On Monday we arrived in the Veneto, Italy’s northeastern region whose most famous city, Venice, is still recovering from damage caused by record alta aqua levels. The region’s mainland boasts other cities Verona (see ‘Two Gentlemen of’), Padua and Treviso, which I spent yesterday exploring.
Treviso’s historic center is encircled twice: once by medieval walls and once by water; the Sile River defines its southern edge and a man-made ‘fossa’ or moat surrounds the rest. This moat is fed not only by the Sile but also the Cagnan Grande, which also feeds into a couple of small canals within the city. This muddy river runs north-to-south and meets the bigger Sile at the old city’s south-east corner. This moment of confluence, a painterly spectacle where the Sile’s deep milky green pushes aside the wheaten brown of the lesser stream, makes a cameo appearance in Dante’s in Paradiso Book IX (lines 49-51) as the spot where one Riccardo da Camino was murdered whilst playing chess. For this reason, the bridge surmounting the spot is named ‘Dante’s Bridge’, though the murder story is soft-pedalled in official signs.
The watery nature of the city, with its weeping willows, river weed, water birds and ivy-covered houses creates a romantic scene. Swans, coots, cormorants and ducks were all paddling furiously and looked (I imagined) a little bemused by the force of the current. Wet pigeons sat glumly fluffed on branches sticking out over the river.
The streets uphill from Dante’s bridge feature medieval houses, pavement, convents, churches, piazzas and pretty shops. Here and there are remnants of frescos and old paintings. Including the town’s old Loggia dei Cavalieri, ‘the Knights’ Lodge’, which seems to have been a kind of open-air VIP lounge for knights during the thirteen and fourteenth centuries. Amazingly, its wooden beams still bear traces of the original highly colored paintings, including an upper frieze depicting exciting battle scenes.
I learned some of the history of this intriguing structure at the Museo di Santa Caterina (entry 6 euros). To my delight, the church connected to this museum featured frescos by Tommaso Da Modena, who worked in the mid-fourteenth century and is known for the first person to depict a man wearing spectacles. Poor old Hugh of Saint-Cher probably thought he would go down in history for being a Cardinal Bishop but instead he’s remembered for being the world’s first four-eyes.
Here, the frescos in question told the story of Saint Ursula, a British princess who set out on a pilgrimage to Rome with 11,000 fellow virgins but was murdered by Huns along the way. Da Modena’s fresco cycle actually belongs to another Trevigian church, the decommissioned Santa Margharita but for now they are displayed conveniently on easels at eye-level in Santa Caterina. I resisted taking photos but you can see details from the cycle here. I was unprepared for how engaging the images would be—the colours are fresh and bright, the figures are life-sized and also quite life-like. I particularly wondered at the delicacy of the skin, childlike in its color and translucency and rounded softness. And Ursula’s face is expressive and moving—clear-eyed, joyful and resolute. The scene in which she and her companions are murdered is an outrage not only morally but also visually—a complete departure from the peaceful, smiling balance of previous panels.
After seeing the church and a bit of the museum, I headed out for lunch. The day before, John and I had eaten at a little trattoria by the fish market. John had pork with broccoli-and-polenta cutlet and pomegranate sauce, while I’d ordered tagliatini with mixed seafood and radicchio, washed down with a glass of Incrocio Manzoni (dry white wine). This time I opted for the classic Venetian lunch of cicchetti, a kind of bruschetta topped with seafood and then a large cup of tiramisu, in honor of the fact that the divine dessert was created here in 1962 at the restaurant Alle Becherrie .
Going back to the subject of radicchio, this last vegetable is the town’s pride and joy. You can get variations of the thing in multiple manifestations, including as a cake. No I have not tried it; I think I’ll stick with tiramisu.
Doing some post-prandial moseying, I was amazed to find myself face to face with a pretty bad likeness of Mario Del Monaco, the hunky Marlon Brando of the ‘Golden Age’ of opera. He was Pollione to Callas’s Norma; Andrea Chenier to Tebaldi’s Maddalena, an optimal Othello, a raging Rigoletto! You could have knocked me down with a baton.
It then occurred to me that John didn’t have anything to eat back at the hotel so I popped into a Pam’s and wandered the aisles marveling at local stuff like shrimp-paste sandwiches, jars of spiced-liver mix, prosecco and Bussolai Buranei (Venetian butter cookies).
Once I’d done the shopping, I headed over to the bus stop. School had just finished and vast hordes of teenagers were heading home. I was leaning against a wall reading Stones of Venice by Ruskin when it dawned on me that two boys were ‘facing off’ not two meters away from me and the crowd of hopeful onlookers threatened to engulf me.
A short boy was approaching and questioning a taller one. The questions were of a loud, repetitive nature and, judging by the tone, amounted to ‘Do you want a piece of me?’. The taller boy seemed not to want a piece of him just at that moment, but stood firm, though his leg was shaking a bit. The shorter fellow then launched into a monologue liberally sprinkled with ‘cazzo’s and an invitation to ‘vieni con me’. A few onlookers initiated a chant, guttural and symphonic, that I recognized from my high school years as an exhortation to fight. But the dulcet voice of reason piped up from a bearded earringed friend of the tall guy.
“Ragazzi, basta,” he reasoned—guys, enough.
The tension was so defused and a group of four boys, huddled nearby, discussed some internecine matter with the seriousness of Roman consuls.
Then my bus arrived and I got on, always a nice moment. The trip had been very satisfying.