November 4 is a landmark date, the anniversary of the signing of the peace treaty between Italy and Austria in 1918 that ended the First World War. I have drawn attention to this event more than once.
For many reasons, World War I maintains an unusually lively presence in my thoughts here. A new reason, recently discovered, is Giorgio Emo Capodilista, one of Italy’s more heroic commanders in a war which, as far as I can tell, was fabulously deficient in even merely competent commanders. I discovered him posing quietly in the Giardini Pubblici behind some shrubs and lashed to the pedestal by a few stalwart cobwebs. I realize that once-famous people are forgotten every day, but neglect is depressing.
Cast in bronze — and only a third of him, at that — he looks imposing. The moustache is excellent. But one has to picture this man in action: Cavalry. Swords. The infamous Retreat from Caporetto. And a strength of purpose for which bronze is a poor substitute.
The inscription, now barely legible, refers in shorthand to an exploit worthy of his comrades of the Light Brigade:
PATRIZIO VENETO GENERALE COMANDANTE LA II BRIGATA DI CAVALLERIA REGGIMENTI GENOVA E NOVARA DEGNO FIGLIO DELLA STIRPE SUI CAMPI DI POZZUOLO DEL FRIULI OPPOSE IL VALORE SUO E DEI PRODI AL NEMICO INVASORE PERMETTENDO SALVEZZA DELLA III ARMATA E SBARRANDO LA VIA DI VENEZIA 29-30 OTTOBRE 1917 GIUGNO 1960
Veneto patrician General Commandant of the II Brigade of the Cavalry Regiments of Genoa and Novara Worthy son of the lineage On the fields of Pozzuolo del Friuli opposed his and his courageous ones’ valor to the enemy invader Permitting the deliverance of the III Army and barring the way to Venice 29-30 October 1917 June 1960.
It sounds very neat and contained, the way these things do on inscriptions. One needs context.
The 12th Battle of the Isonzo, better-known as the Battle of Caporetto, was fought from October 24-November 19, 1917 between the Italian and the Austro-Hungarian armies. To fight the preceding eleven battles in the same area had occupied more than two solid years.
The dimensions of the Italian defeat are still difficult to grasp. According to John Farina (“Caporetto: A Fresh Look,” La Grande Guerra):
“Italian casualties totaled 40,000 dead and wounded, over 280,000 prisoners and 3,150 artillery pieces captured. The Italian army was reduced in size by one half, from 65 infantry divisions to 33.
A message carrier, Attilio Frescura, described what he saw at the bridge across the Isonzo at Caporetto:
‘At one end of the bridge a Lt. Col. was screaming that they had to advance across the bridge. At the other end a Captain, with pistol in hand, was ordering everyone “Back! Back!”. Wagons had been dumped in the river in an attempt to clear the bridge. In the meantime, engineers started planting explosives and preparing to blow the bridge before the eyes of thousands of soldiers from the 46th division that were trying to escape across it.’
Frescura delivered his message to Lt. Col Trezzani who “…ordered me and several others to stop the wave of runaways that was flooding the area and sweeping everyone away with them. We blocked them on the roads and stopped those that had their weapons. Those that had no weapons were allowed to continue to not jam things up. But then many of the armed soldiers saw what we were doing and threw away their rifles…
“…the battle had moved to the roads, but the battle was lost. I found an officer from my unit. He yelled at me:
Go or they’ll get us!
But what about the others?
Go! Go! Everyone go! Run!
We hopped on the running board of our staff car in which I saw some of the officers of my unit. All around the car was a cowardly mass of humanity grabbing onto the car screaming wildly “Go! Go!”
Even our honor – gone.”
The astonishingly rapid advance of the Austrian forces made it imperative to protect the retreating army. By the evening of the next day (October 25), the entire Italian 3rd Army and what was left of the 2nd Army were at risk of being surrounded. The Italian forces were ordered to retreat to the Tagliamento River, a distance ever so roughly, as the vulture flies, of 56 km/38 miles. The order affected the vast majority of the Italian Army: 700 out of a total of 850 Italian battalions, or about 1,500,000 men were ordered to retreat. Almost all of the Italian losses occurred duringthis hideous interlude, between the Isonzo and the Tagliamento.
This is where Giorgio Emo Capodilista comes in.
On October 29 he and the II cavalry brigade were ordered to reach Pozzuolo del Friuli and defend it at all costs for at least 24 hours in order to to gain the time necessary for the retreating divisions to reach and cross the Tagliamento.
Emo Capodilista knew, as did his commanding officer, that even though this action was essentially a suicide mission, it was absolutely necessary.
Trying to move forward, his brigades, together with the Bergamo Infantry Brigade, were blocked by the retreating troops (note above the character of this phase — chaos, panic, pandemonium), an appalling spectacle which one writer observed had a “negative influence on the morale of the cavalry.” That’s probably an understatement, because the “difficult psychological atmosphere” created a high risk that the dragoons, on their way to fight Austrians, would stop to fight their own countrymen instead.
Having reached Pozzuolo del Friuli, the II Brigade found a situation even worse than it had expected. Emo Capodilista and his men obeyed their orders to resist the advancing Austrians at any cost, battling non-stop for 24 hours in the streets and piazzas of the small mountain town, and on October 30 the troops of the 3rd Army crossed the Tagliamento. Mission accomplished. Mission of near-total immolation also accomplished. In protecting the retreating army, he lost more than two-thirds of his men.
“I was always embarrassed by the words sacred, glorious, and sacrifice, ” wrote Ernest Hemingway. “I had seen nothing sacred, and the things that were glorious had no glory and the sacrifices were like the stockyards at Chicago if nothing was done with the meat except to bury it…Abstract words such as glory, honor, courage…were obscene beside the concrete names of villages… the names of rivers, the numbers of regiments and the dates.”
As has become hugely evident, I am temporarily (I trust) slowing down on not making things up.
I discover that it isn’t easy to find new topics that interest me (“new” and “interest” don’t always coincide). Two decades into my life here, a certain amount of repetition in daily or annual events can make it difficult to whip up enthusiasm to address them again.
Also, as I may have hinted not long ago, I am somewhat worn down by the relentless stream of bad, crazy, incomprehensible, infuriating news that steamrolls over the city every day, and if it depresses me to read these stories, it would depress me even more to write about them. I used to find it sort of entertaining, and imagined that examining the entrails of Venetian life could be interesting to people who don’t live here but who care about the city. Examining entrails used to be one way of predicting the future, and the technique still works extremely well — but the future I glimpse is even less appealing than the entrails themselves. (Full disclosure: I happen to like tripe, which is prepared in various ways here. But I’m not sure if tripe qualifies as entrails.) End of metaphor.
There are the infinite variations on the theme of corruption. If I wanted to focus on that, I’d have to change the name of my blog — there’s just too much material. It appears that just about the only person who hasn’t been stealing money from the city, the region, the nation, her employer (which I don’t have, but that’s a detail), or her clients and customers or suppliers, is me. When a general of the Guardia di Finanza AND a platoon of his troops are found with their hands plunged deeply, up to the shoulder, into the municipal pot, it does make you wonder what this world is coming to.
But what now fascinates me is the ever-increasing number of projects that are living demonstrations of a phenomenon we all know too well and for which the Germans have even invented a word: Verschlimmbesserung, a supposed improvement that makes things worse.
These are projects devised by professionals, remember, but perhaps being a professional is becoming a handicap, because so many seem to lose their way in their professional brain-thickets and forget the simplest, common-sense details that are obvious to any user — amateurs! — of their projects.
The two most recent examples, and then I’m finished for today:
The tram. I’ve already mentioned the hideous installation at its terminus at Piazzale Roma. But you don’t have to look at it, so let’s consider that issue settled. What I’m talking about are the almost daily discoveries of inexplicably stupid mistakes. I define a mistake as “inexplicable” if it was performed by a professional.
From the day of fanfare in which the tram made its maiden voyage from the mainland to Venice, there have been technical problems (losing electrical power, often, for assorted reasons; a nexus where the tracks just didn’t switch the way they were supposed to, etc.). But these, theoretically, can be fixed.
But the other day a car broke down on the bridge from the mainland to Venice, thereby blocking all traffic behind it (normal! there’s no breakdown lane!) including the tram (wait — what?). Yes, the tram’s track was installed in the same lane as the wheeled traffic. A normal old bus can just groan, downshift, and inch around a stalled car or truck. The tram can only sit there until it’s all cleared up. The bridge is 4 km/2.5 miles long, and all the passengers had to pile out and walk the rest of the way to Venice, thereby easily making their healthy daily quota of 10,000 steps. And making hash of their morning schedule, doctor appointments, business meetings, Scout jamborees, whatever was on.
Never fear — an excellent experiment will begin in November. For three months (note: containing all the high-traffic holidays), the tram lane will be reserved only for public-service vehicles, which I suppose are considered less prone to breaking down. Did I mention there is no breakdown lane? The bridge has only two lanes in each direction, therefore creating a temporary one by moving into space on the opposite side will crush all the private vehicles into one lane.
If that doesn’t sound especially shudderworthy, consider that about 1,700 vehicles per hour cross the bridge. In 2014 there were 162 cases of stalled vehicles — one every other day, essentially.
So bring on the tram! And bring your hiking boots and Nordic-walking sticks! And just think: You still have to pay for a ticket. The Casino says people aren’t gambling so much anymore, but they’re obviously not thinking of the thousands of people who play Tram Roulette on the bridge every day.
Let’s move on to the Rialto area.
The subject is the platforms to which the vaporetto docks are attached. The past few months have seen a mammoth undertaking to build new ones, bigger ones, more efficient ones.
But now that high water has come calling, it has been discovered that these improvements have un-improved the necessary space to set up the temporary walkways. I have disembarked at Rialto when there was very high water, and without the walkways I’d have had water up to and even past my knees. Walkways at Rialto are not some crazy new idea.
And yet the new platforms haven’t taken the walkways into account, and it was suddenly discovered (cue sound of sloshing water) that the spaces involved don’t work anymore. The temporary walkways can’t reach all the way to the fixed platform, so there will be a gap between the platform and the walkway which will be full of water.
Unhappily, the large brains designing the new docks didn’t think to contact anybody, least of all the steadfast but shot-riddled Paolo Canestrelli, director of the Tide Center, to discuss anything so trivial as height of water, need to calculate for.
To raise the fixed platforms at this point will require another huge undertaking. Just think, everyone had so enjoyed the big inauguration ceremony.
Much of the most beautiful city in the world is beginning to resemble those municipal offices where the employees have to adapt by attaching things with rubber bands, hand-writing signs and labels with Sharpie pens, sticky-notes everywhere. Just make it work somehow.
But now I’m going to make you laugh. It’s only fair. I mean, I laughed, even though on paper (this is paper) it isn’t so funny.
Giancarlo Galan, the former president of the Veneto Region, has been sucked deeply into the MOSE corruption scandal, the details of which will be oozing out even after the trumpet call to the Last Judgment. Among other things, he was convicted of having taken 15,000,000 euros in bribes.
He has done some token jail time (he was sentenced to two years and ten months, of which he spent only 78 days in prison and much of the rest at home in his luxurious villa on the mainland). And the state confiscated this villa, worth some 2 1/2 million euros, to pay off part of his debt. The rules said he had to vacate the premises and leave it in habitable condition.
He did vacate the premises, but the next people to go in discovered that there were no more bathrooms. Workmen, presumably not on their own initiative, had torn out all the radiators, toilets, bidets, and sinks in the place.
So now he has added to his list of misdeeds the formal accusation of having damaged state property. And of not having honored the agreement to leave the villa in useable condition.
His lawyer immediately said that this had been an “error,” and of course everything is going to be put back, right away. How anyone could make such an error baffles and perplexes me.
You see? I don’t have to make anything up. It’s all right there in front of me.
You know what they are — they are those moments when family trees, or shrubs of some personal connection (usually with Lino), spring out of some random event.
A small example: We were walking across Campo San Barnaba the other day and Lino paused to look at one of the everlasting sequence of death notices taped to a convenient column. Because this is his natal neighborhood, of course he wanted to see who it was.
I don’t remember the person’s name — it was a man — but it took Lino only about four seconds to place him. “My older sister Giulia was married to Emilio,” he began. This much I knew — I knew her, though Emilio had gone to glory before I entered the scene. “Emilio had a sister, and this man was one of her sons.”
That would have made him… a cousin-in-law?
But that’s a mere dustmote compared to the story that came up yesterday, when Lino looked at the last page of the paper. That’s where the obituaries are, and sure enough, there was someone he knew. Knew very well, in fact.
It was another Emilio, but don’t let that distract you. He passed away at the age of 91, which means he was 14 years older than Lino. Pointless information, perhaps, but he was Lino’s “master,” for lack of a better word, at the Aeronavali, the company for whom Lino (age 16) went to work at the Nicelli airport on the Lido. (His older brother and twin brother also worked there.) I calculate quickly that at the time Emilio would have been 30 — vastly older, and of course vastly more experienced. Big. Important.
Emilio was given a few apprentices to train, and Lino was one of them. “None of us liked him,” Lino said. “He treated his apprentices like servants.”
Eight years went by, and Lino was 24 years old, and things were going very well for him. Emilio was now 38, and even more experienced and important, of course. Word began to circulate that a squad was going to be organized and sent under contract for four months to Mogadishu, Somalia, to work in the airport and train the Somali mechanics. (Note: In case one wonders “Why Somalia?”, Somalia had lived through three colonial experiences, and one of those periods was Italian.)
As I say, word was wafting around that a big expedition was being formed, and naturally the older workers — Emilio, for one — assumed they would be asked to go. A few of them — Emilio, for one — had even begun preparing and collecting the necessary tools. They were only waiting for the starter’s gun.
But one day Lino was called to the head office. “What have you done this time?” was the general question from his co-workers as they watched him go. “No idea,” was the reply.
When he came out of the office, several lurkers pounced. What was going on?
“He asked if I wanted to go to Somalia,” said Lino.
“What did you say?” said the thunderstrucks.
“I said yes, of course.”
Consternation everywhere, especially among the older group which had assumed they would be The Chosen. Emilio was not chosen. He had to stay behind and watch his still-young ex-apprentice go off in what he had assumed would have been his place, lugging the tools that he (Emilio) had so carefully assembled.
So much for Emilio, may he rest in peace.
There was also “Barba Keki,” the nickname of the head of the group, which roughly translates from the Venetian as “Uncle Frankie.”
“Did you talk this over at home first?” he asked, knowing perfectly well what the answer was. (Lino at the time was a young husband with a several-months’-old son.)
B.K. was concerned, but not because he was jealous. No, it was because B.K. (stay with me here) was the husband of the cousin of Lino’s father-in-law, and if Lino’s wife had protested, B.K. would have found himself in the eye of the cyclone.
Lino merely replied, “They asked if I wanted to go, and I said yes.” Happily, no cyclone touched land.
Today, the flowering of the personal connection shrubbery put out some new blooms.
We had to go the bank to deal with some paperwork, and we went upstairs to see one of the officers, Roberto G.
Lino has known him ever since he (Roberto) was born. This doesn’t surprise me anymore. But he knew Roberto because he had known Roberto’s father, who worked at the Aeronavali when Lino also was working there. He was a carpenter, and his nickname was Pianaura (pee-ah-nah-OO-rah) — “pianaura” in Venetian means “planing.” For you linguists, the Italian word is piallatura. A better rendering would be “wood shaving.”
It’s not over. Lino also knew Roberto’s grandfather, Lello, because he too was working at the Aeronavali. Lello was one of the men who did the heavy lifting, the scut work. One of his tasks was to keep the big tank of drinking water filled, a plain but effective precursor of the water cooler. Lello would pump water into the tank from another tank, then put in a chunk of ice (this was summer, clearly), and then a few drops of anise liqueur, such as Sambuca. There are those who swear that water and Cynar is the best thirst-quencher, but the mechanics at the Aeronavali drank water and anise.
So we went to the bank — I signed some papers and got a family tree. I like it.
Several readers were kind enough to inquire as to what could possibly be so big and impressive (or time-consuming, or distracting, or whatever) to keep me off my blog for so long.
Now it can be revealed that I was writing a rather big article about Daniela Ghezzo, a Venetian custom shoemaker, for an excellent new online magazine called “Craftsmanship.” And if I have not yet bombarded you with the news via the social networks, let me bombard you here.
The point of mentioning it isn’t so much to display my amazing creative abilities, but to bring forward a person with even more amazing creative abilities, not to mention skill, not to mention manual dexterity and fabulous imagination. Why do I know how hard it is to do what she does? Because she makes it look so easy. Zwingle’s Third Law: The harder something is to do, the more the ignorant onlooker thinks “Hey! I could do that!” Fred Astaire always looked as if he didn’t even have sweat glands.
I hope if any of you finds yourself in her street that you will pause to imbibe the beauty, but that you will manage not to let your pause interfere too much with whatever she’s doing. Being open to the public is a great thing for her business, of course, but can be a drawback to her work, and if it turns out you’re the tenth person to stop to ask her what she’s doing– which of course, you won’t know — it means she will probably have donated more than an hour of her day to friendly questions, and when you’re working it’s not so easy to start and stop and start again. Some shoemakers work only by appointment for that reason, and some beleaguered artisans in Venice now charge money for stopping long enough to talk to people. Just saying.
Of course, if you intend to ask her to make a pair of shoes for you, your encounter obviously will not qualify as time wasted.