We wandered up to the Rialto market this morning, a first-class walk if you start early. The nearly empty streets and the general air of starting over fresh is always a great thing.
As often happens, we saw some people and some things that brought forth a small spate of reminiscences, inspired first by the extremely ancient man seated in our favorite cafe, alone, silently munching a small sandwich. Whenever I see old people (especially men) alone, it makes me sad, and if they’re eating, I feel even sadder.
But Lino soon straightened me out.
“He was a gondolier,” Lino started, as soon as we were out the door. “Irritating! (Fastidioso!).” In pronouncing certain words, the tone of voice adds the necessary intensity. In this case, the word came out at an octave above middle C and apart from the note and the delivery of this significant word was the way he drew it out ever so slightly. This gives the idea that the irritatingness was a long-term, probably inborn trait, not traceable to any specific event.
“He was always arguing, always quarreling,” Lino went on. “There was a protest organized by some gondoliers year ago in City Hall, and things got a little heated, and he pulled down a chandelier. That got him some jail time.”
But for him, the jail wasn’t “the cooler.” When he got out, he went right back to infuriating everybody. One day he took it upon himself to protest something else — Lino doesn’t remember what — and he affixed an outboard motor to his gondola. That got him another stint inside.
Please don’t ask me what laws he had broken. I can imagine that “destroying government property” would apply to the first case, but have no idea about the second. Disturbing the past?
“One day I was at home, and I suddenly heard a noise” (sort of a booming thud, it seemed to be). “I went downstairs to look around, and there was his gondola with a huge hole in the hull, slowly sinking.
“Somebody had taken a big crowbar and smashed through the bottom of the gondola.” There are crowbars which can weigh 15 pounds. I’m thinking one of those would have done the job.
“Also, the person didn’t drive the crowbar into the center of the space between two ribs. He rammed it through the hull right next to one of the ribs, which is the weakest point.”
Who would have had means, motive and opportunity? Well, lots of people, I suppose, but one sort of person was qualified to know exactly where to strike, like a particularly adroit matador, and that would be another gondolier.
So our man got his gondola repaired and went on with his life, which entailed carrying tourists around in his gondola and annoying everybody.
“His son also became a gondolier,” Lino concluded. “He was a good kid, much calmer. Nothing like his father.”
And so the man retired, and now can be seen sitting at our cafe, at least once in a while, eating his snack all by himself. Perhaps reminiscing, as old men do, but his reminiscences must be like constantly rising vapor, the sort you see coming from fumaroles on a temporarily dormant volcano.
We headed back home, and were strolling along the Calle de le Acque. We paused in front of an imposing building which now houses a branch of the post office (make note, if you ever need one between the Rialto and the Piazza San Marco).
“That’s where the bomb blew up,” Lino said. Excuse me?
“It was back in the Seventies; the headquarters of the Gazzettino were in this building,” he said. “It was printed here, too — the building’s right next to the canal, where the boats could load up the newspapers.”
The late Sixties to early Eighties, a period now known as the “Anni di Piombo” (Years of Lead, as in bullets), saw many terrorist attacks by domestic extremist groups, and I won’t begin a list here; I only mention it to clarify that this bomb was not an isolated incident.
“One morning (Feb. 21, 1978 — 37 years ago today!) there was a big explosion here, and a security guard was killed.”
His name was Franco Battagliarin, he was 49 years old and came from Cavallino Treporti on the edge of the lagoon. He was passing early that morning, and noticed an object placed in front of the main door. It was later found to have been a pressure cooker, which in those years was a favorite container for homemade bombs because it gave a sort of turbo-charge to the detonation.
Battagliarin went closer, decided to pick it up to move it, and was killed instantly by the blast.
The extreme right-wing group that called itself “Ordine Nuovo” (New Order) telephoned the Padova office of the newspaper a few hours later, claiming to have placed the bomb as “revenge for dead comrades.” The paper had offended by publishing articles critical of the right wing. Battagliarin was just an unforeseen by-victim.
Venice declared a day of mourning and flew the gonfalone of San Marco at half-staff for several days; his name is remembered each year on “Memory Day,” which is dedicated to all the victims of terrorism.
Back to Lino, who was at work that day at the airport, as usual.
“That day, the union steward came to us, furious, saying we would strike for a day to protest this attack directed at a ‘democratic newspaper.’
“And I was asking myself, ‘But wait — up until yesterday, you were always telling us that the Gazzettino was the newspaper of the bosses'” — in simpler words, the oppressor class. “And today suddenly it’s a democratic paper?
“Anyway, at the meeting I said, ‘Instead of going on strike, we should all give our pay for one day to the family.'”
Sound good? Only to him. A chorus of “Are you insane?” followed. So they went on strike one day, and he just kept on working. Later a long line of co-workers came slinking up to him, each of them muttering “I’d have kept working too, but I didn’t have the courage,” to which Lino replied, “Numbskull.”
I think that’s enough stories for today. I need to rest.
Here is a picture of the world yesterday, when frolic and carousal were the purpose of life:
Lino was telling me about Carnival when he was a lad — or rather, not-Carnival.
“Who celebrated Carnival?” he asked in his characteristically rhetorical way. “It was right after the war and nobody had anything to eat. Everybody was just trying to survive.”
There’s another reason why there was no costumed jollification before Lent. “The government forbade you to wear a mask,” he said. Why? “For fear of reprisals. There was a lot of settling of scores from the war.” He means civilian scores, struggles between Fascists and Socialists on the home front.
“I had two uncles — I can’t remember their names right now,” he went on. “They were really vocal Socialists, and every time the Duce came to Venice, they were put in prison.” Ostensibly for their own protection, but more probably to keep whatever peace could be kept while company was visiting.
But prison didn’t have to be involved in these domestic conflicts. Mussolini’s squads of paramilitary “Blackshirts” (officially known as the Voluntary Militia for National Security) were notorious for taking political dissidents and forcing them to drink large quantities of castor oil. That experience would certainly leave a memory that would call for redress.
“And the Ponte brothers,” he went on. “You remember Bruno Ponte, he worked at the airport with me. My older brother, who was a Socialist, told me that when the brothers went home at night, they walked backwards to their front door, holding machine guns, so nobody would shoot them in the back.”
Carnival? You mean, let’s all dress up like Mozart and walk around the Piazza San Marco so people can take our picture? I’d say people weren’t really in the mood.
Now we have to say a word about today, Ash Wednesday. You might be aware that it is a day of abstinence and penitence, which used to involve a number of practices, most of which no longer survive.
The major custom (apart from going to Mass and having ashes sprinkled on your head) was to abstain from eating meat today. Only fish. Or maybe nothing, if anybody were to feel extremely penitent.
Therefore it has long been the custom for the butcher shops to be closed on Ash Wednesday. A cynical person might interpret that as “They might as well, if they’re not going to have any business.” But in any case, the tradition is still observed in our little lobe of Venice and, I’m guessing/hoping, elsewhere.
Butcher shops, though, are in a steep decline, so this valuable reminder of at least one day a year when they’re not standing there ready to provide T-bone steak is probably going to disappear eventually. After all, the supermarkets are all open and are merrily selling meat of every sort, including tripe.
I see I started with food and I’m ending with food. Maybe this abstinence thing is beginning to affect my brain. I mean, stomach.
I had no intention of going to the Piazza San Marco during Carnival, much less on Martedi’ Grasso, otherwise known (not here) as Mardi Gras, the last day of the fracas.
But the sun was shining, the wind was blowing, and we figured, why not? So we went.
It was less chaotic than I had imagined, which was nice. In fact, it verged on the placid.
And best of all, MY “Maria” won the pageant, and was crowned the Maria of 2015. I was as shocked to discover my wish being fulfilled as I was the one night in my life that my bag was first onto the carousel at baggage claim at I can’t remember what airport. And just as happy, too.
Here are some glances at the closing hours of revelry, not including the fireworks which we heard later on. It seemed as if they were exploding from various points in the city and gave a satisfying concluding note to it all.
While I’m working on a post with slightly more substance, I thought I’d send out a few recent diverting glimpses: