Archive for Venetian History
Talk about Venetian history long enough — say, eight minutes, or even less — and you will almost certainly refer at least once to Napoleon Bonaparte. If you are somehow able to avoid mentioning him, you should embed the secret in a cellphone game because I think it would be a challenge.
And why is this? Because on May 12, 1797, his army entered Venice and the Venetian Republic fell forever. That was one day. Then the damage really began.
Napoleon craved Venice for several reasons, one of which was that it was the richest city in Europe. He needed money to pay for his wars, and when he was done, the city was flayed of tons of art works, precious metals, and gems. His soldiers spent two weeks carting treasures out of the basilica of San Marco. What he stripped from the “Bucintoro,” the doge’s state barge, was enough to keep most of us in popcorn for the rest of our lives.
Even if you didn’t know that, you walk through his handiwork in the course of any ordinary stroll here — through campos named for saints whose churches are nowhere to be found, for example – because the Venice we see today is the result of months of devastation wrought upon the city in the fulfillment of his ideas.
If you want to try to imagine the city before it was disemboweled (I often try, and usually fail), here is a partial list of the buildings Napoleon got his hands on. My source is “Storie delle Chiese dei Monasteri delle Scuole di Venezia Rapinate e Distrutte da Napoleone Bonaparte” by Cesare Zangirolami (Filippi Editore – Venezia). Some of these structures were completely demolished, some merely gutted and abandoned, or decommissioned, so to speak, like sinking battleships, and used as warehouses (coal, tobacco, etc.) or assorted other really practical purposes, such as barracks. A few have been restored and resuscitated, but not to their former use — you’ll recognize the names of some you’ll have at least walked past. This list does not include the 80-some palaces he razed. Nor the tombs of doges and patricians which have disappeared. But the book does list each work of art which is gone forever.
Abbey of San Cipriano
Dell’Anconeta. Sant’Agnese, Sant’Agostino, Sant’Anna, Sant’Antonio Abate, Sant’Anzolo, Sant’Apollonia, Sant’Aponal, dell’Ascensione, San Basegio, San Basso, San Bernardo, San Biagio, San Biagio e Cataldo, San Boldo, San Bonaventura, Cavalieri di Malta, della Celestia, delle Convertite, del Corpus Domini, della Croce, della Croce alla Zuecca, San Cataldo, Santa Chiara, Santa Chiara di Murano, Santi Cosma e Damiano, San Daniele, San Domenico, Sant’Elena, Santi Filippo e Giacomo, San Geminiano, San Giacomo di Rialto, San Giacomo della Zuecca, San Giovanni Battista, San Giovanni Battista dei Battuti, San Giovanni dei Furlani, San Giovanni Laterano, San Girolamo, San Giuseppe di Murano, Santa Giustina, della Grazia, San Gregorio, Santa Lena, San Leonardo, San Lorenzo, Santi Marco e Andrea, Santa Margarita (sic), Santa Maria Annunziata, Santa Maria Celeste, Santa Maria degli Angeli, Santa Maria della Carita’, Santa Maria delle Grazie, Santa Maria delle Vergini, Santa Maria del Pianto, Santa Maria Maddalena, Santa Maria Maggiore, Santa Maria Nova, Santa Marina, Santa Marta, San Martino Vescovo, San Matteo Apostolo, San Matteo di Murano, San Mattia, San Maurizio, San Michele Arcangelo, San Nicoletto della Lattuga, San Nicolo’ di Bari, Ognissanti, San Paternian, San Pietro Martire, San Provolo, del Santo Sepolcro, dello Spirito Santo, San Salvador di Murano, Santa Scolastica, San Sebastiano, San Severo, Santa Sofia, San Stefano di Murano, San Stin, Santa Ternita, della Trasfigurazione, della Santissima Trinita’, dell’Umilta’, San Vio.
Islands (not the islands themselves but the edifices upon them) :
Sant’Andrea, la Certosa, San Cristoforo della Pace, San Giorgio in Alga, della Grazia, San Secondo.
Monasteries: (in some cases the structures remain and are even in use, but he dismembered their congregations, some of which were admittedly small, but still. I’ve been to many offices which are housed in former convents and cloisters).
Sant’Anna, Sant’Antonio Abate, San Bernardo, Santi Biagio e Cataldo, Santa Chiara di Murano, Santi Cosma e Damiano, della Croce, San Daniele, delle Dimesse, San Domenico, San Francesco della Vigna, San Giacomo, San Giovanni Battista, San Giovanni Laterano, San Giuseppe, San Lorenzo, Santi Marco e Andrea, Santa Maria degli Angeli, Santa Maria dei Servi, Santa Maria delle Vergini, Santa Maria del Pianto, Santa Maria Maddalena, San Martino Vescovo, San Matteo, San Mattia, San Michele di Murano, San Pietro Martire, del Santo Sepolcro.
Oratorio della Concezione, Oratorio di Sant’Orsola.
Ospitale degli Incurabili, Ospitale dei Marinai.
Patriarcato (at San Pietro di Castello, the palace of the Patriarch of Venice till 1807, when San Marco was made the city’s cathedral).
Priorato (Priory) di Malta
Scuole (headquarters of the many guilds and confraternities):
degli Albanesi, della Carita’, San Francesco, San Girolamo, San Giovanni dei Battuti, San Giovanni Evangelista, della Madonna della Pace, San Marco, Santa Maria e Cristoforo, dei Mercanti, della Misericordia, del Nome di Gesu’, dei Pittori, della Santissima Trinita’, dei Stampatori i Librari, San Stefano, San Teodoro, Dei Varotari.
And people talk about Attila.
It’s sheer coincidence that what I want to say about offspring comes right after my little cadenza on nuptials. Though I suppose it’s preferable to my having done them in reverse. I’m so old-fashioned.
So now we’ve come to the subject of “Children: birthing of.” Midwives were the norm here up until the Forties, anyway. My husband was born in 1938, at home, with the aid of a midwife.
Midwife, in Italian, is levatrice. But in Venetian, it’s “comare” (co-MAH-reh), which I deconstruct as “co-mother,” which is pretty nice. (For the record, it also means matron-of-honor and official female wedding witness.)
Though midwives are no longer common, an old quip hangs on in occasional usage today: “Xe nato a lugio per no pagar la comare” (zeh nahto a LOO-joe pair no pa-gahr ya co-MAH-reh). It literally means “He was born in July so as not to pay the midwife.” It’s one of many affectionate ways to describe a boy or man who could be called a rascal, scamp, rapscallion, etc. What the connection could possibly be between July and the midwife and her accounts payable isn’t clear at all. Even Lino can’t tell me. In general, I suppose it’s meant to show how the individual from the very first moment revealed himself to be more than usually scampish.
Speaking of paying the midwife, or not, I always laugh when I listen to a particular riff (thanks to YouTube) which was broadcast and recorded in 1973 by a then-famous, now-forgotten comic named Angelo Cecchelin (check-eh-YEEN). This hilarious sketch is called “Una Questione Ereditaria” (A Question of Inheritance), in which he plays the part of a man who has been summoned to a judge’s office, he knows not why, but is already on the defensive for fear that he’s going to get trapped into having to pay somebody money. The fact that he is from Trieste, accent and all, stresses the stereotype of people from the Northeast, especially Friuli, of being spectacularly stingy. I digress.
It starts off like this (translated by me):
Cecchelin: Giuseppe Sante fu Giuseppe fu Anna fu nata Paoli. (The old-fashioned way of giving one’s provenance via the parents’ names.)
Q: I mean where and when were you born!
A: I was born in Trieste on October 23 1894 in Via delle Zudecche number 19 fifth floor door number 24 on Wednesday morning it was raining cats and dogs and the midwife still has to be paid.
Back under the Venetian Republic, though, these women were not Hogarthian hags with hairy warts using God knows what as instruments and God had no idea what as medication. In those days, being a midwife was a real profession. I love any discovery of how forward-thinking the old Venetians were.
Here is what Giuseppe Tassini says in his peerless book, “Curiosita’ Veneziane” (translated by me):
“One finds that in 1689, on September 26, the Magistrate of Health established certain norms for the women who wanted to practice the profession of midwife.
“First of all, he ordered that they had to be able to read, and that they take as their text a book entitled ‘On the Midwife“; that they had to produce a document to certify that for two years they had attended anatomical demonstrations relating to their art, and another to certify that they had spent two years of practical experience with an approved midwife; and finally that they had to undergo an examination which was conducted by the Protomedico in the presence of the Priors of the College of Physicians, and also two distinguished midwives, each of which could add her own questions to those of the Protomedico…
“In the field of obstetrics, the surgeon Giovanni Menini particularly distinguished himself, and he had built, at his own expense, an obstetric chamber so well-supplied and correct that the Venetian Senate acquired it for public use, calling Menini in 1773 to teach obstetrics not only to the women who wanted to be midwives, but also to surgeons. From that time on, surgeons began to attend women in childbirth, something which had previously happened only rarely, and with unhappy results.”
And now a fragment of memory comes fluttering across my mind: Some years ago, I read in the paper that the parish priest of Pellestrina — or maybe it was San Pietro in Volta — anyway, a village down along the lagoon edge toward Chioggia — made a radical suggestion. He remarked that everybody was accustomed to a bell ringing to announce a death. I’ve heard this bell too — it’s dark and lugubrious and yes, you can ask for whom it is tolling, because plenty of people always know.
But what this priest suggested was that they also ring the bells to announce a birth. I think it was a brilliant idea, and certainly the bells would have been cheerier than the funeral tolling. Louder, in any case. At the least loud enough to drown out the sound of the newborn’s shrieking and wailing, possibly caused by the ringing of the bells.
In any case, bring on the kids!
Lino thinks I’m going deaf, but I think I still hear too much.
Example: Yesterday morning on the bus. To be precise, the CA bus on the Lido, which I had boarded with a suitcase full of laundry, bound for the laundromat. Useless details, but I like to set the scene.
A very old lady sat down in front of me. A young-middle-aged man sat down facing her. They began to talk. It wasn’t really what I think of as conversation — it was more like verbal badminton in which cliche’s are used in place of the shuttlecock.
It started with the usual sort of pleasantries (“Am I taking up too much room?” “No no, not at all,” and so forth).
Then they began to bat remarks back and forth.
“Yes, the bora.”
“It will last for three days.”
“It always does.”
“Of course, now it’s cooler, which is good.”
“Yes, the heat has gone on too long.”
“We need rain, though.”
“Yes, the drought is bad now. I was at Jesolo yesterday and there were incredible sandstorms on the beach.”
“Still, what can you do?”
“The weather does what it wants.”
(Are you still with me?)
I must have drifted off for a minute because I lost the thread, if there was one. In any case, they left the weather and moved on to the History of Large Families. Perhaps there was a link somewhere. It might have been Weather in the Old Days. People here love to talk about the way it used to be, in their lives or the life of somebody else. The further back, the better, because then your listener can’t contradict you.
I checked back in at the point where the man was talking. ”My grandfather had ten children,” he said.. (So we’re far back in the Olden Times when life was hard but people were honest and we were all better off when we were worse off. I’ve heard this so many times.)
“He used to go out fishing,” the man continued. So far, so normal. Lots of men did this to keep the family alive. “Then he’d take his catch and sell it, and buy steaks.”
He did what? I’m no genius of domestic economy, but even with only two kids this isn’t a scenario I’d ever have come up with. You take fish, which are free and are hugely nutritious, and you sell them — I’m good so far — and then you buy steak? Does the word “shoes” not come to mind? Books? The electric bill? I’d even accept “wine” before we got to steak.
Then I had to get off the bus with my dirty clothes, so I’ll never know what the old lady’s response was. Maybe everybody did that back in the old days. You were taught to sell fish for beef right after you learned how to knit a new heel onto an old wool sock, or shine the copper polenta pot using lemon and salt.
The world may be crazy now, but it doesn’t appear to have been much saner back then, either, no matter how honest and hardworking the people might have been.
I can tell you precisely when was the last time I sat and looked at art. It was Easter morning, and I wasn’t in a museum.
We were sitting in the front row of the basilica of San Marco and the occasion was the elaborate festal mass. The sermon was well underway. I had had every intention of listening carefully, because it was the new patriarch’s maiden voyage and I had been curious to check his rigging and navigation skills on one of the biggest days of the year.
If you’d like to know more, you’ll need to ask someone else. Because while he didn’t drift into uncharted political or theological waters (I’m finished with this metaphor now), as his predecessor used to do, he wanted to convey a message I couldn’t follow, and he was in no hurry to finish it. It was the religious equivalent of the stationary bicycle.
To be fair, he could just as well have been reading the Government Printing Office Style Manual, because the basilica of San Marco is an Olympics-level competitor if you’re trying to get somebody’s attention. So I made the most of being installed in my seat for a while, and let my eyes wander around the opulence of the basilica itself. And where my eyes wander, my brain tends to follow.
After scanning my usual favorites (the mosaic depicting the Temptation in the Wilderness, the bug-eyed lion of San Marco in the Prophets Cupola, the relief on the small marble altar outlining Saint Paul’s crisis on the road to Damascus), I let my eyes settle on the Pala d’Oro.
One usually has to pay a small fee to go behind the high altar to see this prodigy, but on major feast days it is rotated to face the nave. Of course, when you’re seated out there you can’t discern much detail, but even from a distance you can tell it’s something phenomenal.
As I gazed at it, I let my eyes slide beyond the extravagant assortment of enamel medallions, and the myriad (1,927, actually) precious and semi-precious stones, and its gleaming golden surface, dazzling though it all may be.
What I saw were the hundreds of people involved in making it, and how hard the work was, and how much it cost. I don’t mean the bills that were presented to various doges, or what its total price would be today in round dollars, if such a thing could be calculated, which it probably can’t.
I mean the money every single person earned who was involved in this project, bearing in mind that what we see is the result of additions, substitutions, and renovations over centuries. If thinking of Accounts Payable seems crass, it probably wasn’t so crass to the artists who made it. Art is many things, but toward the top of the list is the word “business.” I doubt that any more than .0035 percent of all the art in the world was made for free.
The number of individuals who contributed to this prodigious creation is similarly difficult to calculate, along with their vast amount of skill, effort, and imagination. So let’s take just one person.
I’m thinking about a master enamelist. First, there are the years he spends as an apprentice, doing the scut work, making mistakes, throwing things out, learning little tricks, getting yelled at. He learns how to work with wire, with glass, with color, with fire. After I don’t know how long, he ‘s good enough to get the commission to do five saints (let’s say).
So he goes home to give his wife the good news, and tells her how much he’s going to be paid (and when!). And they stay up late feeling happy and trying to decide how they’ll spend the money — finally buy that horse? Pay the butcher? Order their daughter’s wedding dress?
Then I thought the same things about the artist who applied the baroque pearls (years, labor, etc.). Then I stepped back one step to the merchants who sold and bought the pearls (years, labor). And the person who brought the pearls from the Persian Gulf to Constantinople. And the person who dived for the pearls. (I stopped short of imagining the oyster making the pearls, but you’re free to go ahead.)
Then I thought about the gold-leaf beaters and appliers. (This is no small thought, considering that the Pala d’Oro consists of gold in many forms: repousse’, cast, applique’, chased, stamped, matted, and filigrees, not to mention granulation and beading.) The gold merchant. His wife and kids. The camel-driver and ship’s captain who carried the gold. Their wives and kids. The gold miner. His wife and kids.
So I probably missed an excellent sermon while I was imagining spouses and offspring and extra food and new shoes and sick grandfathers and quack doctors and on and on, through the whole infinitely expanding intricacy of the connections between just about everything.
So whenever I see a few square inches of art (frescoes, mosaics, marble statues, kilim carpets, whatever), I sometimes unleash my mind and let it roll around like a Weazel Ball among centuries and countries and people.
I came back to my immediate surroundings when they passed to take up the collection. Speaking of money.