Archive for Venetian Problems
I know that many people have a passion for cemeteries, their gravestones, their curious names and dates, and their general atmosphere of composure and calm.
But the customary calm at the cemetery on the island of San Michele here has been rattled in the past week or so by a very disagreeable discovery, and it doesn’t have to do with the dead, but the living. And the fact that they have taken up housekeeping together.
Because it’s one thing to visit the cemetery to bring flowers to your defunct relatives, or for a brief meander, and another to rent a cheap room in what was part of the old monastery.
Room? A room with a view of a tomb? The first the city heard of it was via the Gazzettino and the Nuova Venezia; the headline on the hoarding essentially said “Now there are tourists even in the cemetery.” The power of this phrase lies secondarily in the word “cemetery” and primarily in the word “tourist.” Neither is a noun that inspires much of a smile on Venetian lips, and the combination produced a city-wide snarl.
The snarl soon became garnished with sneers, because the truth did come out, and a tiresome little truth it was, too. Remember Zwingle’s Eighth Law? ”Everything is fine until it’s not.” Or one could put it this way: “We’ll do what we want until we get caught.” Gosh, it even rhymes.
These tourists were not sleeping on the slabs, but in the former monastery’s infirmary, which the city had made available to the Danish Committee for Venice (Comitato pro Venezia Danimarca) via a free 30-year concession. The Committee wanted to create (fund, establish) a Danish Cultural Center, and in exchange, agreed to restore the wing of the late Franciscan friary at its own expense.
They got the Center going pretty quickly, which is where the tourists come in, who were supposedly scholars and intellectuals and art lovers and others with an evolved attitude toward Venice, but who could also be anybody who joined the Friends of the Danish House.
Thus tourists have been enjoying this facility for the past two years. Perhaps more; I haven’t been able to locate a specific number yet. But it’s been long enough for the drivers of the vaporettos going to and from Murano to get used to stopping at the cemetery, even in the evening, to let people with suitcases on or off. For 200 euros a week — not a typo, and not made up — you can believe there was no lack of travelers checking in, with keys, no less, after the cemetery had closed.
Let’s say that the idea of sleeping in the graveyard doesn’t offend you; after all, it”s not as if skeletons are going to be taking out the trash.
But a lot of people here have been offended by what they regard as lack of respect. And most people anywhere would probably agree that it’s offensive that nine years have passed since the deal was struck, and the restoration still has not begun, while in the meantime the Danes have been operating this lodging which was never mentioned or even hinted at when they got permission to set up their Cultural Center.
A closer look at the legal document also reveals that the city granted the Danish Committee this free concession for 30 years “to be counted as beginning when the work of restoration begins.” So we’re already slightly out of sync here.
Nor is it clear whether the Danes were to be allowed to create their Center before the restoration work had been finished. Or at least begun.
When all this began to come to light — on All Souls Day, the day on which hundreds of Venetians go to the cemetery to visit their departed relatives — the citizens were galvanized. All those supposedly apathetic Venetians who have more or less accepted that they are inaudible and invisible suddenly spoke with one voice, and that voice said “No!”
A petition sprang up on the Fondamente Nuove, where the vaporettos leave for the cemetery, demanding that this wildcat bed and breakfast be closed immediately.
Venetians were signing it. Tourists were signing it. Even Danish tourists were signing it. The petition has reached some 2,000 names.
“By opening a guesthouse,” said Roberto Monegato, who is one of the founders of the petition,”the Danish have violated seven articles of the regulations of the cemetery. Furthermore, the convention was signed nine years ago; the property was given in concession in order that restoration would be made, but till now nothing has been done.”
A week of ire was spent in dealing with all this, during which the thoughts of assorted residents, some city councilors and even the vice-mayor were all amply aired. The letters to the editors were all of one opinion: Shame!
Nobody spoke up to defend the Danes — not even the Danes themselves. Silence reigned; one might almost say the silence of a cemetery.
However, the Committee for Venice (which had been shown to be essentially the Committee for the Danes), has now closed the hostel and is preparing to begin work on the promised restoration.
There. That wasn’t so hard, was it?
Money in Venetian is known as schei (“skay”). It is also known, by extension, as the thing we need most and have least. In fact, we have none. We never have any. There isn’t any. We can’t pay for anything because we haven’t got anything to use, not even bricks of salt or boxes of tulips. We’re broke, and proud of it.
I’m broke because no money comes in. The city is broke because money comes in but then it goes out again, somewhere, lots of somewheres, all according to accounting systems that bear more resemblance to Advanced Squad Leader than simple little double-entry bookkeeping, which was invented in Venice, by the way.
It’s something astonishing. Venice can’t pay for the Regata Storica. It can’t pay for the city hospital. It can’t pay for repairing (fill in name of favorite monument, church, work of art here). It can’t pay to build a new cinema for the Film Festival. It can’t pay to correct the errors which were paid for with money which it didn’t have. It’s trying to sell the Casino because the once-flourishing cash cow is running out of butterfat. Somebody wrote to the Gazzettino that the best way to settle the evergreen conflict about whether the Italian Region of Alto Adige is really the Austrian Region of South Tyrol is to sell it to the Austrians. Conflict over, coffers bursting.
The only way to confront snaggly streets and exhausted bridges and anything else that needs fixing is to seek a sponsor. The word “sponsor” has acquired the lonely, sacred, unattainable significance of “Holy Grail.” “We have to find a sponsor” is the most annoying, monotonous, “I got nothin’” phrase since “Have a nice day.” It means “We have to find an oil field,” “We have to find a rhodium mine,” “We have to find something that doesn’t cost us anything and gives us everything.”
But money there is, because it keeps popping up where it isn’t supposed to be — not only in Venice, but all over Italy. Bribes. Payoffs. Fake blind people imbibing state subsidies for disabilities. (A woman has just been nabbed for having requested — and received — a 300-euro contribution to pay for her children’s schoolbooks. She claimed to have only 6,000 euros in this world. But in fact, she turns out to have 480,000 euros in this world.) One man who has finally been cornered for some malfeasance I haven’t been tracking was discovered to have 238 bank accounts. Is that a lot? I have no way of knowing.
I do know that there were long, convoluted negotiations between the city and Pierre Cardin about the “Palais Lumiere,” the cyclopean ultra-modern glass skyscraper he wanted to build on the edge of the lagoon. Everybody but the two aforementioned entities thought it was a terrible idea and finally he gave up and took his idea and went away. Which means that now the city suddenly doesn’t have the 30 million euros (I believe it was) which they had already happily scribbled onto the “Income” side of the ledger. Which means that now they haven’t got enough to pay for extending the tram across the bridge from Mestre to Piazzale Roma. Evidently the phrase “You should have thought of that sooner” applies to more situations than to five-year-olds in the back seat of the car who suddenly have to go to the bathroom.
As usual, everyone is wailing about taxes and many are wailing about the cost of government. (Feel free to wail in your own language.) But if anybody has the sensation that the taxes are going nowhere, it’s possible to discover at least some of the wheres. Such as running the government. We heard on the radio that the cost of government in Germany is 4 euros per person; in Greece it’s 6 euros per person; in Italy, it’s 27. It’s expensive to keep 630 people in Rome arguing all day about the other parties’ members and mistakes.
Am I going somewhere with all this? Certainly.
I am reading a very diverting book entitled “A Book of Scoundrels,” by Charles Whibley (1897), which delineates the careers of England’s most notable highwaymen and other sorts of thieves and criminals. Short version: In spite of their faults and failures as humans, he was basically on their side as long as they had panache, originality, and/or great clothes.
I offer the following segment in honor of all the fiscal frivolity that crowds the newspapers and the courts. This may be the only period that I’ve ever wished I were a lawyer; I’d be fixed for life.
The characters: James Hind (1616 – 1652) a notorious highwayman of Royalist sympathies who happened to get his clutches on John Bradshaw, the judge who had condemned King Charles I to decapitation. The scene: The luxurious open spaces of Dorset, near Sherborne.
First, Hind took all of the judge’s money, told the bodyguard (who had judiciously decided to suspend his active service) to take off his hat, and then delivered the following discourse on gold:
“This is that incomparable medicament, which the republican physicians call the wonder-working plaster. It is truly catholic in operation, and somewhat akin to the Jesuit’s powder, but more effectual.
“The virtues of it are strange and various; it makes justice deaf as well as blind, and takes out spots of the deepest treason more cleverly than castle-soap (sic) does common stains; it alters a man’s constitution in two or three days, more than the virtuoso’s transfusion of blood can do in seven years.
“‘Tis a great alexiopharmick, and helps poisonous principles of rebellion, and those that use them. It miraculously exalts and purifies the eyesight, and makes traitors behold nothing but innocence in the blackest malefactors.
“‘Tis a mighty cordial for a declining cause; it stifles faction or schism, as certainly as the itch is destroyed by butter and brimstone.
” … The very colour of this precious balm is bright and dazzling. If it be properly applied to the fist, that is in a decent manner, and a competent dose, it infallibly performs all the cures which the evils of humanity crave.”
Thus having spoken, he killed the six horses of Bradshaw’s coach, and went contemptuously on his way.
Take that! And that! Hind’s scorn might be wasted on the prime exemplars of modern brigandage here in the cradle of the Renaissance. Not that they’re unfamiliar with scorn, and some irony manages to make itself heard from time to time, but discourses such as Hind’s would lack flourish in Italian, where utterances often depend more on blunt instruments (words such as “shame”) than the whetted poniards of true rhetoric.
But I feel better now. Why? I don’t know. Maybe because it shows that there’s no point in struggling to be better people. It’s been this way forever. Here we are, and here we’ll stay. Evolution is over.
People sometimes ask me — or ask themselves, standing next to me — why the government of Venice doesn’t do one thing or the other to resolve the city’s problems, which are right out there for everybody to see. It seems impossible that nobody has come up with any ideas for what to do to make it cleaner, safer, more efficient (well, that might be a reach) — or just generally spiffed up and functioning. How can it be that no long-term solution is found for something — anything?
If we were to take the proverbial legal tablet and write the proverbial two comparative lists, one would be titled “Problems” (it would be a very long list), and the other “Solutions” (which would also be long). But there are almost no points at which they recognize each other and embrace, like twins separated at birth.
But guess what I just found out? People were raising red flags, launching the lifeboats, pulling out handfuls of hair in 1970 about the very same problems everyone complains about today. That’s 43 years of standing in one place. If I were a city, I’d be tired by now.
As I have long suspected, it’s not ideas that are missing here. (I mean, constructive, forward-looking, beneficial-to-everybody ideas). It’s execution.
Tides of ideas flow through Venice from all sides, but like the lagoon tide, they go out again. Most of them. To return again. Most of them. Some of them begin to be realized, then they stop. Then they start again. You get the idea. (Sorry.)
Here are some of the most telling bits from a big article in the Gazzettino last Sunday, written by Pier Alvise Zorzi. It might be useful to know that the Zorzi family is documented to have been in Venice since 964 A.D. That doesn’t mean he knows more than anyone else, I’m just saying he’s not the latest person to see the fireworks of the Redentore and decide to stay here forever.
Mr. Zorzi reports that back in April, 1970, veteran journalist Indro Montanelli dedicated virtually the entire month to articles about Venice and its problems — its particularity, its fragility, the housing depression, the political bungling, and so on.
“THE ILLS OF VENICE? THE SAME WERE REPORTED BY INDRO 43 YEARS AGO. From depopulation to the risk of the touristic monoculture, from the sublagunare project to the problems of housing.”
“I have in hand a page from the Corriere della Sera (April 23, 1970) with the headline: ‘The Youth Front for Venice,’ with the subtitle “On the lagoon one breathes the air of the Titanic — the discouragement which by now pervades the Venetians is the main danger to face – to break this passivity a movement of young people has arisen without any political label ready to support at the next elections anybody who defends Venice.”
Under some emblematic photographs are these succinct quotes from 1970, which read like telegraph messages from the front lines. It’s deja vu again, and again, and again.
“Tourism: The city can’t live only on hotels and restaurants.”
“Housing: Too many uninhabited palaces and the cost of rent is through the roof (as they say here, “to the stars”).”
“Dignity: Enough of sterile complaints: each person needs to get involved.”
He continues: “A young person who was interviewed complained of the progressive abandonment of the city…the problem of housing, which is not only decrepit but at much higher rents than on the mainland…And the culminating point, ‘We don’t intend to raise tourism to the level of a monoculture. A city like Venice can’t live only on hotels, trattorias, tips. It will become degraded.’”
And the solutions these young people suggest are also, by now, hoary and draped with cobwebs: More artisans, for example, or linking highly specialized institutions to the world of production and cultural foundations in Europe and America.
The Front eventually fell apart, but the old problems are still here, and have been joined by some new ones: “The ‘hole’ of the Lido (endless construction projects that are badly conceived, worse realized, mercilessly expensive); the ghost of corruption on the MOSE project (more about this in another post), the mega-billboards which continue in spite of new ministerial regulations.”
Zorzi acknowledges a few positive signs lately, small and tentative though they may be. But the essential character of the situation is not only unchanged, but maybe even unchangeable. “The problem,” he says, and so do lots of people here, “is that everyone who is able to make the decisions is so tied up in the webs of common interests, either political or economic (but aren’t they the same?) that they move only with extreme, sticky slowness.
“The risk? That 40 years from now we’ll still be right there, at the same spot. I don’t want my grandchildren still to be reading, for example, about the Calatrava bridge, that economic abyss … or the suspected speculation on the renovation of the Manin barracks. Or the hospital. Or the eternal MOSE. Or all the usual things which the national newspapers don’t bother with anymore because everybody’s fed up with Venice’s constant whining.
“I want Venice to have the dignity to save herself on her own, thanks to the citizens which consider her not as something to exploit, but something to invest in. I want the Venetians to denounce the little local mafias, instead of trying to join them in order to gain something for themselves. I want the multinationals who buy the palaces to invest in the city and not merely in their own image. I want that each person, even in their own little way, should do something to safeguard our special character. If I were to live for a hundred years, I’d like to read something new about Venice.”
You know what’s too bad about this cri de coeur? I’ve heard it before.
Maybe all of you out there are sick of hearing about the Grandi Navi (Big Ships) kerfuffle, but it’s just about daily news here. It provides a needed (though I wouldn’t say “welcome”) break from the other endless topics, such as everything else that’s screwy around here.
But something happened two days ago which in my opinion changes the entire scheme of the bureaucratic/political/economic volleyball game between the Comune, the small but obnoxious band of protesters, and the Port Authority.
As you know, there has been and continues to be an exhausting back and forth between these factions about What to Do About the Big Ships. All these heated remarks and assertions, which keep fizzing and flaming like sodium dropped in a glass of water, are based on the conviction that a big ship is a clear and present and inevitable and catastrophic danger to Venice. Every remark on the subject, like acqua alta, starts from the unstated assumption that it is inherently hazardous.
As you also know, I am not convinced. Not being convinced doesn’t mean that I find the behemoths attractive, but there is a difference between something being ugly and something being bad. The protesters don’t want them in the city for reasons which have nothing to do either with the ships or the city, and so have created an issue where one didn’t exist before, and doesn’t have to exist now, either.
The subject has been twisted around in a way that brings to mind the observation of Seneca the Younger regarding the difference between the Roman and Etruscan outlook on the cosmos:
“Whereas we believe lightning to be released as a result of the collision of clouds, they believe that the clouds collide so as to release lightning: for … they are led to believe not that things have a meaning insofar as they occur, but rather that they occur because they must have a meaning.”
Because the big ships could be dangerous, we have to assume that they will be dangerous.
Don’t misunderstand. I think it would be a terrible thing if a big ship suddenly lost control and ran into the Piazza San Marco killing countless people and cleaving the Doge’s Palace in twain. I also think it would be a terrible thing if an eagle dropped a turtle on my head. So many terrible things hurt and/or kill people every day — abusive husbands, cigarettes, car crashes, malaria-bearing mosquitoes — that fixating on the big ships seems excessive.
But there’s good news!
Two days ago a sort of fire-drill occurred. It wasn’t planned, and it wasn’t fun, but in my opinion it demonstrated that the people who would have to deal with the much-dreaded emergency in the Bacino of San Marco are very much up to the task.
A Big Ship named “Zenith” (soon, I guess, to be rechristened “Nadir”) carrying 1,828 (or 1,672) passengers and 620 (or 603) crew members caught fire. That is, a fire broke out in the engine room. The ship was not far from Chioggia, in the first night of its cruise heading toward Venice. The fire was quickly brought under control, but the ship lost all power and was anchored ten miles offshore (seasick pills anybody?), in the dark, etc. Scenarios that are too familiar from recent Carnival line carnivals.
At 4:20 AM, after having spent ten hours trying to get the engines started, the captain called the Capitaneria di Porto for help and a flotilla of assistance was immediately thrown into action. Three large motor patrol vessels of the C di P began heading south, along with a large fireboat with firemen, two big tugboats (“Marina C” and “Hippos”), soon followed by another two (“Angelina C” and “Ivonne C”). Aboard the tugboats were more firemen and seamen from the Coast Guard. Also divers.
The tugboats managed to attach their towlines to the ship — not easy in a heavy sea — and tow her into the lagoon at Malamocco at about 4 knots/7 kilometers per hour. All this took most of the day. At 11:00 PM the ship was finally moored at the industrial zone at Marghera. Total elapsed time: 20 hours.
Why is this good news? First of all, the passengers lived through it and the experience didn’t last for days and days, as has been the case in some other similar events.
Second, and most important, the Venetian maritime system showed itself highly capable of resolving this emergency in admirable form.
So if they were able to accomplish all this in a long and complicated situation, why would they not be able to intervene immediately in the Bacino of San Marco if a Big Ship lost power, when two tugboats are already attached, and there are rarely waves or wind to match those of the open sea?
Maybe Seneca the Younger has the answer to that. My answer is that it appears they’d be able to do just fine.