Archive for History


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.


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The Gioachin Question

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A sharp-eyed reader who read my recent post on Carlo de Ghega has written to the “Comments” page with the following salient observation:

Gioachin Erla? The marvelous iMaps+ doesn’t help, but the index to my typical Venice map lists a Gioacchino S Fm at E9, and there it is, at what iMaps calls Fondamenta San Giovacchino. No wonder he’s “famous”.

Checking up on street spelling might be as good an excuse as any to plan a stroll around Ghega’s native heath, but I will help those who are farther away by giving evidence here of the spelling on the nizioleto.

For anyone coming in late to this epic, which is beginning to resemble Ben-Hur mixed with Michael Strogoff and 20,000 Leagues under the Sea, here is the link to the Preface, Backstory, Prequel, Dramatis Personae, Nihil Obstat, or whatever one wants to call it.

1x1.trans The Gioachin Question

Here is the nizioleto located five steps away from the plaque to Carlo de Ghega. The writers and carvers thereof chose to spell the name of his street as “Gioachino,” that misbegotten half-Venetian, half-Italian lingo which was one of several causes of the Great Nizioleti Uprising of 2013.

1x1.trans The Gioachin Question

Perhaps, for reasons unknown, the plaque-creators decided to copy from this nizioleto, rather than the other ones around, such as just across the little bridge to the right.

1x1.trans The Gioachin Question

I’ve always liked the fact that the Venetians named the fondamenta for Saint Anne and the bridge (and facing fondamenta) for her husband, Saint Joachim. You know, “and in their death they were not divided.”

Which brings me to a dead end in the cartographic road, so to speak.  Simply put, I cannot understand — and I’ve tried — why makers of Venice maps don’t write the street names to match what’s on the walls.  It’s so sublimely idiotic that even my brain, which idiocytropic, refuses to deal with it.  Where the matter of street-names-on-maps-differing-from-street-names-on-streets is concerned, my brain is like a cat examining a new product in its food dish, a product which even after a few minutes hasn’t yet inspired any urge to proceed. Sniffing, looking, and even licking haven’t produced any reaction at all.  Perhaps I have overdone this metaphor.  I haven’t really licked anything involving maps.

If anyone knows, or even imagines that he/she knows, or even has just a wild theory, as to why mapmakers publish street names which are not the same as the street signs in this extremely foreign country otherwise known as the most beautiful city in the world, I would be grateful to be told.

Then I could go back to looking and sniffing at other things.

1x1.trans The Gioachin Question
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