Archive for Venetian History
The last thing on this mortal earth that the Venice firemen ever want to deal with is a fire.
If you leaf through a thousand years of Venetian history, you can see that fire has been about a skillion times more damaging to the city than water ever has been, or ever could be, not that I’m promoting acqua alta. But you can accommodate water, one way or another — besides, you get fair warning when it’s coming, and you know that after a few hours it will go away all by itself. But you cannot accommodate a fire. There have been conflagrations in Venice that can match some of the worst you’ve ever heard of, at least in places not named Chicago or London.
In 1514 the entire Rialto market area was leveled by fire, leaving only the church of San Giacometto untouched. The Doge’s Palace was carbonized, as they say here, to various degrees three times, in 1483, 1574 and 1577, the last one leaving so little that there was serious discussion of demolishing the walls and just building the whole thing over. (Plan rejected, happily for us.)
And there was the olive oil warehouse behind San Marcuola that caught fire from a lantern in 1789. I don’t think there’s any way to put out an oil fire, at least of that magnitude. Four hundred families were left to pick through the smoking ruins. Not to forget the lumber warehouse that caught fire at Barbarie de le Tole in 1686, which incinerated the neighborhood leaving only one house standing.
And my all-time non-favorite, the fire that started in San Severo in 1105 and took a tour of something like half of the city. Get out your maps: It started in the house of the Zancani family at San Severo, burned the neighborhood, then the flames moved on to San Lorenzo, San Provolo, Santa Maria Formosa, onward to San Giovanni Nuovo, San Zulian and San Basso and around the Piazza San Marco up to the church of San Geminiano, and proceeded to San Moise’ and Santa Maria Zobenigo. There the strong wind blew sparks across the Grand Canal. San Gregorio caught fire, Sant’ Agnese, San Trovaso, San Barnaba, San Basilio, then on to Angelo Raffaelle and San Nicolo dei Mendicoli; the fire on the San Marco side, not done yet, marched to San Maurizio, S. Paternian (now Campo Manin), San Luca, San Vidal, and San Samuele. Bring me an acqua alta that can hurt like that.
Today the firemen probably spend more time in the water than they do around those banal but occasionally really bad fires caused by short circuits, flaming food and arson. The lagoon is their beat: Pilings gone adrift, boats that have capsized or sunk, and other nautical mishaps are what the firemen usually deal with, and yesterday morning we came across such an event in the rio di San Giovanni Nuovo as we were walking from Santa Maria Formosa toward San Zaccaria.
First we heard the roar of the fireboat’s engine, all set to pump like crazy. Then we saw it, next to its waterlogged victim; by the look of the work already in progress, we’d come in toward the end of the second act of this drama, which means we had no idea of what had happened in the first act, nor who the dramatis personae were. But we could recognize a logistical problem which for some reason was more difficult than usual. I can say that because, as Lino explained it to me, if they had executed two little steps at the beginning, they’d have been home for lunch in no time. (I will try to describe his solution later.) As it was, in the absence of a team leader, everybody got into the act, and you don’t need to be a fireman, or a boat, to know that when too many people are trying to come up with a solution to a problem, the problem wins.
Short version: They evidently tried to lift the entire boat, which, considering the weight of the water, was discovered to be impossible. They couldn’t raise the boat even two inches above the surface of the canal to be able to pump out the water in the boat (we walked by when they were at the point of renouncing the effort), so they ended up deciding to tow it away. By the look of it, this procedure would have been more or less like towing a dead blue whale which had swallowed five Zamzama guns, with cannonballs.
Lino, who has also dealt with his fair share of submerged boats, told me that the boat was (briefly) on a modest slant. Blocking the upper side, they only needed to raise the lower side enough to start pumping. He made it sound easy, and considering how many times he and I have undertaken maneuvers with extremely heavy boats all by ourselves, he gets Olympic-level credit for understanding physics. Still, I give the firemen the benefit of the doubt because firemen are my heroes, and nothing I say should be taken as denigrating or belittling them in any way, much less to imply that I could have done it better. But still, it wasn’t going well — even I could see that.
Speaking of cannons, and lifting, a Venetian patrician named Giovanni Zusto once devised a way to lift an entire ship to the surface — a ship carrying cannon, which is what brought this feat to my mind — after it had sat in the mud for three years.
You should know about this, to have something astonishing to think about whenever you get tired of marveling at Venetian engineering skill ashore. On April 1, 1783, the “Fenice,” complete with 74 cannon, sank in the Canal Spignon, which is just inside the inlet at Malamocco. That location means mud and currents.
So the aforementioned Zusto — once again, amateurs save the day — designed a system of enormous rafts which provided the basis for this gigantic hauling-up. On July 30, 1786, the Fenice rose again. The designs are on the second floor of the Naval Museum, which is closed for renovation. Here they are; have a look, and rethink how hard your day has been.
Yesterday was December 13, as you know, and it was also the feast day of Santa Lucia, as you know now.
Not-so-trivia alert: The inescapable but ever-beautiful Neapolitan song, “Santa Lucia,” which is known everywhere as far as the Tadpole Galaxy, does not refer to the lovely Sicilian martyr. It refers to Borgo Santa Lucia, a waterfront neighborhood of Naples which is named for the lovely Sicilian martyr. Words such as “ship,” “sea,” and “Naples” spangling the song kind of give it away, at least if you understand Italian or Neapolitan.
Words may come and go, but someone hit on a melody which is impossible to forget. It even works in Thai. The Italian founder of Silpakorn University in Bangkok, Prof. Corrado Feroci, loved it so much that he used the tune as the setting for the official song of the university.
What does all this have to do with Venice? St. Lucy’s mortal remains lie in state above the high altar of the church of S. Geremia, having been moved from her very own church in 1861 when it was demolished to make room for the railway station. (Which is why the Venice station is subtitled “Santa Lucia.”)
Saint Lucy is the saint responsible for addressing eye problems. The only time I ever went to services at San Geremia on her feast day I was struck by the huge floral arrangement offered by the Ophthalmologists’ Association of the Veneto, which was extremely gracious, though odd. Wouldn’t she be the one to put them out of business?
In the old days in Venice, people used to link St. Lucy’s day to freezing cold: “Da Santa Lussia, el fredo crussia” (St. Lucy’s Day, the cold is excruciating). Global warming has sent that saying off to follow the dodo. Anyone who utters this phrase nowadays — me, for instance — is indulging in nostalgia.
But St. Lucy maintains her place in another common exchange. Let’s say you run across someone you know, whom you compliment. Example: “Hey, you’re looking good.” Rejoinder: “Thank St. Lucy who’s given you good eyes.” Depending on the tone of voice, the remark allows for plenty of deprecation, implying anything from “Thank St. Lucy, but you should go get your eyes checked” to “Thank St. Lucy, but are you going blind?” Evidently she can control your eyesight at will.
She was a native of Siracusa, and her body was brought here in 1280. The specific reason was probably the general reason for such events (Venice possessed some A-list relics, such as the remains of St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr, and Saint Zachary, father of John the Baptist), to wit, money! Sorry, I meant offerings and gifts from religious pilgrims. Religious tourism was a very big deal in the old days, and everybody wanted to make the most of their saints. Naturally, the people of Siracusa want to have her back. She’s like the Elgin Marbles. But Venice has determined to keep her, though the patriarch did allow her to return home for a while a few years ago. I can’t remember why. Maybe it was her birthday.
Yesterday Lino gave me a startling new bit of Lucy lore. He was geezing about how it used to be one of the biggest feast days celebrated in Venice and now nobody pays the slightest bit of attention to her (except for annual flowers and recurrent badinage). And then he said “And everybody used to eat storti with whipped cream.”
Whipped cream I know, but storti? Literally, it means “crooked,” and I’ve heard an elderly person refer to somebody crafty or cunning as a “storto dal Dolo.” This is a jest, because while “storto” is clearly not high praise (calling someone “crooked” isn’t pretty in English, either), saying that the sneaky person came from Dolo actually refers to a well-known sort of waffle cone made in Dolo, a town on the Brenta river which used to be famous for producing this crunchy little item. Every March Dolo puts on the “Carnival of the Storti.”
Cones and cream, in whatever form, are evidently destined for each other, the Ilsa and Rick of fattening snacks. I didn’t know St. Lucy encouraged people to eat them, but I say any saint’s feast day ought to call for whipped cream.
So I immediately started nagging Lino to take me to somewhere I could eat storti with whipped cream, and although he said you used to be able to get them anywhere in Venice, he remembered a place not far from the church of San Geremia. We went in and asked if they had storti with whipped cream. “Of course,” said the woman behind the bar, in a way that implied that we might have asked if they had electricity.
For any traveler who wants to chance his arm, or palate, I will reveal that this confection was consumed at the Bar Gelateria Da Nini in the Strada Nova a few steps from the Ponte delle Guglie at number 1306. I am not responsible for your arteries, I’m just fulfilling my journalistic responsibilities.
I have already recounted most of this story elsewhere, but it’s worth recalling because it is one of the milestone episodes of Venetian history. Also because today is the anniversary of the attempted coup, on June 15, 1310, to overthrow the Venetian government.
Not to begin a whole other train of trivia, but while we may be inclined to cheer the defeat of the three conspirators because we like how Venice turned out, it’s worth knowing that in 1310, as John Julius Norwich relates, Doge Pietro Gradenigo was the most detested man in Venice.
Certain typically arrogant actions of his had driven Pope Clement V to excommunicate the entire city-nation, which led Venice to the brink of commercial collapse. An unwinnable war with the aforementioned pope consisted mainly of Venetian defeats, and increasing numbers of the doge’s enemies were convinced that Gradenigo’s policies were bringing disgrace and disaster on everyone. Anger, tension, and fear were seething through the city, and a series of decrees intended to contain the discontent was, paradoxically, bringing the city to the verge of civil war. It was quite evident to several young patricians that it was time for a very big change.
The attempted coup by Bajamonte Tiepolo, Piero and Marco Querini, and Badoero Badoer failed for a number of reasons, one of which (surprising to me, and especially to the plotters) was lack of popular support at the crucial moment. I don’t understand this part very well, but it’s a story well worth reading in more detail, though not here.
In any case, they weren’t merely three young bloods who wanted to try their hand at ruling the world. They were the ones who bubbled up to the top of the political pot as it was in the process of boiling over.
Now it’s June 15 again, 705 years later. And it has come to pass over a certain period of time leading up to today that the Mutual Aid Society of Carpenters and Caulkers (full disclosure: I am a member), under the aegis of Cesare Peris, its “gastaldo,” or president, exhumed the very banner carried by Baiamonte Tiepolo as he was charging through the city toward the Doge’s Palace.
Not only that. This banner, which had been slumbering somewhere in the Museo Correr, needed fixing. With funding from a sponsor, the Caulkers commissioned (A) the restoration of the old silk banner, which by now was not in very sparkly condition, and (B) a replica of the banner, with a few small modifications. And to undertake this work, art restorer Anna Passarella, in Padova, was engaged; she in turn engaged a squad of high school students at the Marco Polo-Liceo Artistico (high school of art) in Venice. Yes, this task was accomplished by 15- and 16-year-olds. If that isn’t sufficiently noteworthy, let me add that one them is a direct descendant, I was told, of the fateful doge Gradenigo. Not made up.
This morning the banner was unfurled in Campo San Luca, carried in procession along the main route used by Tiepolo and Querini (attacking and then fleeing), with a pause at each important place along the way during which costumed trumpeters fanfared and a costumed crier read the story, step by step. Too bad his voice was never loud enough to be heard over the chaos of the herds of tourists crushing their way through our group, but it was quite nice that he was reading in Venetian, and then in English.
The whole ceremony took about an hour, and then the banner was taken away to safekeeping.
I suppose that thousands of tourists will now go home thinking Venetians carry banners around the city, with trumpet fanfares, every day.
Actually, that’s not the worst idea I’ve ever heard, but next time we ought to do it at 6:00 AM, before Venice-Mart opens its doors for the day.
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.
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:
And second, the liberation itself, as seen in Venice.