Monthly Archives: November 2012

Filmed in Italy: Venice, Summertime and a Last Crusade

In the months leading up to our recent trip to Italy, which included Bologna, Verona, Milan and Lake Como, I couldn’t stop thinking of our upcoming visit to the jewel in Italy’s crown: Venice.

This was my first trip back to Venice since 1979.  I was seven and it was only a day trip, but the city made such an impression on me that even the smallest details of that summer day stayed with me throughout my life.  I had dreamed of going back ever since and I finally had the opportunity this past September.  My faithful sidekick and I took the morning train from Bologna, and the moment we stepped out of the stazione onto the Grand Canal I was struck by the timeless beauty of this city and knew this trip would be worth the wait.

Venice Grand Canal
Copyright Fabrizio Fante

We had a long list of things to see in Venice, including the Doge’s Palace, St. Mark’s and the islands of Murano and Burano, but our favorite moments involved getting lost in the twists and turns of the beautiful cacophony of Venice’s streets and stopping in the cafes for espressos and pastries, armed with my trusty Pentax K-1000 35mm camera.

We packed a lot into our three days there, but on this leg of our Italy trip I had two places on my own personal list to visit.  I’ve seen many films shot in Venice, including The Talented Mr. Ripley, Bread and TulipsEveryone Says I Love You and The Tourist (please don’t judge me).  But David Lean’s Summertime (starring Katharine Hepburn and Rossano Brazzi) and Steven Spielberg’s Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade are the first two films that come to mind when I think of Venice and for good reason.  Each movie makes full use of the city, bringing out its beauty, mystery and architecture to the point where Venice is a character in each film.  My cinematic mission on this trip was to find two specific movie locations: Rossano Brazzi’s little antique shop in Summertime and the library from Last Crusade.

David Lean’s Summertime was based on Arthur Laurents’ play The Time of the Cuckoo and starred Katharine Hepburn as Jane Hudson, a lonely American secretary from Ohio on her dream vacation to Venice.  Jane explores the streets and canals with her 16mm movie camera and no one to share the moment with except for ten year old local boy Mauro (played by Gaetano Auterio) until she is charmed and seduced by local antique dealer Renato de Rossi, played by the cooler than cool Rossano Brazzi.

Venice Grand Canal
Copyright Fabrizio Fante

Lean shot Summertime in glorious Technicolor on location in Venice in 1954.  There are many memorable shots in the film: Hepburn’s first glimpse of St. Mark’s Square and her first view of the Grand Canal as she walked out of the train station are two  that come to mind.  I always thought the line “Don’t change a thing” by the character Edith McIlhenny as she saw the canal for the first time was a bit hokey, but having seen this view myself (picture above) I can now empathize.  Every alley, bridge, and canal was used to the fullest on the screen, but the location I had to find on the island of Venice was Renato’s antique shop.

Renato’s shop was one of the central locations in the story and the location of the most memorable scene in the film: Jane’s mortifying, accidental plunge into the canal outside of Renato’s shop.  As much as that scene was written for a laugh, the audience can’t help but cringe for Joan as she steps out of the filthy water of the canal, completely soaked and with all eyes on her by the locals and tourists.  Her already fragile self esteem has taken a hit.  One of the stories around this scene was that Hepburn’s lifelong eye problem was caused by this plunge into the canal, but Kevin Brownlow’s David Lean: A Biography points out that the crew set up safeguards for Hepburn to have limited contact with the filth at the bottom of the canal, and that Hepburn had numerous swims in the Grand Canal during the nights they weren’t shooting.

It had been awhile since I’d seen Summertime and I couldn’t remember if there was a specific reference to the neighborhood where the antique shop was located.  We had one morning left in Venice and I wanted to avoid a needle in a haystack situation considering how easy it is to get lost in the side streets.  So we decided to forsake our search for the shop and instead visit Last Crusade’s library location at the church of San Barnaba di Venezia.

As a kid I loved Raiders of the Lost Ark, and after watching this film Indiana Jones quickly became one of my all time favorite film characters (up there coincidentally with Han Solo).  But there’s something about Last Crusade that gets me to watch it more frequently than Raiders.  Part of it is the Grail quest, an even bigger part of it is Harrison Ford’s incredible dynamic with Sean Connery, but the last piece of the puzzle is…you guessed it…Venice.

All of the exterior scenes shot on location in Venice were filmed in one day on August 8, 1988.  Spielberg and the crew had full use of the Grand Canal for six straight hours.  It’s amazing to think of how much they were able to accomplish in such a short amount of time.  The exterior of San Barnaba was featured in the scene in which Indy, Marcus, and Elsa discover the entrance to an underground passage leading to the tomb of one of the knights sworn to protect the secret of the Holy Grail.  It was one of many great sequences in the film, leading to a great chase scene on boat through the Grand Canal, but in that library scene only the exterior of San Barnaba was used.  The rest of the scene taking place in the interior of the library was shot on a soundstage.  Nevertheless, it was a location in one of my favorite films and I wanted a picture of it.

And so on our last morning in Venice as my faithful sidekick and I sipped our morning cappuccinos, we located the church of San Barnaba on our city map and set out to see it firsthand.  Funny enough, once I saw the white exterior I instantly recognized it as a church we had passed by at least twice before when we were lost.  So I found a nice angle for a picture and snapped a couple of shots with my Pentax.  But something to the side of the frame caught my eye in the viewfinder…

As I faced San Barnaba, I noticed a small bridge to the left.  Nothing too ornate, but what caught my eye about it was the steps leading to the church side of the small canal had descended in front of a small, inconspicuous shop.  It reminded me of something.

I remembered how in one scene in Summertime Katharine Hepburn had descended the steps of a small bridge as she walked to the door of Renato’s antique shop.  And outside of the shop, on the edge of a canal was a set of steps leading down into the water, or in the case of Joan coming up from her plunge in the canal, out of the water.  The proximity of the bridge, shop and steps got me wondering, so I walked in.

To the right: St. Barnaba from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade
To the left: The shop from David Lean’s Summertime
Copyright Fabrizio Fante

There were no antiques, it was a children’s shop, but on the counter was a picture of Katharine Hepburn and Rossano Brazzi in the shop window with the same exact view looking out toward the canal.  I asked the shop owner in my rusty Italian if this was indeed the shop in Summertime.  She smiled, said it was the shop from the film, and offered to take a picture of us in the window like Hepburn and Brazzi (I was Brazzi).

“Do many people ask you to take this picture?”  I asked.

She rolled her eyes with a smile and answered, “You have no idea how many times a day I take this picture for the visitors.”

And so my cinematic mission was complete.  Grazie Venezia!

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade can be found on DVD and Blu-Ray, and Kevin Brownlow’s David Lean: A Biography can be found in print and Kindle format on Amazon.  As an Amazon associate, I earn from qualifying purchases.  Thank you for your support!

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My Agony and Ecstasy of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel

Wednesday October 31st marked the 500th anniversary of Michelangelo’s masterpiece, the ceiling frescoes of the Sistine Chapel.  Pope Benedict XVI marked the occasion, but the commemoration was surprisingly low key considering its place in art history and its millions of visitors each year.

You can go back and forth as to whether the ceiling frescoes of the Sistine Chapel in Rome or the statue of David in Florence should be considered Michelangelo’s true masterpiece.  With so many incredible works over the course of his lifetime (the Pieta, The Last Judgement, Moses) it’s difficult to even narrow it down to those two.  The scope and vibrancy of the Sistine Chapel ceiling is unparalleled, almost making you forget Michelangelo’s imposing fresco The Last Judgement is in the same room.  David is perfection in stone.  Each work took several years to complete.  I’ve seen both in person and stood in awe of them, soaking in each detail and oblivious to the tourists around me as I stared into the eyes of the Delphic Sibyl in the frescoes and saw pure white Carrara marble come to life in David’s gaze.  But in my opinion the designation of Michelangelo’s true masterpiece falls on the Sistine Chapel for two reasons: first, when you say Michelangelo’s name most people will automatically think of the Sistine Chapel, and second because of the fact that Michelangelo was first and foremost a sculptor, which makes his painting of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel (even with assistants) even more of a marvel.

This post is a bit off of my beaten path of film and comic books, but I had to write it because my passion for art has its roots in my exposure to Michelangelo’s work at a young age.  Around 1979 my parents bought a coffee table book on his works which coincidentally was also around the time I first picked up a pencil to draw on a consistent basis.  That book, simply titled Michelangelo, is still part of my collection, and over the years I’ve picked it up many times when I needed a burst of inspiration before taking on a drawing or attempting at painting.  Years ago when I tried to teach myself oil painting my first subject was a copy of God and Adam’s hands from The Creation of Adam.  I failed miserably, and even though my final painting looks like more of a murky preliminary sketch, it goes to show the level of ambition I had at the time to learn the technique of oil painting.  To this day I regret not sticking with it.

Oil painting on canvas is difficult enough, but the fresco technique Michelangelo utilized on the Sistine Chapel ceiling combines skill, technique and science.  Each day’s work, the giornata, was dictated by how much he and his assistants could paint on a patch of wet plaster before it dried.  Unlike Leonardo’s The Last Supper, which was painted directly on a dry wall (the reason for the flaking that led to the painting’s deterioration over time), the paints used by Michelangelo (colored powders mixed with egg yolk, a technique called egg tempera) were applied directly on the wet plaster.  Once dry, the pigments were part of a permanent bond to the wall, not simply a layer of paint over it.

Back in January of 1992 my family had taken a trip to Italy, spending several days in Rome.  It was an amazing time, but it began my elusive thirteen year journey to see the restored Sistine Chapel ceiling.

The Sistine Chapel restoration was completed in 1991, and our January 1992 trip would have been my first opportunity to see the restored ceiling in all its newly vibrant glory.  I had seen pictures of the restored frescoes in a magazine article that previous fall and couldn’t believe how intense the colors were after over 475 years of dirt were removed.  Before the restoration was taken on, few people would have imagined the variation of color in Michelangelo’s palette.  Looking at pictures of the frescoes prior to the restoration I thought his palette was limited to darker browns, reds and yellows.  I never would have imagined the bright blues, oranges and purples.  Even the film The Agony and the Ecstasy represented the frescoes with more toned down colors.  Prior to its restoration the Sistine Chapel was a marvel of painting by one of the greatest artists mankind has ever produced, a man that didn’t even consider himself a painter, making it an incredible achievement in its own right.  But when the restoration was complete, it was even more awe inspiring.  Each of the subjects, from God to Adam to the prophets to the sibyls were alive.

On the first day of our 1992 trip we almost went to the Sistine Chapel.  The restoration of the frescoes had recently been completed and had been opened to the public, but for some inexplicable reason we decided against going that day even though our hotel was only two blocks down from Vatican (I couldn’t imagine a better reminder that we were in Rome each morning as we stepped out of that hotel!).  Our weekend included the Colosseum, Roman Forum, Pantheon and Castel Sant’ Angelo.  On our last day we decided to finally check out the Sistine Chapel only to find out the Vatican Museum in which it is located was closed that day.  I wasn’t too disappointed at the time because I figured I’d be back in Rome sooner or later and would eventually see it.  But each subsequent trip to Rome was met with another missed opportunity, disappointment, regret for that first missed opportunity, and the constant reminder of the sin I had committed: taking Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel for granted.

Visiting the chapel wasn’t in the cards for me during two subsequent trips over the next ten years, but prior to my 2005 trip I made it my mission to finally see the chapel.  I even brought a copy of Ross King’s Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling to read in advance of seeing it in person.  But on our first day in Rome we got to the Vatican museum only to find a mile long line to get in to the main entrance.  I actually videotaped that moment and provided a commentary about my frustration at being denied yet again to see what was at the top of my cultural/artistic bucket list.  There must have been 2,000 people on line at that moment, and all I could do was stare into my video camera and say “I’m never going to see the Sistine Chapel.”


On the second and final day of that trip, I mentioned to the owner of our small hotel my regret at missing out on seeing the Sistine Chapel again.  “Don’t worry,” she said.  “The line is very deceiving and actually moves quickly.  You can be at the end of the line as it snakes toward the edge of St. Peter’s and you’ll still make it inside of the main entrance within 20 minutes.”

Shortly after that conversation, we were on line to get into the Vatican Museum.  Whatever we had planned for that morning was quickly scrapped so I wouldn’t lose out on this opportunity.  Sure enough, twenty minutes after we first got on line, we were through the main doors of the Vatican Museum.  We could have got in quicker without standing on line if we had been part of a tour group, but it didn’t matter because I was finally in the museum and there was no going back!

I can’t remember how long it took us to make our way through the maze that is the Vatican Museum, but when we finally made it through the doorway into the Sistine Chapel my first thought was how it was smaller than I had expected.  But then I looked up at the ceiling and thought “My God this is magnificent.”  I just looked up from one end of the ceiling to the next.  Each panel.  Each story it told.  Each face.  The tourists that filled the room didn’t quite understand the concept of “no photos,” and were occasionally shushed by one of the guard’s stern clap of hands and “SILENCIO!”  I respected both of these rules, hence the lack of photos in this post.  I actually didn’t need to take photos or videos.  It was such a profound experience for me that the memory alone will always allow me to relive the moment.

And after thirteen years I was finally in the Sistine Chapel.  So I found an empty seat on a bench, sat down, and looked up.

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100 Years of Tarzan at Milan’s WOW Spazio Fumetto

On a recent trip to Italy my faithful sidekick and I made a stop in the city of Milan.  After a week in and out of cities with historical Renaissance charm such as Bologna, Venice and Verona, Milan was a change of pace with its metropolitan feel. Neither of us had ever been to Milan before, but we had our list of sights to see including the Duomo, the Galleria and especially Leonardo Da Vinci’s The Last Supper.

On our second day in Milan my faithful sidekick chimed:

“Did you know there’s a comic book museum in Milan?” she said.

Apparently the map we received at the tourist information booth at Milan’s central train station listed the museum as an attraction (Bless ’em!).  My faithful (non-comic book reading) sidekick was now more in the know than I was.

WOW Spazio Fumetto (translation: the WOW Comic Book Space…I have no idea what the WOW stands for) was located on the other side of town from our hotel, but the streetcar system could get us there within 25 minutes.  Needless to say, it was now on our “to do” list in Milan!

Walking through the gate of the museum’s property, you’re greeted by a giant statue that resembles Gertie the Dinosaur flanked by concrete barriers spray painted to caricature well known superheroes.  Off to the side is the Gotham Cafe which serves snacks, soda and coffee.  The museum opens at 3:00 daily, but when we arrived precisely at 3:05 on a sunny Tuesday the door was still locked.  Hmmm, maybe they’re running behind schedule.  Then I read the sign next to the door which translated to: “The museum will be closed today for repairs.”


So the next day I came back with my (extremely patient) sidekick and finally made it into the museum.  We were in luck because the main exhibit was a retrospective on 100 years of Tarzan in books, film and comics.

The first floor of the museum had a small exhibit on the art of illustrator Aldo Di Gennaro which was supposed to end July 29th, but was extended to September 23rd.  I wasn’t familiar with his work prior to my visit to the museum but several of the subjects in his paintings (Westerns, adventure, alien moonscapes and 1930s crime) instantly made me a fan.  They also made me wish for more non-superhero stories in the American comic book market.

The Tarzan exhibit took up the entire second floor of the museum.  I have to admit I wasn’t expecting much when I saw the size of the space, but as I made my way through the exhibit I realized I was wrong to judge.  The Spazio Fumetto did a great job representing Tarzan’s history from Edgar Rice Burroughs’ books through film, TV and comic books.  Movie posters and video clips from Tarzan films and TV shows set the tone for the exhibit, but the highlight for me was the original artwork.

Paolo Ongaro and George Wilson were two other artists I wasn’t familiar with prior to being introduced to their work at the Spazio Fumetto, but these pieces of Tarzan original art added them to my list of artists to research.

Walking through an exhibition like this makes me regret taking a great character like Tarzan for granted over the years.  I remember watching Johnny Weissmuller’s Tarzan movies, Saturday morning cartoons and reading the comic books in the 70’s but Tarzan had been off of my radar since the early 80’s after watching the film Greystoke (a childhood favorite of mine).  I have to correct this egregious oversight on my part, and I’ll start by reading Burroughs’ Tarzan of the Apes this weekend.  Watching Greystoke again is also on the agenda.  IDW recently published Joe Kubert’s Tarzan of the Apes: Artist’s Edition.  I’m now inspired to add this to my collection of Artist’s Editions that include Dave Stevens’ The Rocketeer, John Romita’s The Amazing Spider-Man and Walt Simonson’s Thor.

Grazie Spazio Fumetto for a wonderful experience, and happy 100th Tarzan!

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