a rebellion in 976, rebuilt in 978 and again to form the basis of the present basilica since 1063. The basilica was consecrated in 1094, the same year in which the body of Saint Mark was supposedly rediscovered in a pillar by Vitale Falierodoge at the time”

The 7 am service took place in the western, or port-side chapel to the left of the main altar and iconostasis. Entrance was gained through a side door roped off by a velvet disco rope. A security guard gave me the eye as I entered, but the first rule of sneaking into anything is never sneak and always arrive with the full psychological expectations and body language of one permitted to be there. This has worked for me at everything from churches to Grateful Dead concerts, even crime scenes marked off with yellow police tape. I pressed through a pair of doors, through a green curtain, and into a small chapel arrayed before a gorgeous golden icon of the Madonna and Child. Afterwards I learned this icon had serious historical significance, dating back to 1200 when it was carried into battle by Venetian armies and navies as superstitious inspiration. Twenty candles in red glass pendants hung from the ceiling on black chains, giving the altar an ancient, almost Hindu aspect I recall from some of the inner sanctums of the Temple of Shiva at Madurai. In the center of the church rose the altar, iconstasis, and prayer chancel, a marble object so old and worn it looked dirty and greasy from centuries of hands touching and rubbing it for good luck.

The floor was a fantastic constellation of mosaic work and cracked marble tiles, swirling like the end papers of an 18th century leatherbound novel.  The columns before the apse, starting with the penditives that supported the circular base of the dome, were dark green like wet marine creatures, all dark but gleaming in the reflected sunlight that managed to murkily seep through the windows on the southern side of the cruciform nave.  The last column, against the wall was plain brick, red and crumbling, making, to my projected imagination, a statement about simplicity and unadorned

The Service

Two columns of prayer benches and wooden chairs ran back about 15 rows from the altar. I sat alone on the left side in the customary back row, three nuns took the last row of the right side, a gentleman in a trench coat sat in the second row, and that was it. Five congregants sitting quietly. An electric bell rang and two priests, each about my age, popped out from behind the main altar in white vestments with gold collars and surplices. They quickly strolled in front of the icon, turned on their heels in perfect synchronization and knelt deeply before the table. They lingered for a moment, then rose, turned and with upraised right hands, greeted us.

To state the obvious: the service was conducted in Italian which meant I understood less than ten percent of the content but was able to more or less guess along with the rest. Morning weekday services are very efficient, very effective, and meant to nourish the spirit before a long day at the oar of a gondola the way a nonbeliever like me needs a caffe macchiato to get things rolling in the morning. Speaking of which, I did zone out and caught myself falling asleep at one point – one those whiplash inducing bouts of narcolepsy where I made a loud and abupt “Snark!” as I popped back awake. I dragged my shoe on the floor to try to mask the sound with another like it, but it was no good, I had snored and the nuns busted me.

At one point the man in the raincoat rose and joined the priests by reading some scripture or bible verse. One of the security guards assisted with the blessing of the holy sacrament, helping by unfolding the holy towel/napkin and helping the priest when he poured holy water from a small cruet over his hands.

Communion was served and I decided to partake – something I do more often ever since partaking in Istanbul at the Feast of the Three Hierarchs. Communion was supposed to be verboten in this project – as I do not want to participate in any holy of holy acts up at the altar, but sometimes I feel so moved to get up close and personal and check things out, so that Wednesday morning in Venice, in one of the oldest places I have ever stood, I tagged along in the communion line, stood before the priest, opened wide and waited for him to intinct my wafer in the vin sancto and place it in my gaping mouth.

It was the generic communion wafer, made of some pulp/paper product in a special communion wafer factory. It was the size of a Sacagawea silver dollar and it cemented itself to the roof of my mouth. I thought about scraping it off with my finger, but suffered through it as the priest wound things up and the mass drew to a close. I was first through the green curtain, popped a picture of some water puddle in the basilica’s porch, and once outside in the morning light found my chance to get the wafer pried free. Five minutes later I sat down with my wife and daughter in the garden of the Hotel Flora and drank my coffee.

Next: an overdue account of my one and only brush with Christian Science.

A Mime in a Terrible Thing to Waste

The mime was working the crowd next to the loggia and the entrance to the Uffizi Gallery. White-faced and in an orange jumpsuit with the helpful word “Jailbird” stenciled on the back. He wore a single green glove – a sanitation worker down on his luck – furtively  hamming around behind the backs of unsuspecting tourist girls, whose hand he would grab and as they turned to see who hadaccosted them he would shout, “HA!” and give them a terrible fright.

“Stay away from him, he’s a f#$%^r,” said my daughter, wise to the ways of the Florentine alleys after a term across the Arno. I was tired – having just surmounted the 450 plus steps (and my severe acrophobia) to climb to the top of Bruneschelli’s dome of the Duomo – and I was in no mood for any mime bullshit. Too late. Five people between me and the crazed white faced garbage man and he locks eyes on me – as Quint said in Jaws, he had a doll’s eyes, dilated crazed Siberian husky eyes. There was nothing I could do but shrug and endure.

First we embraced like long lost brothers and I understood what did me in – I was wearing an ancient orange Orvis polo shirt which made me look like a large tangerine. He in his orange jumpsuit … it all made sense but then it made no sense. Lesson learned, wear orange at one’s own peril.

Then we danced a little and the mob of people sitting on the stairs along the loggia started to laugh. The laughter was like mime fuel. He smelled poorly.

We stopped. He dropped to one knee and put his ear to my stomach. He held up one finger to the crowd. They laughed. He held up two fingers to the crowd. Twins. They laughed louder. I thought of Alec Baldwin playing Junior in Miami Blues and how he casually snapped and broke the finger of a Hari Krishna in an orange robe who had bothered him at the airport, the surprise causing the Krishna to die of a heart attack on the spot. There were too many witnesses for me to maim the mime, so I continued to smile while inwardly counting down the moments until the mime assault would end.

Finished with establishing that my paunch meant that I was pregnant – go ahead, laugh at the fat man – the final indignity involved lifting my shirt, baring said paunch to the mob (and the astonished, apoleptic, laughter-oxygen-deprived faces of my wife and daughter) and then planting his face on my abdomen and doing the mime equivalent of the 14th century letterpress – aka The Motorboat – leaving behind a bas relief of his white makeup with two eyeholes, my navel as a nose and below, two horizontal black lines from his lipstick.

The crowd went insane. Truly insane. I turned, showed them the greasepaint on my chiseled six-pack, saluted and walked on. A beaten man.

Thx to Mark Hopkins for the post title.

D.H. Lawrence on Italian Churches

“I went into the church. It was very dark, and impregnated with centuries of incense. It affected me like the lair of some enormous creature. My senses were roused, they sprang awake in the hot, spiced darkness. My skin was expectant, as it expected some contact, some embrace, as if it were aware of the contiguity of the physical wor;ld, the physical contact with the darkness and the heavy, suggestive substance of the enclosure. It was a think fierce darkness of the senses. But my soul shrank.

“I went out again. The pavemented threshold was clear as a jewel, the marvellous clarity of sunshine that becomes blue in the height seemed to distil me into itself.”

D.H. Lawrence, Twilight in Italy

Very strange metaphysical exploration by Lawrence, set in the Lago Garda region of Northern Italy in the Dolomites. Stumbled on the book and found this passage that seemed appropriate after venturing into the darkness of Venice’s St. Mark’s Basillica.

52 Churches: Santa Maria del Fiore “The Duomo”

The opportunity to visit some of the great churches of Europe has always held a very exotic appeal for this 52 Churches project, but the problem is most of my business travel takes me pretty much everywhere but Europe. A recent vacation in Italy – my first real leisurely personal trip through the country – yielded two wonderful opportunities to really experience the Catholic Church in all of its Italian glory. I took advantage, and on two mornings woke early for the first mass of the day.

The first was in Florence, Firenze, in the great cathedral of the city, the “Duomo” or more accurately Santa Maria del Fiore and the second was in Venice, at the Basilica San Marco the ancient basilica that looks, in the words of Hemingway, like a “damned Cinema Palace.”

The Duomo in Florence is one of the enduring symbols of the Renaissance, particularly its astonishing dome, which was designed by Brunelleschi and completed in 1463. I climbed to the top of the dome, all 462 steps, and overcame a severe phobia of heights long enough to cling to a wall and peer anxiously out at the city arrayed along the Arno Valley.

One of the great advantages of church tourism is that the tourist has a certain pious priority in gaining access to churches otherwise overwhelmed by lines of tourists paying steep admission fees. By inquiring of a quard standing by the door into one of the side chapels I learned the first mass of the day was at 7:30 am. The next morning I hurried through the alleys of Florence alone, dressed as respectfully as possible in jacket and tie, humming the words of the Band’s great “When I Paint My Masterpiece” while enjoying a few minutes of silent streets before the whining hornet drones of the Vespas and scooters ruined the atmosphere.

I entered early and made a brief tour of the three altars, trying the entire time not to gawk too much in front of the skeptical guards who doubtlessly thought I was a tourist just trying to get a free unobstructed tour of the nave and apse before the mobs arrived. Photography is permitted inside of the Duomo — one of the few churches that do permit photography, but I didn’t press my luck during that morning visit, but instead tried to determine which of the three “churches” or chapels within the Cathedral would be the scene of the mass, which I assume would be called “Matins.”

The Cathedral

The Duomo is the fourth largest cathedral in the world according to the guide books, and was built by the wool merchants guild of Florence in the 1400s. Given that the Medici fortune was based on wool, there is a certsin syllogism that the Duomo is not only Florence’s most enduring landmark but also a monument to the power snd glory of one of the world’s most powerful and illustrious fsmilies, one that gave the church several Popes,  Queens, Kings, and overtime became the wealthiest family in the world. But I digress as this post is not a history lesson on the Medicis but a simple account of a trip to a great church.

I had read an excellent history, Brunelleschi’s Dome, by Ross King, before visiting and would recommend the same to anyone anticipating a visit to the Duomo. It is an amazing tale of Renaissance brillance, of a true “Renaisssance man” Filippio Brunelleschi, an inventor, architect, and artist who not only pulled out an impossible act of engineering but in also invented some key construction tools and machines that were the technical marvels of their time, being sketched by Da Vinci and widely imitated as ground breaking enablers of architectural wonders.

For ten minutes I sat alone in the northern chapel, as the cancles there were lit and the rows of prayer benches looked promising. but as I got comfortable and gawked st the soaring arches, pendentives, mosaics and stained glass windows I realized the action was across the nave in the southern, Arno-side apse. Off I went, taking the usual back row seat, satisfied I was in the right place when a gaggle of nuns in blue and white habits paraded down the aisle and took the first few rows on the starboard side. A few worshippers joined them until there were about a dozen of us waiting for the procession of the priest and his assistant. In the game of “One of These Things if Not Like the Other,” your’s truly was the obvious choice, as I stuck out fairly obviously as one who had no clue what the drill was.

A bell rang, we stood, and in marched the priests.

The Mass

The mass was conducted in Italian, and therefore my comprehension level was ten percent. mostly due to three years of Latin with Doctor Baade and Mister Burgess at Brooks in the mid-70s, three years of tedious declensions and genders that yielded a decent score on the SATs and enabled me to figure out some of what the priest was doing. The nice thing about morning weekday mass is the service is very accelerated and to the point. Prayers, a little Bible, Lord’s Prayer, the Credo, some silent kneeling prayer, some communion, greet your neighbor,  make the signo croce a few times, and all if over in sbout 30 minutes.

Of course there is far more than that going on. First off the priest’s words do some amazing things in a stone cathedral the size of the blimp hanger in Mountain View, California. Second, you’re genuflecting, kneeling, and praying in a space 600 years old, looking at a marble floor that is out of this world, and greeting the day under stained glass that was the 1400s version of George Lucas and the first Star Wars movie to the peasants.

More photos and details to follow when my internet connection improves.

Next, the Basilica San Marco in Venice

Italia – quick report

Wireless is very spotty throughout Italy but I just eked out a faint connection in Venice.
1. I have a couple amazing church visits to post. Some major visits in Florence and Venice including the Duomo and St. Mark’s.

2. Many food and restaurant experiences including a visit to Dario Cecchini, master butcher.
3. The affair d’mime which will require photos to adequately relate in all its horror.

Four days in Venice, then back to the States on Memorial Day. And yes, the streets are flooded, please advise.

Whereabouts 5.14-6.1

Vacation is here. Zurich tonight, train to Florence on Sunday, a few nights there then down to Chianto for a week. Venice the following, then back to Switzerland and home on Memorial Day.

Not the best timed break, but the question is when would the timing be right, so off I go and this blog will be more quiet than usual.

Ultra DecoPad

DecoDen is currently a popular trend amongst young Japanese women. They enjoy decorating their phones lavishly with bright objects like beads, and enjoy having a truly one-of-a-kind portable phone. Deco comes from the word “Decorative” and Den is an abbreviation of “Keitai Denwa” which means portable phone in Japanese.Here is where a PC like the IdeaPad S10-2 comes in. Check out what happened when we told our decorator “you can do whatever you like.” It’s a sight to behold.

via Yamato Thinking » Blog Archive » Ultra DecoPad.

Enderle — Android’s Short Life

This is a very provocative point of view from analyst Rob Enderle. Android, the Google phone and mobile internet device OS is litigation bait. Going back to an Economist article from October, Android seemed to be igniting a massive surge in smartphone adoption given its open source model and compelling price of free. Now Enderle says not the case:

“Google’s been having a tough year with Android. First Apple sues HTC for violations of Apple’s intellectual property, and it becomes clear that Google has no defense against this kind of expensive attack, and then Microsoft convinces HTC to license its technology to cover Android.”

“A rough back-of-the-envelope calculation suggests that HTC is paying between US$20 and $40 for this license to Microsoft, and the litigation cost and reasonable risk to Apple is probably twice this, suggesting the real cost of Android may be between $40 and $80 a phone — or the most expensive phone OS currently being sold on the planet. And, if you take into account that Apple doesn’t license, you might conclude that after paying all of this money, HTC might still have to abandon Android.”

via Technology News: Tech Buzz: HP’s Deal of the Century, Android’s Short Life.

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