Hard times for humor

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1x1.trans Hard times for humor

Just something that struck me as innocently goofy the other day.  No big message attached.

I’ve been having a little trouble lately finding diverting things to write about, which accounts, in part, for the work slowdown in my posting.

The fact is, so many things are going wrong around the most beautiful city in the world that humor is hard to find — even that bitter, crackly humor that used to be easier to pick up than manna in the morning.

The vaporettos have reached Third-World levels of crowding, especially the #2 from Tronchetto.  The human body is 60 percent water, but these bodies are packed onto these vehicles with a force which evidently removes all liquids (in the form of sweat, or tears — I stop there) and leaves only the hide and gristle of thousands of tourists per day compressed in really harsh ways.

That might not matter except that the vaporettos of various lines have acquired the habit recently of breaking down in mid-run.  Motors that stop, or rudders that cease to respond, which sometimes happens near other boats, such as gondolas.  There have been several cases in a very short stretch of time.

Did I mention gondolas?  There have been other collisions recently between motorized boats (vaporetto, taxi) and the floating symbol of Venice.  August 17 is the first anniversary of the death of Professor Joachim Vogel in his gondola, and although the legal process has reached some conclusions (gondolier exonerated, three vaporetto drivers convicted of various breaches), the traffic situation has not changed at all.

The agonized city-wide soul-searching caused by this totally predictable tragedy led to the creation of a list of 26 proposed changes in the traffic patterns and the assorted uses of the aquatic spaces by specific types of boat. In other words, a plan to ease the jams and minimize, if not eliminate, the problems of too many boats in too small a space.  See above: Nothing has changed.

Well fine, you say.  Avoid taking a vaporetto (or gondola), and you’ll be okay.  And that’s true, except that there is also the increasing chaos created by the ever-more-aggressive itinerant illegal vendors proliferating in the Piazza San Marco and environs.  They sell corn to feed to the pigeons, counterfeit handbags and sunglasses, long-stemmed red roses, and toys of various sorts.

Well fine, you say.  Avoid the Piazza San Marco.  That would be one solution.

But what is happening here is that although enforcement of the laws was a bit random in the past, ever since the government was decapitated (June 4), the town has become a sort of Dodge City for every kind of independent (translation: illegal) operator.

I did discover something funny, though. There are laws — that’s not the funny part — which behave sort of like blank bullets.

1x1.trans Hard times for humor

Let’s decorate our barge with geraniums.  There can’t be any law against that.

For example:  A 28-year-old homeless man from Kosovo named Imer Tosca was drunk at 3:00 AM the other morning.  None of that carries a huge humor load.  But wait.

He didn’t want to waste time standing around waiting for the rare vaporetto at that hour which would take him to the Lido.

So he untied one of the vaporettos which is moored at night in front of the Arsenal, turned on the ignition, and drove it away.  A patrolling ACTV security boat almost immediately noticed this — hard to miss, considering that the three vaporettos that had been tied to his were now floating around, going adrift — and gave chase.  So did the police. But neither of those facts made much difference to him.  When the police tried to stop him, he tried to ram their boat.  Actually he did that twice.

He was finally overcome, and taken to jail.  He was released the next day BECAUSE…. a new law which was passed to ease the pressure in the prisons (disastrously overcrowded, too, even worse than the vaporettos), states that any person committing a crime or misdemeanor which rates a sentence of fewer than three years in prison is not to be sent to prison, but placed on house arrest.

Did I mention the perp was homeless?  Having no domicile, he couldn’t be placed on house arrest, so he was let go.

Next day….. he and some friends got drunk and proceeded to brawl in the cloister of the basilica of Sant’ Antonio in Padova.  He was hauled in again.  And let go again.  Why?

Because with the rap sheet they discovered he had built up since he was 12, he should now be expelled from Italy.

Except that he is officially designated as a stateless person.  He has no country.  I don’t know how those documents get worked out, but it means that there was no country to expel him to.  So here he stays.

He may be drunk and homeless, for which I’m very sorry, but until he kills somebody, I feel a very unpleasant sort of admiration for him.

1x1.trans Hard times for humor

Here he is, pulling his shadow along behind him. There are no signs saying that this is against the law.

On a more modest, but no less perplexing note, there was Olga, the Slovakian girl with the horse.  Her being Slovakian doesn’t really matter to the story, I just thought I’d throw it in.

A few days ago some distress calls began to come into the highway police from drivers on the Ponte della Liberta’.  They were being forced to slow down and change lanes (creating stress for themselves and other drivers who weren’t so alert) to avoid hitting a girl who was walking along, leading a horse.  The horse was saddled to the hilt with all sorts of Western gear, so I’m not really sure why she was walking rather than riding.  Maybe the horse was tired.

Never mind.  She was creating a hazardous situation, so the police sent out an escort which would alert the drivers behind her (kind of like a “wide load” sign on a truck).  They accompanied her safely to the end of the bridge — Piazzale Roma — where she turned around and crossed the bridge again, with escort, and went on her mysterious way.

The next day, it was made known that she had been cited for various infractions.  None of them specifically mentioned unlawful use of a quadropedic vehicle, but they did mention her endangering the safety of the drivers (41 euros), and also for allowing the horse to leave the bridge dirtier than she had found it (25 euros).

She had been walking from Austria to Bussolengo (near Verona) for the past two months — again, why she was walking with a perfectly good horse, rather than riding, I have no idea — and said she wanted to come to Venice to take a picture, and was planning to turn around and leave anyway.  That is, there were no further plans, such as swimming him to the Piazza San Marco, or riding him up the campanile, or whatever other effervescent ideas come fizzing into people’s minds in the summer here.

Also, she said there were no signs indicating that it was forbidden to take a horse across the bridge.  Very true.  Everyone admitted that.  No one observed that there were no signs forbidding bringing aardvarks over the bridge on skateboards, either, or prohibiting the passage of Laotian rock rats clinging to low-flying birthday balloons.

Come to think of it, there aren’t any signs that forbid the untying and taking of a vaporetto in the middle of the night.

We need to make a whole lot of new rules around here.  “Don’t act silly” doesn’t go far enough.

Categories : Problems
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1x1.trans You want me to go where??

A view of the island of San Michele, with the sculpture placed just right. Going my way? (photo:

One day in 2007 a bronze sculpture suddenly appeared in the water between the Fondamente Nove and the island of San Michele.

It represents two men standing in a boat, one of them pointing somewhere important.

If there had been an announcement about this innovation, I missed it, because I was compelled to try to figure out what it was all by myself.

I failed; in fact, I didn’t even come close.  My main theory was that it was Saint Francis with one of his disciples.  Logic!  Because it is said — or even known — that in 1220 the “Poverello,” returning from the Fifth Crusade, stopped in the Lagoon and founded a hermitage on the little island now known as San Francesco del Deserto.

I was slightly troubled by the consideration that if the armless man in bronze were St. Francis, why wasn’t his companion pointing to the island he adopted — or toward Venice, at least?  The statue is pointing more toward Murano, but that makes no sense, even if it is something from the Biennale, whose components are not supposed to make sense.

Then I thought it might be some representation of Tennyson’s “The Lotos-Eaters”:  “Courage!” he said, and pointed toward the land, / “This mounting wave will roll us shoreward soon.” / In the afternoon they came unto a land / In which it seemed always afternoon.”  Mounting wave: check.  Plenty of those.  It’s a start.

But now I know the truth, and it’s more troubling than ignorance.  Perhaps you’ve noticed that truth can be that way.

This pair of metallic men floating in what appears to be a pistachio shell is a creation of a Russian artist, Georgy Frangulyan, and it is known as “Dante’s Barque.”

Excuse me?

In the early 1300′s, a Florentine pharmacist and poet named Dante Alighieri took a trip to Hell — not the Piazza San Marco at noon on a summer Sunday, but the other Hell — in the company of the ghost of Virgil, the famous Roman poet, who acted as guide and fixer. They also went to Purgatory and Paradise, and he wrote the trip up in “The Divine Comedy.”

I knew all that a long time ago, but I never imagined that the creation installed in the Venetian lagoon depicted an interlude in the allegorical travels of the Supreme Poet and the author of the Aeneid — specifically, their preparation to be rowed across the Acheron, a boiling river of damned souls.  Many congratulations to all.

1x1.trans You want me to go where??

Now that I think of it, they could also just be two tourists crossing the Grand Canal on the gondola traghetto. That’s pretty much a boiling river by now. (Flickr)

There’s just one thing.  Who came up with the idea that it would be cool to position a big statue showing two men heading for Hell pointing at the cemetery?

It was bad enough when the city’s funeral launches, which carry the coffins to the graveyard, had a big sticker on the stern bearing the name of the city’s garbage collection service.  Thank God they finally stopped that.

But this isn’t much better.  It isn’t any better.  I realize we live in an era which has been deformed by irony and mockery, but that’s no excuse.

If I had to accompany my mother’s body to the cemetery, I would never want to know that those two characters are Dante and Virgil.  You could tell me they’re George and Gracie; you could tell me they’re Crick and Watson; you could tell me they’re two of the Flying Karamazov Brothers.

But I’d appreciate your just leaving Dante out of it.

Categories : Uncategorized
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Santa Marta: party on!

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1x1.trans Santa Marta: party on!

“La Vigilia di Santa Marta” (The Eve of Santa Marta) by Canaletto. c. 1760. ( This view shows the Zattere, with the church of Santa Marta the last building in the distance.  I realize that they did not have stadium lighting back then, but I’d have hoped to see more of the famous illuminated boats.  I think he was paying too much attention to the geometry of the painting and not enough attention to what was really going on.  Or maybe that’s just my way of saying “I wish I’d been there.”

July 29, as all the world knows, is the feast day of Santa Marta.  Or in any case, now the world knows.

She is essentially forgotten here; her church has been deconsecrated, swallowed and partially digested by the Maritime Zone, and her celebration — once one of the greatest of the many great festivals here — is gone forever.  Only a painting by Canaletto brings us the tiniest (and darkest) glimpse of what was once a very big night in Venice.  Her name today is used mainly to refer to the adjacent neighborhood.

The reason I didn’t get this post finished by July 29 is because I got lost reading assorted accounts, some of them first-hand, about this uber-fest. It didn’t take me long to conclude that the fabled feast of the Redentore, which has remained a very big deal, was really nothing so remarkable compared to Santa Marta’s.  The Redentore had fireworks, it’s true, but Marta had fresh sole.

Fish was an excuse for a colossal boating party?  Why not?  The Venetian civil and religious calendar was bursting with events of every type and voltage. A very short list would note the festivals of Santa Maria della Carita’, Palm Sunday, S. Stefano, “Fat Thursday,” May 1, or the Doge’s Visit to the Monastery of the Virgins, S. Isidoro, the taking of Constantinople (1204), the regaining of Candia (1204), S. John the Baptist “Beheaded,” Sunday after Ascension Day, the victory over Padua (1214), the defense of Scutari (1479), the victory of Lepanto (1571), S. Rocco, Corpus Domini, the victory of the Dardanelles (1656), and the conquest of the Morea (1687).  These are just a few of the major events; the Venetians also commemorated defeats. There was something going on almost every day.

But there was always room for more, and although Santa Marta couldn’t claim to have sponsored any particular victory, discovery, or other noteworthy occurrence, her feast day conveniently fell in the period when the weather was suffocatingly hot, and the sole were in season.  Plus, her church was located on a little lobe of land facing lots of water, and there was a beach.  All this says “Put on your red dress, baby, ’cause we goin’ out tonight” to me.

1x1.trans Santa Marta: party on!

Joan Blaue’s map of the late 1600′s shows the peninsula crowned by the church of Santa Marta, but I don’t see a beach. On the other hand, I do see rows of rafts formed of logs — “zattere” — in front of their eponymous stretch of waterfront. Nice.

1x1.trans Santa Marta: party on!

On Ludovico Ughi’s 1729 map, “Pictorial Representation of the Illustrious City of Venice Dedicated to the Reign of the Most Serene Dominion of Venice,” we see something like beach surrounding Santa Marta’s headland. To each cartographer his own.

1x1.trans Santa Marta: party on!

And this is how how that little lobe of land looks today. The big docks at Tronchetto were built in two stages in the 20th century, and Santa Marta (lower right corner of land) has become an afterthought. (

The basic components were: Everybody in Venice, either on land or on the water, regardless of social station or disposable income; every boat in Venice — so many boats you could hardly see the water, festooned with illuminated balloons and carrying improvised little arbors formed by frondy branches; music, song and dance, and lots and lots of fresh sole.

1x1.trans Santa Marta: party on!

A “genteel” sole, who was more the star of the evening than Santa Marta herself.

July is the season for sfogi zentili, or Solea vulgaris, and while the Venetians could bring their own vittles, plenty of them also bought the fish which had just been saute’d, either on the beach or on the street by enterprising entrepreneurs.  If you were really in luck, there would be moonlight, too.

The best and most famous chronicler of this party was Giustina Renier Michiel, who was born in 1755 and belonged to several  patrician Venetian families.  She spent 20 years researching her six-volume work, Origine delle Feste Veneziane (1830), but the fact that she had personal memories of many of these events makes her books exceptional.

I started to translate what she wrote about the feast of Santa Marta, but she went on so long, and her style sounded so curious in English, that I became tired and discontented.  So I’m going to give some bits and summarize the rest.  Anyway, it’s clear that the event was so phenomenal that even people who saw it finally gave up trying to describe it adequately or coherently.

Here is her version of how the festa was born:

In the old days many groups went out in certain boats to fish for sole, the best fish that one eats in July.  (Lino concurs with date and description.)

And in the evening they would go back to the beach by the church of Santa Marta and feast on the fish, enjoying the cool air that restored their depleted strength after the labor of fishing, as well as the heat of the season.

Later on, as the population became richer, and softness set in, the work of fishing was left to the poor people, who had to do it in order to live, and what used to be a fatiguing labor changed into a singular entertainment.”

My version: It didn’t take long for everybody else in Venice to say “A cookout on the beach?  We’re on our way.”  Everybody started making Santa Marta’s Eve a great reason to head for her neighborhood and eat fish, garnished and enlivened by the classic saor sauce of sweet-sour onions.  It was like a gigantic clambake, a barbecue, a luau, for thousands and thousands of people.

Obviously the beach was too small for everybody, so the boats made themselves at home on the Giudecca Canal, “whose waters could only be seen in flashes, and almost seemed to be strips of fire, agitated by the oars of so many boats that covered the water and which doubled the effect of the lights which were on the boats.”

1x1.trans Santa Marta: party on!

The “Bucintoro dei Savoia,”also called the “Bucintoro del Po,” is the only surviving example of a Venetian peota of the 18th century.  It was built in 1730 by a squero on Burano for Carlo Emmanuele III di Savoia and is now the property of the Civic Museums of Torino.  Most noble families had one, and they were just the thing for big events such as the Regata Storica, processions honoring doges and kings, and alfresco picnics featuring a big fish fry.

The patricians came out on their fabulously ornate peote, and often carrying musicians who sang and played wind instruments.  There were scores of the classic fishing boat called a tartana, draped with variously-colored balloons and loaded with laughing families and friends.  There were artisans in their battellos, and hundreds of light little gondolas, and plenty of gondolas da fresco, and there were even the burchielle, the heavy cargo boats that carried sand and lumber.  If it could float, it joined the vast confusion of boats being rowed languidly in every direction, or tied up along the Zattere where there was just as much happy turmoil ashore.

1x1.trans Santa Marta: party on!

Or, if you were a fisherman, you might come out in an equally impressive (in its way) boat — a caorlina da seragia. Only a few still exist, and this very old craft has retained its original pitch waterproofing. You could fit several families, aristocratic or otherwise, into this monster.

1x1.trans Santa Marta: party on!

Or if all you had was a little s’ciopon, you’d have bedecked it too, and come out with the food and family.

The Gazzetta Urbana of 1787:  “Along this riva, called the Zattere, the cafe’s and bars are crammed to overflowing with people.  There are tables set up outside their doors, and everything is so lit up that it seems to be daytime.

“The passage (of people) in all the streets leading to Santa Marta was dense and continuous, and the splendid gathering at the Caffe of San Basegio, at the head of the Zattere, formed a separate spectacle, in which our Adriatic beauties, wearing modern shimmering caps in the Greek style, ornamented with plumes, inflamed with their glances the hearts of the young men who, like butterflies, always flutter around the flare of a woman’s beauty.”

Also amid the throng were little ambulatory kitchens — a man with a basket of sole would put two stones on the ground, then lay two bunches of sticks crosswise on them, light a little charcoal under them, pour some oil in a pan, and stand there bawling for business.  He kept a container of saor ready to put on the fish.

Renier Michiel:  “The entire length of this district was full of a grand concourse of people, moving toward the piazza of Santa Marta which was the best vantage point to enjoy the spectacle.  On the piazza there were more food vendors, some of them selling roast chicken.  There is a racket of cups, plates, the yells of the vendors, the music from the boats on the water. Every house is transformed into a sort of tavern where people eat and drink, and there was perfect joy and harmony.”

“Perfect joy and harmony”?  How can this be (apart from the fact that she was looking back on it, years later, when the festival was gone forever)?

I think it’s because Santa Marta was secretly taking care of people. She is the patroness of cooks, butlers, laundry-workers, servants,  housewives, and waiters. Though I suppose you could just say “housewives” and leave it at that.

Because as Santa Marta, and 99 percent of women on earth, can attest, while some people at a party are laughing and scarfing the canapes and playing with the dog and singing comic songs and reveling in industrial-size helpings of joy and harmony, there’s at least one person somewhere in the background doing everything to make it seem as if there is absolutely nothing that needs to be done.

And I have no doubt that when the boats went home at dawn on July 29, there was somebody who had to put the boat away and swab the bilge and pick up every single fishbone, as well as deal with the dishes and the wine- and saor-stained clothes.  Behind every great saint is somebody with a bucket and mop, I say.

1x1.trans Santa Marta: party on!

You can barely make out the “Punta di Santa Marta” from the roof of the Molino Stucky Hilton.

1x1.trans Santa Marta: party on!

The church of Santa Marta in 1934 was only slightly in the way of progress.  Trains came down onto the waterfront to deliver or collect cargo to the ships in the maritime zone.  No more beach.

1x1.trans Santa Marta: party on!

There’s still a church in there somewhere behind the parking lot.  Ex-church, that is, restored and now used as an exhibition space. Nice that it’s not falling to ruin, but any possible trace of character or history has been thoroughly expunged.

1x1.trans Santa Marta: party on!

I realize that it wasn’t ever the most heavily decorated building in Venice, but they seem to have gone to the opposite extreme here.  Seen from this angle, it could be a Potemkin church.

1x1.trans Santa Marta: party on!

To review in closing: This entire area of water was completely covered with illuminated boats full of people singing and eating and laughing and being happy. And I think it’s safe to say that most of them were not tourists. That’s something else to recall occasionally — that Venice had an amazing life that had nothing to do with tourism.  Seem strange?  They’d think we’re even stranger.



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1x1.trans My last word on viale Garibaldi

We left our story — “The Interminable Quest for the True Provenance of the Viale Garibaldi, as Recounted by People Living and Dead (I suppose that should be “living or dead”), with Illustrations and Funny Spelling” — at an uncomfortable point between things I knew and things I only thought I knew.

Several readers have since written me giving me more information and opinions than I’d expected (that’s not saying much, considering that I expected none).  My ensuing labors to sift, evaluate, cross-check, confirm, and make at least one educated guess have led me to the last thing I’m going to say about viale Garibaldi.  Not that there couldn’t be more, and there probably is more, but my interest is dimming and I’d bet yours is too.

The story so far:

1x1.trans My last word on viale Garibaldi

A view of the church of San Giuseppe di Castello, by Antonio Canaletto. The church in the foreground was torn down , houses built in its place, and a row of trees was planted in front of the houses.

Canaletto painted a picture showing a section of Castello as it no longer appears.  I deduced from the painting that the vantage point from which he painted it was a canal which was later filled in to make the present gravel walkway lined by lime trees named the viale Garibaldi.

Please note that much confusion can be avoided by remembering that via Garibaldi and viale Garibaldi are not the same thing.  “Viale” is a word which, among various translations, means “tree-lined avenue.”

A reader questioned my original assertion and its various geographical and geometrical elements, and proposed that the  water seen in the painting was instead a glimpse of the Bacino of San Marco, where its rippling wavelets caressed the smooth stone surface of a working riva (fondamenta).  He proposed it in less overwrought terms.

I found a map by Joan Blaue (date unknown by me, except that it was made in the 1600′s) which shows that there was indeed a riva in that place, leading down into the waters of the Bacino of San Marco, and not at all the canal I had imagined.

In brief, I was wrong and he was right.

1x1.trans My last word on viale Garibaldi

A cropped section of the view shows the location as it was just before Canaletto’s day. Although the proportions seem to be a little hinky, there is no denying that the churches painted by Canaletto were facing the Bacino of San Marco. He doesn’t show as clearly as Ughi does (below) the street that became the viale, but I see that it’s there.

Another reader then wrote with more information and opinions, and attached a detail from another map, which I am showing here.  It was made by Ludovico Ughi in 1729 — slightly after Canaletto’s time, but probably not long enough to matter to our story.

As you see, Ughi identifies a clearly non-canal strip of territory as “Cale di S. Domenico di Castello.”  If it was a calle (street) in 1729, I’m going to assume it was a calle in 16-whatever-it-was when Canaletto painted his picture.

Or maybe you can’t see it.  It’s the broad line that begins in the “crook” of the waterfront and goes north till it hits the “rio di Castello,” the canal which became via Garibaldi.

1x1.trans My last word on viale Garibaldi

Detail of the area in question from Ludovico Ughi’s map of 1729. The “Cale di S. Domenico di Castello” is located exactly where viale Garibaldi is today.

Conclusion: Making assumptions can be dangerous, as my original post demonstrated, but I think the evidence is now reasonably clear that the present viale Garibaldi was not a canal in the 17th century.

That’s really all I’m interested in saying about this.  Whatever it was, or wasn’t, or dreamed of being, but couldn’t, or might have been if Napoleon or Nikola Tesla or Fannie Bloomfield Zeisler hadn’t intervened, is a story I’m not going to be pursuing anymore.

I’m all for knowledge — the more, the better, even as it gets broken and reassembled in ever-tinier pieces and shapes.  But unless somebody can convince me that Jimmy Hoffa is buried under the third bench on the right, I’m going to leave this subject and go on to something else.  Perhaps something more interesting, maybe even more important. But at least it won’t be about the viale Garibaldi.

1x1.trans My last word on viale Garibaldi
Categories : Venetian History
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