The silence in not-making-it-up-land is because I am in the US for a month of my annual R&R.
I brought a folder of clippings with me, all excellent post material (that is, excellent material — I have no idea if the resulting posts would have been excellent). I may or may not get to them because it’s astonishing how little I think of Venice when I’m back on my native heath. It’s extremely relaxing, kind of like being in a mental thermal pool.
I shall return, of course.
Not a game at all, but shards of information I consider interesting, in an ephemeral sort of way. My favorite kind.
Meeting people here, or even just reading about them in the paper, will fairly quickly give you the sensation that there is only a handful of last names in Venice. Reading Venetian history has the same effect. There were 120 doges, and every five minutes it’s a Mocenigo or a Morosini or a Barbarigo or a Contarini (I feel a Gilbert and Sullivan patter song coming on).
In daily life nowadays, it’s Vianello or Zennaro or Busetto or Scarpa, all at some point from Pellestrina, where so many with these surnames dwell — and have dwelled — that the town is divided into four sections, each named for one of those specific tribes. This situation was created by doge Andrea Contarini, who in 1380 sent the four eponymous families from Chioggia to Pellestrina to reconstruct and inhabit the former town which had been destroyed by the Genoese in the “War of Chioggia” (1378-1381).
The density of these four names in Pellestrina is such that the post office finally gave permission to put nicknames on addresses, to give some hope of distinguishing between the scores of individuals with the same first and last name, some of them even living at the same location.
In the Comune at large, Costantinis and Penzos abound, and every year there is a bumper crop of D’Estes and Dei Rossis. Each name has its own provenance; some of them are obvious (“Sartori” means “tailors,” “Tagliapietra” means “stonecutter,” with which Venice had to have been infested) and some are more obscure (“Ballarin” meant “sawyer,” and “Bastasi” were the porters, specifically for the Customs or the quarantine islands).
I’ve been here long enough — and it doesn’t mean you need to have spent a LONG time — to recognize the provenance of many of these names. If you hear one of these, you have a good chance of knowing where the person comes (or came) from:
Chioggia: Penzo, Pesce, Boscolo, Tiozzo, Padoan, Doria
Burano: Vio, Costantini, Zane, Tagliapietra, Seno
San Pietro in Volta: Ballarin, Ghezzo
Murano: Toso, Gallo, Ferro, Schiavon
Venice (Dorsoduro): Pitteri
A few tidbits from the article, which are not evident in the table of numbers but are obvious to anyone living here:
First is that during the past ten years, the number of individuals bearing each surname has diminished. That’s just part of the well-known shrinkage of Venetians.
Second — also fairly obvious to locals — is the addition of foreign surnames. Of course, my surname is foreign too (German-Swiss), but I’ve been happy to disappear among many Venetians whose last names also begin with “Z,” and they aren’t German, either: Zane and Zanella and Zuin and Zuliani. It’s great down here at the end of the alphabet, I’ve finally got company.
As you easily notice, Muslim and Asian names are becoming more numerous. (I realize that “Muslim” is not a nationality, nor a geographical area, but while the bearers of these names are most likely from Bangladesh, I decided not to guess).
So where would the “Vianello” clan come from? According to my dictionary of Italian surnames, it springs from Viani, which isn’t a place, as far as I can determine, but a basic root-name. Lino hypothesizes that it could derive from “villani” (pronounced vee-AH-nee in Venetian), which means farmers, tillers of the soil — “villein,” in the feudal terminology, a partially-free serf. You can still hear someone around here vilify another person by calling him a “villano,” and they don’t mean “villain” — they mean clod, churl, oaf.
“Rossi” means “reds.” It’s the most common surname in Italy, though in the Southern half it is often rendered “Russo” (the second-most common surname in Italy). It most likely came from a personage with some strikingly red attribute, such as hair, beard, or skin. Or all three.
“Scarpa” — It means “shoe,” so I’m guessing their forebears were shoe-makers, though then again, it’s possible that it was once somebody’s nickname (in Venice, at least, nicknames are fairly common and the person bears it for life and even sometimes leaves it to his children.) However, another hypothesis holds that it could be a variation of Karpathos, the Greek island known as “Scarpanto” in Venetian, and which formed part of the Venetian “Sea State” from 1306 to 1538, plenty long to germinate names. Thousands of Greeks lived in Venice, so the place name may have shifted to a personal name.
There are lots of names that come from places, sometimes Venetianized, such as:
Visentin (vee-zen-TEEN): Vicentino, or from Vicenza
Piasentini (pya-zen-TEE-nee): Piacentino, or from Piacenza
Veronese: from Verona
Trevisan (treh-vee-ZAHN): from Treviso
Furlan (foor-LAHN): from Friuli
Schiavon (skyah-VOHN): from Schiavonia, later Slavonia, which is now the easternmost part of Croatia. The Venetians were known to trade, among other valuable merchandise, in slaves, which often came from Central Asia or the Balkan hinterland. “Schiavo” (SKYA-voh), conveniently shortened, means “slave.” Slav – Slave. Not made up.
Yes, the haze has evaporated, or migrated, or flown — anyway, it’s gone.
Yesterday afternoon the wind veered around to the northeast, where the bora lurks. A northeast wind may be fierce, and even dangerous, and whatever else you want to call it (especially if you live on the northeastern edge of the city, where you get it straight in the teeth), but I call it just about my favorite wind.
Perhaps you have never thought about the various winds, and their characteristics. Here’s a thumbnail: “Scirocco,” southeast wind. Warm and damp and, if it’s strong, it becomes an unindicted co-conspirator of acqua alta.
“Garbin,” southwest wind, known in Italian as libeccio. Its special trick is to bring fog — I mean real fog, not the haze of the past few weeks. It can also blow like blue blazes.
“Bora,” northeast wind. Cold and dry. That’s why I love it. I can deal with the cold, as long as it brings the dry. As for force, it can be ferocious, though here we don’t usually get the extremes that can make the bora life-threatening in Trieste. Not made up.
There are many fine variations of wind as you work your way around the compass, but those are my main players. When I look at the weather forecast, I don’t primarily care whether it says rain or sun, or even cold or hot. I look to see which direction the wind is predicted to come from, and its speed. I can deduce most of the other attributes from that, at least as far as my modest needs are concerned.
Oh sorry, that was redundant. All my needs are, by definition, modest. Example: Comes the bora, Erla is happy. You can’t get much simpler than that, at least if you’re a person who really doesn’t care about rubies and platinum and Densuke black watermelons and lavender albino ball pythons, like humble, honest, hard-working, plain-speaking little me.
South Asia has the monsoon season; Lapland gets the white nights; Egypt endures the periodic simoom.
Here we have two separate months of heartless humidity, almost inevitably in October and April, two otherwise lovely months which in Venice reveal their dark, unregenerate side by smothering the city in a combination of cool temperatures and sodden, sticky air. Even when the sun shines, the dampness in the atmosphere is implacable. A gauzy mist softens the city’s silhouette, which is sheer photo-fodder, but its meaning in real life is quite otherwise. I haven’t given this phenomenon a title yet because I generally call it by short, rustic, Anglo-Saxon names.
The sheets on the bed remain repugnantly damp, the towels refuse to dry, potato chips no longer crunch. I am forced to wash the clothes even though I know they will not give up their moisture without a long, long fight. Five days after hanging them on the line, I’m still touching them and trying to convince myself that they’re dry. Of course they’re not.
Gone is that heavenly summer period in which you could hang out a huge soggy beach towel at 10:00 AM and by noon it would be crackling like desiccated firewood. Not yet arrived is the long winter season in which the radiators toast the underwear and bake the bedsheets. We have to accept this interval because, frankly, the longer we can put off turning on the heat, the better for everyone; the gas bill is an instrument of torture unknown to the Inquisition (deepest respect to the victims thereof), and after the recent unpleasantness between Ukraine and Russia, we know the gas bills will be higher yet this winter.
So much for the sense of touch around here these days. Clammy.
As for sounds, some are new, and many are old but more noticeable, or maybe I’m just becoming more sensitive.
Here are some highlights from the daily soundtrack:
From around midnight to 6:00 AM, a voluptuous silence wraps the city as far as I can hear. It is plush, it is profound. It’s so beautiful that I’m almost glad to wake up just to savor it.
At about 6:00, I hear a few random swipes of the ecological worker’s broom rasp across the paving stones. It must be exhausting work, because it lasts such a short time.
At 7:30 I begin to hear small children walking along the street just outside our bedroom window — you remember that only the depth of the wall itself separates my skin from theirs — on the way to school. Little mini-voices mingle with the bigger voices of whoever is accompanying the tykes up to via Garibaldi. If the day has started right, it’s a charming sound, though sometimes the voices make it clear that everybody needs to hit “reset” on their personal control panels.
Between 7:00 and 8:00 comes the thumping, clanking sound of the empty garbage cart bouncing down the 11 steps of the bridge just outside, guided by the ecological worker who sees no reason to fight gravity because he knows he’s going to face a serious battle with it on the return trip, his cart loaded beyond the brim.
At 8:00 sharp we get the morning hymn played five times from the carillon in the campanile of San Pietro, just over the way. The piece is performed in several keys — mainly the key of flat — and the melody has worn itself into my mind so deeply that if the bells were ever tuned I think it would actually disturb me, like those people who lived along Third Avenue in New York who were so used to hearing the elevated train roaring past their windows that the day the train was removed, the transit company switchboard was overwhelmed with calls from panicky people crying, “What’s that noise?” It was the silence.
Around 9:00 there is a brief but savage skirmish between what sounds like three dogs. This struggle to establish supremacy will be repeated, again briefly, toward 8:00 this evening.
At 2:00 the middle school in via Garibaldi lets out, releasing flocks of young adolescents in a homeward swarm. These children do not go silently, meditating on the poetry of Giosue’ Carducci or the whims of the isosceles triangle. Engage feet, open lungs. You can hear their chaotic shouts all the way down the street. Lino says, “They’ve opened the aviary.”
At 7:30 PM the carillon rings a another out-of-tune hymn, only two times. It’s longer than the morning music, so somebody decided twice was enough.
For a while, the evening noises separate and recombine in various ways (children, dogs, etc.). But peace is not yet at hand. It’s almost 11:00.
11:00 PM is the Hour of the Rolling Suitcase. Actually, by now almost every hour, and half-hour, belongs to the rolling suitcase, whose grumbling across the battered masegni has become a sound more common than shutters scraping open or banging shut.
What is it about 11:00? Where is this person (or persons) coming from? The flight arrivals list for Marco Polo airport gives options such as London, Vienna, or Barcelona, and Treviso Airport might be sending us passengers from Brindisi or Brussels, but whatever the starting point might have been, I marvel every night to hear that some intrepid soul’s day has been spent coming to Venice, and now he or she is finally here. Every. Night. Maybe I should set up a little refreshment stand by the bridge and offer some kind of energy drink, like at a marathon.
And speaking of 11:00, some time around then I hear a vivacious small group come down the street, walking from the direction of Campo Ruga toward however many homes they belong to. You could imagine a bunch of friends meeting every once in a while, and even going home later than 11:00 (which often happens in the summer). But what kind of a group always breaks up at 11:00? In high spirits? Coming from the direction of Campo Ruga? A mah-jongg club? Tango lessons? Choir practice? A renegade chapter of the Loyal Order of Moose? I cannot conceive of what could be going on that would require a group to attend every night, especially in this neighborhood. And yet, they pass, and happily. This, too, perplexes me. Happy every night? Where do I sign up?
But wait. The day isn’t over yet. Now we come to midnight — or almost.
For the past week or so, just as the day has drifted toward midnight, and every normal noise has faded away, and every normal person has shut the front door behind him or her, we’ve heard a sudden heavy metallic CLONNNNNGGGG from the other side of the canal. No, we don’t ask for whom the bell is tolling, because it’s not a bell. It’s the red metal stele which indicates the direction of the Biennale ticket booths; a local consumer of controlled substances evidently cannot physically tolerate, philosophically accept, or rationally justify its verticality. It must be horizontalized, immediately. Maybe it’s some prehistoric variation of hydrophobia.
And in the morning, another person or persons stands it upright again, our own lonely little menhir unknown to archaeology.
Lino discovered the culprit one evening, and pointed him out to me the next day. But what I still don’t know is who puts the signpost upright again the next morning.
Maybe it’s Sisyphus.