Archive for March 2019

Panorama of the La Fenice theatre interior, 2015

The phoenix of Venice

Throughout the night of January 29, 1996, a fire raged in the center of Venice, Italy, and by morning it had consumed its victim: the Teatro La Fenice, often called simply La Fenice. Luckily, the fire did not travel beyond the walls of La Fenice, but the destruction was profound. One of the great opera houses of Europe was gutted, and the city of Venice lost a treasured civic landmark.

Arriving by chance in Venice just days after the fire, celebrated author John Berendt set out to document the aftermath of the Fenice fire, interviewing local residents and city officials to find out what led up to the fire, and what long-term effect it might have on the city. As with his previous bestseller, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, which centered around a lurid murder in Savannah, Georgia, Berendt found many colorful characters and community intrigues in Venice to write about in addition to his main story. The result of Berendt’s research is the 2005 book The City of Falling Angels.

The fire of 1996 that Berendt details in The City of Falling Angels is a riveting event, a tragedy on a huge scale. But for the Teatro La Fenice, this catastrophe was yet one more chapter in its long and strange history.

Fire in the Hall

Translated from Italian, La Fenice means “the phoenix,” a reference to the mythological creature that is reborn from its ashes after it is destroyed. Long before the fire in 1996, La Fenice acquired this name because of another fire, one that burned down the Teatro San Benedetto in 1774. In response to the loss of the theater, a group of ex-proprietors of the San Benedetto, calling themselves the Noble Association of Boxholders, decided to sponsor the creation of a new theater, and invited proposals for its design. Completed in 1792, La Fenice was well received and greatly admired by the public and the media.

Only a few years after the Fenice was completed, in 1797, the French army, under Napoleon’s command, invaded and occupied Venice, placing it under both French and Austrian control. Although ownership was retained by those who had built the theater, it in effect became a state theater. In accordance with this, in 1807, La Fenice played host to the now-Emperor Napoleon; a special loggia was built to accommodate him, and the theater was decorated in the imperial colors of blue and silver.

Further changes to the theater were made in 1828, including the hanging of a new chandelier and additions of painting and sculpture. All this work put into the Fenice was destroyed on December 13, 1836, when the theater caught fire, reputedly sparked by a newly installed Austrian stove. The fire burned for three days and nights, and continued to smolder for another 15 days. On the heels of this disaster, reconstruction began quite quickly, under the direction of the Meduna brothers, Tommaso and Giambattista.

Disorder of the Phoenix

After the major rebuilding of 1836, other refinements and renovations were made to the Fenice, most notably in 1854 and 1937. At the time of the 1996 fire, major restoration work was again being carried out on the Fenice, and according to The City of Falling Angels, many believed the chaos that existed inside the theater during this time contributed to its destruction. Indeed, the prosecutor charged with going after those responsible for the fire, Felice Casson, first focused on the city officials he felt were negligent in keeping order on the project. Examples of this negligence included the lack of restrictions on access to the site and the presence of equipment and flammable materials left scattered around the site by work crews. Most critically, response to the fire was hampered by the lack of water in the adjacent canal, drained as part of a canal improvement plan; valuable time was lost in routing water from another canal to the scene of the fire.

Eventually, however, Casson charged two cousins—the owner and employee of a company hired to carry out electrical work on the Fenice—with arson, and both were found guilty of the crime. The motive for arson given by the prosecution was that the men were trying to avoid serious fines the company would have faced if it did not meet an upcoming work deadline.

Out of the Ashes

The mayor of Venice at the time of the fire, Massimo Cacciari, promised that the Fenice would be rebuilt “com’era, dov’era,” or “as it was, where it was.” This was easier said than done, considering the difficulties of construction work in the middle of a city without roads. All the building materials had to be brought in by boat, and a large platform was built in the main thoroughfare of Venice, the Grand Canal, upon which cement mixers and large equipment were stored. After stops and starts, and after the project had changed management mid-stream, the new Fenice hosted its inaugural performance on December 14, 2003.

It was one more chapter in the history of this world-famous opera house, the setting for premieres of works by Verdi, Bellini, Stravinsky, and Britten, and the scene of many notable performances by opera superstars such as Maria Callas and Joan Sutherland. Like a phoenix, La Fenice twice rose from the ashes to continue its important role in the life of Venice.

Note: This is an updated version of an article that originally appeared on Interesting Thing of the Day on October 2, 2006.

Image credit: Youflavio [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons


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A chocolate caramel truffle

Regular readers know of my deep and abiding passion for chocolate. My wife has comparable feelings about caramel, whereas my own feelings about caramel are decidedly “meh.” In other situations, she and I might take a Jack Sprat approach and each eat only the portions of the food we find most delicious, but that’s remarkably difficult (and messy) with the combination of caramel and chocolate. So I think the right thing to do is for us to celebrate National Chocolate Caramel Day as a family. I get the chocolate, she gets the caramel, and we’re both happy.

Image credit: Lee McCoy [CC BY-ND 2.0], via Flickr


Source: Interesting Thing of the Day

Early morning fog over San Francisco

Don’t like the weather? Cross the street.

I have lived in many different parts of North America, but most of my time has been spent on the west coast, no more than a few miles from the ocean. There are many things to like about the west coast, but I’m especially fond of the weather. Each city has its specialty—San Diego is famous for sun, San Francisco for fog, and Vancouver for rain. But what this entire strip of land has in common is a relatively temperate climate year-round. Summers are rarely hot, and snow is almost unheard of. Some of my friends complain about the lack of seasonal variation, but not me. I figure, I can go and visit the snow or the sun for a week or two every year if I really miss it—and that’s enough for me.

Besides, we do have seasons, just not the same kinds of seasons as the rest of the continent. In San Francisco, for example, where I lived for quite a few years, the months of June through August are usually cool, especially near the ocean; the hottest month is October. Tourists invariably get this wrong, shivering in shorts in the summer and sweating in the fall. But the city’s generally mild climate has another interesting twist that makes it difficult for a resident to give a meaningful answer when someone from another part of the world asks me how the weather is.

Artificial and Natural Diversity

San Francisco is not a large city. Located on the tip of a peninsula with the Pacific Ocean on the west and the San Francisco Bay on the east, the city is only about 7 miles (11.3km) square. The famously steep hills contribute to an illusion of greater size—as if what the city lacks in width, it makes up for in height. Although it is nicely compact, San Francisco is composed of numerous distinct neighborhoods that are often profoundly different from each other in terms of architecture, culture, ethnicity, and overall demographics. Chinatown, for example, is just steps away from North Beach (San Francisco’s version of Little Italy), yet the local vibes of the two areas could not be more different. But as you move around San Francisco, you may notice something even more striking than the varying neighborhoods: major shifts in weather. San Francisco is often held out as a textbook example of microclimates.

A microclimate is a weather pattern that’s localized in a small area and different in some significant way from the weather of nearby areas. The variation can be one of temperature, humidity, rainfall, wind, or any combination of these. For example, there are parts of San Francisco that barely see the sun all summer long; along the coast, especially, it’s frequently cold, foggy, and windy. In other parts of the city, though, fog is virtually unknown; it may be sunny and 10 or even 20 degrees hotter than spots just a mile or two away. In all, there are about 30 well-defined microclimate regions within the city, and even more when you travel slightly farther away. When I was living in San Francisco and commuting to work just south of the city, I often drove out of rain and into sunshine or vice versa, but nearly always found the southern parts of the peninsula much warmer than in San Francisco.

You Don’t Need a Weather Man to Know Which Way the Wind Blows

There are many reasons for microclimates, but they all boil down to three main causes: water, hills, and concrete. Large bodies of water affect the climate both by increasing the humidity and by stabilizing the temperature in the immediate area. But even small ponds or pools, in the right location, can have a noticeable effect on the climate. This is especially true if there are large hills nearby. Hills block wind and redirect air currents, holding in both moisture and pockets of cool air. (This is also why temperate rain forests are able to thrive even when the greater region in which they’re located is too dry.) The concept of “city heat,” too, is well known; large expanses of concrete and stone absorb heat in the day and release it at night, making the average temperature in a city warmer than in adjacent areas. All these factors in combination with the area’s patterns of topography and vegetation contribute to the formation of microclimates.

Although San Francisco’s microclimates are numerous and conspicuous, the phenomenon is by no means unique to that area—it occurs, to varying extents, just about everywhere there are hills, large bodies of water, or other topographical features that can influence temperature and humidity. Depending on your point of view, they can be a curiosity, an aggravation, or a blessing. Weather forecasts for San Francisco are often misleading if not meaningless, because there’s so much variation throughout the city. On the other hand, in some areas microclimates make it possible to grow certain plants that could not survive just a few blocks away. San Francisco’s microclimates don’t reach the extremes of seasonal variation in the northeast part of the country, so residents still have to drive or fly if they need a real season fix. But as long as they don’t feel the need to shovel snow or rake leaves, nearly any weather they could want is just minutes away.

Note: This is an updated version of an article that originally appeared on Interesting Thing of the Day on July 4, 2003, and again in a slightly revised form on June 22, 2004.

Image credit: Brocken Inaglory [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons


Source: Interesting Thing of the Day

A Sloppy Joe

You might say my relationship with the Sloppy Joe is complicated. I always felt a bit uneasy having such an uncomplimentary adjective placed next to my name, for one thing. Then there was the first version of this food I was introduced to, back in my elementary school cafeteria: an unappetizing mixture of ground beef, tomato sauce, and way too many yucky chunks of vegetables slapped onto a dry hamburger bun. Gross. I can’t remember the last time I ate a Sloppy Joe, and I won’t do so today, either. I’m sure I could construct a palatable version of this sandwich for myself, but then, if I had those ingredients on hand I’d much more likely make a burger, or perhaps some delicious chili. But hey, if you’re a Sloppy Joe fan, knock yourself out today. As for me, I’ll be waiting nine days for the holiday that cleans up my name: National Joe Day (coming up on March 27).

Image credit: Buck Blues [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons


Source: Interesting Thing of the Day

Detail of St Patrick with a shamrock in a stained glass window at the Smith Museum of Stained Glass Windows at Navy Pier in Chicago

The man and the myths

Many years ago, I read the following provocative statement in a trivia book: “St. Patrick was neither Irish nor Catholic.” Although, as in most trivia books, these claims came with no historical references to back them up, they sounded plausible. I had no particular reason not to believe the book, and I tucked these tidbits away in my brain’s “interesting facts to investigate one of these days” file. I’ve been digging into that file a lot lately, and this seemed to be an appropriate time to get to the bottom of who St. Patrick really was—and which of the numerous and contradictory stories about him have some basis in truth.

Not being Catholic myself, I never learned even the basic facts (or legends) about most of the saints—information that, I recognize, is common knowledge to a large segment of the population. On St. Patrick’s Day, all I ever managed to deduce was that we were all wearing green because that had something to do with Ireland; any information about the historical St. Patrick was not part of my secular experience of the holiday. I didn’t even know that he was supposed to have expelled all the snakes from Ireland—after all, I’d never seen a snake on a St. Patrick’s Day card. As I read up on St. Patrick, pint of Guinness in hand, I discovered that one of the most interesting things about this man is how little one can know for certain.

The Mists of History

Confusion starts at the very beginning: Patrick’s birth. We can say with confidence only that he was born in the late 4th century or early 5th century; most accounts put the date between 385 and 389 CE, though some say it was much later. At any rate, it wasn’t even “Patrick” who was born then. His given name at birth was—according to some sources, at least—Maewyn Succat, and he apparently took on the name Patrick as an adult, when he began his work for the Church. As for Patrick’s place of birth, again, this is a matter of some disagreement. In one of his writings, Patrick referred to his birthplace as “Bannavem of Taburnia,” but no one knows for certain exactly where this village may have been. Sites in Scotland, Wales, England, and even the north coast of France have been advanced as possible matches. Patrick’s parents were likely Christians of some variety, though apparently not terribly devout, and Patrick may have considered himself a pagan as a child.

We do know that when Patrick was a teenager, he was captured by pagan raiders and taken to Ireland, where he was sold as a slave to a Druid chieftain. During his captivity, his Christian faith apparently blossomed. He remained a slave until roughly age 22, when he somehow managed to escape and return to Britain. Patrick began studying for the priesthood, and in either 432 or 462, after he was ordained, he returned to Ireland—this time as a missionary. He was not, as is often assumed, the first Christian missionary to Ireland, but he was among the first—perhaps the third.

It was during this time that the most colorful of Patrick’s exploits allegedly occurred. The best-known of these, of course, was that Patrick, by the force of his prayers, banished all the snakes from the island. Ireland likely never had any snakes in the first place; the story may have evolved from a symbolic association of snakes or serpents with non-Christian religious beliefs. In any event, there is no evidence whatsoever that this actually happened, nor does the Catholic church claim that it did.

Green Without Envy

Legend also has it that Patrick taught the Irish pagans about the concept of the Trinity using a shamrock as a visual aid. This story is almost certainly apocryphal, meaning the whole association of the shamrock with St. Patrick’s Day is based on a mistake. But in fact, it gets worse: because the shamrock is green and was traditionally worn as a symbol of St. Patrick, the color green itself eventually took on the same meaning. As it turns out, though, the color blue was originally assigned to St. Patrick, and for centuries, Irish superstition held that wearing green was unlucky. Patrick is, however, credited with inventing the Celtic cross; he felt that by superimposing the pagan symbol of the sun on a cross, he could make it more appealing to the Irish people he was trying to convert.

So what about that claim that St. Patrick was not Catholic? Well, the Catholic church clearly believes he was, but some Protestant commentators claim he was not. Among the reasons for these claims are statements from Patrick’s writings that indicate he practiced, and preached, a fairly simple version of Christianity in Ireland—seemingly not a fully Romanized version. There is also some doubt about his parents’ status in the Church, and a suggestion that only centuries after his death did Rome decide to absorb his story into official Church history. On the other hand, there is substantial evidence that Patrick was indeed ordained as a priest in the Roman church before beginning his missionary work. But the bottom line is that reliable written records from that period are few and far between. The true nature of St. Patrick’s religious convictions, like so much else about his life, will probably never be known with complete certainty.

Even the date of Patrick’s death is in doubt. It has been reported variously as occurring in the years 462, 491, 492, or 493. However, tradition has it that in whichever of these years Patrick died, it was on March 17—which is why the Feast of St. Patrick, or St. Patrick’s Day, is celebrated then. On this day, as I don my green—or blue—shirt, I will think fondly about the patron saint of Ireland, who was not Irish, who may or may not have been Catholic, and who was almost definitely, at some point during the indeterminate years of his life, named Patrick.

Note: This is an updated version of an article that originally appeared on Interesting Thing of the Day on March 17, 2005.

Image credit: Thad Zajdowicz [Public domain], via Flickr


Source: Interesting Thing of the Day