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Perusing Venice

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One of several reasons why there has been a lapse in my postings is that there is an atmosphere of lethargy in the city which translates into “not very much to write about.”

Of course there’s always plenty if one wants either to dig far enough, or continue blotting the spindrift from the waves of unsolved, or unsolvable, problems.  But since the city government collapsed in a heap last June, the many problems which continue to afflict the city are almost always reduced to “Money, lack of.”  And writing about Money, lack of is not only monotonous, but also pointless.  And depressing.

Of course, “no ghe xe schei” has been the convenient phrase inserted into every situation for years, even when there was money; it was an excuse which the city administrators could turn on and off at will, as if it were the radio.  Then we discovered that there really wasn’t any money anymore, because it had been given to most of the participants of the MOSE project. You know that sound when you’re sucking on a straw to get the last drops of your drink?  The silence I’m referring to is the sound of ever-longer pauses between the municipal mouth and the municipal funds.  Not many drops left, but if you stop sucking it means you’ve given up, and we can’t have that.

Apart from what it signified, I’ve enjoyed this somnolent January.  We’ve had beautiful weather, and very few tourists.  But now that Carnival is bearing down upon us (Jan. 31 – Feb. 17), that’s about to change.  Thirty days of tranquillity isn’t enough, but it’s all we get.

The tranquillity induced us to take a few uncharacteristic aimless strolls.  You know, like tourists do, and this confirmed what tourists know, which is how lovely it is to wander and what interesting discoveries you make in the process.

Here, in no particular order, is a small, confetti-like scattering of what I’ve seen recently.

1x1.trans Perusing Venice

On a small, unremarkable side street which leads to essentially nowhere, we came upon this very remarkable neighborhood sotoportego which local piety had turned into a shrine.  The inscription over the doorway explains everything…

1x1.trans Perusing Venice

It says: “Most holy Virgin Mary of Health, who repeatedly preserved immune from the dominating mortality the inhabitants of this Corte Nuova especially in the years 1630 – 36 – 1849 – 55 (NOTE: FIRST TWO DATES ARE PLAGUE, SECOND TWO DATES ARE CHOLERA) and from the bombs of the enemy airplanes 1917 – 18 Benevolently accept their grateful vows and the vows of all of this parish Deign to extend your protection which we trustingly implore on all your devout followers (word obscured by underbrush is “devoti”  — thanks to reader Albert Hickson who saw it before the bush began to grow).

1x1.trans Perusing Venice

Two impressive capitelli, or small altars, survive, but several large empty spaces hint that they might once also have supported more. Even here we find the inevitable graffiti, which if it could be deciphered almost certainly would not be of a sacred, or grateful, nature.

1x1.trans Perusing Venice

If you have ever walked along the Fondamenta dell’Osmarin between Campo San Provolo and the Ponte dei Greci, you may well have noticed this tablet. It represents San Lorenzo, for whom the nearby fondamenta, former church and current home for the elderly are named. How do I know this (other than having found the information in a book)? It’s because — according to the custom of depicting a saint with the instrument of his/her/their martyrdom — here we clearly have a man holding a grate, and we all know that San Lorenzo was grilled to death like a steak on the barbie.

1x1.trans Perusing Venice

For anyone curious about the chalice he is holding in his right hand (which looks oddly like a crescent, but it may be just the optical effect), legend maintains that he was able to spirit away the Holy Grail to Spain, and it is now venerated in the cathedral of Valencia.

1x1.trans Perusing Venice

There is a longish brick wall fronting the canal of the Arsenal, which faces the wooden bridge at the Arsenal entrance. This imposing marble sculpture is one thing which you can easily admire, or not, as you choose. But the little bronze plaque to the viewer’s left has been defeated by time and by being placed so high that you can’t read it anyway. But I have persevered, and while it doesn’t contain the secret to turning straw into gold, it’s worth revealing what seemed so important at the time.

1x1.trans Perusing Venice

This is my translation: “On the VI centenary of the death of Dante Alighieri the Naval Commandant of Venice, Admiral G. Pepe, restored and beautified the entrance facade of the Arsenal. On that occasion the marble monument of the XVI century, placed here at the side, which after many transfers found itself incomplete and defaced on the crumbling wall of the old workshop was restored and completed and transferred to the public view. Venice September 1921.” Of course a noble work like this would be hard to accomplish today, seeing that there is no money.

1x1.trans Perusing Venice

Enough exploration. Carnival begins on Saturday and my friend, Dino, who is a retired baker, makes the most divine fritole on this mortal earth. He gave us eight, just out of the vat. They are smaller and lighter than the bocce balls sold as fritole in the pastry shops. These are little candied sugared slightly greasy clouds. I wait all year for these works of art and they are among the few things that make Carnival worthwhile. Sorry, they’re all gone now.


1x1.trans Perusing Venice

This is what was floating by the dock at the Giardini: a television. But that’s not the really funny part. What baffles me isn’t that somebody threw it into the water — we all know how that goes — but that it has floated here in this exact spot for more than 24 hours. Have the tides gone on strike?

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Picture this

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1x1.trans Picture this

This is the Scalzi Bridge, linking the fondamenta of the train station (left)  to the fondamenta of the rest of Venice. Today we know the bridge as a graceful marble arch, but from the mid-1800s to the early 1930s, the bridge looked like this (as did the Accademia Bridge).

Now here is something different you can do on Christmas afternoon, if you’re not watching football and your family has allowed you to live. You can look at oldish photographs of Venice.

Not quite as old as the photograph above, but the last 50 years has produced an immense trove — some 80,000 images — of places all around Venice, and some 7,000 of those are now online. They belong to the Urban Photographic Archive of Venice.

These photographs weren’t made for any aesthetic reason, but as sturdy visual records of all sorts of projects, restoration, maintenance, new public works, and so on. Prose, not poetry.

In case anyone imagined that Venice has been encapsulated by time, like the proverbial black spitting thick tail scorpion in amber, a random scan of these pictures will show how much change has been going on here since the Sixties.

So go have a look at the Album di Venezia, click on the red words in the center that say “Archivio Fotografico Urbanistica Online,” and on the page that comes up, click on the red rectangle that says “Sfoglia l’album,” and go to it.  As per frequently, there is no English translation.  So working out the words ought to amuse you for a little while.

By then it will be time for another piece of pie, and you’ll have something to talk about that doesn’t involve pigskin.


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The name game

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1x1.trans The name game

“The Vianellos beat everybody,” the headline states.  “The foreigners increase.” According to the article, there are 4339 people in the Comune of Venice with the last name Vianello.  I’m sorry to see that the Barbarigos and Mocenigos have gone the way of the great auk, though some once-noble families (Moro, Dona’) are on the list.

Not a game at all, but shards of information I consider interesting, in an ephemeral sort of way.  My favorite kind.

Meeting people here, or even just reading about them in the paper, will fairly quickly give you the sensation that there is only a handful of last names in Venice.  Reading Venetian history has the same effect.  There were 120 doges, and every five minutes it’s a Mocenigo or a Morosini or a Barbarigo or a Contarini (I feel a Gilbert and Sullivan patter song coming on).

In daily life nowadays, it’s Vianello or Zennaro or Busetto or Scarpa, all at some point from Pellestrina, where so many with these surnames dwell — and have dwelled — that the town is divided into four sections, each named for one of those specific tribes.  This situation was created by doge Andrea Contarini, who in 1380 sent the four eponymous families from Chioggia to Pellestrina to reconstruct and inhabit the former town which had been destroyed by the Genoese in the “War of Chioggia” (1378-1381).

The density of these four names in Pellestrina is such that the post office finally gave permission to put nicknames on addresses, to give some hope of distinguishing between the scores of individuals with the same first and last name, some of them even living at the same location.

In the Comune at large, Costantinis and Penzos abound, and every year there is a bumper crop of D’Estes and Dei Rossis.  Each name has its own provenance; some of them are obvious (“Sartori” means “tailors,” “Tagliapietra” means “stonecutter,” with which Venice had to have been infested) and some are more obscure (“Ballarin” meant “sawyer,” and “Bastasi” were the porters, specifically for the Customs or the quarantine islands).

1x1.trans The name game

As we see, there are more Hossains now than Senos or even than Chens.  But after 500 years they might well be on the list of Venetians, if there’s still a Venice.

I’ve been here long enough — and it doesn’t mean you need to have spent a LONG time — to recognize the provenance of many of these names.  If you hear one of these, you have a good chance of knowing where the person comes (or came) from:

Chioggia:  Penzo, Pesce, Boscolo, Tiozzo, Padoan, Doria

Burano:  Vio, Costantini, Zane, Tagliapietra, Seno

San Pietro in Volta:  Ballarin, Ghezzo

Murano:  Toso, Gallo, Ferro, Schiavon

Cavallino:  Berton 

Venice (Dorsoduro): Pitteri

A few tidbits from the article, which are not evident in the table of numbers but are obvious to anyone living here:

First is that during the past ten years, the number of individuals bearing each surname has diminished.  That’s just part of the well-known shrinkage of Venetians.

Second — also fairly obvious to locals — is the addition of foreign surnames.  Of course, my surname is foreign too (German-Swiss), but I’ve been happy to disappear among many Venetians whose last names also begin with “Z,” and they aren’t German, either:  Zane and Zanella and Zuin and Zuliani.  It’s great down here at the end of the alphabet, I’ve finally got company.

As you easily notice, Muslim and Asian names are becoming more numerous.  (I realize that “Muslim” is not a nationality, nor a geographical area, but while the bearers of these names are most likely from Bangladesh, I decided not to guess).

So where would the “Vianello” clan come from?  According to my dictionary of Italian surnames, it springs from Viani, which isn’t a place, as far as I can determine, but a basic root-name.  Lino hypothesizes that it could derive from “villani” (pronounced vee-AH-nee in Venetian), which means farmers, tillers of the soil — “villein,” in the feudal terminology, a partially-free serf.  You can still hear someone around here vilify another person by calling him a “villano,” and they don’t mean “villain” — they mean clod, churl, oaf.

“Rossi” means “reds.”  It’s the most common surname in Italy, though in the Southern half it is often rendered “Russo” (the second-most common surname in Italy).  It most likely came from a personage with some strikingly red attribute, such as hair, beard, or skin.  Or all three.

“Scarpa” — It means “shoe,” so I’m guessing their forebears were shoe-makers, though then again, it’s possible that it was once somebody’s nickname (in Venice, at least, nicknames are fairly common and the person bears it for life and even sometimes leaves it to his children.)  However, another hypothesis holds that it could be a variation of Karpathos, the Greek island known as “Scarpanto” in Venetian, and which formed part of the Venetian “Sea State” from 1306 to 1538, plenty long to germinate names.  Thousands of Greeks lived in Venice, so the place name may have shifted to a personal name.

There are lots of names that come from places, sometimes Venetianized, such as:

Visentin (vee-zen-TEEN): Vicentino, or from Vicenza

Piasentini (pya-zen-TEE-nee): Piacentino, or from Piacenza

Veronese: from Verona

Trevisan (treh-vee-ZAHN): from Treviso

Furlan (foor-LAHN): from Friuli

Schiavon (skyah-VOHN): from Schiavonia, later Slavonia, which is now the easternmost part of Croatia. The Venetians were known to trade, among other valuable merchandise, in slaves, which often came from Central Asia or the Balkan hinterland. “Schiavo” (SKYA-voh), conveniently shortened, means “slave.”  Slav – Slave.  Not made up.

1x1.trans The name game

The names may change, but the activity described on a plaque inside the Arsenal remains the same regardless of time, nation, or blood type (translated by me): “5 June 1743 Gabriel di Ferdinando was the Adjutant of the Admiral of the Arsenal He was banished under threat of hanging for being an unfaithful administrator guilty of enormous extremely grave detriments inflicted in the management of the public capital.”


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Root canal

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1x1.trans Root canal

A map of Venice by Joan Blaeu (1596 – 1673), official cartographer of the Dutch East India Company. I realize that Jacopo de’ Barbari’s bird’s-eye view of Venice (1500) is more famous, but this version is just as full of insane detail. In fact, I think the watercolors are a great help.

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.

1x1.trans Root canal

A cropped section of the view shows the location as it was just before Canaletto’s day. Although the proportions seem to be a little hinky, there is no denying that the churches painted by Canaletto were facing toward the Bacino of San Marco. And what is now Viale Garibaldi was occupied by a stretch of pavement with steps going down into the water, as he so clearly portrayed.  The thrill of new knowledge is only slightly muted by the effort now to erase what I see every day and try to see the city as they saw it.

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.


1x1.trans Root canal
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