In Venice

IN VENICE: Huw Parsons has visited Venice several times, the last to study locations used by Canaletto in his paintings. Read this quirky and often hilarious account of his time there, illustrated with Huw's photographs and drawings:

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'In Venice' is about three visits Huw made to the city a few years ago. The first two were day trips from Cardiff, the second of which coincided with the worst weather Venice had experienced for thirteen years. The third visit was funded by The Arts Council of Wales, as an artist’s travel award. It was given to him, so he could study the locations used by Canaletto for his paintings of the city. Huw uses diary entries and has illustrated this book with his own photographs and drawings. Here’s an extract -

       ‘I’ve run out of clean socks, so will have to start wearing the dirty ones again or find a laundrette. Buying some new ones is out of the question here in Venice, they would probably be “designer” ones, made of cashmere or angora and horrendously expensive. A few days ago I passed by a ladies clothes shop and saw in the window just one single pair of high-heeled shoes. They were displayed on a pedestal and artfully spotlit in a way that would not be out of place in the slickest photographer’s studio. God only knows what these would have cost! I’m beginning to notice how scruffy I look compared to every one here - particularly the locals.
       I made it early to “The Campo San Vidal” which is the setting of Canaletto’s painting “The Stone Mason’s Yard.” This painting is considered by many to be one of Canaletto’s finest. It’s a breathtaking illusion of airy space, created by wonderful draughtsmanship, subtle colour combinations and dramatic juxtapositions of light and shade. He captures the sense of calm of an ordinary Venetian day some three hundred years ago, by an extraordinary attention to detail. Gondolas drift silently along the Grand Canal, amongst dark shadows and brilliant patches of light. Sheets hang drying in the sun, unruffled by a breeze that blows smoke from a chimney in the distance. A workman chisels a block of stone; his hammer blows ringing around the campo. A woman draws water from a well. On the right of the painting, a woman sits on a balcony spinning yarn in the early morning sun and on the left a mother runs to rescue a fallen child, whilst another woman looks on at the commotion from a balcony above.
         Whilst taking photographs here, I noticed two workmen in a little boat pottering about in a small side canal close by. As they left, one of the men, who was standing tall at the prow of the boat, was distracted and didn’t notice the low bridge ahead. I could see what was about to happen and might have shouted a warning, but I knew that if I did it would probably go unheeded. I was right; I shouted “Watch out – the bridge!” at the top of my voice and everybody in the square suddenly looked at me - except the daydreaming man. Then it was too late, his head hit the top of the arch with a horrible crunch, which knocked him senseless. Luckily for him he collapsed into the boat rather than the canal. By the time I’d got to my feet to offer some assistance, a group of gondoliers had rushed to the scene. I don’t think that this unfortunate man was seriously injured; at least I hope he wasn’t, as within a short time he’d regained consciousness and was sitting up smiling ruefully nursing a very sore head.
        On to the Campo di Saint Giacometto, where I began my drawing of Canaletto’s view of the scene. I sat in an arched colonnade behind fruit & vegetable stalls, amongst rubbish bins. I quickly noticed that even the women who push these wheelie bins about the square looked glamorous!       
The streets today were heaving with Italian school children. They are very noisy and overexcited and it would seem that I cannot escape them - they are everywhere! However I made up for this minor vexation with a huge lunch and half a bottle of wine, in a newly discovered self-service restaurant. After this, I decided to take the long walk to a photographic shop I’d seen earlier, to buy a special bag to protect my films from harmful X rays at the airport security gates on the way home. Once in the shop I had to mime this requirement to a surly proprietor. I began with arms outstretched accompanied by a gentle whooshing sound for an aeroplane, followed by drawing an imaginary security gate in the air before me with my hands. I stepped through this gingerly for the finale, at the same time mouthing “peep, peep, peep” sounds. I had to do this because the Italian language, like all foreign tongues, is an unknowable mystery to me. The only two words I’ve felt confident enough to use are “Si”- “Yes” and “Grazie” – “Thank you” which so far have been sufficient for almost every eventuality. However since my stay in Venice I’ve picked up a few other words, but don’t often feel confident enough to use them. Whenever I do I inevitably recall to mind a story told to me many years ago whilst I was an Art Student, by two friends of mine who had gone on a cultural tour of Tuscany. James and Willy (both sculptors) were staying at a campsite in the Tuscan hills, in a region that was famed for a natural resource of wonderful carveable marble. One day, in broken English, they innocently asked a local farmer if he knew if there was a “Quarry” nearby where they could buy a few blocks to take home. He flew into a rage, not liking the word “Quarry” one bit it seemed, which in the Tuscan dialect may have been some form of dire insult! Worse was to come! Later on during the trip whilst in a chic restaurant, they innocently asked the waiter for something on the menu, which they mispronounced, so that it sounded like an Italian slang word for a “ladies unmentionable!”
        As it was my last night at “The Hotel San Samuel” I broke one of their “Rules” despite the big notice by my bedside, listing cardinal sins that guests might commit. I washed my clothes in the hand basin and left them to dry on the radiator, only to find that that they were still wet in the morning, after the heating had been switched off during the night!’