Monday, March 11, 2013

Venice - the Pigeons, and more

Last night we came back from a ten day visit with our daughters, who live in two towns in Tennessee, near Nashville and in Memphis.  I had planned to write a post on Venice pigeons before our departure but this did not happen.  I'll write posts on our visit to Tennessee soon, to take a break from Venice.  I remember seeing many pigeons in my vintage postcards of Piazza San Marco in Venice. (Click on collage twice to see better.)
As many people do when thinking about Venice, in my mind's eye I see canals with gondolas and Piazza San Marco with tourists and pigeons.
Famous people when touring Venice act just like all the other tourists, as can be seen below.  On 18 August 1937 John F. Kennedy wrote in his European trip diary (which is on view in the Presidential Library in Boston) that he had visited the Basilica of San Marco for mass and then had pictures taken with pigeons.  He also wrote that there were more canals than he had thought.  Claude Monet and his wife Alice went to Venice for a month in October 1908.  Monet painted 37 different views of Venice.  Alice wrote in a letter to her daughter "There were pigeons all over us and I was wincing a bit with fright.  But the picture was taken the moment they flew away."
After arriving by train on October 1, 1908, Claude Monet (French 1840-1926) said "It is too beautiful to be painted! It is untranslatable!" Below are two of Claude Monet's paintings of Venice.
If you take a picture of Piazza San Marco you cannot have a photograph without pigeons unless it is during night time.  They are everywhere.  People fee them, even though it has been banned since 2008.
Children run and play with them.
There are colonies of pigeons throughout the city of Venice, but especially in Piazza San Marco (a group of pigeons flying together is called a "kit.")  The population of Venice is now about 60,000 people but the pigeon number is more than twice that - from 120,000 to 150,000.  The pigeons' acidic droppings corrode the beautiful historic buildings and monuments in the city.  Since the law of 2008 City Officials can fine tourists up to $700 for feeding pigeons (but I think they are not enforcing this law strongly.)  A pair of pigeons can produce 12 chicks per year, so the population is constantly growing.  Some people like the birds and others, such as American author John Berendt (who wrote Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, and The City of Fallen Angels, about Venice - which I have in my library but have not read yet) think they are pests.  John Berendt says "Pigeons are disgusting, they're like flying rats."
I believe that when there are too many of them, pigeons can be a nuisance, but I still like pigeons.  I have taken their pictures many times.  Looking in my photo files, I quickly found several that I snapped in various places.
The reason I like pigeons is, perhaps, because that is the only wildlife I could see near our 6th floor apartment in Paris where I grew up.  The pigeons would fly to the roof tops where I could look at them and hear their soft cooing sounds.  Below are some Parisian pigeons.
Both the wild feral pigeons and domestic pigeons bred as pet or for show are descendants of the Rock Pigeon.  These birds have existed for millions of years - longer than humans.  I was surprised to find out that there are hundred of thousands of breeds of fancy pigeons!  Many pigeons are bred in several countries where they can be sold up to quite high prices.  These pigeons are presented in exhibitions and the largest pigeon show is held in Nuremberg, Germany, with 33,500 pigeons.  Below are several breeds.
Some of these birds are quite beautiful.  They are bred for their extensive feathering or color markings or for their "trumpeting" voices.
One breed that did not survive unfortunately is the Passenger Pigeon.  They were hunted to extinction.  The watercolor below is of Passenger Pigeons, Ectopistes migratorius, juvenile (left,) male (center,) female (right.)  (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.)
We live close to Kennesaw National Battlefield Park, a Civil War park.  One of the hills there is called "Pigeon Hill."  I researched it and found out that thousands of Passenger Pigeons once inhabited this hill.  Now Pigeon Hill is known for a fierce battle.  On June 27, 1864, Union soldiers and the Confederate Army fought there.  Just that day, the Union Army suffered 3,000 casualties out of their 130,000 troops and the Confederate casualties came up to 1,000 men out of their 65,000 troops.  When one walks up to Pigeon Hill there is no memory remaining of the birds or the troops, just the big rocks. The rocks are grey and look like large pigeons.
The Passenger Pigeon story is very sad.  These birds used to fly over the US in large kits.  I read that in 1832 a kit of 2.25 billion Passenger Pigeons had flown over one area in an afternoon.  There were so many of them that the American public thought they could hunt them, sell them and eat them without reserve.  By 1880 the Passenger pigeon population was beyond recovery point and they became extinct.  You can read "Extinction of the American Passenger Pigeon - The True Story" here.
Passenger Pigeons by Allan Brooks, Canadian 1869-1945

Feral pigeons have also been used during wartime. In the first and second World Wars, messenger pigeons saved hundreds of lives by carrying intelligence bulletins over enemy lines.  They carried vital information and some were decorated just like valiant soldiers.  A pigeon named "Cher Ami" received the Croix de Guerre.  Below is a picture from the National Archives showing Men of the 21st Signal Loft releasing pigeons in March 1943.
In Venice I took pictures of pigeons, of course.  If not pigeons, then I would have had to take pictures of tourists, since there are even more of them...
People have always liked to feed pigeons as can be seen in the two vintage postcards below - one in St. Petersburg, Florida, and the other in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
In Venice, in the olden days, postcards showing pigeons were sold
and local artists used them in their paintings, such as Antonio Ermolao Paoletti (1834-1912.)  As shown in the collage below he often used the same background and changed the models.
More recently Berlin-based Swiss artist Julian Charriere and German artist Julius von Bismark captured, airbrushed and released painted pigeons in St. Mark's Square for their project during the Venice Architecture Biennale.  Charriere told the Italian newspaper Corriere della Serra "Pigeons make up part of our urban landscape, but we view them as though they are an unrecognizable mass, whereas each one has its own identity."  Below are some of their special pigeons.  (I do not like the idea of painted pigeons - it's not good for the birds and they stand out for predators.)
"Pigeon Safari" by Julian Charriere and Julius von Bismark (Courtesy the artists.)

I thought that writing a post about Venice pigeons would be short and take just a page or less... was I wrong.  As usual I had to find our more about pigeons in general, and there is so much to learn about them.  Pigeons have been part of the San Marco picture for so long that it is hard to ignore them.
Piazza San Marco painted by Romolo Tessari, Italian 1868-1925

I'll finish with this sweet series of circa 1905 postcards of Venice pigeons - the last postcard shows kissing pigeons saying "ciao."


OldLady Of The Hills said...

What a marvelous post, my dear...Pigeons are utterly fascinating and like you, I like them very much. I know they get a bad rap---Unfair, I believe---And you have shown us so very many really BEAUTIFUL Pigeons---I THANK YOU! I've not been to Venice, but I don't believe I've ever seen a picture of Venice, painted or photographed, of San Marco without pigeons being a part of it.
I found the Civil War Battle story very interesting because it happened on my Birthday--I had not been familiar with that Battle, though I had heard of Pigeon Hill....
As always, I learn so many new things from you, my dear....BRAVA on your Homage to Pigeons!

Elephant's Child said...

Another beautiful, informative post. Thank you so much.
I love the Monet paintings of Venice, and cannot think how I have missed them previously.
And I have a soft spot for pigeons myself. They often have lovely irridescence to their feathers, and I love their soft voices.

DJan said...

I always learn so much when I read your posts, VB. I had no idea that pigeons have been around for so long. They congregate on the streets of my own town, too. Are they everywhere? They are much prettier in Venice than in Bellingham! :-)

Frances said...

Vagabonde, I confess that I am not much of a pigeon fan, but how I do love seeing more views of Venice. And so, I thank you so much for these posts with all the beautiful sunlit Venetian scenes. No wonder the Impressionist painters loved Venice!


Nadezda said...

Wonderful story about Venice, pigeons and art. I love Claude Monet, there are his paintings in Hermitage, but I've not seen these two of Venice, they are pretty, especially the Doge Palace's reflection in water. For me the Royal pigeon is the nicest! As always you've telling a lot of interesting facts and shown some old prints. Thank you!

David said...

Vagabonde, Very interesting blog! I like the way that you expand your stories or themes... You must have a great postcard collection or a great on-line source for the images. I love old postcards and use them in a blog myself from time to time. Take Care, Big Daddy Dave

Kay L. Davies said...

I really enjoyed this post, and have always been sorry I never saw a Passenger Pigeon.
We're just a week back from a trip to Italy which, of course, included Piazza San Marco and photos of both of us with pigeons.
Well-researched, interesting and informative post!

Jeanie said...

Once again as you often do, you take me to a place I don't know and then not only fill me in on the spot, but on something more specific -- in this case, the pigeons! I loved every illustration here. Your combining the vintage cards with the contemporary photos works so well, I am always very impressed! Bravo!

rhymeswithplague said...

What a wonderful post, Vagabonde, and truly fascinating! Thank you for all you do.

Roger Gauthier said...

Well, at least those pigeons allowed you to write a very interesting and well-documented post. Very good one.

We must not forget that those pigeons are a major health problem and a major threat to monuments and statues in every italian city.

A very good post, thank you.

Fennie said...

A friend of mine keeps doves but the doves attract pigeons. Every couple of weeks or so she writes a blog in which she tells the tale of these birds, their arrivals and departures, their broods, their illnesses and their recovery from attack by hawks. There never seems to be a dull moment. You'll find the blog if you google 'Faith's Doves.'

The passenger pigeon story is indeed a sad one and illustrates well the fragility of nature.

Elaine said...

I've enjoyed your posts on Venice! You've had so many lovely photos. This one on the pigeons is very interesting. I really like all your vintage postcards portraying them, especially that last set.

The French Hutch said...

Oh my goodness, what an interesting post! I've been reading and scrolling between your photos, stunning photos and postcards. I've been to a lot of European cities with large pigeon populations. I've seen them in Venice too, beautiful Piazza San Marco. Hope you had nice weather while you were in TN visiting your daughters. I'm delighted to meet you. I am going to tour your fabulous blog........

The French Hutch

She Who Carries Camera said...

I never really gave much thought to pigeons, other than, I like them. Thanks for the history lesson and great images!

Reader Wil said...

Merci Vagabonde de votre post de Venice. J' aime tous les illustrations de Venice. Surtout les peintures de Claude Monet. Elles sont formidables!

claude said...

Bonjour Vagabonde.
Venise et ses pigeons. On pourrait penser que c'est à cause des touristes qui leur donnent à manger.
Be magnifiques illustrations et la peinture de Romolo Tassari est super belle.
Ici, les pigeons commencent à envahir la ville. Les toits en sont plein.
Bon week-end et bises.

Kay said...

This is such a fun post, but since we're having a pigeon problem here in Hawaii, it sends a chill up my spine too. LOL They are such beautiful birds, but can be a pain too.

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