Apr
30

Carlo de Ghega — famous everywhere but here

By
The façade of what is now the Institute of Santa Maria Ausiliatrice on the Fondamenta San Gioachin obviously has more pressing concerns than whether anybody looks up at a plaque.  But one day I just stopped and determined to investigate.

The façade of what is now the Institute of Santa Maria Ausiliatrice on the Fondamenta San Gioachin obviously has more pressing concerns than whether anybody looks up at a plaque. (You do see a plaque, don’t you?).  But one day I just stopped and determined to investigate.

Now that I have pulverized every last fermion of the subject of death in Venice (book, author, phenomenon, movie, original language, salt-free-recipe-for), I’d like to amaze everyone’s questing minds by talking about being born in Venice.

It happens a lot, though not as often as one might wish.  But if you really focus as you migrate from gelateria to gelateria, you may notice a number of plaques incised in Italian which include the word “nato” or “nascita” or, if they’re being grammatically fancy, even “nacque.” This means “born.”

Carlo de Ghegha, 1851, while still working on the railroad.  He looks satisfied with the way things are going in this lithograph by Joseph Kriehuber.

Carlo de Ghega, 1851, while still working on the railroad. He looks satisfied with the way things are going, at least as shown by Joseph Kriehuber in this lithograph.

Famous people came to Venice to be born?  Wonderful!

Even more wonderful is how many famous people there are whom I’ve never heard of (thereby perplexing the meaning of “famous”). But I have just discovered someone whose birthplace I pass numerous times a day, and who, once I stopped and paid attention, I acknowledge as deserving not only his fading testimonial, but probably much more. A park, a lake, a bullet train bearing his name would not be too much. Elsewhere he may well receive more recognition than here; in Venice, honor has always been distributed in very small and carefully eye-droppered quantities. He should be glad he got a plaque.

His name is Carlo de Ghega (or Karl Ritter von Ghega), and after being born in Castello, he went on to do some prodigious things that merit at least a slice of marble nobody notices.

Now that I know who he is and what he did, I am going to tell you, because not all of us have had the benefit of an Austrian elementary-school education. An Austrian friend of mine was very unimpressed that I’d discovered somebody she’d learned about when she was a mere child. But then again, she may not know as much as I do about Stephanie Louise Kwolek, so there we are.

Did I say born in Venice, and he’s Austrian?  (Actually, his parents were Albanian.  That’s the beauty of an empire, in this case the Austro-Hungarian version.  Lots of everybody everywhere.)  Read on.

First, here is the runic summary of his life, as carved in stone:

1854  Semmering  1954   On this fondamenta of  San Gioacchino moved to life Carlo de Ghega Engineer whose tenacious genius turned first to the waters and  to the streets of his neighborhood and then to the Norica Alps to be the first to open them amid harsh adversities to the reign of steam. Born 1802  Died 1860

1854 Semmering 1954
On this fondamenta of
San Gioachino
moved to life (was  born)
Carlo de Ghega
Engineer
whose tenacious genius turned
first to the waters and
to the streets
of his neighborhood
and then to the Noric Alps
to open them first
amid harsh adversities
to the reign of steam.
Born 1802 Died 1860

Before I go further, you might want to know that the Noric Alps are a mountain chain between Italy and Austria encompassing the Tyrol, Salzburg and Carinthia.

And in this stretch of peaks and valleys Mr./Signor/Herr/Zoti De Ghega built a railroad known as the Semmering railway, named for the mountain pass it overcame.  It is considered the first true mountain railway ever built, and was a feat so phenomenal that it is now on the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

Not everybody believed it could be done.  The gradients were too steep (25 percent), the curves were too tight (180 meters/590 feet).  It was too complicated, too difficult, impossible, actually, and also useless.  In the face of such doubting and carping, it was obvious that he was going to do it.  Also, I believe the Austrian emperor had specifically asked him to.

The pass isn’t so high (965 meters/3,166 feet above sea level), but connecting the villages of Gloggnitz and Murzzuschlag appears to have resembled a monumental cat’s-cradle.  From 1848 to 1854, 20,000 workers blasted 14 tunnels and built 16 viaducts, 11 small iron bridges, and more than 100 curved stone bridges.  All this over a distance of a mere 41 km (25 miles).

“Curved” is the important concept here — there isn’t a straight line anywhere.  The curves were so insidious that new instruments and new methods of surveying had to be developed to deal with them.  Further — stay with me, this is important — a new locomotive had to be created (the Engerth locomotive finally won out), and which did not rely on anything so simple as a cog-wheel system to drag it uphill.

De Ghega is a celebrity in the world of railway engineering and design, not to mention trains.  But what else could one expect of a man who graduated from the University of Padua with a degree in mathematics at the age of 17?  Here’s the answer: Being asked (told) to design the entire state railway system of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

I’m not saying he was a genius because he was born in Castello; you’ve got to be born somewhere.  But it probably didn’t hurt him, either. In one way or another, great people keep showing up here.

I think the squiggles are enough, without showing variations in elevation, to illustrate what he accomplished.

I think the squiggles are enough, without showing variations in elevation, to illustrate what he accomplished.

The viaduct over the Kalte Rinne in Styria, photographed between 1890 and 1900. (Library of Congress).

The viaduct over the Kalte Rinne in Styria, photographed between 1890 and 1900. (Library of Congress).

Another view of the Kalte Rinne viaduct (Emerich Benkert, color lithograph, 1854).

Another view of the Kalte Rinne viaduct (Emerich Benkert, color lithograph, 1854).

You can still take the train.  I want to do it.  (Phoot: Herbert Ortner, Wikipedia).

The train is still running. I want to ride it one time in my life.  Maybe two times. (Photo: Herbert Ortner, Wikipedia).

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Categories : History

Comments

  1. Don says:

    Gioachin Erla? The marvelous iMaps+ doesn’t help, but the index to my typical Venice map lists a Gioacchino S Fm at E9, and there it is, at what iMaps calls Fondamenta San Giovacchino. No wonder he’s “famous”. Now I have to go over there, just to see what the street sign calls it. I hope his “tenacious genius” didn’t get in the way of his doing some of the back-breaking work himself (oh, how Napoleon must have sweated when he cleared the way for Strada Nuova). But first, another limoncello on this sunny May day.

    • Erla Zwingle says:

      As for the nomenclature on the map(s), see my next blog post. As for Napoleon, he had nothing to do with the Strada Nuova. It was originally named via Vittorio Emanuele, and opened on September 2, 1871, being named for Vittorio Emanuele II di Savoia, the first King of Italy (reigned 1861-1878). I can’t tell you at the moment when or why the name was changed to Strada Nuova, but I would imagine it was when Mr. Mussolini began to give the orders. But perhaps you know all this, and were merely jesting.

      • Don says:

        Apologies! You have reminded me of my lazy habit of attributing all wide nineteenth century European streets to Napoleon B. Perhaps I should have used the taking of the horses to Arc du Carousel as an example of the astonishing energy of such a diminutive man. But anyway, my point (not easy to defend) is that credit for large public works should not be hogged by the person who did nothing more than dream them up, because without the workers who apply their strength and skill the ideas would remain on the drawingboard.
        More positively, I got a really good pic of that yellow house in the evening sunshine.
        Don recently posted..Article by Lord Phillips: Closed Material

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