Archive for Venetian-ness


Floating music

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We had the radio on very low this afternoon — a makeshift substitute for the soothing sound of an imaginary Alpine brook — when I realized I was hearing an extremely beautiful aria that I hadn’t heard in ages.  (For the record: “Mi par d’udir ancora” from Bizet’s “The Pearl Fishers,” though I don’t know who was singing.  I’ll gladly settle for Beniamino Gigli, though, just to keep it in mind.)  Here is the link:

Lino also hadn’t heard it in ages, but it immediately brought back some happy, and very specific, memories of a hot summer evening when he was a little boy.  I want you to be listening to this seductive barcarole — though perhaps it was more lovely at a slightly less funereal tempo — as you imagine this scene:

“I was standing by the Rialto Bridge with my sisters on the evening of Ferragosto (August 15),” he told me.”  (If you’ve never been in Venice on August 15, it means “hot.”)  “And the galleggiante was coming slowly up the Grand Canal and there were the chorus and musicians from La Fenice playing, and this is what they were singing.  And there were hundreds of boats following along behind, rowed by just everybody.”

The galleggiante (literally “floating”) was a platform made of two peatas lashed together, perhaps towed, perhaps rowed, he doesn’t remember.  Here is a picture of a peata, which was used for everyday work of massive dimensions till the Fifties, at least.  

A gazebo-like dome had been constructed on which little lights were shining — I’ll pause while you adjust your mind to the very idea — and the summer-night music was wafting up along the canal as the boats drifted by.

An image of the rotunda “galleggiante” designed by architect Vincenzo Scamozzi for the ceremonial boat procession celebrating the coronation of the dogaressa Morosina Morosini Grimani in 1595. The boats following this extraordinary construction were mostly more expensive and glamorous than the ones that were being rowed behind Bizet on that summer evening in the late Forties.  But those people weren’t trying to show off.

The mere thought of such an event brings a “knot to my throat,” as they say here.  Evening promenades were nothing new in Venice — over the centuries they were often indulged in by Venetians of all ranks and stations seeking a breath of cooler air in the sultry summer nights. There were even boats designed for these nocturnal perambulations, such as the gondola da fresco, the mussin (there is one still to be seen occasionally), and the pupparino.  Even today, if someone asks me how I stand the summer heat here, I say “We go out on the water, that’s how.”

If music in the Grand Canal seems like the best idea ever, I would concur.  A group of women have organized a somewhat similar event over the past few years, but although I haven’t participated, I have the impression that it wasn’t very much like the evening Lino remembers.  For one thing, Venetians (few as they are nowadays) tend to go to the mountains in August.  But I can tell you that if I’d been there with him, I’d never have forgotten it either.

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Another little link…

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This is a typical view of LinoWorld, otherwise known as Venice.

…in the chain, if you will, connecting Venetians to each other.  Or to Lino, anyway.

In my post about going to the movies in the old days here, I mentioned Lino’s recollection of the man who stood at the entrance to the cinema Santa Margherita making and selling taffy.

In today’s episode, we were on the 5.1 vaporetto this morning traveling from the “Guglie” to the “Giardini.”  Boarding behind us, and sitting in front of us, was a tall, unkempt man in that unmappable region between 70 years old and expiration.  He was talking continually to the elderly lady with him in that peculiarly annoying voice that can’t be called LOUD but which everybody on the boat can hear.  Or rather, cannot avoid hearing.

After a few stops, they get off.  Lino says, “You know who that was?” I don’t bother replying, but wait.

“That was the son of the man who sold the taffy in front of the cinema Santa Margherita.”

The story never ends, it just keeps adding chapters.


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recycling the cinema, part 3

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So, we’re all back from coffee and bathroom breaks?  Let us continue this peregrination along the path of the cinemas Lino remembers from earliest childhood, or from however old he was when his mother would give herself some time off and take him to the movies at Campo Santa Margherita. Or when he and his friends would head for the parish halls, or patronati, on Sunday afternoons.

Let’s start here:

This long building behind the wall, which now belongs to the Hotel Belle Arti behind the Accademia galleries, was part of the monastery associated with the Istituto Cavanis, a school which still occupies the palace across the street.  Like some other religious institutions, “the Cavanis” would show movies, just one of the assorted entertainments that were organized for the parish families.  Lino headed here with his friends every Sunday afternoon.

The former entrance to the cinema has been plastered- and pictured-over.

Going around a few corners, we pass the still-lamented (by me) former Cinema Accademia.  I went to some American film here during my first year in Venice and remember absolutely nothing about it because I spent the entire time translating the amazingly banal dialogue for Lino, who eventually went to sleep (dark, soothing atmosphere….).  We didn’t go the movies for a long time after that.

Whole generations of people have passed this place since it closed, and I don’t know how many remember what was here before it became just another community notice board.  By now, Venice is wallpapered with shutters of all sorts, thoroughly spray-painted or otherwise enhanced.

“Cinema” still barely discernible…

Followed by something else written above the doors. It’s like trying to read an eye chart drawn in Mayan hieroglyphics.

An eye chart gracefully surmounted by these forgotten pieces of wrought iron. Did lamps once hang from them?

Neatly folded behind this important corner at Campo Santa Margherita was the Cinema Moderno.

The entrance to the supermarket facing the Rio Tera’ dei Pugni would hint at its having been the entrance to the Cinema Moderno. But no! (Zwingle’s Fifth Law: Never Assume. Zwingle’s Corollary: Abandon logic, it’s useless baggage.)

This was the entrance, fairly far down the campo’s long side.  Over time, local artists have dedicated their talents to embellishing the doors.

I’m sorry its mosaic elegance doesn’t come through as I’d have wished. If I’d had a ladder to climb, things would have been different.

The truncated belltower of the former church of Santa Margherita is known to anyone who has crossed the eponymous campo. I can tell you nothing about its truncation, but I can tell you that the attached church just behind it was, in Lino’s day, the “Cinema Vecio” (old cinema). And the door we see was the cinema entrance.  Lino jokes that they’d go to see films like “La Fuga del Cavallo Morto” (the escape of the dead horse).

The ticket booth was just inside to the left, and outside stood a man making and selling “franfranica,” which according to Lino’s description resembled (or was) taffy.  It was a large mass stuck on a nail that gravity drew into a long thick strip which the man pulled out and up and let it stretch down again.  He sold candy apples and caramelized pears and other sorts of sweets.  Until the “talkies” appeared, Lino’s father (who was an engineer and drove a steam-powered train from Venice to Trento), would make extra money  by reading the title cards aloud during the show.  Almost everyone had finished elementary school, but Lino’s father had finished middle school.

The porticoed doorway is now the main entrance to what originally (14th century) was a Catholic church. It was closed in 1810 and used for various “profane” purposes which I haven’t yet identified. In 1882 it became the Evangelical Lutheran church (a congregation which now meets in the former Scuola dell’Angelo Custode at the Santi Apostoli).  At some point it became a cinema, and ultimately was renovated as an auditorium for the University of Venice/Ca’ Foscari.

The battle of the fading inscriptions continues.

On this side of the church/cinema a little old lady set up a small stand on movie days and sold candy organized in little compartments.  During the intermission, someone else would stroll the aisles with a tray held on a strap around his neck, selling more candy — “caramelle” in Italian and Venetian and calling out “KAH-ra-MEEEEEEEH.”  He also sold toasted pumpkin seeds, whose husks were destined to fall to the floor.  “You can imagine what it was like for the sweepers,” Lino said.

About halfway up the building’s wall is this row of extraordinary heads. Were they sculpted as a sort of apotropaic rampart? Brought here from elsewhere? Just left over from… what?

Whatever they are, they’re great.

The cinema at the Frari bore many similarities to the one at the Cavanis. As you see, there is a wall and a longish building; these are found at the far end of the spacious compound which houses the basilica of the Frari, two cloisters, some buildings and some garden.  Here we are the “some buildings and garden” end, on the Calle Drio l’Archivio, the street behind the Archives.  The friars organized things, but anybody could buy a ticket and watch to their heart’s content.

The Cinema Quirinetta was in a place which I doubt you’ve ever noticed because I doubt you’ve ever walked by here. It’s pretty remote from the usual tourist territory, but of course your usual locals knew all about it.

The tour ends here.  I’m sure there are other places which Lino doesn’t remember, or never went to.  Maybe some of my Venetian readers will offer some other information, which would be great.

Before I ring the curtain down on this triple-feature, I discover that I left out a cinema that belonged on yesterday’s list.  It’s on the Strada Nova a few steps from the Santa Sofia traghetto dock/Ca’ d’Oro vaporetto stop:

It says so proudly: Cinema Teatro Progresso.  Now you can buy shampoo and lipstick and toilet- bowl cleaner there instead.  Certainly more useful, though perhaps not quite as enjoyable as a night at the flicks.

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The best of “Burielo”

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A corteo is almost always preceded by a police boat which helpfully prevents collisions and hard words in the Grand Canal. This was, after all, a workday morning and plenty of people had other things on their mind than your funeral. (My, that sounded bad.)  In any case, the first intimation of this corteo, just emerging slowly from the bulk of upstream traffic, is the police boat.

A few days ago (last Monday, if anyone cares) there was a funeral.  In this city that hardly counts as news.  But it was the funeral of a young man — I consider 61 to be young — who had had a solid if untrumpeted career as a racer.  Umberto Costantini, nicknamed “Burielo,” was at the top of his game in his twenties, during the Eighties and early Nineties, and the newspaper was full of the glorious Venetian-rowing names, some of them much, much older than he, who came to do him homage.

The homage, according to what I read, was some of the best you could ever hope for, especially from this squabbling band.  “A great athlete and a good man,” stated several re del remo, the greatest champions, some of whom had rowed with him.  “In this world, full of controversy, he never argued with anybody,” said one of the greatest arguers of them all.

A few days before his passing, the paper reports, a group of the all-time great rowers went to visit him in the hospital.  “Ostrega,” he said, using the preferred Venetian expression for wow, good grief, heavens to Betsy, “I must really be in bad shape if you’re all here….”

He wanted a corteo, or boat procession, for his funeral, like the one he participated in when Bruno “Strigheta,” his friend and fellow Burano native, died two years ago.  And so it was.

Unhappily, it was on a workday morning, which cut into the number of participants somewhat. Not having been a rock-star name, that also may have left him somewhat unknown and unappreciated in the general rowing world.  Even more unhappily, there were people who knew him who just went to work as usual — we passed two gondoliers who were also Burano natives, and racers, as we wandered around town, who were clearly planning to be in their boats soon, but boats full of tourists.  That seemed harsh.

We thought about participating, but too many other factors intervened. So we stood at the vaporetto stop at the Ca’ d’Oro to watch the procession.  The deceased had said that he’d like to have a corteo, and by gum, they did it for him.

As it happens, I have my own small memory of “Burielo” — small to me, but an event that was big for him. I hadn’t even heard of him till then. It was 1997, and I was watching the Regata Storica sitting in a boat not far from the finish line.  Here the gondolinos came, thundering, so to speak, toward the finish line.  It’s definitely the peak moment of a peak experience, the entire world was screaming and yelling and shrieking and so on.

Burielo was in the bow, and Bruno dei Rossi (“Strigheta”) was astern.  They were in third place and rowing like mad to stay there, side by side, nose to nose, with the Busetto brothers, battling it out. The finish line was only, I’m guessing, 30 seconds away.  Four men turbo-rowing — it was wild.  But one man ran out of gas first: Burielo.

All at once, with that beautiful green pennant hopefully clutched in his (mental) hands, he stopped rowing, then collapsed.  I remember seeing him crumple down in the boat.  Just like that.  Two boats passed as the gondolino slid forward on its own momentum — I can’t do justice to his state of mind, not to mention his partner’s — and they came in fifth. No pennant, and definitely no glory. The ambulance zoomed up and he was headed — in another sort of turbo-manner — to the hospital, where he was checked in for a serious tachycardia.

That was the last time he rowed a gondolino, that’s for sure, and evidently the last time he raced, period.  You can understand that it would have been difficult to qualify for the required medical certificate.  Maybe he didn’t even try.

The human part of me is very sad this happened.  The secret mad-dog competitor part of me is sad that it happened before they could rip that green pennant from the (mental) hands of the Busettos.

The ten-oar gondolone, or “big gondola,” of the Francescana rowing club is rowed by some of the biggest names in the racing pantheon, some of whom were also his partners at one time or another. (Bruno “Strigheta” preceded him two years ago to the cosmic finish line.)  In the bow, Gianfranco Vianello “Crea,” and astern is Franco dei Rossi “Strigheta,” his old partner Bruno’s brother, with whom the deceased had won the race of the “galleons” of the Four Ancient Maritime Republics.  There were also Bepi Fongher, Giovanni Seno “Scherolin” and Luciano Tagliapietra “Panna,” three of his former race-mates, Palmiro Fongher, and Rudi Vignotto.  Only Vignotto is still winning races, but they’re all still rowing, which counts as a victory, in my view.

Not everybody rows at the same speed (some rowers always think that being in a boat means it’s a race), so the relatively few boats here began to spread out.  The motorboat to the left of the frame is the usual hearse, which probably brought the casket to the gondolone and will be waiting to carry it onward after the funeral.

Come on, everybody, this is a funeral cortege, not a wander through the park.  Though admittedly an eight-oar crew on a ten-oar boat is going to go faster than these vessels.

And so they passed out of view, turning left before the Rialto Bridge into the rio del Fontego dei Tedeschi, and on to the basilica of SS. Giovanni e Paolo (may I note, yet again, that nobody calls it “Zanipolo,” no matter how exotic it sounds). A vast crowd was waiting at the church, but we were not part of it.

And good night, farewell, auf wiedersehen, goodbye.

I forgot to mention that he had a life beyond racing.  He was a molecante, a type of fisherman who catches crabs and cultivates them in submerged wooden cages called vieri till they reach the stage where they shed their shells and become moeche (soft-shelled crabs) and can be sold at the market for a freaking king’s ransom.

The general procedure is this:  A fisherman (which used to be most, and now some still, men on Burano) goes out into the lagoon and strings his nets along poles he drives into the mud. He goes out and checks what has run into the net.  He divests the net of whatever is in it — all sorts of fish, and lots and lots of crabs.  (You can see these little crabs running around the shallows any time you are out in a boat.  Lino says that if you walk around in the semi-soft mud and then retrace your steps, each footprint will contain a crab.  He doesn’t know why.  I confirm that I have seen this.)

The fisherman separates the various critters and sells them, except for the crabs.  He’ll sort out the good ones, and put them in the vieri.  Every day or so he’ll pass to check on them, and takes out whichever are ready for market, tables, and unnumbered Swiss bank accounts.  They are currently selling at the Rialto for 60 euros per kilo, or $30 per pound, more or less.  I don’t know how much the molecante makes from that.  My experience of life leads me to assume that it would be dramatically less than that, but that’s not the point of this little cadenza.  The cadenza is that Burielo used to do this, and now (I hope) he’s doing it in heaven, because he loved it.

In a side canal by Mazzorbo, which is near Burano.

I’m imagining that this is Burielo’s corner of heaven.

And every so often the poles are pulled up and the nets brought to land and strung up to dry for a while. A windy morning in April is an excellent moment for this.

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