A reader whose brain is no less sharp than his eyes has written to query (fancy word for “question”) a point I made concerning the provenance of Viale Garibaldi.
He was skeptical concerning my statement that the viale had once been a canal, despite the painting by Canaletto which I presented as evidence. And he referred to three sources which, while not conclusive, did dim the lights on what I had thought was pretty clear.
Naturally, being questioned brought me up short, but it was a fine excuse to do some research of my own. I enjoy this because it means I’m acquiring, if only briefly, big topheavy loads of knowledge, and that’s just about my favorite thing. When I was little they would have had to send out the rescue squad — if anybody had noticed — to pull me safely from the pages of the encyclopedia, where I would float for hours, drifting from one unexpected thing to another.
The ease of being able now to paddle along the Interweb, as a friend calls it, means that I can be lost for more time than ever before, clicking my way through people, battles, cities, works of art, plants, styles of architecture, titles of neorealistic films, and if I pause for breath, seeing what Wikipedia entries look like in some extraordinary language like Frysk. May its tribe increase.
Here’s a philosophical puzzle: Was I seeking information in an effort to prove myself right? Or was I trying to prove him wrong? In the great scheme of things, they aren’t exactly the same, though probably the pleasure one feels at being right isn’t one of those pristine emotions enjoyed by spiritual mystics, but is given an agreeable little zing by the fact that your questioner was wrong. After all, if a person is right in the forest, and there’s nobody there to hear…. Well, let’s move on.
I was wrong. Viale Garibaldi wasn’t born as a canal, it was a riva (embankment with steps) facing the Bacino of San Marco. And while it doesn’t give me much satisfaction to be seen as having purveyed likelihood as certainty, this has been a useful reminder to check anything I write before I hit “Fly, little birdie, fly!” and off soars my prose.
So although the time involved in this effort has only shortened my infinite to-do list has exactly one item so far, I can say the day has not been wasted.
A few days ago a powerful storm passed through, strewing rain and wind everywhere (though it stopped short of throwing hail, I’m glad to say, nor did any tiles go frisbeeing off roofs — my own ballpark-way of measuring the ratio between windspeed and danger).
But I forgot about trees. We discovered the following morning that these can also be useful, potentially life-threatening, indicators of wind.
The viale Garibaldi (not to be confused with via Garibaldi) is the shady length of filled-in canal which stretches 785 feet (239 m) from the aforementioned street to the Giardini vaporetto stop. During the summer its enclosing rows of lime trees provide the most heavenly shade, and there is always some breeze. The benches, especially during the heat of the day, are almost always occupied by people who are either eating or sleeping, which leads Lino to refer to this space as either the refectory or the dormitory.
We weren’t surprised to discover that a tree had been blown down, but I was surprised to see what damage it had wrought. Lime trees bless us briefly with the most heavenly perfume each spring when the flowers bloom, but evidently their root system is not adapted to the conditions here. By “conditions” I don’t mean the possibility of wind, which exists everywhere, but the likelihood of wet and shallow subsoil. Even if it doesn’t rain for weeks and the leaves all turn brown, I am convinced that the aforementioned former canal (which continues to flow through a large pipe beneath the gravel) maintains some level of moisture which disturbs the balance between horizontal and vertical. If I’d ever studied physics, I’d know what to call this. I suppose “topheavy” will have to do meanwhile.
Lime trees, or linden, have carried sacred significance for millennia for Slavs, Germans, and Greeks. I respect the leaves’ purported healing properties also. But I have learned that while it’s a great thing to wander among them at blossomtime, you’d better keep away when the wind rises.
Keeping as close to houses as you can manage, in case any rooftiles decide to join the party.
Our upstairs neighbor, G.S., now retired, finally has all the time he wants to go fishing. I understand that this is the dream of many men, and he is living it to the full.
He sits in his boat on some expanse of water — naturally he will never tell us where, and Lino, a fisherman himself, will never ask. He sets up three fishing rods, and with what appears to be superhuman talent always brings home something. Often, many somethings. Which he sometimes shares with us.
First, he passes our kitchen window, which is usually open except in the depths of winter. He may call a friendly greeting, or Lino may already have heard him tying up his boat. So G. will pause, and Lino will indulge in what seems to me to be lots of time discussing the day’s conditions, catch, and other occult particulars of the angler’s art. Lino never fished with a rod (he prefers the leister, or what I simply call a “trident” even though it has many more than three prongs). But he knows as much as anyone about the lagoon environment and the customs of its finny fauna. So they confer for as long as they feel like it, then G. goes around the corner and upstairs.
For quite a while, he would sometimes reappear (three flights of stairs, twice — what a guy) and plop a plastic bag of some of his fish onto the windowsill. And not just any fish. Gilthead bream (orata, or Sparus aurata), sea bass, seppie, and assorted companions who made the wrong decision by thinking “Gosh, if the bream bit, it must be good. I think I’ll try it.”
He would briefly and modestly accept our praise and thanks. Like anyone who does something really well, he considers most compliments to be mere statements of the obvious. I once complimented the wife of a trattoria-owner in our old neighborhood on her fried meatballs. “They’re the best meatballs in Venice,” I said, thinking I’d give her pleasure. “I know,” she replied. And that was it. Once I recovered from the sensation of having missed a step going down the stairs, I realized that she couldn’t honestly have said anything else. If she didn’t know how good they were, who would?
Back to G.
Matters have taken a new turn. He comes home, he passes the window, he shows Lino the catch, they talk, he goes upstairs. Normal. But the other evening, after a few minutes, we heard him call. Then a plastic bag tied to a string mysteriously appeared, descending from above, framed in the doorway.
People still sometimes let down baskets to pull up whatever they need (everybody’s got flights of stairs), and more than sometimes they let down their bags of garbage and leave them hanging on a long cord for the garbage collector to retrieve. (Except they won’t be doing that tomorrow, because the garbage people are going to be on strike. Gad.)
I suppose if we lived on the third floor and he on the ground, he’d call for us to let down a basket, bag, tray, some kind of receptacle, and we’d pull up the fish, sometimes still thrashing. His generosity means that we now eat fabulous fish at least once a week. But it’s beginning to be hard to keep up with him. When somebody gives you eight or ten bream, which is one of the most valued fish in the Venetian culinary repertoire, you feel joy and gratitude and bursts of self-congratulatory health. But you can’t eat eight or ten at one go, and the freezer is beginning to murmur in a discontented sort of way, probably beginning to consider staging a mutiny of the bounty.
But we have put our hand to the plow, as the Good Book hath it, and, as advised, we are not looking back. If fresh fish is to be our fate, we will just keep on accepting it.
I promise that I will not transform this blog into the daily bulletin from the MOSE hecatomb.
But two days ago (June 14), at the last meeting of the council of ministers, the government did something so extreme — and indisputably necessary and long overdue — that I want at least to make it known.
They abolished the Magistrato alle Acque. An entire government agency with 500 years of history is no more. Yesterday it was, today it is not.
Beginning in October, its responsibilities will be “absorbed” by the Inter-regional Director of Public Works of the three contiguous regions of the Veneto, Friuli Venezia Giulia, and Trentino Alto Adige.
Of course this is good, but I feel sick at heart. Not only because of the annihilation of one of the last tiny links to the Venetian Republic, but because a gesture of this magnitude shows all too vividly the extent of the rot.
People who occasionally had to request a permit for temporary use of a certain stretch of lagoon have long been aware that the Magistrato was as swampy as Reelfoot Lake. It wouldn’t have been the first city agency whose functionaries accepted the occasional guerdon for speeding up the processing of requests. I’m not saying the employees of the Magistracy did such a thing. I’m just saying that if they did, they wouldn’t have been alone.
The Magistracy of the Waters was established in 1501; it was specifically charged with overseeing the health and security of the lagoon, and any action required – digging, land reclamation, maintenance — had to have its approval.
Care of the lagoon required care of its tributary rivers, too. Venetian engineers diverted the Po River, for God’s sake; between 1600 and 1604, innumerable men with shovels and wheelbarrows cut Italy’s greatest river at Porto Viro and turned it southward. There were many reasons for this, some of them political, some economic, but it was also time to limit the amount of sediment that was filling up the lagoon. The Venetian Republic knew that the care of the lagoon was its primary life insurance.
“Lagoon” (laguna) is a Venetian word, by the way.
But the Magistrato was populated by many individuals who were not all of the same stripe, and in 1678, human nature having demonstrated its impressive dimensions, the Venetian Senate created a group of inquisitors to conduct the legal cases against those accused of having damaged the lagoon. There must be some diabolical hothouse somewhere that causes little tiny crook seedlings to sprout, then sells them to the Magistrato alle Acque where, in its own special microclimate, they can flourish and grow to be big tall leafy crooks.
In fact, I now learn that this is the third time that the Magistrato has been “suppressed,” as the headlines put it, though it’s the first occasion where the reason was crime.
In 1808, during the brief but eventful French domination of the city (1806-1814), the Viceroy Eugene Beauharnais put an end to it, for reasons I haven’t yet discovered. It didn’t take long for it to become evident that this was an error, the neglect having contributed to an assortment of watery damage. When the Austrians took over for the first time (1816-1848), they quickly re-established the Magistrato, reorganized it, renamed some departments, applied a coat of varnish and it was good to go again.
In 1866, when Venice and the Veneto became part of the new nation of Italy, the Magistrato was annulled again, and again a series of hydraulic disasters showed what serious consequences could come from indifference to the state of the waterways.
The Magistrato was reformulated for the third time in 1907 as part of the Ministry of Infrastructure and Transport, and its authority expanded to cover the entire hydrological basin of northeast Italy — an enormous watershed of rivers, lakes, and other lagoons stretching from Mantova to Trieste. Total area of its authority was some 40,000 square kilometers (15,000 square miles). So when we talk about the misfeasance of the Magistrato, we’re not talking about some little local entity that turned out to have just a few bad apples.
I very sincerely hope that Cuccioletta and Piva, in their respective cells awaiting trial, are happy. Because I’m not, and neither are a whole bunch of other people.