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I have written before of that quintessential symbol of Venice, setting for my novel The Echoes of Love: the gondola. But what of its pilot, the gondolier? In my novel, when the lovers take a gondola ride, I write simply that ‘the gondolier stood perched at the stern behind them, silently and splendidly like a Florentine statue, moving the craft with skilled ease over the water’. He is but a peripheral character in my story, but not in the story of Venice itself. There, the gondolier has been integral to the workings, the culture, the beauty of the city for many hundreds of years.

The profession of gondolier is a respectable one, and in the city generations of men in one family take up the pole. Sadly, whereas back in the 17th and 18th centuries some ten thousand gondoliers were employed in the city, today the number of these iconic craft on the waterways has fallen to just a few hundred. But those on the job are dedicated professionals – in fact, a thousand-year-old prestigious guild, La Categoria, controls the profession.

To become a member of this elite, which awards only four hundred and twenty-five gondolier licences, is no mean feat. First, you need to be well-connected. As a gondolier told the Telegraph newspaper, “You are either born into it or racolto (lifted up) or trova (found) by another gondolier”. Then the gondolier must go through:

  1. A period of training.
  2. A period of apprenticeship.
  3. A major exam, in which the gondolier must prove his expert knowledge of Venice and its landmarks and history; his ability to converse with people from many different nationalities; and his skill in maneuvering the craft along the sometimes narrow waterways.

Then, having passed the exam, whose results are published in the local paper (plenty of ‘son of’ and ‘brother of’ references precede the names), the gondolier works as a substitute for a year, then has the right to either inherit or buy a licence. For centuries, each of these novice gondoliers was male, but in 2010 GiorgiaBoscolo became Venice’s first female gondolier.

Why such stringent requirements?you may be wondering. Well, for a start navigating a gondola is not as easy as one may assume. Telegraph journalist Teresa Machanwrites a most amusing account of her lesson with a gondolier, in which she is told:

“Please don’t squeeze the oar – there’s no need, it’s wood.”

“Breathe, dear, breathe.”

“Don’t look at the oar, look ahead. Do you watch the pedals or the steering wheel when you drive?”

“I’m hot and bothered and we haven’t even moved,”Teresa writes.“My admiration for the art of gondoliering is growing by the minute.”

But the gondolier profession is not just about skill; it is about representing the city. To be a good gondolier is to be passionate about the setting in which you work. In this new film a gondolier compares Venice to a woman “of a ripe old age” who is “caressed, cared for and doted on”. His attire may not be what one imagines for a gondolier, but his attitude certainly is – he exudes respect for the city, and that is, ultimately, what the initiation process and the licence are designed to foster and secure.

I will leave you with a poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, lover of Venice. If only all gondoliers were this romantic – then I think we would all be flocking to Venice, and La Categoria would need to greatly expand to accommodate the demand!


The Venetian Gondolier

Here rest the weary oar! – soft airs
Breathe out in the o’erarching sky;
And Night! – sweet Night – serenely wears
A smile of peace; her noon is nigh.

Where the tall fir in quiet stands,
And waves, embracing the chaste shores,
Move o’er sea-shells and bright sands,-
Is heard the sound of dipping oars.

Swift o’er the wave the light bark springs,
Love’s midnight hour draws lingering near:
And list! – his tuneful viol strings
The young Venetian Gondolier.

Lo! on the silver-mirrored deep,
On earth, and her embosomed lakes,
And where the silent rivers sweep,
From the thin cloud fair moonlight breaks

Soft music breathes around, and dies
On the calm bosom of the sea;
Whilst in her cell the novice sighs
Her vespers to her rosary.

At their dim altars bow fair forms,
In tender charity for those,
That, helpless left to life’s rude storms,
Have never found this calm repose.

The bell swings to its midnight chime,
Relieved against the deep blue sky!-
Haste! – dip the oar again! – ’tis time
To seek Genevra’s balcony.

Venice comes alive this weekend for the FestadelRedentore – the Festival of the Redeemer. It takes places on the third weekend of July, and has done each year since 1577. Then, the city was celebrating its deliverance from devastating plague that decimated the population of Venice in the preceding two years, killing 46,000 people.

The focus of the festival is Il Redentore, the Roman Catholic church built by Palladio on the island of Giudeccain the CanaledellaGiudecca. Venice’s most beloved architect was recruited to design this votive church as a long-standing testament to God’s mercy in delivering the Venetians from the plague. It was consecrated in 1592, and for more than three centuries a Mass has been held there during the FestadelRedentore. The Mass is attended by all major officials and any who would give thanks. Pilgrims reach the church in a procession over a 330-metre pontoon bridge built for the festival. The service is deep with tradition and as moving today as I’m sure it was in the 16th century.

Aside from the serious business of thanking God for saving the city, there’s a whole lot of celebrating to be done for the Venetians! The festival is best known for two key events:

  • Fireworks: The waterway is lit up, and late evening a spectacular display erupts in the bay of St Marks, lighting up the skyline – and it goes on, and on, and on, for up to an hour! Giudecca Island and Riva degliSchiavoni near St Mark’sSquare offer the best views on land; but on the water you’ll see most Venetians gathering in boats from dusk, their boats decorated with flowers and balloons. The city is alive all night, and boats carrying revellersweave through the canals, before gathering at the Lido to see the sunrise.
  • Regattas: People line the canals to watch regattas on the Sunday. In contrast to the solemn religious procession, the regattas bring a joyful air to the city; you can’t fail but be swept up in the spirit of the event. Root for children rowing down the waterways, or admire the procession of quintessentially Venetian gondolas. But don’t for a moment think the regattas are mere frivolity; Venetians take the races very seriously indeed!

Here’s a preview of this year’s event:

If you’re interested in attending the event, the itinerary is as follows:

Saturday, July 19

  • 7:00p.m. Opening of the pontoon bridge connecting the Zattere to the Church of the Redentore on the island of Giudecca.
  • 11:30p.m. Fireworks in St. Mark’s Bay.

Sunday, July 20

  • 4:00p.m. Young people’s pupparini regatta, Giudecca channel.
  • 4:45p.m. Puppariniregatta, Giudecca channel.
  • 5:30p.m.Gondola regatta, Giudecca channel.
  • 7:00 p.m. Mass at the Church of the Redentore.

If you’re in Venice today, don’t miss the free concert at the Church of the Redentore at 8 p.m. by Ensemble MusicaVenezia. It’s to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the First World War, and will include music by Monteverdi, Vivaldi and Handel.

great_gatsby_snubbed_a_lDid you know that when author F. Scott Fitzgerald died in 1940 he believed himself a failure? That long years of alcoholism saw a heart attack claim his life at just 44? That since the publication of his book The Great Gatsby, which had received poor reviews and lack-lustre sales, he had thought his work unimportant, forgotten?

Fast-forward to 2014 and The Great Gatsbyis commonly heralded as one of the greatest works in American literature. It’s been adapted for the stage. It’s been adapted for the big screen. And the last adaption: what a show! It reminded me of a review of my debut novel, Burning Embers: ‘an epic like Hollywood used to make’ – only it’s both nostalgic and starkly current all at once.

I love BazLuhrmann’s work – most films pale against his in terms of depth and artistry. His films, for me, are sublimely romantic: Moulin Rouge and Romeo and Juliet especially. And now Gatsby.

I could write endlessly about what I love in this sensitive, thoughtful, inventive adaption of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel, but instead I will focus in on the two aspects of the film I most admired:

  • The depiction of the Jazz Age:The attitudes, the manners, the speech, the costumes, the music – oh the music! Fabulous. I was swept away into that era caught between the wars.
  • The incorporation of the book itself:I loved, loved this! How wonderful to show so much respect to the author of the book on which the film is based as to incorporate the very words he wrote. The narrator’s voice is so powerful, bringing to us the words from the page – and I was mesmerised by the inclusion of text and its typography. The book is there, throughout the film: not forgotten, not a shadow. The book is all.

Overall, I think the film stands as a beautiful, respectful, celebratory testament to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s once-forgotten work. It honours this writer, and in doing so makes right a wrong. As I watched the film, I found myself wondering what F. Scott Fitzgerald would think, could he see his story brought to life in this way. Perhaps he’d raise a glass to toast it. Or perhaps he wouldn’t have needed that glass after all.

Dear Margaret, We regret to inform you that your husband is missing in action…

Dear Mother, Finally, I can write the words: Born this morning, a beautiful baby girl…

Dear John, I’m sorry but I just can’t do this anymore…

Dear Grannie, Did I leave my spectacles at your house?

Dear Roger, Little Alice’s rabbit died, and she wants to know what rabbit heaven looks like…

Dear Annabelle, dear, dear, dear, Annabelle…

The letter. Bearer of news, recorder of moments, preserver of memories, safekeeper of emotion for thousands of years. Empires were built and destroyed on letters; relationships fostered and fractured; the greatest creative works inspired; the greatest inventions documented.

And yet, how often do you take pen to paper these days? How many sheaves of writing paper lie waiting in your drawer? Is your fountain pen flowing with fresh ink, or languishing long forgotten in the same dusty corner? Is your address book full of promise? Are postage stamps ever present in your purse? Is the path to the post box a well-trodden one?

‘No,’ many of us would admit. ‘But I do send a lot of emails…’

And therein lies the sad truth: the letter is part of ‘a vanishing world’. Enter Simon Garfield’swonderful book To the Letter.

From the blurb:

To the Letter tells the story of our remarkable journey through the mail. From Roman wood chips discovered near Hadrian’s Wall to the wonders and terrors of email, Simon Garfield explores how we have written to each other over the centuries and what our letters reveal about our lives.

Along the way he delves into the great correspondences of our time, from Cicero and Petrarch to Jane Austen and Ted Hughes (and John Keats, Virginia Woolf, Jack Kerouac, Anaïs Nin and Charles Schulz), and traces the very particular advice offered by bestselling letter-writing manuals. He uncovers a host of engaging stories, including the tricky history of the opening greeting, the ideal ingredients for invisible ink, and the sad saga of the dead letter office. As the book unfolds, so does the story of a moving wartime correspondence that shows how letters can change the course of life.

To the Letter is a wonderful celebration of letters in every form, and a passionate rallying cry to keep writing.

As the author explains on his website:

To the Letter is both a celebration and a lament, and hopefully an inspiration. But it also asks some proper questions, not least, ‘How will we be able to tell our history without letters?’ I make it clear in the book that I don’t think the answer lies with emails.

The history of letters and letter writing, with all its quirks, makes for fascinating reading, but for me the real magic of the book lies in its pulling together letters spanning two millennia of history. Two millennia! After so long, are we the generation who is killing the letter in our ever-expanding quest to be paper-free?

The author shared with the BBC his view on the future of letter writing:

What do you think? Is letter writing dying a death? Are emails a suitable substitute? Should we write – and keep – more letters? I would love to hear your thoughts.

When I’m writing a novel, I like to immerse myself so far as is possible in the culture and time in which the story is set. For my most recently published novel, The Echoes of Love, that meant enjoying Italian culture – watching films, reading books and listening to music – but also broadening out to popular culture of the era (the turn of the millennium) and to non-Italian works that are inspired by the Italian setting.

One of the films I most enjoyed re-watching after many years was the Merchant-Ivory adaptation of EM Forster’sA Room with a View. Have you seen the film? If, like me, you’re a romantic, and you like period dramas, then it’s beautiful – but it’s worth watching for the Italian setting alone.

The story, set in the Edwardian era, follows the developing love between two young people: Lucy Honeychurch (what a name!) and George Emerson. Lucy is limping along in a restrictive upper-class world still rife with Victorian ideals; George represents forward-thinking ideals and is deeply attractive for his free spirit. A kiss – such a kiss – ensues, but how can Lucy cast off the system of rigidity in which she dwells and accept George’s advances? It is more fitting, surely, to marry straight-laced, wealthy, respectable Cecil. Fitting, but was there ever a man more lacking in passion? Does passion matter? What is love, and does Lucy have the right to claim it? These questions, and more, lie at the heart of this evocative love story. I won’t spoil the ending, but suffice it to say that Lucy finds that room with a view that she needs – and don’t we all need one!

The film won widespread critical acclaim, and multiple awards, including Academy Awards, Golden Globes and BAFTAs.I think what I love most about the film is how it encapsulates the stirring beauty of the Italian landscape; how the romanticism of Italy can affect a foreigner to the land. This is a theme I explore in my own novel, The Echoes of Love, whose characters are also English and find love in Italy – in Tuscany, ultimately: location for Forster’s love story. Take a look at this clip and you’ll see how the setting – the breathtaking countryside; the moving Puccini aria – creates romance, demands romance.

As George says: ‘[t]here is something in the Italian landscape which inclines even the most stolid to romance’. And I would argue that there is something in this film, this particular adaptation of the Forster classic, that could incline even the most stolid to romance too.

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