Archive for Venetian-ness
By now you know how it goes. We’re out walking somewhere, or on the vaporetto, or just minding our own business, and somebody Lino knows will cross our trajectory.
Seeing people you know isn’t something remarkable in most towns. Seeing people you’ve always known is particularly Venetian. Or particularly Lino, anyway.
We were standing on the dock at “Rialto Mercato” waiting for the vaporetto and Lino glimpsed an average sort of man, rather innocuous, walking on behind us. “Oh boy,” said Lino. “There’s Piero.” Yes? Lino started doing that mysterious thing we all recognize which says I AM INVISIBLE YOU DO NOT SEE ME I AM NOT HERE. Very loudly. The reason being, as Lino muttered, that he would nab you and start talking and you’d never get away. This is a hanging offense in LinoWorld when he still has to finish the Gazzettino.
“We grew up together,” he began to explain, which also isn’t so remarkable. “Nursery school, kindergarten, elementary school. He lived on the calle de le Botteghe at San Barnaba. We went to day camp together.
“Then he went to work at the port. He was some kind of laborer — I don’t remember what. Maybe he weighed things, or operated the crane.
“Anyway, at a certain point he reached legal retirement age” (which is based on years you’ve worked, not your birthday-age, and people of Piero and Lino’s vintage started really early, usually around 16). “So they told him he had to retire. He didn’t want to, he wanted to keep working.
“So after he left the port he kept going around to anybody who he thought could help him find another job — the parish priest, the Patriarch. Anybody. He said he’d work for free. He didn’t care about getting paid, he just needed something to do.” But he didn’t find anything, so he has joined the ranks of the many unwillingly-retired men who go out every morning and glom onto whatever friend wanders into glomming range.
“He was muculoso,” Lino recalled. Mucusy. Always wiping his nose with his sleeve. Lino remembers a surprising number of people who answered that description, either individually or categorically (as in: When Lino sees a person he’s known since childhood who has clearly gotten above himself, forgetting or ignoring his/her humble origins, he might pointedly mutter, “He didn’t even have a handkerchief to wipe his nose.” Or, more vividly: “Quanti mussi al naso!” He was pretty snotty!). Ah, these are the real memories.
Piero’s nasal passages have calmed down, but he did come and sit down behind us and start talking to Lino. Fortunately, Lino’s friendly but short replies got the message through, and he decided to just sit quietly and let Lino read the paper. It took me several slow, painful years to learn that lesson. But then again, he’s known Lino longer than I have.
We were pausing in via Garibaldi for some reason one afternoon in early February. I remember the date because there was a big Carnival event impending (the corteo of the Marie), and there were plenty of Vigili Urbani around. These are like the first-tier policemen, all uniformed up. Three men in particularly serious garb walk by, one of whom is taller and somewhat more distinguished-looking than the others.
“Oh, there’s Rizzo,” said Lino. “I remember him. His father was a gondolier. Died young. He was as old as my brother Puccio (editor’s note: who also died young). I remember his grandmother.”
Having set the scene: “Wow. Look at him. He looks like a general.” (Which was said with only the tiniest inflection of “You ain’t all that.”)
So, we were walking homeward this morning from the vaporetto stop at San Pietro, after a visit to someone in the hospital. There were a few people walking ahead of us. “You see that man with his hands behind his back?” asked Lino. I did. “He’s a retired gondolier.” And you know this because……?
Easy answer: “He used to be at the stazio at the Molo.” In other words, you know him. Interesting answer: “Also, you can tell by the way he walks.” Yes, I could see that he was limping slightly, favoring his left leg, by which I mean that he let his weight fall more onto his right leg. Thus, discomfort on left side — hip, knee, etc. This is an occupational hazard — or virtual certainty — of the full-time gondolier after a very long while at the stern. The stern rower always has his left leg forward, which means that with each stroke of the oar, his weight is transferred onto that leg. Do that every day for days/months/decades, and in the end you will pretty much have worn your trochanters away.
I think gondoliers ought to get a special rate for hip replacements.
The streets of Venice are paved with trachyte, and often are marked with something less durable. Venetians have always loved dogs, and many of their owners do indeed clean up after them. But a rancid few are perfectly fine with their dog’s biological functions. So fine that the popo’ (the polite term that corresponds to “poop”) the dog leaves behind magically becomes invisible to them.
No need to take up space describing the disgust both the product and the barbaric dog-owners inspire in everyone. But one woman struck back.
Anna da Schio (Anna from Schio — no last names on this one!) wrote to the Gazzettino on January 28 describing how she finally dealt with one dog-owner’s nonfeasance (translated by me):
I’m struck by the desperate appeal of Signor Marco Panfilo to the mayor that he should banish the dogs of Venice because their owners are uncivil. It would seem more correct to me to banish the uncivil owners, more animals than their animals.
Anyway, I’d like to note that one can defend oneself against even these.
A few years ago, Signor Sempronio lived near me (“Sempronio” is the equivalent of “John Doe”), the owner of a very beautiful and very big boxer, which, however, left behind him mountains of popo’. I got fed up and I decided to act.
So, they arrive — Sempronio and Fido — just like every morning. Fido leaves his little mountain right in the middle of the sotoportego under my house, where it is super-easy to step in it because the area is dark.
Sempronio looks at the sky, pretends not to notice anything, and moves on toward the Corte Santi. I watch this act (by Sempronio, not by Fido), and I follow them: Corte Santi, Calle del Monastero, Rio Tera’ San Vio, Calle del Sabbion, Fondamenta Zorzi and then Calle de le Mende, and I’m still behind them.
At this point the good Sempronio begins to have some doubts, and walks faster, and I’m still behind. When we reach the Campiello degli Incurabili, he suddenly turns around and asks why I’m following him.
I reply that I’m waiting to see him return to clean under the sotoportego. Sempronio assures me that this is completely his intention, but in the meantime walks briskly toward the Ramo degli Incurabili, and I’m still following.
We come out, a little out of breath, at the Zattere. Fido is thrilled because this walk is a lot longer than usual, but Sempronio is visibly altered, and uncertain what to do: He doesn’t want to let me follow him all the way home, because I’d discover where he lives. He makes a rude but eloquent gesture in my direction, heads down the Zattere almost running, and I’ll spare you the rest of the marathon, but we reach, flying, the sotoportego where, fortunately, the “mountain” is still intact.
Sempronio, who till now has considered it useless to carry the necessary tools for dealing with this, sacrifices a page of his newspaper, cleans it up, and departs with his odorous package.
I’ve often seen Sempronio and Fido, but I’ve never found any more mountains of popo’ near my house.
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.