Contrary to my previous pronouncements about the availability of prog in Venice, I can now reveal that there is a record store in the city, Living in the Past, Fondamenta Foscarini, Dorsoduro 3474, and it’s pretty good, though it was badly affected by the flooding in November 2019 when the city experienced the highest water level for 53 years.
Piazza San Marco from the campanile di San Giorgio Maggiore
Venice was where I first made a conscious effort to collect Italian prog, in 2005, when there were two shops to choose from. My diary from that particular trip reveals that sometime after lunch on Wednesday 13th July, the second day of the holiday (my wife’s first time in Venice), we began winding our way back towards San Marco via the side streets of Dorsoduro, a slow but purposeful journey in the afternoon heat. Anyone familiar with the city will appreciate how you find yourself doubling back on your tracks as you seek a bridge over a canal so that what looks like a straightforward journey on a map devoid of detail is in fact fiendishly complex. I maintain that undertaking adventures through Venice’s maze-like alleys provides the best way to explore the unique city, where you come across well-known tourist spots and less recognised gems by accident. That particular trek resulted in the discovery of what looked like prog heaven, despite being called Discoland, a music shop with all manner of progressive rock CDs in the window, including the entire 2005 re-mastered catalogue of Van der Graaf Generator; Egg; King Crimson; Gentle Giant; Steve Hackett and more... but it was closed for lunch! A quick check of the business hours revealed that the store was due to reopen in 15 minutes so I popped into the interactive Leonardo da Vinci exhibition in the Chiesa di San Barnaba to kill some time. Back at the shop, I asked the owner if he had any Italian prog, but he said no. Rooting around did reveal that he had a couple of CDs by The Trip so I picked out Caronte, reissued in a cardboard sleeve, the first Egg album, and The Least we can do is Wave to Each Other, H to He, Pawn Hearts and Godbluff from the VdGG selection.
Caronte by The Trip - ProgBlog's first progressivo italiano CD bought in Venice
Though considered a classic progressivo italiano record, I’m not actually such a great fan of Caronte (1971), a concept album based on the ferryman character Charon from Dante’s Divine Comedy who initially objects to taking Aeneas, a living man, on his boat; Charon is re-interpreted by The Trip as a metaphor for conformity. It’s steeped with the psyche/blues characteristics of proto-prog, so it comes across as more Iron Butterfly than The Nice. The Trip were actually founded in London in 1966 and included Ritchie Blackmore on guitar but the future Deep Purple guitarist had departed before the arrival of Joe Vescovi, whose keyboard style, influenced by Keith Emerson, is the best feature of the band. The other Venice music shop was Parole & Musica in the Castello Sestiere where I bought an early PFM live compilation The Beginning 1971-1972 Italian Tour. A day trip to Treviso on that 2005 trip also involved finding a record shop where I bought Concerto Grosso n.1 and 2 by New Trolls, the very disappointing Donna Plautilla by Banco, and an album I’d really wanted to buy in Venice itself, Contrappunti by Venetians Le Orme. Originally a beat group, they underwent some personnel changes and then released what many regard to be the first progressivo italiano album, Collage, in 1971. I managed to get to see the current incarnation in April 2018 at a gig in Brescia, where ex-King Crimson violinist David Cross appeared as a guest musician. The album that I most associate with Venice is actually Le Orme’s Florian, released in 1979, named after Caffè Florian, dating from 1720 and alleged to be the oldest establishment of its kind in Europe, located under the Procuratie Nuove in piazza San Marco. A two-year hiatus following 1977’s Storia o Leggenda allowed the group to prepare for what seemed like a radical departure from progressive rock, where the electronic instrumentation was replaced with acoustic and early instruments. The result is still recognisable as Orme (they dropped the definite article from their name for the release) even though it should more correctly be referred to as chamber music or chamber prog; the original idea is said to have come from keyboard player Tony Pagliuca who realised that audiences were turning away from prog but didn’t want to subscribe to the mediocrity of commercial pop. The pieces on the album are effectively a protest against destructive economic forces within the music industry and those in the wider world choking other aspects of Italian culture. It’s therefore a little ironic that the lack of a record shop on the island(s) meant I had to look elsewhere for a copy, eventually finding the CD in Vicenza’s Saxophone on a day trip out from Venice in 2014; supplemented with a copy on second-hand vinyl bought from a street stall in Cremona on Record Store Day 2018.
Florian by Orme
Fully aware of the cost of a drink in Caffè Florian, I did visit for an espresso on my last trip. The establishment had been closed by severe flooding and Covid so it seemed reasonable to attempt to ensure the survival of an important institution however much I dislike the over-fussy C18 décor; like a trip in a gondola, it’s something you have to do at least once. I’m far more of a fan of Torrefazione Cannaregio which we discovered on the 2005 trip, originally a tiny store with far more space for hessian bags of coffee beans than customers before it relocated to larger but equally busy premises at Fondamenta dei ormesini, Cannaregio 2804 (https://www.torrefazionecannaregio.it/), a short hop from the ghetto. I don’t drink the Remer house blend but stick to the darkest roast they use, El Forte, which used to come with the warning “are you sure? It’s very strong!” I’ve even imported El Forte beans from the store between visits and despite Covid-affected opening hours it remains an essential part of the ProgBlog Venetian itinerary. My second choice for a breakfast coffee and brioche would be the VyTA station bar, which opened following a twenty-teens renovation of the retail space between the concourse and the tracks in Santa Lucia, but remember to stand at the bar to drink your espresso, macchiato or cappuccino while you complain about the weather before you catch your train to Padova, Verona, Vicenza or Treviso.
Even though the local cuisine is associated with seafood dishes, it’s not at all difficult to find something to eat when you’re a vegetarian (I’ve been meat-free for almost a year) but there are some good places for vegans too, for when we travel with our son. La Tecia Vegana (Calle dei Secchi, 2104, Dorsoduro) is a cosy vegan-speciality restaurant; Sullaluna Libreria & Bistrot (Fondamenta de la Misericordia, 2535, Cannaregio) has vegan options on the menu; Frary’s (Fondamenta Frari, 2558, San Polo) is a Mediterranean-Middle Eastern restaurant with good vegan choices; and we’ve been known to indulge in a poke bowl when we don’t fancy sitting in a restaurant.
The first espresso of the day, Torrefazione Cannaregio
My very first visit to the city was a couple of days during the summer of 1980 on a month-long Interrail trip staying in the youth hostel on Giudecca, which left a deep and lasting impression. Also during that stay I saw posters advertising a PFM concert in Mestre, the industrialised city linked to Venice by the rail and road causeway across the lagoon, but I didn’t have the wherewithal to organise getting to see them. On 15th July 1989 Pink Floyd famously played on a barge floating in the Grand Canal, nearing the end of the Momentary Lapse of Reason tour. This was broadcast live on Italian TV where precise timing restrictions meant that some songs had to be curtailed before their natural ending. I recorded this performance when it was shown on UK TV but that disappeared in a clear out of VHS tapes years ago – it’s now available as an unofficial DVD release Pink Floyd – Pazzia & Passione - Live In Venice '89 from Room 101 Entertainment. The closest I ever got to live prog in Venice was seeing the construction of a stage for Peter Gabriel playing an open air concert in piazza San Marco in 2007; we were staying just off the square in the Albergo San Marco but our flight back to the UK was a matter of hours before the performance – apparently Signal to Noise and Washing of the Water were played at the sound check in the early afternoon, where Gabriel acknowledged the fans who had begun to gather around the square after realising that he was present on stage. If that had happened in the last couple of years I’d have found accommodation for an extra night and bought a flight for the following day.
Flyer for Peter Gabriel's Venice concert, 6th July 2007
Despite the presence of Living in the Past and the historic connection of Le Orme and Opus Avantra to the city, Venice doesn’t really appear to have much of a connection with the modern prog scene apart from being somewhere bands like to perform – King Crimson finishing their mainland continental European tour with two dates at the end of July 2018 at Teatro La Fenice, for example. The ubiquitous newsstands of Italian cities, normally packed full of journals and periodicals, handy for picking up copies of Prog Italia and maybe one of the DeAgostini classic rock progressivo 180g vinyl reissues, are filled with tourist tat in Venice. One year my wife found a copy of Prog Italia on Lido and although I always scour the newsstands and the larger Tabacchi, there’s never been a sign of any prog-related publication on the main Sestiere. Yet however far removed from the current Italian prog scene, the city is still able to turn up references to the genre in some of the oddest places. Hats Off Gentlemen it’s Adequate released their fourth album Out of Mind in October 2018, a CD that includes a track called De Humani Corporis Fabrica, named after Andreas Vesalius' 1543 treatise on human anatomy which challenged the prevailing doctrine proposed by the Greek physician Galen in the second century AD. I’m a particular fan of the song because it features some of Kathryn Thomas’ gorgeous flute and also includes a passage in 13/4 time, so when I was at the Venice Architecture Biennale the following month and came across the Mario Botta Architects’ installation in the Corderie at Arsenale, a tactile, circular, timber structure where the work of students was presented as tabernacle-like architectural research, I was amazed to find a section labelled De Humani Corporis Fabrica!
Mario Botta Architects' De Humani Corporis Fabrica, Architecture Biennale 2018
Along with the basic YH facilities on Giudecca, I’ve stayed at a couple of different hotels close to the piazza San Marco where you tend to pay premium prices for simply adequate accommodation. The last two trips have involved staying at an NH hotel in Dorsoduro abutting neighbouring Santa Croce, an area largely tourist-free but filled with students; there are two universities in the area, Università Ca’ Foscari and IUAV, the architecture school, which contributes to a really good vibe. There’s a relative paucity of Venetian gothic and a noticeable presence of more modern architecture, which may explain the lack of visitor interest despite its proximity to the cruise ship terminal, Santa Lucia station and the bus terminus, one of only two places where cars are allowed (the other being Lido) but there are still dozens of friendly restaurants and bars where an Aperol spritz is half the price you pay in London. The Venice trips aren’t about prog, though if I should come across a record store on one of the day trips out to another city in the Veneto, like Saxophone in Vicenza or Gabbia Dischi and Il 23 Dischi in Padova, I’ll take a look inside; Venice is more about experiencing a unique city through its art and architecture. Just by chance on one visit we came across posters for a Gio Ponti exhibition at the Wilmotte Foundation (Corte Nuova, Fondamenta dell' Abbazia, 3560, Cannaregio) with photos of Ponti’s churches taken by Luca Massari, but there are all manner of galleries from the Gallerie dell' Accademia with its unsurpassed collection of pre-C19 Venetian paintings and the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in the art collector and socialite’s former home to exhibitions in former palaces, such as the Pinault Collection of contemporary artwork in the Palazzo Grassi. Four of our visits have coincided with a Biennale season, centred around Giardini with its 30 permanent national pavilions and Arsenale where the former rope-making works provide stunning exhibition spaces. The uniqueness of Venice has as much to do with the origins of the city-state built out in the lagoon by refugees fleeing from Germanic and Hun invaders as that conferred by the distinct architectural style developed in the C14. Venice also happens to have been the birthplace of the renowned modernist architect Carlo Scarpa whose interventions blend in seamlessly with the city’s historic fabric. How many visitors simply walk past the Scarpa-designed Olivetti showroom in piazza San Marco or seek out the Fondazione Querini Stampalia where Scarpa, a master of detail, created the entrance and garden and who, apart from those who have a serious interest in architecture, has seen Scarpa’s iconic entrance to the School of Architecture?
Carlo Scarpa's entrance to IUAV
Like all cities Venice continues to change. Living in the Past was previously a second hand bookstore but was revamped in 2017 as a shop selling books and second-hand vinyl. There’s a decent selection of Italian prog along with a good selection of international prog and classic rock. Handily, it’s really close to our preferred Dorsoduro hotel and though I hadn’t planned on buying any records on my two most recent trips, I still took a cotton LP bag along for any serendipitous purchases. 2018 saw me add a couple of records to my collection: Par les Fils de Mandrin by Ange and David Gilmour’s About Face, an album I’ve never physically owned in any format but once had a tape recorded from a friend’s LP. The shop is certainly a welcome addition to the Venetian landscape, a retail gem amongst some of the most stunning architecture in the world, somewhere you can shop like a local.
Living In The Past book and record store
I’ve not addressed the major problems facing the city such as the decline of the Venetian population and the city’s dependence on tourism. Banning giant cruise ships from using the Giudecca Canal was a sensible, if belated move and while the threat of disastrous acqua alta may have been reduced by the introduction of MOSE, the ecological effect on the lagoon is not fully understood. If you’ve visited Venice you’ll already know what an incredible city it is; if you’ve not been, go, but consider the precarious nature of its future. Walk whenever possible; you obviously have to use vaporetti to island hop and I’d recommend you take Line 1 or Line 2 along the Grand Canal and Line 4 to circumnavigate the main islands to get classic views of the canal side palazzo, and don’t forget to ascend the bell tower in San Marco for views over the city rooftops and the campanile di San Giorgio Maggiore for uninterrupted views of the Doge’s Palace and the San Marco waterfront. There really is no other place like it on earth.
A glimpse of Basilica San Marco from Calle del Pellegrin
This blog expands upon a now-lost article originally posted on 19th November 2018 under the working title ‘Venice does have a record store’ shortly after a visit to the city. The latest trip was in March 2022 when European Covid travel restrictions were in the process of being fully lifted