Archive for History
November 4 is a landmark date, the anniversary of the signing of the peace treaty between Italy and Austria in 1918 that ended the First World War. I have drawn attention to this event more than once.
For many reasons, World War I maintains an unusually lively presence in my thoughts here. A new reason, recently discovered, is Giorgio Emo Capodilista, one of Italy’s more heroic commanders in a war which, as far as I can tell, was fabulously deficient in even merely competent commanders. I discovered him posing quietly in the Giardini Pubblici behind some shrubs and lashed to the pedestal by a few stalwart cobwebs. I realize that once-famous people are forgotten every day, but neglect is depressing.
Cast in bronze — and only a third of him, at that — he looks imposing. The moustache is excellent. But one has to picture this man in action: Cavalry. Swords. The infamous Retreat from Caporetto. And a strength of purpose for which bronze is a poor substitute.
The inscription, now barely legible, refers in shorthand to an exploit worthy of his comrades of the Light Brigade:
PATRIZIO VENETO GENERALE COMANDANTE LA II BRIGATA DI CAVALLERIA REGGIMENTI GENOVA E NOVARA DEGNO FIGLIO DELLA STIRPE SUI CAMPI DI POZZUOLO DEL FRIULI OPPOSE IL VALORE SUO E DEI PRODI AL NEMICO INVASORE PERMETTENDO SALVEZZA DELLA III ARMATA E SBARRANDO LA VIA DI VENEZIA 29-30 OTTOBRE 1917 GIUGNO 1960
Veneto patrician General Commandant of the II Brigade of the Cavalry Regiments of Genoa and Novara Worthy son of the lineage On the fields of Pozzuolo del Friuli opposed his and his courageous ones’ valor to the enemy invader Permitting the deliverance of the III Army and barring the way to Venice 29-30 October 1917 June 1960.
It sounds very neat and contained, the way these things do on inscriptions. One needs context.
The 12th Battle of the Isonzo, better-known as the Battle of Caporetto, was fought from October 24-November 19, 1917 between the Italian and the Austro-Hungarian armies. To fight the preceding eleven battles in the same area had occupied more than two solid years.
The dimensions of the Italian defeat are still difficult to grasp. According to John Farina (“Caporetto: A Fresh Look,” La Grande Guerra):
“Italian casualties totaled 40,000 dead and wounded, over 280,000 prisoners and 3,150 artillery pieces captured. The Italian army was reduced in size by one half, from 65 infantry divisions to 33.
A message carrier, Attilio Frescura, described what he saw at the bridge across the Isonzo at Caporetto:
‘At one end of the bridge a Lt. Col. was screaming that they had to advance across the bridge. At the other end a Captain, with pistol in hand, was ordering everyone “Back! Back!”. Wagons had been dumped in the river in an attempt to clear the bridge. In the meantime, engineers started planting explosives and preparing to blow the bridge before the eyes of thousands of soldiers from the 46th division that were trying to escape across it.’
Frescura delivered his message to Lt. Col Trezzani who “…ordered me and several others to stop the wave of runaways that was flooding the area and sweeping everyone away with them. We blocked them on the roads and stopped those that had their weapons. Those that had no weapons were allowed to continue to not jam things up. But then many of the armed soldiers saw what we were doing and threw away their rifles…
“…the battle had moved to the roads, but the battle was lost. I found an officer from my unit. He yelled at me:
Go or they’ll get us!
But what about the others?
Go! Go! Everyone go! Run!
We hopped on the running board of our staff car in which I saw some of the officers of my unit. All around the car was a cowardly mass of humanity grabbing onto the car screaming wildly “Go! Go!”
Even our honor – gone.”
The astonishingly rapid advance of the Austrian forces made it imperative to protect the retreating army. By the evening of the next day (October 25), the entire Italian 3rd Army and what was left of the 2nd Army were at risk of being surrounded. The Italian forces were ordered to retreat to the Tagliamento River, a distance ever so roughly, as the vulture flies, of 56 km/38 miles. The order affected the vast majority of the Italian Army: 700 out of a total of 850 Italian battalions, or about 1,500,000 men were ordered to retreat. Almost all of the Italian losses occurred duringthis hideous interlude, between the Isonzo and the Tagliamento.
This is where Giorgio Emo Capodilista comes in.
On October 29 he and the II cavalry brigade were ordered to reach Pozzuolo del Friuli and defend it at all costs for at least 24 hours in order to to gain the time necessary for the retreating divisions to reach and cross the Tagliamento.
Emo Capodilista knew, as did his commanding officer, that even though this action was essentially a suicide mission, it was absolutely necessary.
Trying to move forward, his brigades, together with the Bergamo Infantry Brigade, were blocked by the retreating troops (note above the character of this phase — chaos, panic, pandemonium), an appalling spectacle which one writer observed had a “negative influence on the morale of the cavalry.” That’s probably an understatement, because the “difficult psychological atmosphere” created a high risk that the dragoons, on their way to fight Austrians, would stop to fight their own countrymen instead.
Having reached Pozzuolo del Friuli, the II Brigade found a situation even worse than it had expected. Emo Capodilista and his men obeyed their orders to resist the advancing Austrians at any cost, battling non-stop for 24 hours in the streets and piazzas of the small mountain town, and on October 30 the troops of the 3rd Army crossed the Tagliamento. Mission accomplished. Mission of near-total immolation also accomplished. In protecting the retreating army, he lost more than two-thirds of his men.
“I was always embarrassed by the words sacred, glorious, and sacrifice, ” wrote Ernest Hemingway. “I had seen nothing sacred, and the things that were glorious had no glory and the sacrifices were like the stockyards at Chicago if nothing was done with the meat except to bury it…Abstract words such as glory, honor, courage…were obscene beside the concrete names of villages… the names of rivers, the numbers of regiments and the dates.”
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.
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.’
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.