Tuesday, October 27, 2009

High water and fresco vandals

I experienced the acqua alta—high water—in Venice after all, and I'm glad I did.  Having occurred for hundreds of years, it is a quintessential part of life there.  It is not a result of rising sea levels (though this will severely exacerbate it).  Of course, it was nowhere near the magnitude of the 1966 floods, but locals were wearing their colourful gumboots (Venice is the place to shop if you're a fashion-conscious pig farmer), wading obliviously through six inches of water in the lower-lying areas.  More commonly it was less than an inch, most places were in fact dry, and the water table dropped again with an hour.

For four nights in Venice I lost track of the days, like I had taken a vacation from my holiday.  The city feels unmoved by the passage of time, like it is still its own republic, separate from Italy, the rest of the world, and modernity.  It's a strangely affecting place and, in all my travels through Eastern and Western Europe, incomparable.

So when I arrived in Verona, only an hour away, I was rather too bedazzled to fairly assess one of Italy's prettiest little cities.  That it was raining again dampened my enthusiasm, too, but the second day was beautifully clear and sunny, a cool, Autumn day (as in fact, they all have been since), and I discovered the stunning Romanesque Basilica of San Zeno.  If you remember your Shakespeare you'll know that Friar Lawrence married Romeo and Juliet in the crypt (looking on would have been the preserved body of Zeno who died in 380 AD).  Also preserved are superb frescoes, dozens of them, dating back to the 12th century.  They are still brilliant and in large sections intact, despite being damaged by time, war (Allied bombing), and 18th-century snot-nosed brats—there is a great deal of graffiti, often dated, etched into the plaster.  The architecture of the building is reknowned, with a beautifully decorated ship's keel ceiling as well as a stunning facade.  Apparently.  It was masked by—that's right—scaffolding for restoration work, rendering it unsuitable for shooting.  At least the scaffolding screens were sympathetically painted with the facade's likeness.

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