A Perfect Day in Venice–Carnevale, an empty church, and feet

We’re short on time, not sure we can see both Murano and Burano, and make it to the train station on time. We decide on Burano. Which you reach by getting on one of Venice’s water buses, also known as a traghetto, roaring away from the main islands, past the floating cemetery, past Murano and its glass factories, 40 minutes across the lagoon.

Today is clear and sunny and cool, so clear that the Dolomites are visible in the distance. We sit in the back of the bus, actually we stand in the back of the bus, on the little open-air apron back there, enjoying a glorious day. Just our luck, we’re standing next to a local. She’s wearing a couple large cameras. We ask her, of course, for advice. Don’t follow the crowd directly into Burano, she says. Turn left when you get off the traghetto and walk the perimeter of the island. We can make right turns into the center. This way we’ll see more.

We see a lot. There’s a red house over yonder, and a blue one, and a yellow one, and a purple one. And, of course, canals. And a leaning tower (Venice has or three or four of them). And beautiful, delicate, intricate lace spilling from every store front in Burano. In an hour we’ve seen enough to feel good about stopping for a Spritz and a bad Venetian castagnole.

It’s a sunny ride back. We’ll have time for a bigger bite to eat before we walk to the station. But first, Bragadin’s skin.

“We’re here to see the skin,” Tizi says, in so many Italian words. Not something you say often. Especially in a church. She says something like this, in so many Italian words, at the church of Santi Giovanni e Paolo.

The church guy, not a priest, just a guy, and a very sweet one at that, nods and takes us to a monument on one side of the church. There’s an inscription in Latin. I see DETRACTA and PELLIS and BIZANTIO which I suspect means something like skinned alive in Constantinople.

“The skin is up there,” he says, pointing at a vat.

While he and Tizi talk about the skin, I’m wondering: What did we expect? We’ve seen relics in churches here. I think I saw St. Anthony’s throat in Padova and St. Catherine’s head in Siena. I know I’ve seen a lot of holy fingers and leg bones, perhaps a few teeth. Maybe they could figure out a way to present skin. On a hanger? Draped over the manikin? What condition was it in when the Venetians recovered it in 1575? Was it processed? Was it, I don’t know, filled up with some neutral stuffing to make a facsimile of the great Bragadin?

Very nice church guy says he is sorry if we are disappointed, then adds that on a crazy day like today, with the carnevale tourist invasion underway, we can have this beautiful church all to ourselves. He invites us to enjoy the peace. The church is enormous. It’s empty. It is indeed peaceful.

In such a place, you admire religious art, if you admire religious art. It seems kind of disrespectful, but I take pictures. There’s only so much you can do with an iPhone camera. Maybe a gifted photographer could click and do justice to the place. I can’t. Instead, I aim low. I shoot feet.

The nice thing about taking an interest in feet is they are low to the ground. If you want a Virgin Mary, you photograph up, at a difficult angle. Feet you photograph down, and close up. At the Bargello museum in Florence, I photographed some beautiful feet a few years ago. The feet in Santi Giovanni e Paolo are not famous feet, by which I mean feet made famous by a big name artist. (That Michelangelo, he could really do feet.)

While I’m doing the feet, the Catholics (Tizi, her cousin, and his wife) find a spectacular Virgin Mary. I get as close as I can and shoot. Not close enough. I think my feet will make better pictures.

After skin, spaghetti. It just seems like the thing to do.

I have spaghetti with pomodoro, and it is a triumph. Arnoldo has spaghetti with squid ink. He is bold. Very bold.

It’s good that we subtracted Murano, so that we could take our time and start our walk to the train station early. Because Venice is mobbed. Walking to the train station, we walk against the current of arrivals, people coming to see the masks, many of them wearing masks. Carnivale in Venice will not be a revel as it is in New Orleans or Rio. Here and throughout Italy it is a low-level revel. People are noisy, they toss confetti, and children squirt jets of colorful plastic frosting everywhere. Mostly it’s a visual spectacular. Perhaps it’s the exaggerated civility and poise and elegance of those in full costume that sets the tone–awe, wonder, mystery.

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