Only fog could make Father Christmas look so ominous.
I love charity benefit events; I also love Santa Claus (for the brief period each year in which I give him even one thought). And last Sunday we came upon — or it came upon us — the third edition of an annual run/trot/stroll around half the city called the “Corsa dei Babbo Natale,” or “Race of the Santa Clauses” (Santas Claus?)
This is not unique to Venice, though the landscape here obviously presents some traits not present in Milan, Brescia, Verona, Savona, Belluno, and undoubtedly lots of other places all over Italy. Sometimes it’s for charity, sometimes it’s just for fun. Check your local listings.
In the case of Venice, it was organized to benefit AVAPO, the association of volunteers who assist cancer patients and their families. The event was managed by The Venice Sport Shop and aided by various sponsors, primarily Mizuna, a maker of running shoes. For a modest fee anyone could sign up, get a number and a Santa Claus outfit and some other goodies, and join the crowd running/trotting/strolling from Rialto to Sant’ Elena and back to our own little lobe of Venice, the Giardini Pubblici, where music and refreshments waited.
I would happily have followed it and made lots of pictures of them running across the Piazza San Marco and other landmark sites, but we were set up to go rowing and join the boat procession of — yes — more Santa Clauses in the Grand Canal. Curses! We were foiled by fog! Vast, shifting, impenetrable banks of fog which not only would have spoiled the fun for us, but rowing to the church of the Salute would have rendered us a spectacular hazard to navigation.
But on our disappointed walk homeward, we suddenly found ourselves facing an army of S.C.’s swarming toward us. They were tired, but they were determined, and it was great to see whole families out together. And then people started greeting Lino by name as they passed, which was especially nice in the case of those who hadn’t yet removed their sweat-inducing beards because somehow Lino recognized virtually every one of the people greeting him. Was it their voice? Their glasses? Jewelry? Birthmark? But as usual, this came as no surprise. It’s the call of the DNA, which I can confirm overrides costumes, fog, and the passage of time.
But the Clauses on the bridge were only the forerunners — or forewalkers. They were followed by more and more red-breasted Saint Nicholases, who at this point had begun to ditch the beards which are cute, but undoubtedly hot and damp after a while.
They are not making Olympic qualifying times, but who cares? They’re still in the game.
Man Mountain Santa is a prime candidate for testing for growth hormones. Or for supplying them.
I have no idea where this boy got such a burst of energy — at this point there were children being pulled along on their razor scooters. He may have had a vision of something thrilling, though he may just be excited that the fog has lifted enough for him to see anything.
What an adorable chorus line of little girls who appear to have foregone the provided outfit in favor of something more like Little Red Riding Santa.
As you see. Who but Italians (or I don’t know, maybe they’re Albanians. Anyway, they’re in Italy) could make this outfit look so cool? In any case, I know for a fact that at least one of these munchkins is half-Moldovan, because that’s her mother smiling at me. She’s an amazing seamstress and now that I think about it, she probably made all these outfits. In an hour. In her sleep.
And Fido makes three. His version of “Ho Ho Ho” was impressive.
If this Santa hasn’t run to Venice straight from the North Pole, she at least must come from Hammerfest, where weather like this qualifies as a heat wave.
Bibendum has decided to branch out.
Santa needs funds, his reindeer need fodder.
The finish line for the race is the starting line for the party, just inside the gate at the “Serra,” or municipal greenhouse. They’ve got LAWN SPACE!
And the emergency squad’s everyday uniform blends perfectly with the Santa color scheme. If you needed to find the first-responders in this crowd, you might have a problem.
People who paid the premium registration fee got the garb, a gadget of some sort, and entrance to the party and rehydration agents. I didn’t inquire as to what they were sipping, but there was music and people looked happy.
And then it was time for Mom-Santa to go the supermarket, get some grub, and take it and the kids home. When Santa lands the sleigh, the party’s over.
To recapitulate: These were the gondolinos on August 19. (Photo taken from remieracasteo.blogspot.it.)
The restored boats were a thesaurus of synonyms for “gleam.” If you can discern where the cut was made and repaired, you’re not human. No offense.
I may have mentioned that I was RUDELY interrupted on Sept. 2 by my computer, which cut my post into chunks and then wouldn’t give them back (hence only that brief mention of the Return of the Gondolinos).
Although a few days have passed, I won’t be happy until I’ve finished the job. So cast your minds back to last Thursday, when part of the “world of the oar,” as it’s called here, gathered for the annual ceremony of the blessing of the gondolinos and, unusual at this late date, the drawing of lots for the assigning of the boats to the racers. Who gets what color boat is random, and the drawing usually follows shortly after the last elimination has whittled the list of rowers down to nine competing teams plus one reserve team, to be called in at whatever moment before the starting gun it’s clear that one team is not going to be racing. It happens — not often, but I’ve seen the reserve boat actually win one time. Considering that being the reserve means that you barely squeaked into the lineup against faster men (or women) than you, this outcome makes it clear that all sorts of factors, apart from sheer speed at the trials, come into play in the race itself.
This may well be true in many other athletic competitions, but I’m sticking to what I know.
There is no significance to the colors; the boats are painted in order to make it easy to distinguish and identify them from medium to far distance. This ensures that the onlooker (say, a judge….) is identifying the appropriate boat as it crashes into its closest neighbor, or as it crosses the finish line. (Even in good weather, red and orange are almost impossible to tell apart.) Furthermore, in the non-official races in which people sometimes race on their club boats, there is almost no way to identify the boats because they’re all pretty much the same mash-up of colors. The relatives of the racers know who’s who, but the judges almost certainly don’t. To avoid any possible problems, the judges following the race in motorboats call out instructions and warnings by color, not by racer’s name.
As an extra security measure, which is very useful when there is rain and/or fog, numbers have been painted on the bow of each boat, as follows:1 white, 2 yellow, 3 purple (lavender, violet, whatever), 4 light blue, 5 red, 6 green, 7 orange, 8 pink, 9 brown, reserve: red and green.
The racers get a sash and a neckerchief to match the color of their boat; it used to be considered helpful. Now it’s just part of the tradition. The neckerchief was supposed to deal with the sweat (this was before terrycloth headbands), and the sash was intended to help truss up what sometimes, in the old days, were men who either did, or would soon, need one.
I had never seen an entire fleet of new Venetian boats, nor would I ever have thought I’d see one, considering how much the things cost. (The total bill came to 80,000 euros, which means a paltry 8,000 euros each, but these were repairs. A knowledgeable source told me a new gondolino could cost 30,000 euros.) It was thrilling, from their perfect shine to their perfume of still-recent paint. Eau de Regata Storica, with subtle top notes of epoxy.
As the crowd gathered, the Coro Serenissima provided the festive soundtrack with many of the classic Venetian songs. A good number of these ditties involve gondolas, the lagoon, and romance; so far no song has come out that features electric saws and battered boats. I’d like to hear one about the maestri d’ascia (“masters of the adze”) who rebuilt the gondolini. Something along the lines of “The Ballad of John Henry” could work really well.
(L to R): Roberto dei Rossi, Dino Tagliapietra, and Gianfranco Vianello, nicknamed “Crea” (KRAY-uh). Not only does Crea carry the title of “Re del Remo” (“king of the oar”) for having won the Regata Storica five times consecutively, he also built the boats which he now had to repair. Sad as he was to see them butchered, he said he was really happy to discover how well they’d held up over 35 years. And if “king of the oar” sounds silly, it’s as hard as winning the Triple Crown in horse racing. He won his title on the gondolino in 1981, and nobody has done it since.
The ceremony gets underway with photo-worthy hugs by the mayor, Luigi Brugnaro, wearing his official sash. To their right, the white-haired man in the black jacket is Mario Eremita, the artist who designed and painted the “palio,” or banner, depicting the Regata Storica. This is new this year and is loaded with symbolism.
As the artist explained to me, the lion of San Marco at the top depicts an African lion, because St. Mark was buried in Alexandria, Egypt. Venice is always represented as a woman, of course, here wrapped in a cloak which repeat the colors of the gonfalone, or banner, of San Marco. In her mid-section (womb, if you like), is the Piazza San Marco, with basilica and belltower, from which are emerging the boats of the Regata Storica and spreading across the water of the Bacino of San Marco. Her right hand holds an olive branch, the emblem of peace, and in her left she holds an ouroboros, the ancient representation of a snake devouring its tail which symbolizes rebirth and renewal; in this case, the repetition of tradition.
While everyone is milling around taking pictures, the racers are examining the boats. Here, Igor and Rudi Vignotto are analyzing where the boat was cut. If they ever found a trace, I’d be impressed.
Speechifying ensues. Here, Giovanni Giusto, president of the Coordinating Committee of the Rowing Clubs and city councilor for rowing and traditions, shares his thoughts. The gonfalone of San Marco adds the right touch, even if the rest of the ribbons can’t be seen.
Due to the delay in having the boats themselves, the gondolinos weren’t assigned to the racers after the last elimination was held. So the usual drawing of lots had to wait for today, with just three days before the event. Drawing your boat at random limits the possibility of skulduggery, or the appearance thereof, the same reason why each team’s position at the starting line is also drawn by lot. It’s not unheard-of for racers to consider a color as bringing victory or doom, so let’s just make everybody’s chances equal. As is customary, here the “poppieri,” or men rowing on the “poppa,” or stern, come to draw a small numbered ball — number corresponding to color — from the green bag held by Crea. He is fulfilling this duty because he is now also the president of the race judges.
All the racers posing with their sashes which match the color of their boat.
The men begin pulling out their forcolas (oarlocks) and oars, ready for the blessing and, immediately thereafter, the launching of the boats.
The stern forcola, made of the traditional walnut.
Finally we reach the moment of the blessing. The priest, pretty much hidden by the boats and the racers, has said his prayer and is now shaking holy water from his aspergillum across some of the gondolinos. He was rather perfunctory, by which I mean he did not sprinkle all the boats. I don’t know if that made a difference to the race, but it prevented me from getting a better picture.
A closer look.
So let’s get these boats in the water already. The white gondolino has just been launched and now it’s the yellow boat’s turn to be rolled out, on a small trolley, to the edge of the fondamenta where some pieces of red carpet have been placed to ease the slide.
The boat was tilted off the small trolley and slid along the edge of the fondamenta. At the halfway point, the poppiere — in this case, Luca Ballarin — climbed aboard and, as it were, took possession of his chariot. It’s extremely unusual to have a person aboard when putting a boat in the water this way; it’s evident that you’re risking damaging the boat even if the water is fairly cooperative. I can’t explain why they decided to do it this way, but considering that we have three master boatbuilders on hand, I’m guessing they know what they’re doing.
Ignore the change in boat color — the next phase was to lift the bow and push the boat free of the fondamenta, dropping it in the water. This required some strength and skill (I could just imagine the ferro of the bow striking the stone edge and I’m sure everyone else could imagine it too).
Flinging the boat into the water made a very satisfying sploosh. Here, Rudi Vignotto has been flung. The man with the red trousers is not involved in these maneuvers in any way, but is taking a photo (I think) from a long pole.
No need for me to expound upon the beauty of this moment. But the gondolino is a startling contrast to the chaos of taxis, vaporettos and private motor boats that continues to swarm past. Yes, they were going slowly, due in part to a sentinel police boat. But there are far, far, far too many. And they and their passengers are living in a parallel universe which never touches ours.
But in the interest of fairness, I should mention that most rowers — I’m going to say all rowers — have motorboats, some of them pretty hefty. The boat, I mean. It makes sense because it’s useful for towing your boat, or for getting quickly and efficiently to wherever you have to train, which could be fairly far away. But of course everybody thinks their motorboat makes sense.
Luca Ballarin hanging out with Franco Dei Rossi “Strigheta,” one of the greatest racers but who this year has “hung his oar up on the nail,” as they say of retired people. He’s still working as a gondolier, but no more racing. You might not believe it, but it takes great strength of character to stop trying when your house is full of victory pennants but you’re past 60 and not up to your old speed. At least one famous racer kept at it for years after he should have quit, on ANY boat and ANY race, even if he finished last. It was like one of those endless farewell tours by superannuated sopranos. Depressing. I’m sorry not to see “Strigheta” racing anymore, but I admire his dignity.
Kudos gathered, gondolinos gone, the party’s over. All that’s left is Roberto dei Rossi and lots of spare sawhorses and shadows. As for the race, I’ll save you any suspense: The first four to finish (which is what counts, because they get a pennant) were: Blue, White, Orange, Brown. If you want more particulars, even if they’re in Italian, go to: http://www.veneziatoday.it/cronaca/regata-storica-venezia-2016-classifica-risultati.html
Wait, it gets better (video clips below). But the scene was beautiful even when we weren’t moving.
Sunday evening at 7:25 PM the Piazza San Marco suddenly came alight in the most extraordinary way. It pulsated, briefly and gloriously, with hundreds (900, if all the people who signed up actually came) of flashlights which, taken together, formed the shape of a heart.
Yes, “Venezia Rivelata” has struck again.
We all remember what fun it was to make a “bocolo” on the feast of San Marco, 2014, and this time the organizers/artists/fantasizers had designed something bigger, more complicated, and also much more spectacular.
The event was the 12th and last in a series created by Alberto Toso Fei and performance artist Elena Tagliapietra. Not every program was so vivid; some were lectures and — to be frank — weren’t all equally publicized, as far as I could tell. Not that I’d have attended them all. I just want to point out that there was in fact a major scheme to all this, the scheme being to focus each time on a particular aspect of Venetian history. And why do this? To bring Venetians to a sense of reclaiming their city, in an emotional if not actual way. (It’s all explained on the press release below.)
Here is the design with the numbered sections. Very useful, like a list of the assigned places at a wedding reception.
The theme on Sunday night was “Venice and Justice,” which is a topic well worth bringing forward, and not because the two terms seem to have become, if we read the newspapers, virtual antonyms. Wait, that isn’t fair. There is justice — in Italy at large, no need to concentrate on Venice alone — but it moves at the pace of a dying diplodocus struggling in a tar pit, and the results are often what might be called debatable. Slow, in any case.
But in the great trajectory of history, Venice often showed herself to be a dazzling innovator — technical, commercial, conceptual, legal — passing laws most of which probably wouldn’t have seemed like a good idea to anyone but the Venetians. To take an example at random, Venice was the first nation in the world to abolish the slave trade (960 AD). Venice invented the copyright, to protect intellectual property (their merchant instincts didn’t stop at the merely tangible). Venice passed laws to protect the rights of women, and of children. Not made up.
Speaking of laws, how about this idea: “The law is equal for everyone,” which is inscribed in big letters on the wall behind every judge’s bench in the land. It can’t be confirmed where this dictum came from, but the Venetians followed it in spirit if not in phrase. For many centuries they were arguably the only people in Europe (and the world?) who didn’t subscribe to the idea that the bigger and richer you were, the more the law was supposed to work for you. If you bothered with the law at all.
The fact that Venice regarded the law as sovereign was never so bitterly and clearly shown than in the agonizing story of Jacopo Foscari, the only surviving son of doge Francesco Foscari (doge from 1423 to 1457). Jacopo was found to be accepting money from a foreign power; he was tried and exiled. More skulduggery, more trials, more exile — three times, each sentence confirmed by his father. I submit that the average criminal whose father was the head of state (or, if you like, the average head of state with an incorrigible child) would have used whatever power was necessary to get the laddie off the hook. Here, no. The laddie died in exile.
The weather was superb; I think the sign-in people might even have been sweating, while keeping an eye on the boxes of umbrellas. Things like those can easily grow legs. Each participant was given one, because at a certain moment we were all to be ordered to open the umbrella and shine our flashlight upward under it. And we all had to be dressed in as much white as we could muster, including a hat, if possible. I wore Lino’s “dixie cup” sailor’s cap.
Toso Fei reports that the following inscription (translated by me) was carved, in Latin, over the entry door of the avogaria of the Doge’s Palace; the avogaria was an ancient magistracy composed of three men who upheld the principle of legality, that is, the correct application of the laws. That such a body even existed was extraordinary — perhaps, in the 12th century, even revolutionary.
PRIMA DI OGNI COSA INDAGATE SEMPRE SCRUPOLOSAMENTE, PER STABILIRE LA VERITÀ CON GIUSTIZIA E CHIAREZZA. NON CONDANNATE NESSUNO, SE NON DOPO UN GIUDIZIO SINCERO E GIUSTO. NON GIUDICATE NESSUNO IN BASE A SOSPETTI, MA RICERCATE LE PROVE E, ALLA FINE, PRONUNCIATE UNA SENTENZA PIETOSA. NON FATE AGLI ALTRI QUEL CHE NON VORRESTE FOSSE FATTO A VOI.
BEFORE ANY OTHER THING, ALWAYS INVESTIGATE SCRUPULOUSLY TO ESTABLISH THE TRUTH WITH JUSTICE AND CLARITY. DO NOT CONDEMN ANYONE IF NOT ACCORDING TO A SINCERE AND JUST JUDGMENT. DO NOT JUDGE ANYONE ON THE BASIS OF SUSPICIONS, BUT SEEK THE EVIDENCE AND, AT THE END, PRONOUNCE A COMPASSIONATE SENTENCE. DO NOT DO TO OTHERS WHAT YOU WOULD NOT HAVE DONE TO YOU.
I think they stole that last idea from somewhere.
So: Beating heart. What better to represent everything good — not only laws fairly and scrupulously applied — but life, period? That was our assignment.
Hats off to everybody involved, right down to the policemen who kept the spectators at bay. And thanks for the umbrella, too.
Facepainters were decorating whoever was willing. All dressed in white, we looked like a regiment of ice-cream vendors.
Being painted seemed to be something the women were more drawn to, though there might have been a man somewhere who got himself hearted.
Untold miles of masking tape had been applied to the Piazza to lay out the positions of the participants, at a width of roughly two people. I was in section 7.
Dry run on holding up our flashlights, all facing toward the campanile of San Marco.
And a few dry runs on opening the umbrellas, and shining our flashlights under them. We on the outside were told to hold the umbrella in the left hand and the flashlight in the right — I still don’t understand the point of that. The people on the squiggly center lines clearly had other instructions. Or none.
Dancers were milling around in small bands, all dressed in white except for two stars who just stood around for a while crunching their feet.
Another wandering star. I understand that her leotard, etc. may require concealment till show time, but she did look like someone going from one treatment to another at the spa.
For about 45 minutes before the heart lit up, we were favored by a series of dance performances by five different groups. I didn’t shoot most of them because they didn’t inspire me (yes, I need inspiration), but I began to realize that it was a very intelligent way to program the event for the participants. We had been asked to show up an hour and a half before H-hour, and that time can really drag no matter how willing you are to shine your flashlight around. This dancer did a lovely routine with a huge fan.
Her fan and bodytard (or whatever it’s called) were color-coordinated: dark on one side, light on the other, like a brill or a sole.
These are brill (“rombo” in the fish market). As you see, one side light and one dark. The dark side is up as they swim, the notion being that the a predator looking down from above will have difficulty seeing it because the dark fish will blend with the darkness below it. Similarly, a predator from below looking up would have trouble distinguishing the fish because the light side would be seen against the light filtering down from the surface. I don’t know anything about the purposes of the girl’s camouflage, though.
Same for sole. When you’ve got a good idea, stick with it.
The spa-girl then performed what I think of as Salome’s Dance of the One Veil.
Then followed a routine which seemed less a dance and more a gymnastic exhibition (I realize the line between the two may be vague). The red panel seemed to be the star, though the man was pretty impressive. I kept waiting for him to do the Thomas Flair, but no.
He had to be supporting the panel and a girl instead. There was another routine after this, but let’s move on because sunset it now at its perfect point and we have to cue the flashlights!
Show time! The lights in the Piazza have just been turned on, and our first command to turn on the flashlights has been given. Have to stop shooting now, got to get busy. But what followed was a series of commands: shine the flashlight straight at the campanile and hold still, then wiggle the flashlight for a while, then shine it under your open umbrella, then run around inside the heart with your shining umbrella as fast as you can. At street level, extremely strange. But the result? Wahoo!
And so it was twilight in the Piazza. Time to take my umbrella and go home.
Every year the city places laurel wreaths at the most important patriotic monuments. The most elaborate one, with an aureole of palm, is placed at the tomb of Daniele Manin.
April 25, as I have reported on other occasions, is a double holiday in Venice: The anniversary of the liberation of Italy after World War II (this year marking the 70th milestone), and the feast day of San Marco, the city’s patron saint.
And gentlemen must acquire a long-stemmed red rose (the “bocolo,” in Venetian) to bestow on their lady love(s). Here, gondolier Marco Farnea buys two — one for his wife, the other for his gondola. It’s an extra-festive occasion, too, because it’s his name-day.
Either of those facts deserves reams, and reams are ready and waiting, thanks to phalanxes of historians.
I simply want to keep the world apprised — yes, I modestly claim to keep the WORLD apprised — of a date that deserves remembering. And here, it’s remembered twice.
First, the roses:
Marco pushes off with the next boatload of clients, the two roses lying at his feet.
A quartet of firemen leaving the ceremony of the flag-raising in the Piazza — one is already armed with his rose.
The Red Cross sells the roses at a booth in the Piazza (as well as sending volunteers around). All for a good cause.
Independent rose sellers are all over our neighborhood all day. They sell mimosa on International Woman’s Day and umbrellas when it’s raining.
Yes, National Liberation Day is important, but this Venetian store makes it clear that tomorrow it will be closed because it’s San Marco’s day. Any other reason is just extra.
Someone placed a bocolo on St. Paul’s altar in the basilica of San Marco. I’m baffled, but I’m still glad to see it there. And no, you’re not supposed to take pictures in the basilica. I’ll never do it again.
And second, the liberation itself, as seen in Venice.
The arrival of the Allied troops in Piazzale Roma on April 29, 1945. Lino remembers that everyone was saying “The Americans are here!” He ran with his friends to see them, and they all asked for chewing gum, and they got it, too.