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24 hours in Venice

A quick trip to Venice, home of my final year university project (a members’ club hovering over a square on the Grand Canal intended to encourage Venetians to come together and save their city; it was a time when I thought members’ clubs were the be-all – times change; I am always surprised when I step into the square to find the building, once so real in my mind, not there). A city of memory, with some of them my own.

A quick dash to two seminal Carlo Scarpa (1906-1978) works – the Olivetti showroom on St Mark’s Square (1958) and the Fondazione Querini Stampalia (1963) a little behind. I admire Scarpa’s work but ultimately find it too self-referential, the references going round in circles like water in one of his fountains.

Courtesy of my well-connected travelling companion Maria we stayed in style and were lent the Gritti’s Riva launch to cross to the Giardini (a perk my non-existant members’ club would no doubt have granted) and the architectural Biennale, in truth and despite numerous Venetian trips, my first visit.

I loved the Brazilian show – titled Modernity as Tradition, it records Modernism’s approaching century-old history in that country. The rest I can’t say touched me greatly, but I was pleased to see Sverre Fehn’s Nordic/African pavilion (1962), built around existing trees, the front one sadly gone (surely someone in Scandinavia could provide a replacement).

But the real purpose of the trip was to find the workshop of Saverio Pastor, sole maker of gondola oarlocks, or forcole. I’ve been transfixed by these since I saw an Edwin Smith photo in the RIBA archive of the gnarled sculptural form. Hewn in his workshop from a single block of walnut, the form is as if a carved record of the forces of the oar in action.

Originals were out of stock, and it has to be said not cheap (only ten are made a year), and scale copies for tourists lacked their presence, but lurking in a bin there was a beaten up, patched forcola made by Signor Pastor 35 years ago, and as evidenced by the string hole just below the top to give extra bracing, used for racing, which I managed to chaperone home through sceptical airport security. Who was PS?

As we left the heavens opened. In Rome if it rains run to the Pantheon to see the shaft of rainfall through the open oculus. You will immediately forget how soaked you are. In Venice climb St Mark’s or San Giorgio Maggiore’s tower and see Venice through a veil of water. Venice in the rain is like a snow scene turned upside down; it’s not clear if the rain is falling down from the sky or up from the canals.