It is August and on my usual small rock it is raining hard and stiflingly humid. Time to escape to another rock. For once the coolness of London’s lack of summer is refreshing and we have been chilling out doing nothing in particular. But The Husband has other plans. Trips have been booked. There are hills to climb and culture to be absorbed. First stop is Venice. And it is also the first time in all our decades together that he has organized the holidays. I bet First Born a euro we would not make it past Gatwick. And I have had to pay up. The first trip went like clockwork.
So off we hopped to the sinking island of gondolas, Vivaldi and the Bridge of Sighs. But we were not the only Bim posse indulging in Venice’s cultural extravaganva. Parked right up in front de people main square, San Marco, if yuh please, was de biggest, fanciest yacht and pon de back was the Barbados flag ripping through the wind (photographic evidence enclosed). The ultramarine and gold cloth, with broken trident, is not a flag of convenience so is ah real body, most likely living pon de west coast, who own de ting. Forget Trinis anxious to use the death penalty again and cricket in limbo while players and managers cuss and carry on. The pressing issue of the day is this: would the owner of the big ride parked for everybody to see please make themselves known to the nearest West Indian. Just tell one of us and we will ensure quick and efficient circulation of the news. Inquiring minds need to know.
Big ups aside, we were joined in Venice by thousands of jostling, fellow travelers. It still managed to be beautiful. The city forces you to surrender to its maze of tiny corridors and crooked bridges. In return it yields one perfect, peeling, pink villa or exquisite church after another. The children were less impressed. A full day spent walking around the Arsenale looking at some of the curated exhibitions of the Venice Biennale was punctuated by,
'Excuse me please mum. I never want to see any art, EVER again.'
'I'm thirsty. Can I have another fizzy drink, pleeease. My last one, I promise'
'It's hot. Can we see the art in an air conditioned building?'
After the Arsenale they pleaded to be left at the hotel Kids Club to play hide and seek with new found best friends. I could only persuade them to leave the confines of the hotel if it involved an exciting Vaparetto or water bus journey or perhaps a scoop of gelato. But I found that the pain of dealing with these whining, whinging, uncultured, almost-nine-year-olds was significantly diminished after a Bellini or three (drink not painting). Nothing like a drop of peach nectar to keep a mother’s sanity.
But even the peach juice could not raise the quality of the art at this Biennale. It was mainly underwhelming – except for the odd miracle of water into wine. Peter Greenaway, the filmmaker, has undertaken a project of revisiting nine classical paintings, and, with the aid of technology, re-imagining the scenes. I have already missed Rembrandt’s Night Watch at the Rijksmuseum, and Da Vinci’s Last Supper in Milan, being brought to life through Greenaway’s eyes. But I was lucky enough to arrive in time for the last summer showing of his treatment of Paolo Veronese’s The Wedding at Cana, at the Palladian Refectory on San Giorgio Maggiore, the site where the painting was originally hung. Napoleon had the original cut up and taken as booty to France where it was reassembled. You will find it today at the Louvre. But in 2007 a very, very good, full sized, digital facsimile was created and hung on the wall the original once graced.
Greenaway uses music, text and a filmmaker’s wizardry to dissect and animate this huge twenty four by thirty three foot painting. The drama of Jesus’ first miracle is imagined within the political, social and economic context of its day through snippets of overheard conversation and enormous projected close-ups of some of the one hundred and twenty six characters Veronese included. Swirling lines on the painting highlight the speakers. It feels like the painting is in constant motion although it never actually moves off the wall. We hear and see the servants worrying about the gatecrashers who have forced them to stretch a feast meant for 500 to feed 800. Guests catch up on local gossip while some worry about real estate. Others make snide remarks about the dowry, the foreign bride, the commissioned painter and this Jesus chap who not only brought his mommy and a group of fishermen to the wedding, but seated himself in the centre of the feast thereby upstaging the bride and groom. When the water is turned into wine there is skepticism. But even the wine snobs have to admit it’s acceptable stuff and “(t)astes like a south-facing mountain grape”. It is art and history touched by magic and made accessible to a contemporary audience.
I know deep down in my heart that one day First and Second Born will thank me for force-feeding them these cultural offerings. I can wait. That day is only a couple of light years away.