Archive for History
As I mentioned in my last post, Venice used to be infested with movie theatres, but time and tide and commerce wait for no man, and we all know that cinemas stay in business on a margin thinner than tissue paper. But it wasn’t always so. Lino took me on a walk around Venice to discover the movie theatres he remembered from days gone by.
Launching our voyage of discovery were two plaques I had long since noted (I can’t remember why I was there) on a meaningless little side street between San Marco and San Moise’. These announce to the few people who pass each day that two extraordinary events in Venetian history, and the history of theatre/spectacle/opera/public performances, took place there.
This spot was the site of the Teatro San Moise’, which like many cinemas was born as a regular theatre, with a stage and sandbags and so on. It had been established (as many theatres were) by a noble family — in this case, the Giustinian of San Barnaba — as an opera house in 1640 and, though small, was highly influential. (In 1668 it was enlarged to 800 seats.) Vivaldi and Albinoni and other musicians, Venetian or otherwise, held concerts of their music here, and it was also used for entertainments of the commedia dell’arte. In 1818 the theatre shifted to puppets, then was rebuilt as the Teatro Minerva.
There is nothing that even hints at an erstwhile theatre except this doorway:
Back to the plaques. The first one commemorates the defunct theatre in its musical incarnation:
And just a few feet away, on the same wall of what is now partly shops and partly apartments, is this:
As must be clear by now, movie theatres came, and then went. Their relatively brief life here was glorious. Following are most of the cinemas that Lino remembers. He didn’t favor me with any reminiscences about the back rows.
Let’s stop for coffee. The next episode will be a wander around Lino’s old neighborhood on the other side of the Grand Canal.
A ridiculous amount of movies has been made in Venice over the last 100 years or so — Wikipedia lists 114, but that is a paltry and inaccurate number because the list omits many films, as well as the many films that have been made here in languages other than English.
For example, there is “Viaggi di Nozze” (“Honeymoons”) starring Carlo Verdone in which he plays an insufferable doctor who takes his bride to Venice on their honeymoon, but by the time they arrive in their suite at the Danieli Hotel he has become so unbearable that she throws herself out the window just to get the hell away from him. There is the fabulous “Vacanze Intelligenti” (“Intelligent Vacations”) with Alberto Sordi, in which he and his fruit-selling Roman wife end up at the Biennale in the summer heat and she, exhausted, collapses under a tree and is mistaken by the public for a work of art. There is also “Les Enfants du Siecle,” a French film about George Sand and Chopin in which Lino repeatedly rowed an old boat loaded with oranges past the facade of Palazzo Pisani-Moretta. These are just random examples, but you see that the list could go on and on into German and Spanish and probably Russian and, for all I know, Tongan.
But while we’re all accustomed to Venice being the star of innumerable movies, you may never have asked yourself if anybody ever went to the movies in Venice. They did. A lot. Back before cell phones roamed the earth and everything electronic took over people’s brains, going to the movies was just as much prime entertainment here as it was in Boring, Oregon and Sweet Lips, Tennessee. Perhaps you imagined the Venetians spending their free time floating around in boats, singing folk songs, but most people were sitting in the dark watching crazy things happen on a big square of silver-coated cloth. Venice was rife with movie theatres.
I managed to see a few movies in my early days in Venice (dubbed in Italian, as is almost always the case here), before the few remaining theatres gasped their last. A few small ones are hanging on, showings listed each day in the Gazzettino. “La-La Land” is here, with subtitles in Italian. Martin Scorsese’s “Silence” is also here (or was, a few days ago), in English.
All this has come to mind because of the renovation and reopening of the Teatro Italia, shown above. Ever since I’ve been here this splendid edifice has been closed, silent and empty. But there are plenty of Venetians who have vivid memories (especially of the back rows, I’m guessing) of the decades when it reigned as a movie theatre. Now people who go there will be having vivid memories of the mortadella and the rigatoni, because it has been revived as a supermarket belonging to the Dutch supermarket chain, De Spar. To its credit, the company has retained and refurbished the frescoes (did your hometown movie theatre have FRESCOES?), adding a touch of glamour to your search for scallopine and cheap wine.
Let me give you a glimpse of this transformed emporium of fantasy and thrill, but I’m not going to stop there. As usual, I let myself get carried away, and so in the next episode I will be conducting a tour of the movie theatres that Lino remembers from the days of yore.
This is a date which has sunk somewhere below the waterline of general knowledge, but in Italy it still carries serious significance. By which I don’t imply that people commemorate it or talk about it, but it remains one of those watershed dates in European/national/sometimes individual history.
I bring it up — today being September 8 — not to indulge in a monologue about politics and World War II, but because Lino’s father was briefly and importantly involved.
The barest outline is this, with apologies to true experts and connoisseurs of all the fine points: Italy and Germany were allies at the outbreak of the war. The war was going very badly for Italy because it had begun to go badly for Hitler, so Hitler essentially abandoned his Italian so-called friends. Abandoned (as noted), the Italian government decided to forego large amounts of futile bloodshed, and asked the Allies (more particularly General Eisenhower) for an armistice. One of the conditions of this surrender was that the Americans would land on the Italian mainland. It was an excellent plan; the armistice, known as the Armistice of Cassabile, was duly signed on September 8, 1943. All this was kept as secret as possible for reasons which even I can grasp.
Except that secrets are tricky. The change of label from “enemy” to “friend” or vice versa worked fine on paper, but nobody told the army this was going to happen. Came the dawn on September 9, and the troops didn’t know who they were supposed to be fighting anymore. Even their generals, who were similarly blindsided, basically told their men “Do what you want, we have no idea what’s going on.” So the armed forces disbanded, just like that, every man for himself. Most just ran away somewhere (not to be confused with “running away”); many headed for home, a good number struck out for the mountains to hide and become guerrilla partisans. Not everybody made it, however.
The Germans saw the Italians as traitors, i.e. adversaries, and proceeded to occupy the peninsula, up to and including Venice. And here, as elsewhere in Italy, the Germans began to round up all the Italian soldiers they could find to cart them away to Germany as prisoners. Ships were engaged to hold the growing collection as the Germans went up and down the Adriatic coast seeking Italian deserters. Some of those ships were in Venice.
Therefore, one day in this turbulent and panicky period, a ship was moving along the Giudecca Canal, sailing away with its load of Italian troops, destination: Depths of Hell. Some of the prisoners decided to risk an escape, and jumped overboard. And that day Lino’s father was rowing back home from an interlude of fishing (there were ten mouths at home to feed), and was crossing the Giudecca Canal when he saw one man hit the water.
Lino’s father rowed over (I don’t know how far he had to go), pulled the man into his boat and threw a spare jacket on him as a makeshift disguise. He rowed the man home and hustled him upstairs. His name was Mario Dossi, and he was from Naples. Lino says they used to have a photo of him standing with Lino’s brother, Puccio, on the Ponte della Paglia near the Piazza San Marco.
But the apartment was small (Lino’s sister still lives there, and it’s perfectly fine for one person. But not for ten — or rather, eleven.) Some ladies down the street took Mario in, and there the story ends.
Except that it’s a happy ending, because some time after the war, one of Lino’s sister’s boyfriends was in Naples, and looked Mario up. So he was fine.
A substantial number of films, some of them famous classics, deal with the war and Italy after the fateful September 8. Their common theme is brutality, as you might expect. I’ve seen Spike Lee’s “Miracle at Sant’Anna” (one of many massacres committed as reprisals). “Captain Corelli’s Mandolin” follows the same thread of warfare between the Italians and Germans after September 8 in Greece. In my opinion, two films on this theme that belong in the pantheon of great cinema, however, are “Everybody Go Home” with Alberto Sordi (“Tutti a Casa”), and “The Two Marshals” with Vittorio de Sica and Toto’ (“I Due Marescialli”), if for nothing else than the divine scene of the German colonel and the unidentifiable fart.
If you can see those movies, you’ll be glad. Just remember that there wasn’t anything funny about September 8. But be glad for Mario Dossi.
As we were wandering around the Rialto area examining Fascist mottoes, we also discovered an astonishing assortment of signs, symbols, inscriptions, and other indications of life from the past that are just sitting out there in the rain and wind deteriorating with nary a squeak from themselves, much less anybody else.
Here are some of the things we found. (Well — “found” isn’t quite right. They were hardly lost. But they do seem to be in the process of becoming lost.) I’m not saying we’re the only people who have ever noticed these, so no prizes or props to us. But it seems clear that nobody at the Superintendency of Fine Arts or Beni Culturali or any other government agency tasked with paying attention to the city’s treasures, monuments, or general aesthetic or historical elements has given them any thought whatsoever. I’m all for restoring paintings by Titian, but I’m also for respecting and even defending these literal voices which have been silenced because they’re not famous.
The proclamation on this column reads as follows (translation below by me):
TARIFFA DELLE VTILITA DEL PESADOR DE FRUTTI FRESCHI STABILITA DAL MAGISTRATO ECC. DEGLI INQUISATORI ALLE TARIFFE APPROVATA DAL CONS. ECC. DI 40 AL CRIMINAL 1726 26 MARZO OLTRE DE QUALI NON POSSANO NE PRINCIPAL NE LI SOSTITUTI TVOR (prendere) NE MANDAR COSA ALCUNA SOTTO LE PENE DELLE LEGGI PER IL PESO DI CADAUN CESTO CORBA (illegible) CASSA O ALTRO COLLO DE ERVETTA HAVER DEBBA COME SEGVE SINO A LIRE 60 DI PESO SOLDI VNO — 1 SINO AL 200 SOLDI DVE — 2 PER QVALSIVOGLIA MAGGIOR SVMMA IL PESO SOLDI QVATTRO — 4 GIOBATTA LIPPAMANO INQ FRANCESCO BATTAGGIA INQ SIMON CONTARINI INQ NICOLO MARCH (?) SEC
THE TARIFF OF THE COMMODITIES OF THE WEIGHMASTER (I invented this word; the pesador was the official weigher) OF FRESH FRUITS ESTABLISHED BY THE MOST EXCELLENT MAGISTRACY OF THE INQUISITORS OF THE TARIFFS APPROVED BY THE MOST EXCELLENT COUNCIL OF 40 OF THE CRIMINAL (the “Quarantia,” or Council of 40, was the supreme government office concerned with financial planning and the Mint; it was divided into three sections, and the “Criminal” was responsible for capital crimes and, as needed, the death penalty) 1726 26 MARCH BEYOND WHICH NEITHER PRINCIPALS OR THEIR SUBSTITUTES MAY TAKE (“tor” or “tuor” is still the common Venetian word for “take”) OR SEND ANY SORT OF THING UNDER PAIN OF THE LAWS FOR THE WEIGHT OF EACH BASKET CORBA (a corba was a long, large basket made of wicker or woven chestnut twigs, usually with handles) CHEST OR OTHER LARGE CONTAINER OF GREEN LEAFY VEGETABLES HAVING TO PAY AS FOLLOWS UP TO 60 LIRE OF WEIGHT ONE SOLDO – UP TO 200 TWO SOLDI – FOR WHATEVER AMOUNT ABOVE THAT FOUR SOLDI GIOBATTA LIPPAMANO INQUISITOR FRANCESCO BATTAGGIA INQUISITOR SIMON CONTARINI INQUISITOR NICOLO MARCH(?) SECRETARY.
I have only translated that bit about money and weight as literally as I can, but you clearly have to be in either the selling or the weighing business to be able to interpret what they mean. Please overlook this for now.
“Erbette,” literally “herbs,” refers to planty foods such as spinach, chicory, chard, etc. The indefatigable Tassini notes, in “Curiosita’ Veneziane,” that the Erbaria at Rialto was the place where such plants and fruits from the nearby islands and mainland were sold. I translate: “It existed in the 1300s, and in 1398 was paved with stone, while before it had been paved with wood. The business (“art”) of the vegetable-sellers was a ‘column’ of the Fruit-sellers guild, and in 1773 had 122 shops, 11 closed places (I am guessing those were the gated and locked storerooms), and 89 “sendings.” (Consignments?). He continues, “In 1581 this ‘art’ was allowed to have its altar in the church of SS. Filippo and Giacomo (church torn down by Napoleon) which had belonged first to the Bargemen, and also served for the use of the Linen-workers.”