There are many things, I admit it, that deeply fascinate me about Turkey and one of them is its complicated linkage over the centuries with Venice. Polar opposites, one might think, until one begins to look closer.
As I was expatiating on this theme recently, I neglected to mention a few of the manifestations of this linkage lurking here. And one of them does not show Venice in her best light.
First: Two steps from Campo San Barnaba is a short, narrow street (with bridge) named the Calle (and Ponte) de le Turchette. If you were to guess, based on your elementary Italian, that this means “Street of the Little Turkish Girls,” you would be right.
Tradition maintains that in the era before the Casa dei Catechumeni was established to accommodate instruction in the Roman Catholic faith, there was a house here where Turkish women (“Turchette”), taken prisoner in assorted battles, were kept. Their time was spent mainly in being converted to Christianity. Or not. No word on the rate of conversion, or whether conversion was considered optional, or what the consequences were for not converting, at least not by the point where I stopped seeking information.
According to the estimable Giuseppe Tassini, writing in Curiosita’ Veneziane, a document in the Scuola di San Rocco states that the confraternity possesses a house in the parish of San Barnaba, “in Calle Longa, where the Turchette are housed.” That’s all I can tell you about this, though every time I pass this way I admit that images of exotic females, enclosed in another sort of harem, wander through my mind.
Second: An even more intriguing Middle-Eastern, let’s say, element is a mute patera (PAH-teh-ra) affixed to the side of a house behind the former hospital of the Incurabili. (These “incurables” were mostly syphilitics, if you’re wondering.)
Patere were typically circular plaques carved in low relief on Istrian stone, often showing animals, which were placed on buildings generally from the 10th to the 12th century, though a few date till the 15th. These images were intended to ward off evil.
The one that fascinates me, though, has a very different vibe. It shows a cross, whose base is in the suggested form of a sword, standing upon a crescent.
The conclusions one might draw from this are fairly obvious, but that’s what annoys me — because so often the obvious turns out to be excitingly wrong. There is also the curious factor of the points of this crescent not being identical. So far, however, I haven’t been able to learn anything about it. But there it is.
A small digression on Turkishness: Ever since maize began to come to Italy from the Americas in the 1500’s, it has borne the name granoturco, or Turkish grain. There are various hypotheses for this, none of them definitive, but one of the more credible ones refers to the custom of lumping all sorts of foreign things together under the generic label “Turkish.” A relic of this habit applies here today regarding the Slavic women who come from Eastern Europe to work as caretakers of the elderly; even though they may come from Ukraine, Romania, or Moldova, I’ve heard at least a few Venetians refer to them as “Turche.”
Now we come to a longish street whose official name is “Barbarie de le Tole,” but which I think of as the “Street of the Kebab Joints.” And here the theme of Turkishness becomes less attractive.
There are some 20,000 students in Venice, a total of the enrollments in the two universities (Ca’ Foscari, the University of Venice, and the I.U.A.V., or University of Architecture). There is also a noticeable number of immigrants in the city, some from the Middle East or North Africa. And there is also a growing group of tourists who are getting by on a squeaking budget. These are all people who typically seek nourishing and/or good food at a very small price. So from pizza-by-the-slice (Italian, even if not very civilized), the choice has broadened out to include doner kebab, or what in the U.S. is often called by its Greek name, gyros. Foreign. Suddenly this changes things.
Doner kebab was invented in Erzurum, eastern Turkey, and since the Seventies it has become a common and familiar fast food in most European countries. The making and selling of it are virtually always in the hands of Turkish individuals.
But all of a sudden Venice isn’t happy with these little places. I can’t say whether the kebabs’ precursors were available in the declining years of the Venetian Republic, but considering the spectacular variety of ethnicities and creeds which were to be found milling around the streets and markets and waterfronts of Venice back in the Old Days, it wouldn’t surprise me.
In the past decade or so, the subject of immigration (to Europe, not only to Venice) has become an increasingly tormented one politically, economically, and socially. Considering the multi-cultural foundation of this town, any anti-foreign sentiment is in some ways difficult to justify — not that one can’t understand it. This is a theme which I will dissect at another time.
But on December 4, the Gazzettino announced that the mayor has signed an ordinance forbidding the granting of any new licenses for kebab joints until 2012. The reasons given for this are many; they bob like ornaments hanging on a tree which has been hollowed by termites. The reasons as stated are:
- The proliferation of these establishments and the consumption of their product on-site contribute to the “impoverishment” of the typical local places, as well as of the architectural and environmental quality of the city “due to the particular nature of their furnishing and equipment,” and
- The “incompatibility” of the opening of new pizza/kebab joints with the “conservation of the artistic patrimony” and the “typicality” (if there is such a word) of the historic center, and
- Opening such places in certain points in the city conduces to the “maximum vulnerability of the cultural and touristic profile” of the city (whatever that might mean), and
- That anyway there are already enough such places to satisfy the demand, so no need for more.
And who proposed this extraordinary measure? Not any of the assorted Superintendents of the Artistic/Historic/Cultural/Archaeological Heritage; nor the director of the Academy of Fine Arts, nor the Guggenheim Collection, nor anyone from the battalions of professors of art, history, or even tourism, if you will, though any of those protagonists might be able to make a reasonable case. Not a voice from the syndics of the Venice Atheneaum. Nobody from any sphere or stratum of the cultural or artistic universe here. Not even a wail from Augusto Salvadori, the City Councilor for Tourism and Protection of Traditions and Decorum.
Despite its being couched in cultural and historic and artistic terms, the proposal was in fact made by Giuseppe Bortolussi, the plain old City Councilor for Productive Activity and Commerce. Therefore one can interpret these cultural concerns in economic terms, in favor of the small businessmen who are the competitors of the kebabists.
And the decree will cover 13 of the 24 most important touristic points of the city, including the Rialto, the area of San Marco (where there is already a flourishing McDonald’s), the train station, and the Accademia. They might just as well have said “everywhere,” considering that they have stated that there are already enough such places to satisfy the demand.
I thought capitalism posited that the consumers, not the city councilors, were the ones who get to decide which businesses live and which die. And if it’s possible to determine at what point there are “enough” kebab joints, it ought to be possible to determine at what point there are “enough” shops selling glass and Carnival masks, which a stroll around the city reveals as being somewhere around 249,327. Enabling infinite choice in souvenirs (good!) doesn’t seem to translate into infinite choice in foodstuffs (not good!).
This ordinance looks strangely like an effort to protect the restaurateurs, not the city, from impoverishment. To herd the wandering tourist seeking sustenance back into the trattorias and restaurants where the prices can sometimes go so high, at least compared to the value received, that they practically glow in the dark.
But I’d like to close this little cultural pilgrimage with the observation that hypocrisy evidently provides more fertile terrain than volcano slopes after an eruption if you want to grow a bumper crop of contradictions. All those affirmations of protecting the artistic and historic nature of the city? One hardly knows where to start to list the examples of how that concept has been violated.
I’ll provide just a few random snaps, chosen mainly by their convenience. Anyone who can explain why these alterations are permissible (I’ll spare you the details of the laws designed to “protect” the artistic and architectural nature of the city) is eagerly invited to enlighten me.