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Let me try to explain…

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Being by yourself can be lovely, when the sun is shining and there isn't too much wind.

Being by yourself can be great, if the sun is shining and there isn’t too much wind.

Several readers have written their reactions to my post about Ricky.  And in answering them, I have sifted through my brain and realize that I neglected stressing some important points in my account of the hideous homicide, the main point being why I wrote about it at all.

I let myself get somewhat carried away by the grisly details (like every reporter currently working in Venice, evidently — the newspapers have surrendered entire pages to this epic). That was wrong.

The reason I did this was because (A) like almost everybody, I’m fascinated in a repulsive way by stories like this, but (B) more to the point, I reacted to him as somebody I sort of know.

Venice is a village, as I often point out, and you get caught up in dramatic stories involving people you know, or (more often) to people known by people you know.  Ricky is only ten years younger than Lino, and his family home was a few doors down from where Lino lived. They’d see each other here and there, and while he was obviously somewhat unbalanced even when young, Ricky was just part — obviously a somewhat unusual part — of the neighborhood.

Lino says Ricky had a generous streak (the Mestre neighbors keep repeating how he always tried to do things for people).  Lino remembers one day he was slaving away in his boat, trying to get the outboard motor to start.  Ricky stops and says “Hey, I’ve got a motor inside.  Come get it, you can borrow it.  You can have it.”  Lino didn’t take the motor, but he remembers the offer.

The story continues to unfold, producing more terrifying details, but I’m not going to repeat them because what it is is sad sad sad.  I didn’t make that clear.  He was born crazy, and he has spent his life either struggling against his craziness or sometimes giving in.  This is not an excuse, but everyone quoted in these endless articles talks about what a solitary person he was. He was “tremendously alone,” as one person put it; he didn’t have anybody watching out for him. Whether or not you’re taking your meds, loneliness is a killer.

No more about Ricky from me, unless it’s something we all need to know.  Of course I feel bad for the woman and her family, but I also feel bad for uno dei nostri — one of ours.

IMG_1004.JPG alone



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Ricky again, or still

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I’m sorry to start the year this way, but not nearly as sorry as the people who are involved.

Riccardo Torta — “Ricky” — if you’ll cast your minds back, spent 16 years in prison and a psychiatric hospital after killing an agent of the Finance Police on May 31, 1973.  They had confiscated his boat because of his trafficking in illegal cigarettes, so he was angry.  He spent the next two decades telling people he never meant to do it, he didn’t know why he did it, it was just a joke.

Now it’s 2016.  He’s been living in Mestre for 20 years in an apartment by himself, and by all accounts not keeping up with his meds.

He has become very, very big, tall, heavy, which could make him scary, except that the neighbors know him mainly as a sort of strange person but who’s usually keen to lend a hand — you know, the gentle giant.  He sometimes does the shopping for Nelly Pagnussat, 78 years old, a little old lady on the second floor of his building.  She also lives alone, although she has married children.  She sometimes fixes him something to eat.  Just setting the scene.

Friday evening around 8:00 PM he rings her doorbell.  She lets him in — after all, they’re friends.  He even calls her “aunt.”

He kills her with a hammerblow to the head.  Then he takes a chainsaw and dismembers her body.  He puts the pieces in four big black plastic garbage bags.

Here are some sea otters.

Here are some sea otters, if this helps.

Meanwhile, Nelly’s daughter is concerned because her mother hasn’t answered the phone for two hours, so she and her husband go over.  They, and a neighbor (an 83-year-old lady.  Nice!) enter the apartment and find Ricky standing there, with the bags and the dripping chainsaw.

The daughter’s husband says, “Where is my mother-in-law?”  Ricky replies, “She wasn’t feeling well.”  Then he runs out and barricades himself in his fourth-floor apartment.

Every person in uniform in Mestre descends on the block, which is cordoned off; the tenants of the building are requested to leave, and the gas in the building is turned off, just in case he might have discovered some matches meanwhile. SWAT teams in heavy assault gear climb the stairs and position themselves outside his front door.  A psychiatric specialist begins to negotiate with him,

After three hours of talking through the door, he gives himself up and they take him away. He’s in prison on suicide watch.  The newspapers are like pots boiling over.

Three days ago, Ricky went to the hospital for his therapy (I presume pharmacological). He had been under increased observation during the past year, but recently had seemed no longer to suffer from hallucinations. True, the neighbors knew he was more than a bubble off plumb — he would sometimes wander around his apartment terrace nude, or occasionally throw a bucket of urine off the balcony. Also, really loud music at night.

The hospitals for the criminally insane have been closed by law for several years, the plan being to house mentally ill prisoners in small “communities.”  But the Veneto Region is way behind in opening these facilities; a few weeks ago, Emilia-Romagna, the region next door, registered a complaint because former inmates from the Veneto were being sent to the facilities there.  But in Ricky’s case, what is there to be said?  He’d served his sentence and he was out, like anybody would be.

Forty-two years of good behavior have been noted, but wherever he goes next, I’m assuming he won’t be coming out again.

Good-bye to his for Ricky.

Good-bye to all this for Ricky.  Or whatever morning looks like in Mestre.


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Relentless brilliance

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A sailor awaits the sunset signal to lower the flag on the sail-training ship "Palinuro."

A sailor awaits the sunset signal to lower the flag on the sail-training ship “Palinuro.”  This has no relation to anything that follows, it’s just here to remind us of why we love Venice.

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.

Beauty is the keyword here. Don't forget it.

Beauty is the keyword here. Keep this at the forefront of your brain.

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.

These are the two lanes available for wheeled vehicles to reach the city (or depart from it). The concrete center barrier is moveable, so part of the excellent experiment is going to be shifting it to make a temporary extra lane when needed. Thereby reducing the other side to just one lane.

These are the two lanes available for wheeled vehicles to reach the city (or in this case, depart from it). The concrete center barrier is moveable, so part of the excellent experiment will be to see if shifting the center barrier to create a temporary extra lane when needed will work out, even though even I, sitting at my desk, realize that doing so will thereby reduce the other side to just one lane. Creating a problem by solving another — hasn’t that already been tried?  (Photo: Davide Dalla Mora, Facebook.)

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.

I don’t think an advanced degree in engineering is necessary to help you understand how to keep people’s feet dry getting from the platform to the temporary walkways (neatly stacked in the background). Or maybe it is.  All they needed to do was to ask Mr. Canestrelli before it was too late.

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.

One just keeps on making the best of things.

One just keeps making the best of things.


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Birth of a nation

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This mountain of marble and metal was created by the Roman sculptor Ettore Ferrari, and was inaugurated on May 1, 1887, nine years after the king's demise.

This mountain of marble and metal was created by Roman sculptor Ettore Ferrari in honor of King Vittorio Emanuele II, and was inaugurated on May 1, 1887, nine years after the king’s demise.

As anyone who has ever walked along the Riva degli Schiavoni knows, there is a honking big statue in the middle of the street.

Many (most? all?) countries can boast imposing effigies of men on horseback, usually brandishing a saber, or their hat, or maybe a banner.  Brandishing, anyway.

Considering that, in the case of the mounted man on the Riva, nobody has seen fit to provide even the tiniest clue as to who he is, you’ve probably been satisfied to surmise that somewhere, at some time, this man did something bronzeworthy..

Then you take pictures of the more memorable lions, and move on.

But for anyone who would, in fact, like to know what’s up with all these characters, I am ready to reveal all.  And my excuse is the date, June 2, which is a national holiday known as the Festa della Repubblica, or Republic Day. Although the man relates only inversely to the event (more on that below), I’m exploiting this occasion because there isn’t another one around that fits him any better.

The swordbearing cavalier is King Vittorio Emanuele II (also known as the “Father of the Fatherland”), and he was the first king of the newly created nation of Italy.  Clicking on that link will spare us slowing down for a reprise of most of the details; the “juice” of the subject, as they put it here, is that in 1861 Italy pulled itself together to form one nation out of many assorted mini-nations, duchies, and kingdoms.

The pulling-together process was long, toilsome, and often extremely bloody.  Then the newly-minted Italians, having established the Kingdom of Italy on March 17, 1861, had to find a ruler.  The mantle fell on the aforementioned Vittorio Emanuele, a member of the House of Savoy (one of the oldest ruling families in Europe), who was already King of Sardinia and, more important, had been a major participant in the Unification process.

Some of the main events which led to this moment, with several Venetian codicils, are depicted in nearly insane detail on the monument, as follows:

Our story begins with Venice (represented by a heroic woman as well as the winged lion of San Marco) in chains, prisoner of the Austrians who occupied the city until 1861.

Our story begins with Venice represented as a heroic woman as well as by the winged lion of San Marco.  The scene recalls the condition of the former Serenissima under the oppression of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and its soldiers who occupied the city until 1861.  Her sword is broken, her flagstaff snapped, and the lion is gnawing at his chains.  Her cap recalls the doge’s “corno,” the characteristic hat of the Venetian dukes.

IMG_6022   vitt e

Below her left foot is a shattered shield, with the dates 1848-1849 in the center.  This was the period of the desperate uprising against the Austrians and the attempted establishment of the Kingdom of Venice.  Around the border are incised the names of

At her feet is a shattered shield, with the dates 1848-1849 in the center. This was the period of the doomed uprising against the Austrians led by Daniele Manin, and the short-lived establishment of the Republic of Venice. Still more important is the fact that his uprising was part of a larger series of conflicts against the Austrians in northern Italy in what is generally called the “First War of Independence.” Around the border are incised the names of certain important battles: Monte Berico, Marghera, Goito, Mestre.

On the north side is the shield of the House of Savoy, and above it a tangled scene in low relief which shows the future King in the process of winning the battle of TK.

On the north side is the shield bearing the simple emblem of the House of Savoy, and above it a tangled scene in  relief which shows the future king in the process of defeating the Austrians at the battle of Palestro (May 31, 1859). He personally fought at the head of the Sardinian bersaglieri.

A generic scene of grisly combat, with the King front and center.

A generic scene of grisly combat, with the not-yet-king front and center.

On to the happy ending. Austria defeated, Venice once again proud, with full sword and snarling lion unchained.

On to the happy ending. Austria defeated, Venice once again proud, with full sword and snarling lion unchained.

The lion's right paw tramples not only a few links of the former chain, but a document with the date "1815" inscribed on it --

The lion’s right paw tramples not only a few links of the former chain, but a document with the date “1815” inscribed on it.  That year saw many momentous events, but for our purposes it signifies the Congress of Vienna, which marked the earliest step toward the eventual Unification of Italy.

On (date tK) the Venetians voted on the proposal to join the Kingdom of Italy.  The number of votes are inscribed here:

On October 21 and 22, 1866, Venetians voted on the proposal to join the Kingdom of Italy. The number of votes are inscribed here: Yes 641,758, No 69.

IMG_6011  vitt e

On the hem of the robe of victorious Venice is a single name: MANIN.

On the hem of the robe of victorious Venice is a single name: MANIN.

The larger scene is the king's entrance into Venice in 1866.  Below it, though, is an important afterthought, just to bring the saga to the appropriate close: A square tablet which reads 1 May

On the south side, we see the king’s arrival on his first state visit to Venice.

On DATE TK, King Victor Emanuele II entered Venice and rendered homage to the city in the Piazza San Marco.

On November 7, 1866 King Victor Emanuele II entered Venice and rendered homage to the city in the Piazza San Marco.

A detail of the king pausing before the majestic scene.  Hidden behind his entourage are two illegal pigeon-feed sellers, 5 illegal long-stemmed-rose sellers, and 85 illegal selfie-stick sellers.  Oh wait -- that's today.

A detail of the king pausing before the majestic scene, which lacked the now permanent contingent of illegal sellers of pigeon feed, long-stemmed roses, and selfie-sticks.

text here

And to bring the story to its fitting conclusion, this assortment of details (plaque with the date 1 May 1867, and the shield bearing the she-wolf suckling Romulus and Remus) immortalizes the date on which Rome was voted the capital of the new Italy.

Remarkable, how big this little lion is, compared to all the rest.

I see swords and guns, but don’t discern a pen in this collage.  I’m sure there must have been at least one somewhere in the midst of this whole affair.

Flag of the Kingdom of Italy (1861-1946).

Flag of the Kingdom of Italy (1861-1946).  No need for fussy crowns and mythic beasts in the center — the coat of arms of the House of Savoy does the job.

I mentioned above that I’m writing this on Republic Day, even though the king relates to it only inversely.  I say that because after 85 years of kings, the Italian people went to the polls on June 2, 1946 and voted to replace him with a republic.  That’s one impressive job-performance evaluation.

Furthermore, the king and his entire family were sent into exile, which demonstrates some prudence on the part of the new government, considering that 54 percent (almost all in the North) had voted for a republic but 45 per cent voted to keep the monarchy (almost all in the South).  There are a few characters around Venice who still make a point of putting out the royal flag on certain occasions.  It’s a vain gesture; the Italian Constitution forbids the reinstatement of a monarchy by constitutional amendment.  The only way to bring back a king would be to write a completely new constitution.  This is not on anybody’s to-do list.

In any case, if there were to be a new king, he couldn’t come from the House of Savoy, as the Savoyards formally renounced their claim to the (non-existent) throne in 2002 in return for being permitted to set foot in Italy again, should the mood strike.

But the statue remains, and even if nobody now recognizes who it is on the horse, it served a very important purpose in its time. Statues of Vittorio Emanuele II and his co-divinity, Giuseppe Garibaldi, began to appear in many places after Unification.  The reason, as so aptly and famously put by contemporary statesman Massimo d’Azeglio, was “Now that Italy has been made, we need to make the Italians.”

You wake up one morning and you’re an Italian.  What is that supposed to mean?  Statues of the two major protagonists were one way of focusing public attention on the new reality and the new identity.

The analogous statue to Giuseppe Garibaldi, by Augusto Benvenuti, was inaugurated on July 24, 1887, a few months after the king's memorial.

The analogous statue to Giuseppe Garibaldi, by Augusto Benvenuti, was inaugurated on July 24, 1887, a few months after the king’s memorial.

“To transmit the … sense of a common past and present identity … effectively, urban space became re-defined for the political realities of the late nineteenth century.  Public commemorations became widespread, especially through the erection of monuments and plaques, and the re-naming of streets.  Their inauguration ceremonies encouraged the collective participation in the spectacle of the ‘imagined’ nation.  Personality cults which glorified national figures such as King Vittorio Emanuele II and Giuseppe Garibaldi were perceived as important tools in the nation-building process.”  (Laura Parker, “Identity, memory, and la diarchia di bronzo, Commemorating Vittorio Emanuele II and Giuseppe Garibaldi in post-Risorgimento Venice.”)

I close with some trivia, which as everyone knows, I never consider trivial.


This is a place-holder.

The Savoia & Jolanda hotel is just steps away from the kingly statue.  I’m guessing that it was named for then-prince Vittorio Emanuele III (the grandson of the man with the sword) and his daughter Jolanda.  He ruled from 1900 – 1946, and his visit to Venice in 1882 with his mother, Queen Margherita, inspired a number of memorials.

For example, this plaque above the Coop supermarket on via Garibaldi.

Such as the plaque above the Coop supermarket on via Garibaldi.

Which states:

Which states:  “Margherita Queen of Italy and Vittorio Emanuele Hereditary Prince on July 20 1882 Leaning from this balcony admired the festival ordered in their honor The new example of the ancient bond which in days that are happy or sad unites realm and people It was desired that this be remembered June 1902.”

Queen Margherita was reportedly much more popular than her husband.  This statue represents her holding a torch which is alight at night.  Take that, Statue of Liberty. An attractive legend holds that the pizza Margherita was created in her honor, composed of the three colors of the national flag (tomato, basil, mozzarella).

Queen Margherita was reportedly much more popular than either her son or her husband. This statue represents her lifting a torch which is lit at night. (Take that, Statue of Liberty.) An attractive legend holds that the “pizza Margherita” was created in her honor, composed of the three colors of the national flag (tomato, basil, mozzarella).  There is no “pizza Vittorio Emanuele Maria Alberto Eugenio Ferdinando Tommaso, Father of the Fatherland,” meaning no disrespect.  I can’t even begin to think what it would be made of.


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