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The Carnival-scapades

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Yesterday was the second day of Carnival 2018 (Jan. 27-Feb. 13), and the festivities started, as they have for a number of years now, with a monster boat procession in the Grand Canal.  The boats and rowers were decorated and trimmed and upholstered and whatever else seemed good across the gamut from minimal (a hat) to the glamorous (let’s all be Mozart for a day!) to the fabulously imaginative, funny, and irreverent.  They say that during “Carnevale, ogni scherzo vale” (during Carnival every joke works) and the boat people showed they’ve got plenty of high jinks still in them.

Note: For an overview of Carnival garb, behavior and general atmosphere back in the glory days, I recommend my very own piece on masks for Craftsmanship magazine.

Further note: I promised Lino that I would convey his belief that this festival, amusing and picturesque as it may be, is NOT the real Venetian Carnival.  He is extremely firm on that point.  Other cities, most particularly Viareggio, are famous for celebrating Carnival with highly elaborate floats (“carri allegorici“).  The floats of Viareggio are titanic constructions that can hold their own against any other carnival in the galaxy.  But Lino contends that this sort of parade is not the Venetian Carnival and he strongly objects to the introduction of this foreign body into the Venetian culture.  I am not going to adjudicate the matter in any way, I have only fulfilled my promise to add his voice into the festive confusion.  Confusion there has always been during Carnival, even here, and history attests this.  But no carri allegorici.

That said, I’d like to return to the floating (sorry) festivities.  I’m a stout defender of Venetian traditions, but I have to admit that I found the whole thing hugely entertaining.  That’s all I’m going to say.

The gathering of the boats at the entrance to the Grand Canal. We arrived around 10:45, and we began processing at 11:15. The weather didn’t get the message that it would be hilarious to rain or snow, so we made do with ordinary old sunshine. A good thing, too, because the day after was solid fog.

The boat in the foreground bears proudly on its bow the typical sign listing the stops that is displayed on the #1 vaporetto. Cute, but why?

Here’s why: The sign says “For today only, the ACTV will provide service by oar.”  The crew is wearing the regulation necktie that is part of the ACTV uniform.

The battling Casanovas, comparing gondolas and, probably frills.  Remember the gondola on the left, it will reappear further on.

I’m sure I’m missing something (I’m never wrong if I think that), but here we have a whaling longboat helpfully named “La Baleniere” (“the whale boat,” though the term usually means the entire ship).  Instead of being rowed backwards, it’s been fitted out to be rowed the Venetian way, standing up, facing forward.  Hazmat suits are always appropriate, so I won’t inquire about those, but the headgear looks like jellyfish brains or something else from the abyss.  I’m not even sure what they were made of.  Men wearing pink, though, is always entertaining.

The boats lined up to check in at the control station at the Customs House Point. The organizers threw bottles of water (never drunk) and packs of sandwiches (never eaten, at least not by me) into the boat. They took no chances that somebody might suddenly feel faint.

The star of everything was this enormous plastic mode of a rat, here being carried on a yellow boat to the end of the line where, at the crucial festive moment, he will be broken upon to release a mass of colored balloons. To get the joke you need to know that in the Piazza San Marco, one of the peak moments of Carnival, then and now, is the “flight of the Colombina.” In the very olden days a high-wire artistwould descend a wire stretching from the top of the campanile to the Doge’s Palace (no net.  Fun!!).  Or sometimes he or she was replaced by a huge model dove (“colomba”) which would burst open and shower the under-standers with clouds of confetti.  Seeing that our procession will conclude in the Cannaregio Canal, far, far from the piazza and its glamor and history, the ubiquitous rodent was chosen as the mascot, symbol, patron saint, whatever we want to call him or her, of our lower-brow festa.  I wish I could have gotten closer, this is the only picture I managed to make.  The backward-looking eyes make me laugh.  I wouldn’t have thought a creature this big would bother checking who was behind him.

Maybe he was watching for this, a dragon boat from the Canottieri Mestre. The American flag is flying…a yellow-haired effigy is standing…a model of a rocket is pointing…and all the rowers are wearing archery targets on their backs. Um….

And astern the flag of some unidentified nation (it is not the official flag of North Korea, I checked). But whatever that bit of fabric may be, I think we can surmise what it symbolizes. And a rocket pointing that way. Hilarious.

Wait: THIS is hilarious. The sign the central rowers are holding up translates as: “Mine is longer.” Badaboom.

The Addams Family, Uncle Fester rowing astern. The other family members were very white-faced, which was worth a photo but for some reason they kept looking the other way. Are they under witness protection?

She spent quite some time adjusting the black crape. We even have Cousin Itt in the form of the long blond wig on a stick.

Unlikely as it may seem, everybody manages fine with all those oars.

it does get squeezy under the Accademia Bridge, but we are not actually rowing the boat next to us. It only looks like that.

And speaking of squeezy, the overloaded vaporettos had to stay where they were, tied up to their boat-stop dock, until the procession had finished. That’s for everybody’s safety, obviously. And to allow all the passengers to crowd to the outboard side to make photographs of the spectacle, which judging by the inclination of the boat wouldn’t meet anybody’s safety standards. Fun!

Splashing along toward San Toma’, the boats seem to be organizing themselves by color somehow. Suddenly we’re in the blue section.

One caorlina’s crew maintained the roditory (made up — we need this word) theme by dressing as mice and loading the boat with cheese. Another hefty form of parmigiano adorned the stern as well.

Now we’re getting closer to the old satirical bone. Here the rowers are each carrying a cardboard rendition of a MOSE floodgate, complete with streamers of algae and the occasional barnacle. Algae also trailling from the boat, as you see. Check my last few posts about the condition of the gates to appreciate the satire here.

A quick refresher on what the real gates look like.  They do not inspire mirth.

And while we’re on the subject of current events, this boat has remnants of jewelry strewn across its bow and the sign says: “Doge’s Palace, here’s what’s left of the Maharaja’s treasure.”  Maharaja helpfully rowing nearby.  For reference see my post “Lugash on the lagoon.”

Every square or triangular or rhomboidal inch was occupied by people, even up onto the roof of the Fondaco dei Tedeschi.

Behind us, yet more miles of the flotilla. In the center, the “peata” of the rowing club G.S. Voga  Riviera del Brenta, bearing the soundtrack: music, singers, people yelling reckless happy phrases that added to the general atmosphere of revelry.

This little group demonstrated yet again that you don’t need an elaborate or expensive costume for carnivaling, but just a little imagination. Everybody in bathrobes and with towels wrapped around their heads; the two seated people are armed with the moveable showerhead and back-scrubbing brush. I think there’s a shower curtain there too.  So: Bathrobes. How can you say you don’t have a costume?

And the wolf will dwell with the lamb, and the alligator will lie down with the young penguin ..

This caorlina was draped with wafty white fabric and clumps of big cotton balls to create a wintry Alpine scene, complete with rowers in down jackets and somebody on the bow wearing red reindeer antlers.  Pay no attention to the blue and white bits in the background — that’s a white caorlina whose bow has been surmounted by a very large seagull head trailing sky-blue fabric.  If they had wanted to create a real Venetian scene, they’d have added a few bags of garbage pecked and ripped open with the contents strewn wildly around.

A charming couple in fairly authentic mountain-dwellers’ (as opposed to mountaineers’) garb.

The gloriously bedecked man astern is Angelo Boscolo, who recently launched his gondola made of 350 fruit crates. However amusing this may be, he spent a year and a half at it, and scrupulously adds that it is 30 cm (11 inches) shorter than the traditional gondola, and that the crates are made from 11 different types of wood (classic gondola uses 8 types, possibly not those used for kiwi containers).  On the thwart behind the seats has been carved a very Venetian saying: “Chi sa tace, chi non sa chiede. El mona sa già tutto” (Who knows, remains silent; who doesn’t know, asks.  The asshole already knows everything).

First prize and a blue ribbon in the “Actually, why the heck not?” category.

The Rari Nantes Patavium boat club (in Padua) has an elegant 12-oar gondola, here made even more elegant without six of its rowers but with the addition of two tangoing couples.

Of course it’s possible to tango in a space the size of a bathmat. I admire them even more for doing it on a boat, where even the smallest rogue wave could add a few steps they never studied in school.

They made it to the end, this extravagantly dressed pair of rowers. It’s true that everyone was rowing against the tide, but somehow seeing them at it made it appear even harder and more thankless. In any case, this is the once- typical boat of Lake Como, and bears the banner of the lakeside town of Bellano. Five centuries ago the craft was simply called “batel,” used for fishing and also passengers; since 1827 it has been called a “Lucia” in honor of the heroine of the novel “I Promessi Sposi” who makes her escape across the lake in such a boat.

Our four boats of the Remiera Francescana moored near the top of the Cannaregio Canal, in what appears to have suddenly become the Red Zone (the facing boats belong to the G.S. Voga Riviera del Brenta club).

The crowds along the fondamentas were in full cry. Here, a very cool family.

Cool, as in wearing your sunglasses over your mask.

The view of people ashore was almost as good as the one they got of us.  Fun!

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Just glimpsing

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One could do very well here not reading or listening to the news — though eventually one would miss something good — but there would be no point in living in Venice if you couldn’t wander around just looking at things.  And things there always are, needing no introduction and often no comprehension.  If you require that the world make sense, don’t come here.  Go somewhere logical, like Naples, or Lagos.  I speak from experience.

But back to Venice:

This building has clearly led several useful lives.  You don’t need that archway anymore? Brick it up and punch out a window. But the arch presented problems for later revisions; the owners had to slice a corner off the panel on the wall near its arch ring to accommodate it.  And what to do with that fireplace hovering above it?  That fireplace has become  a small obsession of mine. Its floor should be parallel to the street, one would think, but the arch has left it to fend for itself.

Speaking of trying to fit things into a squeezy space there is this barge, which needed to park here. No room? No problem! Just let the part that doesn’t fit stretch out into the street. It wouldn’t surprise me to see a truck parked like this in some city on the mainland, so why should it make me blink here by the canal?

This is a very happy scene. A few whiles back, somebody smashed the plaque and offering box to bits.  In a cit y where everything is tending to fall to pieces that might not merit much attention.  But the inscription has always intrigued me: “Acknowledging Archpriest Giovanni Cotin 1915 1918 the inhabitants of Quintavalle.  Offerings.”  Quintavalle is a little lobe of land behind the church of San Pietro di Castello, and it is truly the back of beyond.  What Giovanni Cotin did to merit the love and gratitude of its residents is something I AM going to find out.  But meanwhile, by some miraculous hand(s), the damage has been repaired.  The story could end here, but I am fascinated by the fact that they installed an awning to protect the relief image of the Madonna and Child from the blazing sun. The image is of bronze, for heaven’s sake. Does bronze need protection? I wouldn’t have thought so, but perhaps they think it’s the mother and her baby, and not the art work itself, that need some shade, which is enchanting, and somehow shows as much reverence and affection as the plaque.  Quintavalle, I underestimated you.

Let’s move indoors.  There is an art to managing the superstitions involving the number 13.  We were invited to a festive lunch in a popular and crowded place where they tape a piece of paper by your table to indicate the time and number of people to be seated. (Also the name of the person who made the reservation, which I have removed.) It is known to be desperately bad luck to write that there are 13 people in a group — as I understand it, which I mostly don’t — so they have cleverly written the number of diners as 12 + 1. It doesn’t seem that there BEING 13 people is a problem, you just can’t write it.  But the time is 1300 hours, or 1:00 PM. Obviously “13” gets all kinds of waivers in the luck department.

More messages, and chalk is just as good as carved stone if the sentiment has that lapidary character. On the bar at a cafe by the Rialto market: “The client is always right … is a concept invented by a client…The person who is right is one who is polite, courteous and understanding of whoever is working.” If you don’t agree, by all means feel free to get out and go elsewhere.  That’s written in invisible chalk.

On the door to the restroom of a bar/cafe. Speaks for itself.

I’m on this staircase in the Doge’s Palace only once a year — it’s closed to the public — so I have to make the most of it. Late afternoon makes so many things look good.


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Happy ending, happy beginning 2018

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My new blue-ribbon lion. Evidently some Byzantine sculptor decided he needed glasses. And the tongue?  Did he just swallow aspirin without water?

It doesn’t matter that New Year’s is my most unfavorite event in the year — it occurs every 365 days anyway.  But I couldn’t let the year get packed away in the back of the closet along with everything else without showing I’m still very much alive, and looking forward to unpredictable wonders in 2018.

Anchored out in the lagoon between the Giudecca and the mainland is the Fireworks Barge (or platform, or pontoon, whatever the technical term might be). The day will have been spent arraying all the explosives on this surface for the big show at midnight.

The New Improved Plan for tonight is to shift the thousands who will be in Venice to accept delivery of 2018 from the Piazza San Marco to a larger, less constricted space. Translation: The Riva degli Schiavoni down to the bridge of the Veneta Marina (church of San Biagio). Temporary fencing has been positioned to help prevent the celebratory drunken mob from falling in the water.  It does not appear to be unbreachable, but one can hope.

This system of helpful signs was inaugurated last year and evidently it worked well. Placing huge EXIT signs at the entrance to every tiny street and alley egressing from the zone of maximum crowdmass is obviously an intelligent security measure, considering that 98 percent of the partyers will not be Venetians and will not know where they are or how to get to somewhere else if some stressful urgency should arise.

Your last chance to flee before via Garibaldi, around the Naval Museum.

And in conclusion, Lino and I wish everyone a resounding “Saldi in pope!” A very profound and Venetian wish which means to stay firmly planted on the stern of your boat regardless of motondoso, gusts of wind, other boats cutting across your bow without warning in the dark, and whatever else may befall the hardy navigator.  I could go on, but I think you have grasped my point.

A slightly shipwrecked poinsettia did not follow my instructions.


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pitching in

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“Tarring the Boat,” 1873, by Edouard Manet (Barnes Foundation, Lower Merion, PA).  Lino was born in time to see this seemingly simple procedure before it went the way of the dodo.  One man gripped a large handful of blazing reeds, and the second man spread the scalding tar by means of a stick which was tightly wrapped at the end with pieces of sheepskin.  The burning reeds kept the pitch at a higher and therefore more spreadable temperature as Man 2 laboriously applied it to the boat’s hull.  I have seen a gondola-builder use these burning reeds, passing them slowly across the hull to gradually remove the varnish; he told me that the lagoon reeds emitted a flame that was more humid than that of many other potential tools, and was thus less traumatic to the boat.  You see?  People don’t use a technique just because there isn’t any other — there is almost always a reason.

Here is a new warp (or weft) to the fabric of life in LinoLand, otherwise known as the place where he has known just about everybody still left in Venice.  Or in this case, not still left.

The case in point: A death notice we came across for a certain Gastone Nardo.  Strangely, this is someone I also knew (a little, and very late. Like, I met him twice.)  He was the gondola-maker at the Squero San Trovaso when I came to Venice, and I was invited to a boat-launching there one freezing February day.  That’s the most I can say about him on my own account.  But of course Lino knows more.

“Well,” Lino said, “he wasn’t always a squerariol (boatbuilder) He came from a family of pegoloti.”  “Pegola” is Venetian for “pitch,” not as in baseballs but as in scorching hot tar, which was the immemorial way to water- and shipworm-proof boats until the middle of the last century.  Knowing how to handle, and apply, boiling pitch to the hull of a boat is probably not something you’d learn as a weekend hobby; it was certainly an important craft.  But you can understand that a pegoloto was several hundred rungs below squerariol, so I admire him intensely for having undertaken to learn how to build gondolas.  Working your way up from chopping lettuce at Quiznos to chef at the Restaurant Le Meurice is one thing, but it isn’t much easier working up from a searing cauldron of pine-derived hydrocarbons to constructing one of the great boats of the world. But he did it.

A friend walks past a recent harvest of reeds by the lagoon of Caorle. They were also useful, not to say ideal, for many uses other than boat-scorching, often woven together in various ways by fishermen and sailors to form latticework known as “grisiole” in Venetian.

But just because nobody uses pitch anymore doesn’t mean it has left Venice altogether — it lives on in a very common daily phrase which is almost as useful as the stuff itself.  It’s a verb, actually: “impegolar” (im-pegh-o-YAR), to metaphorically cover with pitch, to cleverly entrap somebody in a way that a tiptoeing saber-toothed tiger at La Brea would perfectly understand.

I’ve never heard it used by someone admitting to having committed this act on someone else — it’s always been the person who has been deviously empitched who will say it.  Life in Venice, and anywhere else, still offers far too many opportunities to use this expression. Generous, well-meaning, let-there-be-peace-and-let-it-begin-with-me people are fated to walk right into somebody’s loaded tarbrush.

A perfect example of this phenomenon happened to Lino years ago at the hands of his late brother-in-law, Sergio; they were two guys who have rarely, if ever, been known to block out a cry for help.  Sergio, especially, was famed across campi and campielli as one of the best-natured men ever to walk the earth, so of course he was exploited.  But he didn’t go alone.

One day he agreed to help some neighbor carry “a table and four chairs” downstairs and transport them to an apartment on what was virtually the street next door.  Keep “four chairs” and “street next door” firmly in mind.

A boat was needed.  Lino had a small boat.  Would Lino help him fulfill this modest and glowing-with-goodness little project?  Of course Lino would.

And of course Lino and Sergio found themselves “impegolai” in a gigantic moving project that lasted two whole days, schlepping chairs, tables, huge plants in massive clay pots, a divan, credenza, and all the kitchen furnishings including the stove down four, or maybe it was five, flights of stairs. Moving Day! Meanwhile, the beneficiary of this effort, the man of the house, lay peacefully sleeping in bed, and they were even cautioned to work quietly so as not to disturb him.  Naturally this apartment was on the top floor of the building.

And all of this cargo had to carried into the new apartment, naturally, including the bed which was available after the man of the house had awakened (not because of any random noise by the trio of movers), and gone out to do something else, thoughtfully getting out of their way.

From Point A to Point B in Lino’s little boat. The inconvenience of the water route is matched only by the inconvenience there would have been by land. In this case, Lino and Sergio had some help from Bruno, but Bruno was about the size of Willie Shoemaker, so I’m not sure how much he could carry per trip. Still, help is never to be sneered at.

Do not think that finding yourself impegola‘ once means it will never happen again, because  the trick is that these projects always start small (“four chairs”).  So one time the parish asked Sergio if he’d carry away “a few packages” of old newspapers to be recycled.  Yes, even in those long-ago days paper was usefully disposed of at a macero (a pulping mill) in Campo San Silvestro where a trendy little bar-cafe is now lounging around.  Boat needed, with Lino, though only for half of the project.

In this case the cargo — mountains of newspapers — was merely to be unloaded at Lino’s family’s waterside storeroom. Sergio figured out how to get them to the pulping place on his own. Maybe Lino told him that his boat couldn’t take it anymore.

By now I don’t have to say that the “few packages” turned out to be towers of stacked newspapers requiring many roundtrips.  But these things never happen on a boring Saturday afternoon when you literally have nothing to do.  In this case, it was the Saturday of the Redentore, which sort of a summertime version of Christmas Eve, if you want some comparison between the importance of what you’re doing and what the family expects you to be doing.

So instead of preparing his boat for the evening’s festivities (eating, drinking, hanging out with other boat-borne friends, watching fireworks), Lino was rowing his boat around half of Venice again and again to help out Sergio because Sergio said he’d help out the parish.  Why that particular day and not the following Monday?  Because otherwise it would have been convenient, and if you find yourself impegola‘ it’s precisely  because the activity involved cannot be postponed and it must be at the least convenient moment and because only you can accomplish it.

To be fair, Sergio’s Redentore was also twisted out of shape, because that’s the world that people with hearts of gold inhabit.  Beautiful, true, but  completely tacky with pitch.

A few steps from the Arsenal is the “First Sidestreet of the Pitch.” Must have smelled amazing. Everybody with headaches all day and insomnia by night.  Perhaps not much different from the people living next to the pulping mill.

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