Piazza San Marco: The Drawing Room of Europe

February 4, 2010 at 3:42 am (Katie Sahiar Dubey, Travel)

 Perhaps without exception everyone visiting Venice heads for the Piazza San Marco, St. Mark’s Square. It’s the only space to be called Piazza in Venice and is literally, the ‘heart of the city’. For every important occasion in the life of their city, Venetians converge on the square. One of the most astounding urban spaces of Europe, Napoleon is said to have called it ‘The drawing room of Europe’. Getting to Venice was a very important occasion of my life too and so first thing in the morning my sister and I headed to the quayside.  After some confusion that was sure to ensue due to our Italian and their English, we finally got on to an anchored vaporetti ready to leave for stations along the Grand Canal, one of which was definitely the Piazza San Marco.

The vaporetti being the local water transport was soon tightly packed, more like a Mumbai BEST bus. We stood by the railing to get some air. As the boat moved away from its moorings and began to pick up speed, Venice unfolded exactly like a picture-postcard. The palaces of the rich, all set along the water’s edge facing the canal, their uniform size and highly ornate decorations were breathtaking even though we could only get a fleeting look.  Boats that served as personal vehicles were moored to the landing of each palace. Quite a few churches were also pointed out to us as we moved past. The vaporetti halted at the San Marco station and we clambered out along with a whole horde of American tourists, distinguishable by their nasal twang. Following the crowd we walked along, crossed several bridges and finally came to the tall column that marked the square, the Campanile or clock tower. Words are entirely inadequate to express the feelings that chase each other when you stand at the base of the Campanile like an ant beside an elephant and look out on the colossal expanse in front of you; a trapezium in fact running 175 meters in length. The space is enclosed by magnificent buildings — the most stunning being the Basilica de San Marco, Doge’s Palace and the Basilica’s campanile, which stands apart from it. 

Travel is nothing if not a slice of history re-lived! I stood at the far end of the square gazing at the opulent and exquisite St. Mark’s Basilica through my camera screen while maneuvering to fit it into my frame. It was rather frustrating as people moved around in front of the camera, children careening around jostled me and while I waited for my moment to click, a rather strange story wafted through my mind.

St. Theodore was the original patron saint of Venice when it rose out of the marshes and established itself on the 118 islands by the Adriatic Sea. Protected by the sea and its waterways it was able to grow into a wealthy trading nation. Then, it needed a major saint in the league of Peter and Paul, to enhance its prestige. A legend relates that, St. Mark when travelling through Venice had seen a vision. An angel had declared his final resting place to be Venice. Eight hundred years after he was buried in Alexandria, two merchants took it upon themselves to bring the saint home. They sailed to Egypt, bribed the guardians of St. Mark’s tomb in Alexandria, removed his body and replaced it with that of St. Claudian. They concealed St. Mark’s body in a basket, carried it to the harbour and took it aboard a Venetian vessel. Unfortunately, the powerful odour emanating from the body roused suspicions. Port officials came aboard to investigate. The merchants shrewdly placed chunks of pork over the body and the Muslim soldiers recoiled from it. The Venetian merchants triumphantly sailed away with their priceless treasure – a saint for their city. Arriving safely in Venice the body was accepted officially as that of St.Mark’s and the Doge arranged for it to be buried again with the appropriate ceremony. 

Founded in 829, St. Mark’s church served as a shrine to house the stolen body of the saint and as a private chapel for the Doge, the ruler of Venice. This little church designed on the pattern of a Greek Cross burned down, but over its ashes rose the magnificent Basilica de San Marco. Byzantine architecture with mixed interior styles, it was consecrated in 1094, though additions and expansion to the building continued.  Enlarged on the north and south it still followed the Greek Cross plan with its most outstanding feature being the vaulting of the five domes built in brick instead of the customary wood to provide a base for the ceiling mosaics. By the 13th century, the domes were covered with towering external cupolas roofed in lead and surmounted by onion-shaped lanterns. By the ordinance of 1075, each returning ship was obliged to furnish it with some precious object. The beautification of the exterior continued until the mid-fifteenth century when it was finally rounded off with the addition of crockets, pinnacles and statues making it the breathtaking monument that we were gawking at. The interior presents vast cavernous spaces lit by narrow windows in the five domes and gilded expanses of mosaics, which cover an area of almost 8,000 square meters. The walls are lined with eastern marble and at the centre of the nave is a beautiful large Byzantine chandelier of delicate hand-painted crystal hanging like a precious pearl, while the floor has 12th century paving with geometric patterns and some beasts and birds filled in. It was all too overwhelming and difficult to absorb in the crush of the crowd. I managed to find some corners to retreat into from where I could gaze without interruption. Soon enough a security guard politely urged me to move on and so having done the entire ground floor, my sister and I emerged into the golden sunshine of the square again.

That was a lot of art and history for one morning. We wandered around doing the mundane – street shopping which seems to be the same everywhere. T-shirts with basilica prints, scarves, peak-caps and knick-knacks; food stalls, glassware, shoes, and ice-cream; just name it. We haggled for some purses, but the guy wouldn’t budge. Of course he wouldn’t with the Americans around! 

So we moved on around the basilica. By the side of the church, narrow alleyways are lined with shops and street cafes. Suddenly, I was riveted to a shop window through which a whole lot of grotesque shapes with eye-holes looked at me. A shudder wracked my body, but I continued to look on fascinated. Then, was able to identify some of the masks: ghosts, clowns, bird beaks and others. I thought of the movie Amadeus. The scene, where the composer Salieri, wearing the scary death mask, asks Mozart to write a requiem, swam before me.

Venetian masks are made of papier-mâché and are exquisitely hand-crafted. Mask-making is done by master craftsmen of whom there are just a handful in Venice and carnival time brings out their best. 

Unrivalled master of trade 800 years ago, Venice generated enormous wealth. It became the most extravagantly beautiful state on the continent. Wealth generated insecurities and people developed a custom of concealing their identity. Secrecy was the pragmatic solution for a small city in maintaining its citizen’s privacy. Then again, the masks served as social-levelers keeping every citizen on a level-playing field. State inquisitors and spies, who questioned citizens, were answered without fear of retribution through the mask! Morale of the people was high – with no faces, they were the voices of their city. Masks became part of daily life and a highlight of the carnival in Venice that takes place in February each year. It celebrates the victory of the republic over the Patriarch of Aquileia in 1162. By the 17th century, the Carnival of Venice had become a regular destination for tourists from Northern Europe, especially the Grand Tourists: young aristocratic men who spent a year or more visiting the cultural highlights of Italy.

I continued to follow my stream of thoughts until my sister gave me a rough nudge and we got going again and finally found ourselves at the rear of the church. Here a podium supported weary tourists who were obliged to share the space with garrulous pigeons.  Exhausted after several hours on our feet without respite, we too found space among the numerous tourists to settle down for a while and share some of our sandwich with the pigeons queuing up near us. As I looked around, strains of the old song There’ll be joy, there’ll be fun, there’ll be seasons in the sun floated through my mind and there will be lots of golden sun with spring in the air. The old aristocrats of Europe, people of leisure and adventurous travelers will all be making a beeline to Venice. When the date changes to February 5, Venetian clocks will swivel back to the 12th century and usher in the 800-year-old carnival. Ten days of fun with sheer abandon will follow. Morality dumped into the Grand Canal. Revelers will flock to Piazza San Marco, to be outnumbered by the pigeons that claim the square in perpetuity. Obscured by masks, the signature costume of Venice, there will be uninhibited frolicking, gambling and every other indulgence. Fantasies buried in the box of respectability will jump out seeking fulfillment. Art will come alive with festivals of music, dance, theatre, painting and so on. Gondola racing and all manner of entertainment will be available to satisfy the myriad appetites of the floating populace. It’s the chance of a lifetime. If you are traveling, find your way to Venice in February.     

– Katie Dubey


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Remembering Mulk Raj Anand

October 7, 2009 at 6:40 pm (Essay, Katie Sahiar Dubey)

Five years have passed since 28 September, the day Mulk Raj Anand 
left us. Recall is a strange thing. Although it was many years ago, 
I can still see him sitting on his divan at his home.
Clad in a churidar and tunic, legs neatly crossed, 
Uncle Mulk sat beneath the portrait of Leo Tolstoy, his hero.
The doors of 25 Cuffe Parade, his home, were always open. 
No one rang the bell. They just walked right in. Uncle Mulk never 
budged from his seat, but greeted visitors warmly with a strong 
handshake or a kiss on the forehead as in my case!
Artists, writers, students and all manner of people came to visit 
him.They sought his help and advice or sometimes just wanted to 
share a drink in the evening. 
Yet, just five years after his death, Mulk Raj Anand has been 
forgotten. My dear Uncle Mulk is gone and his name ground in the 
The old historic structure, in which he lived and fought so hard to 
save from its current fate, will soon be a lobby for a high rise 
building.Where every other country preserves the houses of its 
legendary figures along with all in it and offers them to the view 
of the world,we in India callously tear down historic structures 
but talk glibly of past glory. We will do nothing to honor our heroes,
people who have sacrificed the best part of their lives to give us the
freedom we enjoy today. 
It is painful to see the so-called intelligentsia that milled 
around Uncle Mulk at one time, melt away. Not one person has come 
forward or lifted a finger to honor the memory of a man who did so 
much for others.

I can remember the time when we were in Khandala over a weekend.
I was at the age what Uncle Mulk called ‘the foolish young’.
Over breakfast we got into an argument and he said to me: 
“You know dear, you young will never know the sacrifices that 
we have made for this country. You have never had to fight for 
or give up anything. You have received freedom on a platter 
and I can see it being thrown away once again to the West".

Mulk Raj Anand was born to Rai Sahib Subedar Lal Chand of the 17th 
Dogras Regiment in Peshawar, on 12 December, 1905.
He was a lovable, sensitive and demanding child, favored above 
his brothers by his parents.Mulk was nicknamed ‘Bully’ by his father,
who in fact had made up a little ditty with the word.
‘Bully, bully, bully my son.’ A nonsensical rhyme that he 
would croon with little Mulk in his arms. This ditty remained 
forever fixed in his mind, associated with the love of his father.
His childhood is re-counted in his well-known autobiographical book
Seven Summers.
Mulk saw many shades and hues of life at a tender age, as his 
father’s regiment moved from place to place. He studied at Khalsa
College, Amritsar; Punjab University, 1921-1924;University College, 
London, 1926-29 and Cambridge University 1929-30, 
where he obtained a PhD. 

He lectured at the League of Nations’ School of Intellectual 
Co-operation in Geneva, worked with the BBC in London and 
plunged headlong into the vibrant intellectual life of the city. 
Touchy and sensitive, he was grief-struck when his dearly loved 
aunt Devaki committed suicide after being ostracized by the Hindu 
community for her friendship with a Muslim.The episode roused a 
barrage of questions about the communal divide in our society.
Mulk vowed to fight the evils that distorted and destroyed the most
fundamental human values.
He chose to wield his pen as a sword.
The first assault was Untouchable – a day in the life of a scavenger in India.
Untouchable was written over a long weekend in 1930 and revised
several times.
Then, Mulk came to India and visited Mahatma Gandhi’s ashram to
show him the manuscript. He narrated the story thus:
"First, the Mahatma insisted on Indian clothes. ‘Why are you
dressed like a monkey? Go, put on some Indian clothes,’
he admonished.

Next, his novel was rejected right away as being unrealistic!
‘Have you ever heard an uneducated, rejected scavenger
who has been nowhere near a school mouth such big words?
Rewrite it and be natural,’ the Mahatma had said. 
Mulk returned to England and following Gandhi’s advice to the T,
rewrote the entire novel. It was a frontal attack on upper
caste hypocrisy.
Nineteen publishers rejected his book by September 1934.
"Do you know what it is like to be rejected time and again?"
he asked me, once as he recounted the story to my aunt Dolly and me,
one evening in Khandala.
British publishers were incredulous. ‘A novel about the poor,’
 they asked? "No one writes about the poor"they said.
"The poor are a joke and we ignore them." Mulk was devastated.
Dangerously close to a nervous breakdown,he began to contemplate
Then, fate intervened. A young British poet Blake Oswell took the
manuscript to Vishart Books. The editor liked the novel for its
‘sincerity and skill’, but wanted his decision endorsed with a
preface by E M Forster.
Forster had already read the novel while it did the rounds of
the publishers and willingly wrote the preface,
saying the book ‘has gone straight to the heart of the subject and
purified it.’
Untouchable hit the bookshops in May 1935 and Mulk Raj Anand was
launched as a novelist.
Incidentally, Forster received a larger payment for his preface
than the author for the novel. Forster, however, generously passed
on the money to the struggling young writer. 
Mulk Raj Anand never faltered. He practiced what he preached.
His robust humanism, love for the land, compassion and forthright
outlook remained unchanged and are strongly visible in all his works. 
Therefore, through the hundreds of pages of his novels, short
stories, essays and letters, we return to the ‘promise’.
The promise to uphold values at all costs. Values that enrich life,
that strengthen relationships, that spread peace and are finally
woven into the fabric of a strong, civilized and cultured nation. 
He wrote in 2001, on the occasion of 200 years of Maharaja Ranjit
Singh’s coronation: "Our recalls of the heritages of the past
are not from the wish to revive bygone splendors, which cannot come
back. We wish to show how the purposive will of men in certain
periods of our history have created, out of anarchy and disorder,
glories which heightened the quality of life and which may inspire
 our renascent efforts today.”
- Katie Sahiar Dubey

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A Mumbaikar in Milan

May 26, 2009 at 5:40 am (Katie Sahiar Dubey, Travel)

I landed in Milan in the late afternoon of a hot, sunny day. As I went about unpacking, without warning clouds gathered, thundered and rain pelted down in gray sheets. Wonderful feeling! So familiar! I rushed to the small balcony of my hotel room and stood there getting wet. Was transported to Mumbai for a few moments.

Milan and Mumbai! So many parallels! Business hub, fashion capital, migrant population, parking problems, laundry hanging out of windows, multiple tongues and friendly inhabitants. Its freewheeling commercial culture and ready acceptance of new ideas has always drawn people to it and amongst its most renowned ‘outsider’ responsible for shaping its destiny was Leonardo da Vinci. The city is what it is today because like Mumbai, it embraced enterprising outsiders. Today, while vibrant and modern, Milan is imbued with traditions which are centuries old. Its history speaking through great works of art, music and church architecture that is lovingly cared for and painstakingly renovated from time to time with generous help from corporate sponsorships.    

Dominating the Piazza del Duomo is the wonder of Milan – the Church of Santa Maria Nascente, known only as ‘Duomo’ or the House of God. It is the heart of the city with streets either radiating from, or circling it and is the second largest Catholic cathedral in the world, 157 meters long and 92 meters high with a capacity to accommodate 40,000 people at a time.

Mark Twain expressed his amazement when he wrote “What a wonder it is! So grand, so solemn, so vast! And yet so delicate, so airy, so graceful! A very world of solid weight, and yet it seems… a delusion of frostwork that might vanish with a breath!”

My reaction too!  Facing the statue of the mounted king of Italy, Vittorio Emanuel II and encircled by the Galleria, it dwarfed them both, subtly reminding one of enduring spiritual heights that go far beyond the material. However, this is no time for contemplation, but rather for quick thinking. One is suddenly surrounded by the ‘fast buck’ makers, mostly of foreign origin, and not a few of them Indians speaking fluent Italian. Feed the pigeons for one euro, or have a picture clicked, or else tie a thread on your wrist and make a wish! Familiar tricks, each one. So, refusing to feed overfed pigeons I moved to the massive door of the church.  Every inch of it embossed in relief, with panels depicting the life of Christ, the ascension of Mary to heaven and other biblical events. So awe inspiring was the sight that I felt a deep urge to photograph every inch of it.  Christ stumbling with the cross and being dragged to His feet. Christ being tied, before being mounted to the cross. So poignantly portrayed are the scenes that several people worship at the door itself, placing flowers on the panels. 

No wonder then that few churches in Italy took as long to build. The Duomo was built over more than five centuries, its foundation stone laid in 1386 under the patronage of Bishop Antonio da Saluzzo. In 1387 Duke Gian Visconti, who had ascended to power in the ruling family of Milan insisted on marble, in vogue at the time to create a power symbol. The cathedral was consecrated in 1418, but not completed until the 19th century when Napoleon spurred on the work to completion.

It consists of a nave that rises 45 meters, the highest Gothic vault of a church and houses the tomb of Gian Giacomo Medici, which in part was designed by Michelangelo. Opposite the Medici tomb, the 12th-century candelabra by the goldsmith Nicholas of Verdun is believed to be the greatest masterpiece in the cathedral. Fabulous creatures created with meticulous attention to detail adorn this work of art. 

Windows of stained glass that are found nowhere in the world, were executed in the 19th Century by the Bertini brothers. And then there are the stunning windows of the choir, which are considered the largest in the world. Most treasures in the Duomo’s interior, such as ivories, vestments and tapestries as well as sacred vases in gold and silver are gifts that have been donated by princes and noblemen during the centuries of the cathedral’s existence. They beautify it to date.  

The cathedral was overwhelming. Emerging through the dim vault into the blazing sunshine of noontime I drew a deep breath. Without the least bit of self-consciousness, I parked myself on a mid-level step of the cascading stairs and rested exulting in a sense of sheer freedom.  Elegantly clad high-heeled women and suited men rushed by focused on work obviously, while we, tourists, lounged around. The eye-catching life-size poster of Mojca Erdmann, the soprano singer wearing Mont Blanc sunglasses mounted by the high arch of the Galeria, spurred me to move on and explore it. 

Galeria Vittorio Emanuele is one of the most beautiful covered galleries in Europe, the first of its kind to make use of an iron and glass structure with two intersecting streets making a cruciform plan with a domed octagon at center.

The 640-foot-long north-south axis of this cruciform links the secular Piazza del La Scala on the north to the spiritual Piazza del La Duomo on the south. A triumphal arch was added to the southern end of this cruciform gallery. The Galeria was built not just to connect the squares of La Scala and La Duomo, but to represent the union of church and state, which came about after the nationalist revolution of 1848.  Tragically, Giuseppe Mengoni, its architect, fell to his death from the heights of the glass dome while scrutinizing some decorative details two days before King Vittorio Emanuele led the opening ceremony.

Avant garde shops, of every single international brand in every variety of goods is represented at the Galeria. If it’s a brand name then it stands represented at the Galeria. The hour long exploration of the Galeria left me exhausted and I gratefully sank down under the shade of a sun-umbrella at a street café. Although past lunchtime, people lounged at tables and watched the crowd as it swept in and out in waves.  A glass of Chianti and a large serving of pasta re-fueled me and an hour later, was back on my feet.

Mercifully the sun was now fairly low on the horizon and mild light flooded through the glass roof casting soft shadows around.  I wandered out through the Galeria to its opposite end and on to the Piazza della Scala.       

The statue of Leonardo da Vinci had centre stage. Pigeons mingled with tourists seated on the parapet munching or just sunning. Some of them audaciously used the genius’s head as a perch. The square plinth sported stone reliefs on all four sides of Leonardo as a teacher.  Aptly, facing Leonardo was La Scala – one of the most renowned opera houses in the world.

Teatro alla Scala, as it was originally named, opened to public on August 3, 1778.  The building has undergone several transformations since. In 1907 the original structure was renovated and given the enhanced seating capacity of 2,800.  It was severely damaged by bombing in WWII, but was rebuilt and re-opened in 1946 with an unparalleled concert conducted by Toscanini. It was spruced up once again as recently as 2002 and re-opened in 2004.        

Attached to the theatre is a museum of costumes, jewellery and an auditorium. I sank into a seat in the cool auditorium and enjoyed a documentary on the legendary singer Maria Callas singing from her various roles through her operatic life for half an hour, then strolled through the room containing her costumes and merged into the Milanese life of the past century. Finally, there were the accessories and paintings.  Disappointingly, though, the ‘Last Supper’ of da Vinci had been taken off display. 

With my immersion in the past in La Scala coming to an end, I returned to the present by heading for the Galeria with gelato on my mind. What a day I had!

– Katie Sahiar Dubey

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