Water and fire to start the year


Early late-afternoon is a magical moment in the winter, especially on Sant’ Erasmo. When we got there some people had already started their bonfires — smoke was going up all over the island.

Last Saturday night, while you were doing whatever you do, we were on Sant’ Erasmo participating in a wild pagan ritual. It’s known as panevin (pahn-eh-VEEN)or, more simply, brusar la vecia (broo-zahr ya VEH-cha — burn the old woman).

I’ve experienced it many times from a downwind distance, inhaling the smoke of many faraway bonfires, but three days ago was the first time I ever participated.  The Finotello family, whose market garden Sapori di Sant’ Erasmo has long since become our favorite produce store, told us they were going to be burning the old lady and sure, we could come too.

We always row over in a mascareta, partly because it’s a great motivation to go rowing, and also, not incidentally, the boat makes it easy to bring back our kilos of cauliflower or cabbage or tomatoes or eggplant or whatever’s good that day.

So around 4:00 we wandered across the span of lagoon between Castello and Sant’ Erasmo, threading our usual path along the flank of the Certosa and Vignole islands. The sun was going down, and it felt a little like we were sneaking out of the dorm after curfew, to be going out at the time we’re usually heading home.

I’ve written at other times about the history of this prehistoric practice, which is especially at home in the Northeast of Italy, so I’ll limit the scholarly details.  It’s enough to remember that the effigy represents the old (year, primarily) and therefore must be extinguished as a propitious start to the new (year, of course); that it’s an excellent way to dispose of the year’s prunings, which would have to have been burned eventually anyway; and that it’s a great excuse to end the holiday season with a party that also can keep you warm.

Needless to say, people in Mestre complained about the smoke (I say “needless,” because nothing happens here without some wail of protest from somebody, including me).  It wasn’t the fumes from Sant’ Erasmo that bothered them, but from various places close to the city.  Unbreathable air!  We had to stay shut in our houses with all the windows and doors sealed!  Call the fire department, something’s burning!

I give a little slack to people with genuine pulmonary issues, or anyone who might have encountered smoke caused by burning rubber or plastic.

Otherwise, here’s my message to the good burghers of Mestre: Get over it.

Walking up the lane, we could admire the magnificence of the Finotellos’ pyramid of plant matter. Either they have more land, or they had more hands to work, but it was twice as big as any of the others in sight.

The pyre is ready, a year’s-worth of clippings and rippings. No plastic! No tires to make more smoke, everybody knows it’s poison. Just honest old bits of botanical rubbish. The pieces of newspaper are going to be wrapped around a few long poles and moistened with diesel fuel, lit, and then stuck into the pile to get the blaze going. This is no job for a simple kitchen match.

Luca, the youngest Finotello, is all set to brandish his torch. I wasn’t watching but I doubt very much that he was allowed to go anywhere with this stick on fire.  Somebody’s bonfire is already ablaze in the distance.

The old woman was looking pretty sprightly, at least from below. Is that a Miracle Bra she’s wearing? I hope not, because there’s no miracle in sight for her.

The combustibles are ready, the people are ready, let’s just do it.

Claudio and his son Luca are ready to party.

It’s definitely getting to be time to light the fire.

The people just a few steps along the road had already set their fire. Maybe they were just burning up the old branches and twigs and not bothering to make a party. Crazy, I know.

Voila’! Let the bonfire begin.  The boys imagined incinerating their most-hated soccer team.  “Let’s burn Juventus” yelled a fan of Milan.  Naturally the response was “Let’s burn Milan!”  That went on for a while.

It was at least a flagration, if not something more.

The ancient lore relies on the direction in which the sparks blow as a prediction of the coming year’s prosperity, agriculturally speaking. If they fly west toward the mountains, “take your sack and go for chestnuts” (hard times); if they fly east toward the sea, “take your sack and go for wheat” (good times). Lino says that there isn’t really much magic about this. He explains that the wind follows the sun throughout the day; at dawn it blows from the east (here, the sea), and in the evening it blows from the west (the mountains). Any wind which contradicts the natural order of the correct direction would be a strange wind, an anomalous wind, one which (one might assume) would blow no good. But that’s true all year, Lino stated, not just at Epiphany. Sorry to spoil a good story. The interpretation of these sparks: Unclear. No definite sign from the old lady or anything.  The Finotellos don’t depend on sparks anyway — they take an appropriately fatalistic attitude toward their world and the weather.  After all, last year they got the tornado.  Predicting that was definitely above the old lady’s pay grade.

Let ‘er rip and let the sparks be damned.

All this fire is a fabulous sight, as long as it’s the old year going up in flames and not your house.

And there were the fundamental refreshments: “Pinza” (two different recipes), which is a sort of pound cake that wants to be a fruitcake, the hot spiced red wine known even here as vin brule’, and hot chocolate. Fire, food and wine — the only thing missing is the old lady, who by now is pretty much reduced to ash.

A view of the fire as we walked back to the boat. Looking around, we counted nine other fires scattered across the dark landscape. The view from a helicopter must have looked like the Fourth of July in the middle of the lagoon.

But the blaze wasn’t the only beautiful experience that evening.  We got a massive bonus with the row home in the dark.  I suspected we would, because we often used to row at night. But years have passed since our last “notturna.”

The lagoon isn’t ever ugly, but it’s like Gloria Swanson — at some moments it’s more beautiful than at others.  At noon on a summer Sunday you will not see it at its best.

At night, though, and especially in the winter, it is a place of deep, luminous glamour.  The silence, the stillness of the water, the sense of space, the stars, the cold — all the components join to make something much greater than the whole.

I didn’t even try to make any photographs because I knew they would never show what was really there.  The barely perceptible movement of the water’s silky surface responding to the oars, which I could sense in my hands and then, from the bottom of the boat, through my feet; the small sound of the oars themselves, slipping through the water and occasionally squeaking against the humid wood of the forcola; the frigid damp of the oar chilling my bare fingers.  The coldness of the air that I could breathe all the way down to the bottom of my lungs. The bright white dot of Venus reflected in the water, which floated next to us all the way home on our port side, bobbing back up after every stroke.  The misty beam of the lighthouse on Murano shining straight out to sea through the inlet at San Nicolo (4 flashes, 2 seconds pause) and the unexpected way that it appeared closer to us at one point, then five minutes later seemed to be miles away, even though the physical distance had barely changed.

A mere two miles (3.6 km) from the bonfire to our house felt like some pilgrimage suspended in time. In the dark, the lagoon seemed untethered from everything that wasn’t it.  No longer was it the plodding, workaday lagoon, the watery equivalent of an enormous Wal-Mart parking lot forced to marry an interstate interchange, but something whole, completely itself, majestic, complex, lacking nothing, needing nothing.

We crossed the Canale delle Navi by the Arsenal and rowed down the rio di San Pietro. Boats, walls, houses, windows, but no people.  It was only 7:00 PM and there wasn’t even the sound of a person.  We turned into the rio di Sant’ Ana — deserted.  Nobody on the fondamenta.  Nobody on the bridge.  Silence.  It was eerie. Beautiful, I guess, but it was as if the lagoon had just let itself go and obliterated everybody but us.

But of course, it hadn’t.  At the end of the canal we could hear the Saturday-evening-going-home cacophony.  Men shouting, dogs barking, kids wailing.

We now return you to your regular dimension.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...
Categories : Venetian Events


  1. Mary Ann DeVlieg
    Twitter: maietm.org

    Sheer poetry, Erla! (your writing, of course, and also the evening)

    We were watching all the many Sant’Erasmo fires from our altana above – quite magical….

    Anyway, the Befana came back the next day to get burned – yet again – after giving stockings and goodies to the little santerasmini. I wonder if it’s a coming-of-age thing here, like with Santa Claus, “Daddy, does la Befana really exist?”

  2. Erla Zwingle says:

    So you were watching the fires and coughing? The Befana flies around on Saturday night (how she reincarnates herself from the flames is a mystery) and leaves the goodies for the kids to find Epiphany morning. But I’ve never heard of setting more fires on Epiphany. Sounds like some modern mutation, or maybe there was stuff left over that had to be combusted. As for her, my impression is that she has at least as much reality to children here as Santa Claus. Lino began to doubt her existence only when he reached the age to wonder: If she eats every dish of pasta e fagioli that children leave out for her, how does she manage to get airborne again?

  3. Christa says:

    Those last five paragraphs are among the best I have ever read — and I read a LOT. I don’t WANT to come back to this dimension. sigh

  4. mary klestadt says:

    Thank you Erla for transporting me to a magical evening on the lagoon.

  5. Kathy Maher says:

    Erla, your description of returning from Sant’ Erasmo across the lagoon at night is nothing short of magical. I’ve read those paragraphs several times, and they always leave me with a sense of wonder. Thank you!

    • Erla Zwingle says:

      Thank you so much for this. I want you to come back to Venice so we can have a magical experience with you too.

  6. […] of any sort, and not even polenta.  When the countryfolk would burn the effigy on Epiphany (the “befana”), eyes used to be fixed on the direction the sparks flew.  People still look, but now it’s […]