Archive for May, 2009
I’m thinking about World War I today, partly because yesterday, May 24, used to be a date engraved in every Italian’s consciousness. Yet it passed unremarked in any way, which to Lino is yet another sign of the general deterioration of just about everything.
We were walking along the fondamenta yesterday morning when all of a sudden Lino said: “It’s May 24! …‘il 24 maggio l’esercito marciava…” and he was off, declaiming the four long stanzas of the “Legend of the Piave.”
This is one of the great patriotic songs, immortalizing the departure of the army to war against the Austro-Hungarian Empire on May 24, 1915. Some of the most ferocious battles toward the end took place along the Piave River. It is a pleasant little stream which starts in the Alps and empties into the sea not far from Venice, but more importantly, it formed the front which finally stopped the enemy advance and led to its ultimate defeat. The Piave is therefore also known as “The river sacred to the motherland.”
Schoolchildren used to be taught these impressive chunks of poetry and as you see, it stuck. This feat was perhaps made a little easier by singing; the music of “The Legend of the Piave” is so distinctive that you can’t get it out of your mind no matter what you try to put in its place. Everybody knows it. It was in the serious running to be designated the Italian national anthem.
“My father fought in the war,” Lino was telling me, “on the Asiago plateau. He was taken prisoner, and they took him to Trento, to the Castle of Buonconsiglio. He took me there once, when I was little, to show me. We went into the big room and he said, ‘That’s where the judge was sitting, and that’s where the bench was where I was sitting.’ He always told me he was going to take me to Asiago to show me the trenches he was in, but he never did. I’ve always been sorry. ”
The military judge’s job was very simple. All he had to do in order to know what to do with a prisoner was to ask where he came from. Large areas of what are now Italy only became demarcated as such after hideous battles. So if the prisoner came from Venice, or anywhere south of there, he was treated as a normal prisoner of war because he was fighting for his own country, Italy. Lino’s father got sent to the internment camp at Mauthausen for the rest of the war, came home, and went back to work driving the train from Venice to Trento.
If, however, the captured soldier came from Trento or Trieste or any of the many northern, now-Italian, towns which were then still part of the Austro-Hungarian empire, he was considered a traitor and dealt with accordingly. Firing squad,say, or hanging (Nazario Sauro, August 10, 1916), or hanging and garroting (Cesare Battisti, July 12, 1916) — it was all good. These are famous martyrs of the Italian resistance. Despite living in Austrian territory they considered themselves Italians were fighting for Italy, while according to the Austrian viewpoint they were supposed to be fighting against it. These men were epic heroes. I can’t understand why their life stories haven’t been turned into tragic operas. Where is Verdi when you need him?
So the First World War, which to many of us seems extraordinarily remote, is still part of the lives of many people — like Lino — still walking around loaded with memories. Did I say memories? He and his twin brother, Franco, have lived their entire lives carrying the names of two of their mother’s brothers who were killed in the war. Every Venetian parish, as well as the Jewish Ghetto, displays a memorial plaque listing the names of the local boys who died in the carnage. The names of Lino’s doomed uncles are inscribed on the memorial in Campo Santa Margherita. Whenever I go by I stop to look; I have this odd feeling that they’re part of my family.
The Piave, let it not be forgotten, was also where Ernest Hemingway was wounded at the age of 19, after only two weeks at the front. Because his poor eyesight prevented him from enlisting as a soldier, he volunteered to work with the Red Cross ambulances bringing soldiers down from the action on Monte Pasubio.
He was sent to Fossalta di Piave, a town on the river not far from Venice. At midnight on July 8, 1918, an Austrian mortar hit the trench where he had gone, more out of curiosity than merely to distribute cigarettes and chocolate.
“The 227 wounds I got from the trench mortar didn’t hurt a bit at the time,” he wrote to his parents from the American Hospital in Milan, “only my feet felt like I had rubber boots full of water on. Hot water… But I got up again and got my wounded into the dug out… I told him in Italian that I wanted to see my legs, though I was afraid to look at them. So we took off my trousers and the old limbs were still there but gee they were a mess. They couldn’t figure out how I had walked 150 yards with a load with both knees shot through and my right shoe punctured in two big places… ‘Oh,’ says I, ‘My Captain, it is of nothing. In America they all do it! It is thought well not to allow the enemy to perceive that they have captured our goats!”
When the bravado wore off, he was left with nightmares, insomnia — I had been living for a long time with the knowledge that if I ever shut my eyes in the dark and let myself go, my soul would go out of my body — five months of physical therapy, and his vivacious American nurse, Agnes von Kurowski. In the end, she jilted him and shattered his soul into more pieces than the shrapnel ever had.
Bombs even fell on Venice here and there (there were victims in Cannaregio). There is even an unexploded bomb which was retrieved from the roof of the basilica of the Frari, and which is mounted on the wall near the Pesaro altarpiece as a memento to this small, perhaps, but marvelous moment of salvation.
Speaking of bombs, there is a slowly disappearing stone in the Piazza San Marco. It has been worn away by millions of undiscerning feet. Sometimes I pause and just watch people walk over or past it, oblivious, snapping their pix, thinking about work, looking for a bathroom. It marks the spot where an Austrian bomb fell on September 4, 1916, five steps from the entrance to the basilica. It is just another stone, mute, but eloquent.
Every barracks and City Hall in Italy (as here, at the entrance to City Hall in Venice) displays a large bronze plaque made of melted-down enemy cannons. It gives the full text of the address given by General, later Marshal, Armando Diaz, chief of general staff, announcing the Italian victory of the Battle of Vittorio Veneto and the end of the war. It manages in very few lines not only to report the precise details of the enemy’s undoing but to convey every emotion conceivable in the victors of a struggle beyond human comprehension.
The war against Austria-Hungary which, under the high command of His Majesty the King, the Italian Army, inferior in numbers and means, initiated on May 24, 1915, and with unwavering and tenacious valor conducted fiercely without interruption for 41 months, is won.
The gigantic battle engaged on the 24th of last October and in which took part 51 Italian divisions, three British, two French, one Czechoslovakian, and one American regiment, against 73 Austro-Hungarian divisions, is finished.
The rapid and daring advance of the XXIX Army Corps on Trento, blocking the enemy’s means of retreat in Trentino, overwhelming them on the west by the troops of the VII Army and on the east by those of the I, VI, and IV, determined yesterday the total ruin of the adversary’s front. From Brenta al Torre the irresistible surge of the XII, the VIII, and the X Army, and of the cavalry divisions, drove the fleeing enemy even further back.
On the plains, His Royal Highness the Duke of Aosta rapidly advanced at the head of his undefeated III Army, longing to return to the positions which they had already victoriously conquered and had never lost.
The Austro-Hungarian Army is annihilated; it suffered grave losses in the fierce resistance of the first days and in the pursuit it has lost huge quantities of materiel of every sort and virtually all of its stores and warehouses. It has left in our hands about 300,000 prisoners with entire general staffs and not less than 5,000 cannon.
The remains of what once was one of the most powerful armies in the world is ascending, in disorder and without hope, the valleys which it had descended with such proud security. DIAZ
For me, though, the most powerful and poignant epitaph to war — military, emotional, or both — is what Hemingway wrote as one of the 40-some endings he crossed out for “A Farewell to Arms”:
“Many things have happened. Everything blunts and the world keeps on. You get most of your life back like goods recovered from a fire… It never stops. It only stops for you. Some of it stops while you are still alive. The rest goes on and you go with it.”
You may never have given much thought to St. Erasmus, but if you wander past any vegetable vendor in any season here — especially in the spring — you will see him referred to constantly. Not because he was so holy, though undoubtedly he was; the reference is very specifically to the nearby island which is named for him: Sant’ Erasmo.
What’s on Sant’ Erasmo are fields and fields of market gardens. On a summer evening, strolling along the verdant lanes that glimmer with fireflies, flailing at billows of insatiable mosquitoes, it’s like having been transported back to somewhere in the heart of darkest Indiana.
In Venice, any mention of the largest island in the lagoon, particularly if it’s scribbled on a sign in the market, is synonymous with the best local produce. Peas, asparagus, artichokes; by June, they have all come and are mostly gone, though the last flourishes are on sale at the annual Venetian rowing race marking the good saint’s feast day (June 2, as all the world knows).
Sant’ Erasmo is known, not only by its celestial verdure, but its few hardy and well-entrenched families. If I were to tell you that there are only a few last names here, which have been continually reshuffled as the generations have gone on, I will have told you just about everything you need to know about the place. I’m not implying children with six fingers, just that it’s a little planet orbiting Venice, near but extremely far, if you follow me. Anybody with the surname Vignotto, Zanella, Smerghetto, or Bubacco can only be from here, and you would pick them out immediately even if you were to meet them racing yachts at Cowes, on their way to pick up their Nobel Prize.
A few Sunday mornings ago, our usual group gathered at the boat club, ready to head out somewhere in the gondolone, the big gondola. We’d heard there was going to be some local farmers’ fiesta on the island, the “Festa of the Violet Artichoke of Sant’ Erasmo,” so we rowed over there. We needed a new destination for our Sunday excursion, and it took less than an hour. We drew the boat up on the sandy beach (look at the map for the little stretch of shore along the southwestern edge) and wandered ashore to see what the islanders had organized.
Naturally we were there too early. We should have known. The farmers don’t have cows, but they know that they’ll be milking tourists later, so there’s no need to bust a gusset setting up their stands. Still, some enterprising souls had begun unloading crates of artichokes from their assorted vehicles, and the sight was Extremely Tempting.
The Violet Artichoke growers’ lobby has recently succeeded in having their product officially designated as a protected brand, akin to a denomination controlee’. This little thistle deserves all the fanfare it can get: Stripped down to its tender inner leaves and slowly sauted over a low flame in olive oil and garlic, it has a very particular bitterness which is transmuted in your mouth into a flavor tending mysteriously towards sweetness. I think they must contain some narcotic substance; once you start, you must have more.
Everyone maintains that part (or all) of the secret of these little morsels is the saline environment. You’ll be glad to know I haven’t made a study of the soil, but it seems logical that there would be some salty component to their habitat. The artichokes of Malamocco were equally celebrated, back before houses took over the fields there. Meanwhile, the artichoke consortium oversees the production of them at various limited sites around the lagoon.
So: Did we buy any, or not? Yes, we did. But not from the festa. The canny farmers with their snazzy labels and tents were charging one euro ($1.38) apiece. I wish I could say I’d made that up.
Therefore we walked across the road to the large shady fig tree, under which a lone farmer was selling the artichokes he had just cut from their stalks in the adjoining plot. We took home a large sack of them — in fact, he went back and cut some more for us — for .29 euro cents each.
He could undoubtedly have asked a higher price if he’d been selling them as “castraure” (kas-tra-OO-reh). This is one of those legendary food items that is much rarer than you’d think, considering how many vegetable vendors claim to be selling them. The castraure are the first, topmost little artichoke on each plant; they are cut off (yes, the plant is castrated…) in order to encourage the rest of the plant to flourish. This flourishing is in the form of the little artichokes we bought, which are called “botoli.”
It makes me happy to remember all this, because they’re gone from my life for another year. I probably won’t make it back to Sant’ Erasmo before the race in June, and by the time I get there all the good stuff will have been sold. Of course, I could eat artichokes virtually all year from hothouses all over Italy, but now that I’ve tasted these I think I’ll just wait.
This morning we were walking along the fondamenta across the canal from our hovel, and my eye fell upon one of the boats tied up alongside.
It takes no time at all to reconstruct the scene: A seagull nabbed a seppia, or cuttlefish, and a battle ensued, which the seppia lost. You can tell by the splashings of desperate black ink. Another clue is the cuttlebone, which if I had a parakeet or Andean condor I would immediately have taken.
Your cuttlefish are no match for a seagull’s beak, as you see, but don’t underestimate them. If you were a small marine creature you’d want to do everything possible to avoid any passing seppia (plural: seppie; in Venetian sepa/sepe). Soft and squidgy they may be (although technically a mollusc), but they too have a sort of beak, and it’s tiny and hooked and sharp. They look so innocuous, sort of like Mister Magoo, as they drift fecklessly along, but just remember that they have that mouth. Not much use in land combat, though. I could tell you some stories about that sharp little beak, and I probably will, at some point, but I don’t want to ruin your enjoyment at thinking of how delectable they are, so I’ll stop. The little ones are wonderful grilled. They are a classic Venetian snack, or cicheto (chih-KEH-to). The bigger ones are chopped up and simmered in water and tomato paste, and their ink. Some people omit the ink, which is heathen.
While we’re talking about their being eaten, by whatever sort of life form, make a note that seppie (on spaghetti or in risotto) are the only fish on which you are allowed to put grated parmesan cheese. To see someone put cheese on any other fish dish makes Venetians shudder. But it is, in fact, required on seppia. If you don’t try this, you won’t know what I mean. Trust me. If your waiter tells you not to do it, ask him where he’s from. Or just smile and go ahead anyway. Or skip the smile.
Another seppia clue: If you walk along the fondamentas edging major channels — say, along the Riva dei Sette Martiri in Castello, or the Zattere in Dorsoduro, or the opposite side of the Giudecca Canal, on the Giudecca — you will certainly see stains like these on the stones. Now you know they’re not paint. Many of them indicate epic battles, all futile.
There are two seppia seasons: Spring, which is when they come into the lagoon from winter quarters somewhere in the Adriatic in order to spawn, and anytime after the festa del Redentore (third Sunday in July), when the fraima (fra-EE-ma) begins, the general ichthyous exodus from the lagoon out to sea. This second period is, obviously, the time when you are aiming for the little ones — I hate calling them babies, but that’s what they are. In both of these periods the deepest lagoon channels are strewn with temporarily anchored boats from which men, and often their wives, too, are fishing for seppie. These boats refuse to move for any passing craft, from the vaporettos to the cruise ships. It drives the captains to the verge of crazy.
And speaking of decoding cuttlefish, I saw my first seppia this year on March 6. It wasn’t the little cephalopod itself, but its remains, floating in with the tide in the canal outside our hovel. It made me so happy I took a picture of it — it was like seeing the first [crocus, sandhill crane, or add your favorite seasonal thing here].
Then the fondamentas begin to fill up, lined with amateur fishermen, some of whom take their catch home, and some who sell it. They often go out at night, too, depending on the tides, rigging up a strong light to attract the animals. Or they use a fish-like lure. Lino once slew a vast number of them by hooking a medium-length remnant of a white plastic bag to his line and pulling it slowly through the water; despite the fact that seppie have some of the most developed eyes in the animal kingdom, it somehow looked irresistibly like another seppia. They don’t eat only crabs, shrimp, worms, or whatever — they snack on each other, as well. Too much information?
But we’ve caught seppie without even trying, when we’ve been out rowing, minding our own business. There one will be, just floating along; if it’s close enough to the surface you can pick it up with your hands. It’s better, though, to have a volega (VOH-ehga), the net on the long pole, because you can go deeper. If you can see it, you can probably catch it. I used to feel sorry for them; Lino’d be all excited and I’d be shouting, “Dive, little seppia, dive!” He thought I’d lost my mind. Now that I know how good they are, I’ve quit that. There will always be more. It’s not like they have names.
Last tidbit for the day: In the fish market, they used to use seppia ink to write the prices on pieces of paper. (Hence the color tone called “sepia,” which is more brown than black, really, but which came from the cuttlefish’s ink.) There must have been generations of fishmongers with permanently black hands. Just as soon as the Sharpie and Magic Marker were born, and tourists began to pay good money to eat spaghetti with cuttlefish ink, you can believe that stopped.
One more thing: It may not be very likely that you’ll be buying seppie in the fishmarket, but if you are looking at them for whatever reason, you should know that the whiter they are (it’s more like a ghastly gray mortuary pallor), and the more smeared with sticky black ink, the older they are. Lots of ink is a Bad Sign.
The super-fresh ones, as shown here, have very little ink on them, are a lovely brown with faint pale stripes, and display the most amazing iridescent stripe along their bodies, which is another guaranteed way to confirm their freshness. This stripe is made up of iridophores, which reflect the color of the seppia’s immediate surroundings and hence are part of its system of camouflage. I did not make that up.
Down on the island of Sant’ Elena, the last lobe of land at the eastern tip of Venice, is the Scuola Navale Militare (Naval Military School) Francesco Morosini.
It was founded in 1937, closed in 1945, then went through various versions till it was reopened in 1961. The school is named for one of the Venetian Republic’s greatest Captains-General, who held on to the Peloponnese while most of the rest of Venice’s Greek possessions were dropping like rotting olives into Ottoman hands. Yes, no point pretending we don’t know: He’s the one who ordered the cannons to fire on the Parthenon (September 26, 1687) during the siege of Athens, turning Athena’s temple into an instant ruin. Of course if the Ottomans hadn’t used the temple as an ammunition dump, none of that would have happened. The Republic made him doge a year later. You can see his stuffed cat in the Correr Museum. But back to the school.
“Morosini,” as we call the whole thing for short, is a three-year high school which till the end of this year was strictly for boys (this will change next fall — everyone is pretty keyed-up) and its students are, in fact, officially sworn into the Navy.
They wear the stars on their collars, they get paid a pittance, and they march and salute and haze each other and complain about their commanders and do everything else that military men do.
They also learn Venetian rowing, which is where Lino comes in. He’s been teaching this uniquely Venetian sport/skill/art/tradition to the boys here since 1994. Sailing was already part of their sports program, but Lino thought they ought to learn something that belonged to the place they were living. The Commandant took him up on his proposal, and so it has gone, ever since.
So that’s why we were invited, as we are every year, to the ceremony of the Swearing of Allegiance to flag and country by the boys who are finishing their first year. By this point any boy who’s likely to drop out has already done so, and the remaining first-year cadets — this year numbering 46 — have chosen a name for their class and ordered their banner. This is where it gets really good. Because they not only pledge fidelity to national and military values, but officially present their class banner to the Commandant, which the chaplain then blesses with holy water. Then they swear. Stay with me.
At this point, any reader who doesn’t have the slightest interest in the navy, the military, banners, oaths, or ceremony of any kind can be excused from the rest of this post. (They may already be gone.) On the whole, I wouldn’t have admitted to a particular interest in some of these elements, but now that I’ve gotten to know so many of the boys and their commanders, rowing or going out to dinner with them, that I have to say that I really love this event.
This is one occasion where the ceremonial isn’t the sort of “Hey, crack yourself a cold one” approach that you see at other events, such as the lowering of the flags in the Piazza San Marco on Sunday evening. And any time that the military demonstrates that it takes itself, its comrades, and its history, seriously, will virtually guarantee an event that impresses and moves me. The Navy Band, the oldest military band in Italy, is brought in from Rome just for the occasion, to play the appropriate pieces such as the Submariners’ Anthem, the Navy Anthem, and the national anthem. And if the speeches get boring, I can always watch the boys, as the sun rises toward noon and they start to collapse. This year there was a cool breeze and they all managed to stay vertical.
The class of 2011 chose the name “Ulixes” (as in Ulysses), and the motto is “Suae Quisque Fortunae Faber Est” which as you all know means “Every man is the architect of his own fortune,” a much-quoted observation of a certain Appius Claudius Caecus. Sounds excellent, just the sort of half-boast, half-challenge that 15-year-old boys would like, but if you look closely at the sharpness with which Appius C.C. seems to have designed and built his own fame and fortune, not to mention the Appian Way and Appian Aqueduct at the total expense of more talented colleagues and the state treasury, it makes you wonder if the boys chose an example they seriously intend to follow. For any who might be curious, the class of 2010 is named “Eracles,” and the one that’s about to graduate is “Theseus.” I haven’t discovered a reason for the sequence of Greek heroes. Just a coincidence; they could just as easily have chosen the names of stars, constellations, and other terms that look very good on the stern of a dreadnought.
There are two high points in the ceremony for me. The first is the entrance of the class banners. There are more than 40 by now, of all sorts of colors and sizes and mottos and designs, and each is carried by one member of that class. Some of these individuals are not holding up quite as well as their banner, but it’s brilliant to see them all marching across to the martial music of the band.
(Above and above right): procession of class banners; (lower right), the Navy standard displaying copies of all the medals awarded either to ships or to individuals. It is kept by the National Association of Discharged Sailors.
The second great moment, naturally, is the oath-taking itself.
At the crucial moment, the Commandant orders “A me la bandiera!” (Give me the flag — he means the Italian flag). He grabs the flag on its pole and holds it up in front of the boys, all standing at attention. Then he pronounces the oath: “‘I swear to be faithful to the Italian Republic, to observe the Constitution and the Laws, and to fulfill with discipline and honor the duties of my State for the defense of the Motherland and the safeguarding of free institutions.’ Do you swear?”
What follows is something between a bellow and a roar: “I SWEAR!” It’s thrilling. It’s like something out of the “Oath of the Horatii.”
Then, of course, there’s lunch. As the saying here goes, “All the psalms finish with the Gloria,” meaning however whatever-the-thing-is may have gone (you remember that there are happy psalms and ghastly, garment-rending psalms), just about any gathering will finish with a feed. In case you might have felt any extreme emotions or thought any inappropriate thoughts along the way, this makes everything all better.
By now the buffet is as predictable as the speeches and the oath — and much less moving — but by this point we’re always famished so we don’t mind facing the same platters of prosciutto, skewers of mozzarella and cherry tomatoes, rice salad, some half-hearted pasta, assorted sandwiches, and so on. No no, I’m not complaining. Anything I don’t have to cook is fine with me.
Besides, it gives me a chance to review the assortment of mothers. There is quite a component of women who, where their garb and jewelry are concerned, will never, ever give up the ship.
Below is a small gallery of the assorted uniformed guests who gave the ceremony its sense of real importance.
Veteran commando frogmen of the legendary “Decima,” or Tenth Assault Vehicle Flotilla. Their first operation was an attack on an Austrian warship on Nov. 1, 1918, making Italy the first ever to use frogmen and manned torpedoes, predating both the U.S. Navy SEALS and the British Royal Marines Special Boat Service. Their badge is crowned by a skull clenching a red rose in its teeth, symbolizing they have pledged themselves up to and including death. MAS stands for various phrases, some technical, but the best is their motto: “Memento Audere Semper,” or, “Remember always to dare.” Today the unit is known as COMSUBIN, which sounds dull even if you do say it in Italian.
(Above left) A captain of the mountain artillery, part of the Alpine regiment of the infantry. Troops carry a black raven’s feather in their cap; junior officers a brown eagle feather, and senior officers a white goose feather. Said Radio Moscow during World War 2, “Only the Alpini can claim to be undefeated on Russian soil.” (Above right) A general of the Carabinieri who is also a pilot, with a monsignor of the Military Ordinariate, a type of military chaplaincy.
Members of the National Association of Italian Partisans, who fought in the Resistance during World War 2. The subject of the partisans is still a highly-charged subject, politically and emotionally, and while they are always present at military ceremonies, they are never officially acknowledged.
Immediately after the oath is the singing of the national anthem. The emotional payload of the moment is clear; this may well be the only time they will ever sing this song with this much conviction.