Archive for Boatworld
Before we leave the subject and the scales and bones and gift-wrapping of Christmas behind, one last glimpse of holiday merriment. I wasn’t there, I’m sorry to say — I was sorry to say it the day it occurred, too, which was December 21.
The event: A “corteo,” or boat procession, in the Grand Canal, composed of anyone who wanted to row as long as he or she was dressed as Santa Claus (or “Babbo Natale,” as he’s known here).
The reason: First, because it seemed like a fun thing to do. Second, because it seemed like an amusing occasion for the Coordinamento delle Remiere (the association of rowing clubs) to give a prize and a big round of applause to the dwindling group of hardy souls who have rowed in all 40 Vogalongas. I say “dwindling” because in May there were 24 such persons, and on Santa Sunday there were 22.
The special bonus: Fog. Fog and just enough wind to make the air feel even sharper. But would this deter anyone willing to pull out the boat and pull on the red-and-white outfit? Obviously not.
Because I was busy elsewhere, Lino armed a modest sandolo and headed for the lineup joined (happily for Lino and I think also happily for the others) by Gabriele De Mattia, a former rowing student of his and ex-cadet of the Francesco Morosini Naval School, and his girlfriend, Francesca Rosso. She had never rowed before, but Lino soon took care of that.
So the three of them spent the morning rowing, and Lino was awarded a red pennant, such as those given to the winners of races here, with his name on it, and everybody was happy. Especially when the sun finally came out.
So a big shout-out to Francesca, who when she wasn’t rowing, was taking pictures. If she hadn’t been there, you all would just have had to imagine it. As would I. This is better.
July 29, as all the world knows, is the feast day of Santa Marta. Or in any case, now the world knows.
She is essentially forgotten here; her church has been deconsecrated, swallowed and partially digested by the Maritime Zone, and her celebration — once one of the greatest of the many great festivals here — is gone forever. Only a painting by Canaletto brings us the tiniest (and darkest) glimpse of what was once a very big night in Venice. Her name today is used mainly to refer to the adjacent neighborhood.
The reason I didn’t get this post finished by July 29 is because I got lost reading assorted accounts, some of them first-hand, about this uber-fest. It didn’t take me long to conclude that the fabled feast of the Redentore, which has remained a very big deal, was really nothing so remarkable compared to Santa Marta’s. The Redentore had fireworks, it’s true, but Marta had fresh sole.
Fish was an excuse for a colossal boating party? Why not? The Venetian civil and religious calendar was bursting with events of every type and voltage. A very short list would note the festivals of Santa Maria della Carita’, Palm Sunday, S. Stefano, “Fat Thursday,” May 1, or the Doge’s Visit to the Monastery of the Virgins, S. Isidoro, the taking of Constantinople (1204), the regaining of Candia (1204), S. John the Baptist “Beheaded,” Sunday after Ascension Day, the victory over Padua (1214), the defense of Scutari (1479), the victory of Lepanto (1571), S. Rocco, Corpus Domini, the victory of the Dardanelles (1656), and the conquest of the Morea (1687). These are just a few of the major events; the Venetians also commemorated defeats. There was something going on almost every day.
But there was always room for more, and although Santa Marta couldn’t claim to have sponsored any particular victory, discovery, or other noteworthy occurrence, her feast day conveniently fell in the period when the weather was suffocatingly hot, and the sole were in season. Plus, her church was located on a little lobe of land facing lots of water, and there was a beach. All this says “Put on your red dress, baby, ’cause we goin’ out tonight” to me.
The basic components were: Everybody in Venice, either on land or on the water, regardless of social station or disposable income; every boat in Venice — so many boats you could hardly see the water, festooned with illuminated balloons and carrying improvised little arbors formed by frondy branches; music, song and dance, and lots and lots of fresh sole.
July is the season for sfogi zentili, or Solea vulgaris, and while the Venetians could bring their own vittles, plenty of them also bought the fish which had just been saute’d, either on the beach or on the street by enterprising entrepreneurs. If you were really in luck, there would be moonlight, too.
The best and most famous chronicler of this party was Giustina Renier Michiel, who was born in 1755 and belonged to several patrician Venetian families. She spent 20 years researching her six-volume work, Origine delle Feste Veneziane (1830), but the fact that she had personal memories of many of these events makes her books exceptional.
I started to translate what she wrote about the feast of Santa Marta, but she went on so long, and her style sounded so curious in English, that I became tired and discontented. So I’m going to give some bits and summarize the rest. Anyway, it’s clear that the event was so phenomenal that even people who saw it finally gave up trying to describe it adequately or coherently.
Here is her version of how the festa was born:
“In the old days many groups went out in certain boats to fish for sole, the best fish that one eats in July. (Lino concurs with date and description.)
“And in the evening they would go back to the beach by the church of Santa Marta and feast on the fish, enjoying the cool air that restored their depleted strength after the labor of fishing, as well as the heat of the season.
“Later on, as the population became richer, and softness set in, the work of fishing was left to the poor people, who had to do it in order to live, and what used to be a fatiguing labor changed into a singular entertainment.”
My version: It didn’t take long for everybody else in Venice to say “A cookout on the beach? We’re on our way.” Everybody started making Santa Marta’s Eve a great reason to head for her neighborhood and eat fish, garnished and enlivened by the classic saor sauce of sweet-sour onions. It was like a gigantic clambake, a barbecue, a luau, for thousands and thousands of people.
Obviously the beach was too small for everybody, so the boats made themselves at home on the Giudecca Canal, “whose waters could only be seen in flashes, and almost seemed to be strips of fire, agitated by the oars of so many boats that covered the water and which doubled the effect of the lights which were on the boats.”
The patricians came out on their fabulously ornate peote, and often carrying musicians who sang and played wind instruments. There were scores of the classic fishing boat called a tartana, draped with variously-colored balloons and loaded with laughing families and friends. There were artisans in their battellos, and hundreds of light little gondolas, and plenty of gondolas da fresco, and there were even the burchielle, the heavy cargo boats that carried sand and lumber. If it could float, it joined the vast confusion of boats being rowed languidly in every direction, or tied up along the Zattere where there was just as much happy turmoil ashore.
The Gazzetta Urbana of 1787: “Along this riva, called the Zattere, the cafe’s and bars are crammed to overflowing with people. There are tables set up outside their doors, and everything is so lit up that it seems to be daytime.
“The passage (of people) in all the streets leading to Santa Marta was dense and continuous, and the splendid gathering at the Caffe of San Basegio, at the head of the Zattere, formed a separate spectacle, in which our Adriatic beauties, wearing modern shimmering caps in the Greek style, ornamented with plumes, inflamed with their glances the hearts of the young men who, like butterflies, always flutter around the flare of a woman’s beauty.”
Also amid the throng were little ambulatory kitchens — a man with a basket of sole would put two stones on the ground, then lay two bunches of sticks crosswise on them, light a little charcoal under them, pour some oil in a pan, and stand there bawling for business. He kept a container of saor ready to put on the fish.
Renier Michiel: “The entire length of this district was full of a grand concourse of people, moving toward the piazza of Santa Marta which was the best vantage point to enjoy the spectacle. On the piazza there were more food vendors, some of them selling roast chicken. There is a racket of cups, plates, the yells of the vendors, the music from the boats on the water. Every house is transformed into a sort of tavern where people eat and drink, and there was perfect joy and harmony.”
“Perfect joy and harmony”? How can this be (apart from the fact that she was looking back on it, years later, when the festival was gone forever)?
I think it’s because Santa Marta was secretly taking care of people. She is the patroness of cooks, butlers, laundry-workers, servants, housewives, and waiters. Though I suppose you could just say “housewives” and leave it at that.
Because as Santa Marta, and 99 percent of women on earth, can attest, while some people at a party are laughing and scarfing the canapes and playing with the dog and singing comic songs and reveling in industrial-size helpings of joy and harmony, there’s at least one person somewhere in the background doing everything to make it seem as if there is absolutely nothing that needs to be done.
And I have no doubt that when the boats went home at dawn on July 29, there was somebody who had to put the boat away and swab the bilge and pick up every single fishbone, as well as deal with the dishes and the wine- and saor-stained clothes. Behind every great saint is somebody with a bucket and mop, I say.
Seeing that by now I have drilled into everyone’s brain the fact that the Regata Storica is an event that has been held over the past several centuries, it’s fair to say that many of its attributes could be regarded as traditions.
Tradition, as I have drilled, etc., is a word intended to connote The Way We’ve Always Done It. But a closer look at many traditions demonstrates clearly, even to those in the back of the room, that they can be changed, eventually to become the new Old Traditions.
Take the pig.
For about the last hundred years, if not more, the traditional prize to the pair of men finishing fourth in the Regata Storica on the gondolinos was a live piglet. I have not yet begun the search for the reason for this, so just accept the fact that along with a blue pennant and some money, the pair got a young Sus scrofa domestica.
And they weren’t merely presented with the little swine at the end of the race. Before the race even formed up, the creature was put into a crate, placed on a boat, and exhibited up and down the Grand Canal.
By 2002 the animal rights organizations finally overcame this tradition, having claimed for years that the practice was cruel and inhumane. I saw the parade of the pig once, and it didn’t look so degrading to me. He was a lot more comfortable than anyone on the #1 vaporetto on a Sunday afternoon, and nobody in the animal rights organizations cares about them.
Returning to the subject of the fourth-place prize: Either people lived closer to the earth back then, 0r there were fewer scruples running around unsupervised, so a live pig seemed like a fine thing. The idea was not to divide it, like the baby brought before Solomon, but to send it to the country somewhere to be fattened and cossetted and tended until it was time for it to achieve its true destiny: Sausage. Soppressa. Pork chops, Pork roast, and so on.
There is a hoary old joke about this undertaking, which can be altered according to whichever town or place you want to insult. The person who told it to me was insulting Pellestrina, and it was made funnier by his imitation of the distinctive local accent. To Venetians, this way of speaking implies something rustic (to put it politely) and uncouth (to be frank). It implies individuals who would not consider pig-fattening to be anything out of the ordinary.
So: Two men from Pellestrina enter the Regata Storica, finish fourth, and get the pig. They are being interviewed by the national reporter, who asks them what they plan to do with it.
“I’m going to take it home,” says one.
“Take it home?” says the reporter. “Do you have a pigsty?”
“So where will you keep it?”
“Oh, I’ll keep it in the kitchen,” the racer replies.
“The kitchen!” blurts the reporter. “But what about the smell?”
“Oh,” the racer says, “he’ll get used to it.”
What would be a good substitute for a live pig? I hear you ask.
A pig made of Murano glass. And it doesn’t have to be fed or slaughtered, or shared out in perfectly equal halves, because they make two of them.
Now we come to the real point of the story. A few weeks ago, the very enterprising and high-spirited members of the Settimari rowing club decided to add something else to the prize line-up. They dispensed with the annoyance of raising and killing a pig, and got right to the point of it all, which in Venice translates as Food.
They planned a big dinner in their small clubhouse, invited Martino Vianello and Andrea Bertoldini, who had finished fourth this year, and uncrated two gigantic roasted whole pigs, ordered from somewhere in Umbria where the art of roasting pigs has reached the sublime.
If you’re a vegetarian and still reading (unlikely, I admit), you might want to stop now.
We spent several hours gorging on one, and the other was given to the pair, who didn’t anticipate any trouble at all in dividing and consuming it. Just like the old days, but better.
Because, as Andrea Bertoldini explained it to me, a live pig was really a problem. He’s been racing for at least 20 years, and has finished fourth in other editions of the Regata, so he has had first-hand experience of what being awarded a baby pig really means.
It’s not just taking care of it for months (you generally give it to somebody who’s already got the sties and the feed and the mud and all). It’s that you start to become attached to it, like Fern Arable; you feel sorry for it, and so everything gets derailed in the Natural Order of Things.
So Andrea was perfectly fine with dispensing with the tradition and moving on to something new, and easier to handle.
Better yet, he and Martino were each awarded a plaque which proclaimed them to be a “Principe del Porchetto” (Prince of Roast Pork). This was not only original, and cleverer than the old joke, but a play on the term “Re del Remo” (King of the Oar), which is given to the couple which wins the Regata Storica five years in a row.
Andrea and Martino have finished fourth in various years, but this the second year in a row they did it, and so the title of “prince” implied that if they were to come in fourth for the next three Regatas, they could be called King of Roast Pork.
Maybe you had to be there.
In any case, you’d have loved it. You never had to look into the creature’s soulful eyes, and you got as much as you wanted of the tender, herb-infused meat encased in dark greasy skin that was insanely crunchy. If you were to shut your mind about what you were eating, it wouldn’t have been because the animal inspired pity. It would be because you refused to think about what the food was going to do to your arteries.
If those two really do become Kings of Roast Pork, they’re going to have to spit-roast an entire herd of swine to supply the celebration. I’ve already got my plate and fork and cholesterol medicine ready.
A few readers have asked how the Venetian boats travel to and from these foreign locations I keep jaunting off to.
In three words: Trucks, cranes, and Olindo.
In my first expedition with a traveling gondola, however, which we had taken to the lake of Bolsena for a big festival, we had the truck and Olindo, but no crane. I don’t remember how we got the boat into the water, but a whole bunch of us had to turn to in order to get the gondola back up into the truck by hand. When I saw what we were about to do (it was early in my shipping life), I thought it was impossible. When I think back on it, it still seems impossible. And yet, we did it.
I should mention that there were about ten of us per side. Maybe more. And at least two people — Olindo and Lino — understood the geometry and physics of the operation, so we weren’t relying solely on brute strength.
Obviously, picking boats up and pushing them around by hand is not ideal — for the boat, I mean, the heck with us. There are always plenty of XY-chromosome people hovering nearby, eager to show how strong they are. But we had no choice.
So the plan is simple. You row or tow your boat to Punta San Giuliano, on the edge of the lagoon where the bridge touches land.
Because there are three boat clubs there, there are also three cranes, of which I have only ever used the biggest. And the trucks will arrive, often driven by foreign nationals, often from somewhere in the Balkans. These drivers communicate by means of international truck-language, which is based on an assortment of gestures and shouts.
And there will be Olindo. He is the magus of boat transport, the scion of Chiarentin Trasporti, founded by his father in 1922 when boats still FAR outnumbered motorized vehicles. And because his father’s blood was condensed and consumed by hauling boats up the Brenta river by means of his own arms (until he could afford a horse), Olindo has inherited a mystic capacity of knowing exactly how to handle any sort of boat — positioned, braced, lashed, counterpoised, and otherwise settled for a long truck ride in such a way as to come out looking better than when it left. Or certainly not worse.
Some people understand animals, some people even claim to understand women. Olindo understands boats. The boat has yet to be born so big, delicate, or valuable that can ruffle him in any way. Usually it’s the amateurs who are trying to HELP that drive him over his recommended personal rpm’s.
So sending the boats to Orleans was pretty routine. The only thing that was different from other trips was the size of the crane brought in by the city to pluck many of the boats from the Loire and send them home. Its hydraulic arm could have been measured in football-field-lengths, and it could lift a maximum of 25 tons. I thought the Diesona was big; the crane thought it was a splinter.
The only living thing I know that could match that crane for strength, inch for pound for atmospheres, would be Olindo, actually. If they ever made him hydraulic, we wouldn’t need Archimedes’ proverbial fulcrum and level — he could move the world by himself.
Too bad there wouldn’t be a truck big enough to hold it. Though the shouts and gestures would probably be the same.