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Van Riper    Frank Van Riper on Photography

Death (and Love) in Venice

By Frank Van Riper
Special to Camera Works

We started the day feeling lucky and the feeling stayed with us, but not before a few Venetian twists made things interesting.

For more than a week, during our month-long stay in Venice, Judy and I had tried vainly to find, much less photograph, a Venetian wedding. We'd already shot one funeral (on the ornately over-the-top cemetery island of San Michele) and wanted to complement our coverage of everyday life by shooting a bride and groom in the living opera set that is Venice. In spring this would have been no problem – almost any weekend, at any of the city's great churches, one could expect to see a white-gowned bride and her intended. But in winter, the time my wife and I have chosen to document for our book, all bets seemed to be off. By contrast, since death never takes a holiday, photographing a funeral was comparatively easy. Newspaper death notices routinely gave the time and place of funeral masses, and if that weren't enough, informal death notices featuring the face of the deceased and funeral details, were always plastered on walls around the city.

Funerals, one soon gathered, were not just prevalent; they were difficult to ignore.

If Venetians have a reputation as a people obsessed with death (a regular theme in novels and films) it may be because these very formal northern Italians seem to revel in death's trappings and traditions. Thus a funeral is nearly always a formal affair, with a solemn funeral mass, followed by the priest leading the flower-decked casket and trailing mourners in a somber procession from the church, through the courtyard, to the waiting funeral barge. There the casket is carefully loaded, the flowers forming a colorful accompaniment to the dark and shining motor launch. Mourners – the men in suits, the women nearly always in fur – would then board gleaming teak water taxis and the procession, led by the flower-decked barge, would slowly make its way to San Michele. (In the old days – and today only in the rarest circumstances – the funeral barge would be a special funeral gondola, with a gilt-decorated canopy for the casket and gold statues of angels and other figures on either end of the vessel.) For anyone looking for funeral pictures, the fact that everyone winds up sooner or later at Venice's one cimitero – San Michele – means that a stakeout there is a natural. And our pictures there one sunny morning bore this out.

But a bride, a bride – our kingdom for a bride.

Early on, Judy had what seemed like a great idea: ask florists when their next church wedding was. But the ones we spoke to didn't have any. (Lots of funerals and memorial flowers, though.)

Hearing of our frustration, one local person suggested we try to photograph a civil marriage ceremony, in the Sala Di Matrimoni in the Ca' Farsetti, facing the Grand Canal near the Rialto Bridge. The Ca' Farsetti is a municipal office building and we were told that its Sala did a land office business, even among wedding-minded foreigners, including the ever-present Japanese. With visions of American civil marriages in our heads – no frills, weekday office hours only – we trudged over to the Sala a couple of times during the week, but found the room's great wooden doors closed each time.

A third try, late on a Saturday morning, also proved fruitless. What was maddening was that everyone I spoke to in my halting Italian seemed to say that the Sala was the place for civil ceremonies. But every time we went it was a ghost town.

Frustrated and not wanting to waste yet another Saturday, we walked over to Piazza San Marco. On a hunch, I asked the information person at the Doge's Palace where he thought we might find a wedding.

"Try the Church of the Miracles," he said, and pointed out La Chiesa Santa Maria Dei Miracoli on our map. I later found out that this little jewel of a church is a favorite wedding site, but today, as Judy and I headed quickly from St. Mark's, we didn't realize that we also were headed in ever-so-slightly the wrong direction.

It's easy to get lost in Venice. Pierre L'Enfant did not map this place out. In fact one would be forgiven for thinking Venice was laid out by a maze-loving hamster. Normally, this is one of the city's greatest charms – every wrong turn reveals yet another feast for your eye. But today we had an agenda.

Turning a corner, we encountered what we thought was the Church of Miracles – though it was much larger than we had been led to believe. Hearing organ music from inside, I shouted to Judy, "This must be it!" as we hurried to what turned out to be the magnificent church of Santi Giovanni e Paolo – and another funeral.

"What the hell," we said (to ourselves, naturally) as we proceeded to shoot the procession, the mourners and the funeral barge. Two funerals are better than one when it comes to picture selection, but we still were bride-deprived.

Walking back toward the Rialto, I said to Judy, "Let's check out the Sala one more time, just for the hell of it."

In this case, it was the fourth time that was the charm.

The great wooden doors were open, leading to a beautiful, tastefully decorated room with sheer floor-to-ceiling curtains on windows overlooking the Grand Canal. A crowd of 75 filled the room's chairs and I assumed that these were a succession of couples waiting to be processed through the wedding mill like so many passport applicants.

But then we saw one couple standing in the front, before a wooden table. A photographer stood to their side. Then it hit me:

The crowd was there for this couple. And, not only had we finally lucked into a wedding; we had arrived just as it was to begin.

I motioned over the official photographer and whispered: "Sono fotografo Americano." No competition, I assured him.

"No problem," he answered with a smile.

With that Judy, our new colleague and I covered the ceremony like a blanket. The officiating magistrate wore a festive sash in the red, white and green Italian tricolor. The bride wore white.

After kisses, hugs, and a few tears everyone marched downstairs to see the newly married couple off in a water taxi.

As the bride and groom emerged into the grey Venetian afternoon, they were greeted by a hail of arborio rice.

Frank Van Riper is a Washington-based commercial and documentary photographer and author. His latest book is Down East Maine/A World Apart (Down East Books). He can be reached at fvanriper@aol.com.

venetian wedding
©Judith Goodman
Venetian civil wedding near Rialto Bridge.

funeral procession
©Frank Van Riper
Funeral procession begins on cemetary island of San Michele in Venice.

Frank Van Riper Archive:

Venetian Formula: Go Slow, Stay Sane

Preparing for Venice

Great Photography Books: A Dinner Table Debate

Cuba: Taking Strong Exception

A Whole Lotta Shakin' Can Improve Your Pix

Pat Fisher's Stamp of Approval

 Van Riper on Van Riper

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