Archive for History

The eye of God, the eye of the patriarch, nothing seemed to faze the good sisters.

The eye of God, the eye of the patriarch, nothing seemed to faze the good sisters.

Life under the Serenissima wasn’t all state occasions and visiting potentates.  It was a whole lot of craziness, and often some of the main players were priests and nuns (separately and together).

I already knew that a good number of convents were forced-labor camps for generations of patrician Venetian women who, for whatever reason, didn’t win the marriage lottery.  There were some cloisters which were notorious for having inmates who adhered closely to the “carpe diem” doctrine of the Church of Life.  San Zaccaria, Ognissanti, Santa Maria Maggiore were only a few of the more notorious locations, and where this led is evident by what is sometimes found by men digging to lay new pipes or lines where convents used to be, viz.: a tiny skeleton.  Not made up.

San Zaccaria, the Benedictine sisters thereof, built up quite a reputation over the centuries.  The Venetian historian Sanudo records that on July 1, 1514, it having been decided (not by the nuns) to “close the parlor of San Zacharia for more honesty, the vicar of the lord patriarch Zuan di Anzolo di Santo Severino…went to accomplish this task with a few captains and officials; seeing that the nuns threw stones at them and forced them to flee…the patriarch himself went in person to accomplish this task.  Then, by order of the Council of Ten, someone was sent to make windows.”  Need to let some light in, and make it easier for others to see what’s going on.  Theoretically.

But that was a temporary inconvenience.  In the 17th and 18th centuries things were back to the way they’d been, if not more so.  Persons of both sexes came to socialize, to conduct “brilliant conversations”; the nuns organized parties and masked festivities, and sometimes brought in puppet shows to amuse the children who tagged along with the brilliant conversers.

"Il Parlatorio" (the parlor), by Pietro Longhi, DATE TK.  Not exactly the atmosphere one associates with cloisters.

“Il Parlatorio” (the parlor), by Pietro Longhi (late 18th century). The convent isn’t identified, but I don’t sense the atmosphere one usually associates with cloisters.

"Parlatorio delle monache di S. Zaccaria" (parlor of the nuns of S. Zaccaria), Francesco Guardi, 1746.  (Ca' Rezzonico, Venezia).  The central figure is not a nun, as far as I can make out.  There is a puppet show in progress, which is nice.

“Parlatorio delle monache di S. Zaccaria” (parlor of the nuns of S. Zaccaria), Francesco Guardi, 1746. (Ca’ Rezzonico, Venezia). The central figure is not a nun, as far as I can make out. There is a puppet show in progress, which is nice.

The nearby church of San Lorenzo, like many churches, also had a convent attached to it.  The convent is gone and the church is shut, which is too bad if only for the fact that it contains (or contained) the tomb of Marco Polo, who was buried there in 1324.

But the convent is what I want to talk about.  Why not?  Probably everybody in Venice talked about it.  I translate the quaint but pointed style of Giuseppe Tassini, in “Curiosita’ Veneziane“:

“We hinted in various places at the almost general corruption that reigned in the old days among our nuns.  But one can say that those of San Lorenzo just about took the prize in that competition.

“On June 16 1360 we find condemned to a year in prison and a fine of 100 lire Marco Boccaso, Zanin Baseggio, and Giuseppe di Marcadello for having fornicated, the first with a Ruzzini, the second with Beriola Contarini, and the third with Orsola Acotanto, professed nuns of that convent.

“A short while later, that is, on July 22, 1360, Margarita revendigola (a renter of sumptuous garb), Bertuccia, the widow of Paolo d’Ancona, Maddalena da Bologna, Margarita da Padova, and Lucia (a slave) were publicly whipped for having carried, as go-betweens, amorous letters and embassies to those nuns.

“As time went on, by the sentence of March 25, 1385, Master Nicolo’ Giustinian, physician, was condemned to two years and three months of prison and a fine of 300 lire, because he was making love to Sister Fiordelise Gradenigo, entering several times with false keys in the convent of San Lorenzo to join his beloved, with whom he had a son.

“Lastly, on June 21, 1385, Marco Gritti had to undergo three years in prison, for having entered the same convent for dishonest ends.

“And in the 17th century the dress of the nuns of San Lorenzo breathes worldly vanity.  The proof is in Viaggio per l’alta Italia del Sereniss. Principe di Toscana, poi Granduca Cosimo III, descritto da Filippo Pizzichi.  He, speaking of the convent of S. Lorenzo, which he visited with the prince in 1664, expressed himself thus:

“‘This is the richest convent of Venice, and there are more than 100 nuns, all gentlewomen.  They dress themselves most elegantly, with white habits in the French manner, the bodice of fine linen with tiny pleats, and the professed wear black lace three fingers wide on the seams; a small veil encircles their forehead, below which their curly hair falls, beautifully arranged; their bosom is half-uncovered, and taken altogether their habit has more of the nymph than the nun.’

When the nuns looked in their mirrors -- I'm sure they had them -- I'm equally sure this is what they saw.  (Detail of the Three Graces from "La Primavera" by Sandro Botticelli, 1482.)  Even if they'd never seen the painting.

When the nuns looked in their mirrors — I’m sure they had them — I’m equally sure this is what they saw. (Detail of the Three Graces from “La Primavera” by Sandro Botticelli, 1482.) Even if they’d never seen the painting.

But before you start shaking your fist at the nuns, you should hear something about the priests.

I return to Tassini:

“We read that in 1391 Giacomo Tanto, the pievano (parish priest) of San Maurizio, who had agreed with Tommaso Corner to kill a priest named Giovanni … brought him to a house situated at S. Aponal in the Carampane, under the pretext of giving him ‘a fourth of Malvasia wine for the Mass’ and there, aided by a companion, he slew him.

“Both men returned to the Canonica, where the deceased lived, and stole all of his goods.  When the crime was discovered, Tommaso Corner, who was absent, was sentenced on September 28, 1392 to perpetual banishment, and the pievano was condemned to end his life in the cage suspended from the campanile of San Marco on bread and water.”  He was the first man recorded to have suffered this castigation.

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This is the only representation of the cheba hanging from the campanile of San Marco.  It is taken from the collection of abbot Jacopo Morelli (1745 – 1819) (drawn from “Giustizia Veneta,” by Edoardo Rubini, 2004).

The “cage” was the cheba (KEH-bah), which is occasionally referred to on admonitory plaques around the city as a possible punishment for breaking whatever rules are set forth on the plaque.  It was reserved for ecclesiastics, or for anyone committing crimes in a sacred place.  One source says that these crimes were usually “homicide, sodomy, blasphemy, and false witness.”

This cage was either permanently attached to the side of the campanile (examples remain in Mantova and Piacenza), or suspended from a beam inserted, as needed, into the bell tower’s wall.  The condemned was put inside it and that was that.  Night, day, rain, snow, hail, passing pigeons — he got it all.  And a daily ration of bread and water, which is not nourishment; it is only a cheap way to prolong starvation.

But Giacomo Tanto’s stepmother felt sorry for him languishing there, and so she found a way (fancy way of saying “bribed”) to induce an official of the Signori della Notte (the Lords of the Night, or the Almost-Everything Police) AND the chief of the guards of the Piazza, to slip her disgraced stepson other victuals. Not steak, unfortunately, or polenta with seppie, or anything else of a remotely nutritious nature (eat more fruit), but frittelle, and sweet focaccia with walnuts and almonds, and powdered sugar, and other confections which undoubtedly kept his spirits up as he was expiring.  She got caught, and the official of the Signori della Notte lost his job and was sent to prison for a year, and Giacomo went back to his daily bread until he died.

But his was no isolated case.  In the “Incorrigible Priest” division of the league of renegade religious, we have a very strong team:

Don Francesco of San Polo (1518) was accused of sodomy and consigned to the cheba.  Documents report that some kind soul gave him a gaban (gah-BAHN) to wear, to protect him from the elements, even though it was April.  The gaban was a long loose robe with sleeves, made of thick rough fabric.

Don Francesco, having plenty of time to spare, devoted himself to pulling the gaban slowly apart, till he had a collection of strips which he tied together, and you know where this is going.  On the night of July 1 he somehow managed to get out of the cage, and clinging to the long improvised rope he began to lower himself toward the pavement, and freedom.

But the rope ran out “a good distance” above the ground — enough of a distance to have rendered a fall more conclusive than the cheba.

So he just dangled there, hanging on, and yelling for help.  The night guardians came running, retrieved him (I don’t know how — with a net, like the firemen?) and carried him off to prison where the walls would be less accommodating than the cage.

But speaking of being accommodating, we last hear that he was succoured in his new incarceration by the nuns of San Zaccaria who, if you’ll remember, were not exactly “flour for making Communion wafers,” as they say here.  So their succouring almost certainly made everything better.

A cartoon satirizing the engineers considered responsible for the collapse of the campanile of San Marco, locked into the cheba.

A satirical cartoon skewering the engineers considered responsible for the collapse of the campanile of San Marco, showing them locked into the cheba (1902).

I’m skipping over a few others, such as don Francesco at San Stae (1502), and another don Francesco at Ognissanti (1505), who begot their heirs among the abbesses and their flock, to arrive at the star player: don Agostino of Santa Fosca.

Agostino’s collar did nothing to stem his love for life, among which were girls and gambling.  He didn’t interfere with the nuns, amusing himself instead with the commercially available ladies, but that wasn’t his crime.  He  was tried and sentenced for having blasphemed while playing cards.  It can happen, but it’s unpleasant to hear a priest give way to that extent.

He was the last person sent to the cheba.  On August 7, 1542, he was taken, hands tied, to the stocks placed between the columns of Marco and Todaro, and left there for six hours.  A sign on his chest described his crime and the punishment.

A sort of crown was put on his head, on which were depicted the devils to whom the priest had listened: “…they made me an emperor without an empire….I was crowned without being given a sceptre, wanting to punish me for my iniquity…”.  Perhaps you had to have been there.

Then he was taken up and installed in the cheba, where he remained for two months, after which he was taken to prison for another ten months.

Leaving prison, he was banished for life, which meant leaving the entire Venetian territory, which would have cut out a large part of Northeast Italy, the eastern Adriatic coast, and chunks of Greece, including Crete.  Still, that left plenty of other places where they must have known how to play cards and lose money.

Don’t imagine this is an exhaustive list.  It’s just all I know so far.  But looking around, I notice that the mortal sins have continued to flourish, so I leave you with don Agostino’s penitential warning: “Flee from gambling, do not blaspheme the saints, even less the Lord God…abandon playing cards, blasphemy and prostitutes…”.

I admiringly acknowledge the exceptional research of a personage named Giandri, whose website is marvelous reading (in Italian, alas for many).

Wrath of God?  Not yet.

Wrath of God? Or is this just testing, testing, one two three?

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Jan
28

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.

Between a small, unremarkable side street, which leads to essentially nowhere, we came upon this remarkable neighborhood shrine stretching beneath a house....

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…

It says:

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).

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

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.

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 (St. Lawrence), 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.

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.

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.

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.

There is a long brick wall fronting the canal of the Arsenale, which faces the wooden bridge at the Arsenal entrance. The imposing marble sculpture is one thing which you can admire, or not, as you choose.  But the little bronze plaque beside it 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.

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.

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.

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.

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 things and they are among the few things that make Carnival worthwhile.  Sorry, they're all gone now.

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.

 

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?

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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Dec
24

Picture this

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

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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Oct
27

The name game

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According to the article, there are TK people in Venice with the last name Vianello.

“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).

Now comes the tricky part: The list enumerates

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.

The names and the centuries may change, but the crime described on a plaque inside the Arsenal remains the same (translated by me):

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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