Archive for History


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.

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1x1.trans Carlo de Ghega    famous everywhere but here

The façade of what is now the Institute of Santa Maria Ausiliatrice on the Fondamenta San Gioachin obviously has more pressing concerns than whether anybody looks up at a plaque. (You do see a plaque, don’t you?).  But one day I just stopped and determined to investigate.

Now that I have pulverized every last fermion of the subject of death in Venice (book, author, phenomenon, movie, original language, salt-free-recipe-for), I’d like to amaze everyone’s questing minds by talking about being born in Venice.

It happens a lot, though not as often as one might wish.  But if you really focus as you migrate from gelateria to gelateria, you may notice a number of plaques incised in Italian which include the word “nato” or “nascita” or, if they’re being grammatically fancy, even “nacque.” This means “born.”

1x1.trans Carlo de Ghega    famous everywhere but here

Carlo de Ghega, 1851, while still working on the railroad. He looks satisfied with the way things are going, at least as shown by Joseph Kriehuber in this lithograph.

Famous people came to Venice to be born?  Wonderful!

Even more wonderful is how many famous people there are whom I’ve never heard of (thereby perplexing the meaning of “famous”). But I have just discovered someone whose birthplace I pass numerous times a day, and who, once I stopped and paid attention, I acknowledge as deserving not only his fading testimonial, but probably much more. A park, a lake, a bullet train bearing his name would not be too much. Elsewhere he may well receive more recognition than here; in Venice, honor has always been distributed in very small and carefully eye-droppered quantities. He should be glad he got a plaque.

His name is Carlo de Ghega (or Karl Ritter von Ghega), and after being born in Castello, he went on to do some prodigious things that merit at least a slice of marble nobody notices.

Now that I know who he is and what he did, I am going to tell you, because not all of us have had the benefit of an Austrian elementary-school education. An Austrian friend of mine was very unimpressed that I’d discovered somebody she’d learned about when she was a mere child. But then again, she may not know as much as I do about Stephanie Louise Kwolek, so there we are.

Did I say born in Venice, and he’s Austrian?  (Actually, his parents were Albanian.  That’s the beauty of an empire, in this case the Austro-Hungarian version.  Lots of everybody everywhere.)  Read on.

First, here is the runic summary of his life, as carved in stone:

1x1.trans Carlo de Ghega    famous everywhere but here

1854 Semmering 1954
On this fondamenta of
San Gioachino
moved to life (was  born)
Carlo de Ghega
whose tenacious genius turned
first to the waters and
to the streets
of his neighborhood
and then to the Noric Alps
to open them first
amid harsh adversities
to the reign of steam.
Born 1802 Died 1860

Before I go further, you might want to know that the Noric Alps are a mountain chain between Italy and Austria encompassing the Tyrol, Salzburg and Carinthia.

And in this stretch of peaks and valleys Mr./Signor/Herr/Zoti De Ghega built a railroad known as the Semmering railway, named for the mountain pass it overcame.  It is considered the first true mountain railway ever built, and was a feat so phenomenal that it is now on the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

Not everybody believed it could be done.  The gradients were too steep (25 percent), the curves were too tight (180 meters/590 feet).  It was too complicated, too difficult, impossible, actually, and also useless.  In the face of such doubting and carping, it was obvious that he was going to do it.  Also, I believe the Austrian emperor had specifically asked him to.

The pass isn’t so high (965 meters/3,166 feet above sea level), but connecting the villages of Gloggnitz and Murzzuschlag appears to have resembled a monumental cat’s-cradle.  From 1848 to 1854, 20,000 workers blasted 14 tunnels and built 16 viaducts, 11 small iron bridges, and more than 100 curved stone bridges.  All this over a distance of a mere 41 km (25 miles).

“Curved” is the important concept here – there isn’t a straight line anywhere.  The curves were so insidious that new instruments and new methods of surveying had to be developed to deal with them.  Further — stay with me, this is important — a new locomotive had to be created (the Engerth locomotive finally won out), and which did not rely on anything so simple as a cog-wheel system to drag it uphill.

De Ghega is a celebrity in the world of railway engineering and design, not to mention trains.  But what else could one expect of a man who graduated from the University of Padua with a degree in mathematics at the age of 17?  Here’s the answer: Being asked (told) to design the entire state railway system of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

I’m not saying he was a genius because he was born in Castello; you’ve got to be born somewhere.  But it probably didn’t hurt him, either. In one way or another, great people keep showing up here.

1x1.trans Carlo de Ghega    famous everywhere but here

I think the squiggles are enough, without showing variations in elevation, to illustrate what he accomplished.

1x1.trans Carlo de Ghega    famous everywhere but here

The viaduct over the Kalte Rinne in Styria, photographed between 1890 and 1900. (Library of Congress).

1x1.trans Carlo de Ghega    famous everywhere but here

Another view of the Kalte Rinne viaduct (Emerich Benkert, color lithograph, 1854).

1x1.trans Carlo de Ghega    famous everywhere but here

The train is still running. I want to ride it one time in my life.  Maybe two times. (Photo: Herbert Ortner, Wikipedia).

Categories : History
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Helping Marco Polo

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1x1.trans Helping Marco Polo

The courtyard of the decommissioned hospital/orphanage near San Marco where we were dressed, made up, and retained until time to go to the set. I have no idea how many pictures the other extras took while hanging around. There wasn’t much else to do.

1x1.trans Helping Marco Polo

Helpful signs were everywhere, and scrupulously obeyed, as you can see.  The center sign says “For security reasons, this door must always be closed.”

Perhaps you missed this recent bulletin from “Entertainment Weekly”:

The previously announced, highly anticipated drama from The Weinstein Company about the adventures of Marco Polo has begun production for Netflix.

The show, which will have a 10-episode first season and premiere on Netflix in late 2014, will follow the famed explorer’s journey as it takes him to the center of a brutal war in 13th century China, “a world replete with exotic martial arts, political skullduggery, spectacular battles and sexual intrigue,” according to the press release.

What it didn’t mention, but which was relatively reliably reported by a cast member, is that the production will cost 120 million dollars, the most expensive TV series in the history of Marcos, Polos, and any number of fabulous khans. When you hear somebody say, “After Venice, we’re going to spend five months in Malaysia,” you begin to get an idea of where some of the money is going. Ditto when you hear that the cast and a batch of the crew are staying at a multi-star hotel whose cheapest room is called “Deluxe” and costs $750 per night.  Perhaps they were bunking 18 people per room, like sweatshop immigrants.

But I like our no-star hovel. I could get room service there, too, if I really wanted it.

The world to be depicted will also be replete with scenes staged in Venice two weeks ago, which were made even more replete by Lino and me as extras.  As was the case two years ago with the still-MIA film “Effie Gray,” we were engaged  to row some old boats and give some credible watery backdrop to whatever was happening on center stage, or street or square.

1x1.trans Helping Marco Polo

First, they dressed us. (Note: This is not Pippo — see below).  Then they put makeup on our faces or hands. Then they put makeup on the costumes. She had a bag full of dust which she tapped on various spots, when she wasn’t streaking dirt-like colors or otherwise distressing our garb. I know the fabric is  supposed to look worn, but I am skeptical that people, even in that soap-challenged era, would have liked walking around dusty and streaked. But it might have been a class thing. We were near the bottom of the social scale, where everybody knows we don’t care about being clean, or healthy, or knowing that the earth isn’t the center of the solar system.

To be an extra essentially means either moving (walking, running, rowing) or standing still.  You might be called on to fake conversations or other normal activities (conversations, I mean — I don’t mean faking them is normal) for a few seconds at a time.  I wouldn’t call it acting, but the real actors with lines to speak were faking just as much as we were, when you think about it.

Lino got in a few extra days of work before filming began because somebody needed to teach young Marco Polo (played by a certain Lorenzo Richelmy) how to row in the Venetian way.  He says Lorenzo was not only a good sport but not a bad beginner.  This is high praise, considering that a ferocious bora (northeast wind) was blowing all week.  Not the best weather for learning how to do anything except hold onto your hat.

Here’s what’s fun: The costumes make you look like something from the Permian-Triassic Extinction Event that’s been dug up from under a dead tree.  Ditto the make-up.  And it’s extreme fun to get up at 3:30 AM to be ready for makeup at 5:00.  After which you do nothing for hours.

1x1.trans Helping Marco Polo

It was 6:00 AM. I don’t think I need to say anything more.

1x1.trans Helping Marco Polo

They put no makeup on my face at all, but the makeup people put their hearts into making my hands look like I’d been trying to excavate Tulamba.

It’s also fun to try to climb around in a big heavy boat, and even row it, when you’re swaddled in three layers of fabric, plus a long piece of cloth on your head which falls everywhere, especially in front of your face, when you’re trying to do real work.  I still have green-gray and dark-brown bruises all over my legs from encounters with wood, stone, wickerwork, and other things that got in my way when I had to get from here to there while also fighting with my personal drapery.  I felt as if I’d been wrapped in Miss Ellen’s portieres, before they were made into dresses.

It was less dramatic, but also less interesting, to spend an hour or two out of the boat, joining a small group required to walk over a small bridge, then walk back over it, then walk back over it, then walk back over it, then walk back over it….

But I’m happy. At times in my life I’ve been paid very little to work really hard.  To be paid (also very little) to do scarcely anything, and even to do nothing, seems like an excellent way to spend some of my time.  In my normal life, I don’t get to stand still and do nothing for any reason, and I certainly don’t get paid for it.

So thank you, Marco Polo, Harvey Weinstein, and all the ships at sea.  I can’t wait for the next chance to play dress-up and do nothing.  At 3:30 AM.

1x1.trans Helping Marco Polo

Apparently every period film requires a market scene. As far as I could tell, the market served only as a funky setting through which young Marco had to run at top speed. That’s all I saw. No horses or cars in pursuit, which usually are required to decimate the market. So we pretended to buy things and he ran. All that setting-up was just for that.  If you ever see this opus, please tell me we were TOTALLY CREDIBLE.

1x1.trans Helping Marco Polo

While all the marketing and running was going on in the campo, Lino was awaiting his assorted cues in the canal. That is not his hair, by the way, but a wig.

1x1.trans Helping Marco Polo

There was plenty of downtime to go around. We occasionally stopped to let boats or people pass, but the sun was shining, so I don’t think anybody cared very  much.

1x1.trans Helping Marco Polo

What’s really interesting about this scene isn’t the boat — though of course it’s excellent — but the wooden wall stretching above it. That was installed in order to conceal the modern wrought-iron railing. They covered drainpipes, windows, boats, lamps. You don’t think Venice is so modern until you try to make it look like it was 700 years ago.

1x1.trans Helping Marco Polo

Another day, another market — this time, masses of cargo piled up on a small dock near the Punta della Dogana. The activity was hectic, to create the atmosphere of the port of Venice (at the time, the number one port in Europe) in full swing. The white-bearded man isn’t just any old walk-on. His name is Benito “Pippo” Garbisa, and he is the oldest lifeguard in Italy, still showing up at the beach on the Lido every summer. He has saved more people than anyone could count (though I suppose he knows exactly how many he’s pulled from the drink). He started his work in 1949 at the beachside operation belonging to his family, and which everyone still calls “Garbisa” even though it’s got a different owner and name now. For his exceptional achievements, he has been awarded both a silver and a bronze national medal for “civic valor.” He has two medals from the Carnegie Foundation, and is an official Cavalier of the Republic of Italy. To sum up, one heck of an extra to have in the mob.  Or, now that I think about it, I wonder if he was a costumed security agent.

1x1.trans Helping Marco Polo

Lino, Antonella Mainardi, and I rowed this ponderous hulk of a caorlina to the “port” for our moment of glory: being the centerpiece of loading/unloading action, plus actually rowing away as the cameras turned, while exchanging loud comments with some extras on the dock. Happily, we only had to do that scene once; the boat must weigh 157 tons, even being so lightly loaded. By the time they were finished with the scene, the boat was full. Full, that is, of things designed to damage my legs.

1x1.trans Helping Marco Polo

“Il Nuovo Trionfo,” the only trabacolo still floating, was the perfect vessel for giving that ocean-going vibe. That and its sails, which were crucially important for blocking out the 21st century just beyond.

1x1.trans Helping Marco Polo

This is what “backstage” looked like, in the meantime. This is only part of the panoply of technicians and equipment of every sort. Just think, even boring movies require much of the same level of labor. Gad.

1x1.trans Helping Marco Polo

Two days later, we were on the night shift, rowing a slightly smaller boat which we rigged with two masts and sails to conceal the reality lurking even in the smallest canals. If anyone might wonder why a boat would be moored in a canal with its sails up, I will have to arrest them on a charge of “unwilling suspension of disbelief.”

1x1.trans Helping Marco Polo

For some reason, we looked relatively more human later in the day.

1x1.trans Helping Marco Polo

Not to brag or anything, but I think I look like a genuine mammal here. It was impressive progress from Day One.

1x1.trans Helping Marco Polo

The boats and their people (us) clocked out at about 10:00 PM and made it into the canteen just in time to eat some hot food. Out in the campo, the lighting was already blazing for the next scenes, which we were told would continue till 4:00 AM. Seeing light this bright surrounded by darkness gave me a strange sensation, but part of it was admiration for whoever invented this apparatus to simulate daylight. If I’d stayed under it, I might even have started to grow.

1x1.trans Helping Marco Polo
Categories : History
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