Archive for Venetian-ness
Before wristwatches, there were bells, usually in towers. But for the bells to be useful, somebody had to know what time it was, so a clock needed to be lurking somewhere — preferably attached to the bells. Of course, clocks didn’t have to have bells. But bells were irrelevant without a clock.
So if ingenuity appeals to you, I suggest you go to the church of S. Geremia, near the train station, to observe one of the oldest clocks in Europe; it is the still-functioning mechanism that kept their two bells ringing — with a 70-year interlude — ever since the 1500’s. (No, there doesn’t seem to be a definite date to the clock’s arrival; I have turned the booklet’s information inside and out, and now it’s my brain that feels like a piece of origami. So “1500’s” will have to do for now.)
(For those whose minds can never be at rest, let me add that the first public clock in Italy was installed in the tower of the church of Sant’ Eustorgio in Milan between 1297 and 1306.) (I will not be reporting anything about Sant’ Eustorgio.)
The tower of S. Geremia has a clock, but no clock-face. In fact, only a few churches in Venice whose bells still alert us to the time also display a visible clock. Clock-faces became common in the 1500’s, the result of I don’t know what impulse, because when you think about it, the striking bells told you everything you needed to know without a visual aid. The belltower of the church of the Carmini, whose bells told me the time for the ten years I lived nearby, has no clock face. I never thought about that till this moment. Just hearing the hour and quarter-hour struck was enough to keep me oriented over the course of the day (and night). But because somebody had to know exactly what time it was, there was a sundial, still visible, on the tower of S. Geremia, which enabled this person to calibrate the works, by hand, exactly at noon. I’ll explain the importance of that in a minute (sorry).
This mechanism is probably one of the simplest, but it still impresses the hoo out of me. Not being literate in the language of wheels — cog, fly, escape, Catherine — I’m not convinced that it was made by an engineer and not by an alchemist or general all-purpose thaumaturge. The important point is that it was maintained in working order till 1950. At that point it went into retirement, until a restoration project brought it back to life in 2015.
Venice was a city of towers and there were many more than there are today. In 1601, a certain Franz Schott, writing a guidebook entitled “Itinerario d’Italia,” stated that Venice contained 27 public clocks, and “towers for church bells 114.” Today, there are 84. We can thank Napoleon for this devastation.
Schott, being German, made those useful distinctions because they weren’t all clock-towers — some were watchtowers, or signal towers, or showing-off towers built by especially rich people.
The need for clocks (have you never reflected on why there was a need for clocks?) seems to have begun in the Benedictine monasteries, to ensure the correct timing of the Liturgy of the Hours throughout the day — and night. But there was also a need for order in arranging the day’s activities out in the profane world, so people got used to organizing themselves according to the bells rung for religious purposes.
Here is how a typical medieval day in Venice rolled along, at least until the 1500’s, from the comprehensive booklet written by Francesco Zane (translated by me):
“Until the 1600’s the devout custom continued of following the divine offices during the night, and the doge never missed attending in his chapel, just as the Greek emperors (I presume he means Byzantine emperors) and the French and Longobard kings. (The “divine offices during the night” would have occurred at midnight and 3:00 AM. No wonder he dozed off in meetings.)
“As the sun rose behind the campanile of San Marco, at the sound of a bell each person got busy working, and seeing that the most numerous artisans were the carpenters, in Venice called marangoni, they named that bell the Marangona. The magistrates seated and the workshops already buzzing, not a few patricians … gathered at Rialto beneath the porticoes, which are to the right as you descend the bridge, for the sole purpose of seeing each other and talking together, while at the same hour and in the remaining porticoes (was) a crowd of merchants — Florentine, Genoese, Lombards, Spanish, Saracens, and of whatever nation of the world was involved in major business. They stayed there till noon, when it was time for lunch.
“…lunchtime was brief, only half an hour after noon had struck, when another bell … struck for a half hour calling everyone back to work, so that the entire time allowed for the pause was only one hour. When night fell, work and public business necessarily ended, but it wasn’t unusual whenever and where it was requested or needed that the magistrates would continue to work on state business.
If you’ve ever noticed the bell ringing every day at 2:00 PM from the campanile of San Marco, that was the signal ending the lunch break for the Arsenal workers.
“Finally, at the third hour of the night (Compline, or 9:00 PM), another bell was rung … after which you could no longer walk around the city … nor could you keep fires burning in shops and houses on pain of a fine of 100 soldi, by which provision the habitations, which were, for the main part, of wood, were preserved from fire. But in the 1400’s it was permitted for barbers and small food shops to remain open after “terza della notte” (6:00 PM).
All these are times that correspond to the canonical hours, which persisted till the 1700’s. Slightly confusing, because the day was considered to begin at sunset. “Prime” was 6:00 AM, “Terza” was 9:00 AM, “Sesta” was 12:00 PM, and “Nona” was 3:00 PM. Documents often refer to meetings and other events as occuring before or at or after a certain named bell. Everybody knew what “Nona” meant, just as I’ve gotten used to knowing what “Candelora” and “l’Immacolata” mean in terms of dates.
It fell to the bells to keep a city of 100,000 people functioning efficiently; the Venetian government needed to ensure that everybody knew what time it was, and S. Geremia was one of four churches which officially sounded the time for any governmental meeting, especially the Great Council. (The other official churches were the Frari, San Francesco della Vigna, and, of course, San Marco, all the highest towers in Venice and all necessarily synchronized, which is where the sundials came in.) Seeing that the Council numbered some 2,000 members who lived all over the city, these four strategically placed belltowers totally removed any chance for someone to arrive late saying he hadn’t heard the summons. Being sure of a standard citywide time enabled the office timekeeper to define what “showing up late” meant, which made it easy to impose the appropriate fine.
Out in the parishes, when the bells rang for Prime (dawn) every morning, the appointed persons would open the thousands of public wells, which had been covered at night. (Reports of the occasional suicide make it clear why this was desirable.) This practice was maintained, perhaps toward the end without the bells, until the acqueduct from the mainland was built in 1884.
Also at Prime, every day from 1516 to 1797, the bells from S. Geremia signaled the guards to open the gates to the Ghetto. At the bell of 6:00 PM the gates were closed and bolted, and the night patrol began its circuit — in boats, naturally — of the walls of the Ghetto.
Who paid for this clock? S. Geremia didn’t have a monastery to justify or fund it; its use was entirely secular, and the parishioners paid for it. San Geremia was one of the largest parishes in Venice, and by the late 1200’s had developed both economically and socially well beyond its poor, marshy beginnings. There were many businesses which depended on knowing what time it was — for example, the foundries.
The city’s oldest foundries were in the parish of S. Geremia, in the area which later was assigned to the Ghetto. The period between the 13th and 14th centuries saw rapid innovations throughout Europe, and one writer says that it was no coincidence that the first artillery and clocks began to appear at the same time. Among other things, the Venetian foundries cast bombards, or early cannon, as well as creating the alloys used for other assorted weapons. Foundry workers were required to live in the parish. I give this as a fact, though I can’t provide the reason, except for the fact that virtually everyone resided near their place of work.
To return to the clock: There are signs that it was cast by the “Dondi” foundry. Several generations of Dondis distinguished themselves in the realm of timepieces. Clock people (of whom I am not one; I’m just passing through) venerate the name of Giovanni Dondi Dall’ Orologio (“of the clock”), who in 1364 completed work on his Astrarium, a complex astronomical clock which one source calls “one of the most important machines of all time.”
To sum up: Artisans and engineers at the pinnacle of their skill collaborated to make this sturdy, unstoppable instrument. I have no doubt that they looked upon it and saw that it was good, though they might not have imagined it would keep going for 500 years. That’s a heck of a lot of TOCKs.
Now it can be told: My absence from my blog has been almost completely due to my presence elsewhere, viz., the world of Venetian masks. Specifically, those who make them. Well, some of those who make them — it wasn’t easy narrowing the field down to four. All this was for “Craftsmanship” magazine’s winter issue.
Certain chunks of time during that period were co-opted by the incessant unpredictables of daily life: Finding a dentist and replacing a large filling which fell out of a molar; replacing the hot-water heater in our little hovel, which is located in a closet literally three steps from my computer; renewing my passport (half a day, what with getting to and from the airport where the consulate is located); opening a new bank account because of new American laws I won’t bore you with. And so on. Charlotte Bronte and George Sand and Harriet Beecher Stowe never had to put up with all this because they had servants, for which I will never forgive them.
Back to work: From sometime far back in October till three days ago, I was researching, interviewing, and probing the depths of maskdom (history of, reason for, artisans therefrom, techniques, materials, anecdotes, etc.). As usual, I overdid it, which meant that the pressure of the final phases (writing, rewriting, rewriting and rewriting) made my brain feel like a decaying swamp plant being turned into a diamond. The pressure was there, anyway, I can attest to that.
I learned several very interesting things about masks in the process, but two things stand out, and I want you to remember them: First, the best mask-makers are constantly trying new ideas and designs, and second, they do it even though they know the mask probably won’t ever sell. That statement is worth pondering.
I have pondered the one with pleasure and the other with regret, because if you were to judge the range of masks on sale in Venice by looking at what people are wearing out on the street during Carnival, you would conclude that there are about five designs. At most. One of many reasons why I regard Carnival as one of the dullest and most stultifying intervals in the Venetian year is precisely because of the freaking monotony and lack of imagination in the costumes and masks. I can dimly understand the appeal of disguising yourself. But I cannot understand the appeal of disguising yourself to look exactly like hundreds of other disguised people. At what point does the concept of “disguise” fail and become merely “normal”?
So here are some photographs of some masks that are sitting right there in shops (or about to be), and I’d like you to give them some respect because they’re quite likely to stay in the shops. Why? I hear you cry. Because people don’t want to spend money for an original work of art they can also tie onto their head.
If for some reason you want to spend the money but inconveniently don’t have it on you at the moment, at least do something different! You don’t have to be an artist to break out of the mold. You could buy a cheap white mask and stick crumpled-up chewing-gum wrappers on it and spray it with glitter. You could throw the wrappers away and stick the gum directly on it. You could take some Sharpie pens in different colors and write the story of your life all over it. You could make a tunic out of newspaper and wander around blowing a kazoo and yelling “Hear Ye, Hear Ye” and announcing whatever invented headlines you really wish were true. You could do a lot, if you start to think about it.
Here is the link to the story, and I am indulging myself bv adding some photographs that didn’t make it into the story, particularly some masks that are as unlike what you see on the street as mulch is from creme fraiche.
You know what they are — they are those moments when family trees, or shrubs of some personal connection (usually with Lino), spring out of some random event.
A small example: We were walking across Campo San Barnaba the other day and Lino paused to look at one of the everlasting sequence of death notices taped to a convenient column. Because this is his natal neighborhood, of course he wanted to see who it was.
I don’t remember the person’s name — it was a man — but it took Lino only about four seconds to place him. “My older sister Giulia was married to Emilio,” he began. This much I knew — I knew her, though Emilio had gone to glory before I entered the scene. “Emilio had a sister, and this man was one of her sons.”
That would have made him… a cousin-in-law?
But that’s a mere dustmote compared to the story that came up yesterday, when Lino looked at the last page of the paper. That’s where the obituaries are, and sure enough, there was someone he knew. Knew very well, in fact.
It was another Emilio, but don’t let that distract you. He passed away at the age of 91, which means he was 14 years older than Lino. Pointless information, perhaps, but he was Lino’s “master,” for lack of a better word, at the Aeronavali, the company for whom Lino (age 16) went to work at the Nicelli airport on the Lido. (His older brother and twin brother also worked there.) I calculate quickly that at the time Emilio would have been 30 — vastly older, and of course vastly more experienced. Big. Important.
Emilio was given a few apprentices to train, and Lino was one of them. “None of us liked him,” Lino said. “He treated his apprentices like servants.”
Eight years went by, and Lino was 24 years old, and things were going very well for him. Emilio was now 38, and even more experienced and important, of course. Word began to circulate that a squad was going to be organized and sent under contract for four months to Mogadishu, Somalia, to work in the airport and train the Somali mechanics. (Note: In case one wonders “Why Somalia?”, Somalia had lived through three colonial experiences, and one of those periods was Italian.)
As I say, word was wafting around that a big expedition was being formed, and naturally the older workers — Emilio, for one — assumed they would be asked to go. A few of them — Emilio, for one — had even begun preparing and collecting the necessary tools. They were only waiting for the starter’s gun.
But one day Lino was called to the head office. “What have you done this time?” was the general question from his co-workers as they watched him go. “No idea,” was the reply.
When he came out of the office, several lurkers pounced. What was going on?
“He asked if I wanted to go to Somalia,” said Lino.
“What did you say?” said the thunderstrucks.
“I said yes, of course.”
Consternation everywhere, especially among the older group which had assumed they would be The Chosen. Emilio was not chosen. He had to stay behind and watch his still-young ex-apprentice go off in what he had assumed would have been his place, lugging the tools that he (Emilio) had so carefully assembled.
So much for Emilio, may he rest in peace.
There was also “Barba Keki,” the nickname of the head of the group, which roughly translates from the Venetian as “Uncle Frankie.”
“Did you talk this over at home first?” he asked, knowing perfectly well what the answer was. (Lino at the time was a young husband with a several-months’-old son.)
B.K. was concerned, but not because he was jealous. No, it was because B.K. (stay with me here) was the husband of the cousin of Lino’s father-in-law, and if Lino’s wife had protested, B.K. would have found himself in the eye of the cyclone.
Lino merely replied, “They asked if I wanted to go, and I said yes.” Happily, no cyclone touched land.
Today, the flowering of the personal connection shrubbery put out some new blooms.
We had to go the bank to deal with some paperwork, and we went upstairs to see one of the officers, Roberto G.
Lino has known him ever since he (Roberto) was born. This doesn’t surprise me anymore. But he knew Roberto because he had known Roberto’s father, who worked at the Aeronavali when Lino also was working there. He was a carpenter, and his nickname was Pianaura (pee-ah-nah-OO-rah) — “pianaura” in Venetian means “planing.” For you linguists, the Italian word is piallatura. A better rendering would be “wood shaving.”
It’s not over. Lino also knew Roberto’s grandfather, Lello, because he too was working at the Aeronavali. Lello was one of the men who did the heavy lifting, the scut work. One of his tasks was to keep the big tank of drinking water filled, a plain but effective precursor of the water cooler. Lello would pump water into the tank from another tank, then put in a chunk of ice (this was summer, clearly), and then a few drops of anise liqueur, such as Sambuca. There are those who swear that water and Cynar is the best thirst-quencher, but the mechanics at the Aeronavali drank water and anise.
So we went to the bank — I signed some papers and got a family tree. I like it.
Yesterday, Sept. 16, was the first day of school. Nobody was happy, of course, even though the Veneto, along with Puglia, was the region that started school the latest (Alto Adige began on Sept. 7, but they have German DNA).
I’ve never investigated the reasons why the whole country doesn’t start school on the same day, and starting on a Wednesday seems odd, or at least asymmetrical, to me. Then again, some of the post offices in Venice open at 8:15, and some open at 8:25. Anyone for 8:00? Certainly not. To each his own symmetry, I guess.
This year, as in the past few, the neighborhood old people’s group (literal translation of “gruppo anziani“) organized a wonderful send-off to the littlest scholars to launch them into their first real day of school ever (they will already have had nursery school, but this time it’s serious). We didn’t stay to watch because we had to be somewhere else, but I have no doubt that, as before, each child was given a bag of presents — school supplies could qualify, as long as they’ve got that new-car smell — and given a heartfelt exhortation, and a warm round of applause.
But what was new this year was the sign they put up on the backdrop, the wall of the church of San Francesco di Paola. We discovered it toward evening, and this morning it was gone. I’d like to think that the wall will retain the warmth of the poster for quite a while yet.