Archive for July, 2009


Redentor — redemption by fireworks

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One of my friends was telling me about what was probably  his favorite Redentor, and it had nothing to do with the fireworks.  

The church of the Most Holy Redeemer and the votive bridge stretching across the Giudecca Canal.

The church of the Most Holy Redeemer and the votive bridge stretching across the Giudecca Canal.

“Redentor” means “redeemer” in Venetian.     (“Redentore” in Italian.)    But what it really means is one of the great all-time festivals still walking the earth, and while the sacred day is always the third Sunday in July, the mega-party is the  night before.

The third Saturday  in July, therefore, is what history has come to know as “la note famosissima,” the most famous night, and this  celebration has been made every year since 1577.      Boats!   Food!   Fireworks!   But behind all the festivity is a black and horrific story.

On June 25, 1575, someone in the parish of S. Marziale died of plague.   Not uncommon in Venice, it being a major seaport, and some epidemics had already been terrible.   In this case, the infected rat, so to speak, was later identified as having been a man from Trento who was visiting a certain Vincenzo Franceschini.   In a little less than two years, 51,000 people (some accounts say 70,000) had died, more than one-third of the entire population.   It was a hecatomb.

In that era pestilence was regarded as a form of divine punishment, so on September 21, 1576 — after having spent a year watching their city begin to disappear before their eyes — the Venetian Senate approved the proposal of doge Alvise I Mocenigo to make a solemn vow: If the Lord God Almighty would remove this scourge from them, they would build a church ” which their descendants would solemnly visit…in perpetual memory of the blessing received.”  

When you study this phrase,  you grasp that they weren’t merely promising a church, which the Lord presumably already had plenty of, though another one is always nice, but eternal gratitude expressed in a tangible way forever.   That’s different.

The church — more correctly termed a votive temple — would be dedicated to the Most Holy Redeemer, and would be built on the Giudecca.   The commission was given to Andrea di Pietro della Gondola, otherwise known as Palladio, who was the chief architect in the service of the Republic, and the seriousness of their intention was shown by laying the first stone on May 3, 1577, when the plague was still raging.     They had made a vow and they were going to stick to it.

Only a few months later, on the third Sunday of July, doge Sebastiano Venier declared the city free of plague.     A temporary wooden church was hastily constructed for the celebrations, and a bridge was laid across a line of boats stretching across the Giudecca Canal — like the one today, it was roughly 1,082 feet long.     This bridge enabled the doge and the Senate to arrive in solemn procession at the church for the big ceremony.

And so it has gone, every year since 1577, and every doge and mayor has been there with the exception of doge Leonardo Dona’ in 1612.   He snubbed the ritual because the city was mad at him and I gather he shared the sentiment, but staying away didn’t help him much because then people started going  around saying, “The day’s going to come when he’d like to go to church, and he won’t be able to.”   It makes an annoying little rhyme in Italian.   He was an amazing doge, actually; I’m sorry they couldn’t all get along.

Temporary pilings anchor the votive bridge.

Temporary pilings anchor the votive bridge.

I myself wouldn’t consider it Redentor without walking across the bridge at least once.   They’re working to get it finished even as I write.      Not many days left.   Seeing the bridge slowly take form (after boats, they switched to pontoons, and a few years ago a new system was adopted by which the sections are impaled on pilings) adds a great deal to the sense of anticipation.  

The bridge is officially opened with a modest ceremony at 7:00 PM on Saturday, and closed at 10:00 PM on Sunday.   The life-span of a fruit fly, essentially, which makes it all the better.  

Back to that favorite episode of this epic-yet-homely  tradition.   It  took place somewhere  back in time, because he went to Nino at  Campo San Boldo  to rent a boat.   There are no more affittabatelli (boat-renters)  in Venice, but when he was a lad, and even up till  the Sixties, the city was full of places where you could rent a Venetian boat — sandolo, mascareta, caorlina, even a peata — for whatever task was at hand, something like the Zipcar of its time.  

img_1429-coa-de-gambaro-compSo he rented a batela a coa de gambaro (“shrimp-tail boat”), which is the second clue that we’re in the fairly distant past, because now there is only one, which I occasionally see being rowed around by two girls.   Lino says it was made by the legendary late boatbuilder “Nino” Giupponi, who devised the framework by studying a painting, perhaps by Canaletto, who was great with boats.    In any case, it’s not like the original  ones.   For one thing, it’s smaller, which you can well believe if the group in question numbered more than ten.

Then he and his friends constructed the customary framework to support a kind of temporary roof made of assorted branches.   And they strung the usual paper lanterns along it.   The lanterns swing and bob  with the motion of the boat in a very cheerful way.

Twilight is almost the best moment of all, with the church of San Giorgio in the background.

Twilight is almost the best moment of all, with the church of San Giorgio in the background.

Then they set up a table in the middle of the boat, the ladies brought the food, and of course wine, and they were good to go.    

The evening took its usual course, which it will also take this year: You row (or motor)  in your boat to whatever spot looks good to you, as long as it  generally corresponds to the official map which divides areas according to the size of the boat.   The Venetian boats (those which are rowed, I mean)  have been awarded a spot near the Punta della Dogana, where we all cluster together in our own little world.  

Yo'd be amazed how many boats can fit into the colored spaces.  The important thing is not to get too close to the fireworks barges.  The police and firemen are out patrolling; they'll be sure to tell you if you're too close.

Yo'd be amazed how many boats can fit into the colored spaces. The important thing is not to get too close to the fireworks barges. The police and firemen are out patrolling; they'll be sure to tell you if you're too close.

As you see, an open space of about 650 feet is maintained around the fireworks-laden barges.   You throw the anchor, or tie up to another boat.   The aquatic pilgrimage begins in the early afternoon, as big fishing boats from down-lagoon places like Pellestrina and Chioggia chug in, loaded like third-world ferries with hordes of people who have clearly made the most of their time in transit getting started on the party.

We go out around 6:00, row across the lagoon from the Lido. and about 7:00 we  get to the Punta della Dogana (Customs-House Point, the tip of Dorsoduro where the Grand and Giudecca Canals meet).   We tie up and pull out the vittles.

You eat, you drink — some people swim, because it’s usually pretty hot — eat,  drink, and repeat as necessary.   img_1464-redentore-18-compYou laugh and sing, if you’re in the mood, or if somebody near you starts it.   You wave to your friends and call out remarks.     This goes on for hours.

At 11:30 PM, when you’ve been out long enough for an evening chill to begin to suggest itself and sleep is washing up against you like the water around the boat, the fireworks start.   Some years they’re great, some years they’re actually kind of boring; last year they were astonishingly gorgeous, brilliant, dazzling; they were so thrilling  that they actually brought tears to my eyes.  

Good or otherwise, they  explode overhead for a solid half-hour.   That may not sound like much,  but it’s  the visual equivalent of an opera by Wagner.   It just goes on and on.     img_1483-redentore-20-compAt the stroke of midnight  the holy day begins, which means the party’s  over,  the bar’s closed, go home.   Which we do.   Carefully.   Because when thousands of boats operated by people who have been eating and drinking for hours (or maybe not so much eating) start to move around in the dark, occasionally faster than they need to, it can be tricky.  

So the shrimp-tail boat was ready and so was everybody else.   “Me and the family, and some friends — there were 13 of us, including the  parish priest and his brother.”  

“After the fireworks,  we rowed to the Lido and went swimming.”   (Technically, this also is part of the tradition, but not many people still do it anymore.)   Of course it was great, except that “You never get dry after you swim in the sea at night.”

“Then along toward dawn we began to head home.   I remember it as if it were now — the guys would alternate to  row in the prow, I was rowing astern, and by now we   all groggy” (he closes his eyes almost all the way and mimics languid, somnolent rowing, as if each stroke is the last one before you stop completely).  

“All the women and kids and everybody was sprawled all over the table, their heads on their arms, sleeping, or dozing, anyway.    A few were sort of singing a little bit under their breath.   The tide was coming in, and as the sun came up we just sort of drifted back to the city.”

By now I’ve heard this story fairly often, usually in July.   It’s one of a number of his reminiscences that I  love to hear  just as much as I did the first time around.     It’s not only because it’s such a beautiful scene and I wish I’d been there, but because every time he tells it, he looks really happy.

He occasionally also refers to the way Redentore was in general, when he was a boy.   And this account does not make him look happy, because like so many things here, what once was almost completely Venetian has mainly become just another thing to lure the tourists.

First of all, when he was a   boy the fireworks weren’t over the Bacino of San Marco, but upstream, over the Giudecca Canal, near San Basilio.   Up in the nabe, where people lived, as it were.    And it seemed like everybody came out in their boat (as per today) but “everybody” meant 3/4 of Venice, which meant 3/4 of the people you knew.  Now most of the boats are big motorized vehicles with people from somewhere else, back in the hinterland.  

“You could walk across the Giudecca Canal on the boats,” he told me.   When the fireworks were shifted downstream, that was the first sign that Something had Changed.   And change, here, is usually away from something that’s fine the way it is and toward, well, Something Else.

As for the songs and the food that are both optional and required for this event, I’ll tell you about those next week, when I recover.

Categories : Boatworld, Events, History
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Demanding dolls

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One of the things I love about our neighborhood is that there are children here.   Lots and lots of them, of every size and attitude.   Shoals of them, migrating herds of them, like the wildebeest on the Serengeti.  

If you walk down Via Garibaldi at around 6 on a summer evening, you will realize that this is one corner of Italy in which the word “birthrate” isn’t associated with “falling.”

But  an unusually perceptive person would already have known all  that from the scene  I noticed  outside one of the tobacco/candy/lottery ticket/toy stores  here.


What these three alarmingly pink doll-size strollers  reveal is:

  • That there are little girls living nearby.  
  • That there are lots of them, enough  to create an important market for toys, especially those  designed for  little girls, a market that requires  serious  inventory.
  • That  they are extremely demanding customers, who require choice in the products they insist their relatives buy them, whichever relative has recently shown a weak spot that can be exploited.
  • That  any color is good, as long as it’s  pink.  

I hope I’m here when they grow up, I really want to see how they dress.

Categories : Venetian-ness
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The gondoliera — update

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As you recall, there has been quite a kerfuffle due to the perceived misstep of Giorgia Boscolo, who has just passed the first tiny step in the long road toward becoming the first woman gondolier, with regard to her behavior toward the press.img_7830-gondolas-1

Several voices have chimed in, making a sort of quartet: Giorgia, her sister Alessia, Aldo Rosso (president of the Ente Gondola) and Roberto Luppi,  head of the bancali, who are the heads of the gondola stations.

There was a brief attempt to climb aboard  the situation by Eleanora Mingati, chief of the legal office of the Listening Center for Social Disadvantage, by claiming that this situation represented “maschilismo” (male chauvinism) by the gondoliers.  

Mr. Rosso met it head-on.   “The person who is making a distinction between male and female, not looking just at the person, is precisely this lady,” he told the Gazzettino.   “The Ente Gondola deserves applause because it admitted Ms. Boscolo to the substitute gondoliers’ school.   That means that she deserved it.”   And no more was heard about that.

Alessia repeated the sequence of events as recounted by Giorgia: “What do you mean, ‘agent’ — I’m just her sister,” she said.   “Giorgia asked me to give her a hand because she couldn’t deal with it all, phone calls, proposals, invitations.   All she asked me to do was answer the phone.   It’s true that I’m helping her — she’s got a husband and two little kids, she can’t handle the situation that’s developed after she was admitted to the school.”  

Giorgia herself  made a series of statements of varying degrees of distress and surprise, and had a meeting with Mr. Rosso and Mr. Luppi.   “I’m not sure where I goofed,” she said, “but all this has fallen on me unexpectedly.   I knew that a woman admitted to the gondoliers’ school would make news, but I never expected all the attention I got.”

The upshot: Mr. Rosso has said that Giorgia can certainly be photographed and interviewed by whomever she likes — it’s her life.   “I merely reminded her that whenever she speaks, she’s speaking only for herself, not the entire category of gondoliers.   Whether she’s paid for it or not, that has nothing to do with us.”img_1060-gondola-2

Mr. Luppi repeated that; she can do whatever she wants, but it’s on her own account, not representing the entire cadre.   “I’d remind her to pay attention to what she says,” he said, “because she’s also  going to be judged on her behavior.   And that doesn’t apply only to her, but to each of the 22 aspiring substitute gondoliers.”

 I have to say I feel a little better, and I feel safe in supposing she feels even better than I do.

 (I acknowledge the reporting of Tullio Cardona)

Categories : Boatworld
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One of those Venetian Moments

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Lino told me something that happened on the vaporetto yesterday which falls into my personal category of events I term “Venetian moments.”   Actually, they could more generally be called “small-town moments,” but we’re here and besides, I still sometimes marvel at how many connections form the web that hold this city together.   Kind of like a truss.

This lady isn't just admiring the boy's adorable little sibling. She's already gathering and organizing large amounts of information about the new arrival. The group behind her may be discussing the cost of mozzarella, but I'd be willing to bet that they're updating each other on their families and friends.

This lady isn't just admiring the boy's adorable little sibling. She's already gathering and filing away large amounts of information about the new arrival. The group behind her may be discussing the cost of mozzarella, but I'd be willing to bet that they're updating each other on their families and friends.

Venetian moments either need to involve a Venetian, or occur in Venice.   They can happen to foreigners but only after they’ve been here for a while.   And of course they’re usually fleeting little experiences (sometimes only glimpses, not even verbal).   I love it when they happen to me and I think that Lino was secretly pleased about this one, though he didn’t make a big thing out of it.

So he was on the #1 vaporetto, the trusty local, headed uptown, and a little old couple got on at the stop nearest a nursing home called the Ca’ di Dio.   He glances at them out of the corner of his eye, like you do on public transportation.  

Then the little old lady addresses him in a tiny, bent-over voice:

“Lu no xe da la parochia dei Carmini?”   (“Aren’t you from the parish of the Carmini?”)   They continued in Venetian, but I’ll spare you and keep the thing going.

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Because I’m from the Carmini too,” she continued.  

“I’m Leda’s little brother,” he said.    He didn’t need to bother adding a last name, or a street name, or any other clue.   And putting it this way meant that he already knew that in her day (when he was a tyke) there was only one Leda in the parish.

“I thought I recognized you,” she said.  

They exchanged a few little generic comments, and  then he got off.  

It isn’t surprising is that she recognized him; parishes were very tightly knit and usually were composed of   plenty of large families.   And people of her vintage  have phenomenal memories for faces and names — they’re like anonymous little griots wandering through the supermarket, comparing the cost of tuna while  brimming with memories of people, events, places, who knew/did/said what and where and also why.   And with whom.   Stretching back unto the fourth and fifth generation.   They’re completely overgrown with the shrubbery of family histories, each one of which is a complete saga.  

From across the canal it looks like a friendly early-morning encounter between friends.  That's part of their secret...

From across the canal it looks like a friendly early-morning chat between friends. That's part of their secret...

When neighborhoods were still intact, these little old ladies were plentiful, and they weren’t usually endearing — they were to be feared and placated with offerings because they knew everything about you.   They knew things about you that literally nobody knew, nobody could know.   Things not even you knew about yourself.   This amount of knowledge and diabolical skill at using it is one of those primal forces, like the atom, capable of life or death.   Or, as Lino puts it whenever he might be tempted to drift into something like nostalgia for the old days, “Those little old ladies knew how many hairs you had on your ass.”  

In this case, it didn’t matter that he’s now 71 and probably hasn’t been seen by her since he was 22 and moved to another neighborhood — he was imprinted on her memory and will be there for eternity.  

They're almost always in three's.  It must be something occult.

They're almost always in three's. It must be something occult.

Speaking of eternity, don’t think that this knowledge will disappear when she dies; she’s going to take it with her so she can find her friends up there and sit around all afternoon talking about people who aren’t there to defend themselves.   It’s true that they acted as a steady underpinning to the life in the courtyard, a sort of 24-hour neighborhood watch.   But as Lino also says, “Their gossip destroyed whole families,” and he’s not joking.

The bow that tied up this moment was the fact that he remembered her too, though by name,  instead of  face.    “She’s gotten really old,” he remarked.   Still, they were landsmen, that’s the point of it all.  

If there were a code word or a secret handshake for the people of the Carmini, they’d have used it.   He was struck by the fact that she identified herself according to  parish, in the old way.    Back then, people didn’t identify themselves so much according to their sestiere, or district, the way they do now since everything’s gotten all stretched out of shape.     They went by parish.   If somebody asked where you lived, you’d say “I’m from the Carmini,”   or “Anzolo Rafael,” or “San Cassan.”   That’s the way it was.

End of moment.

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Categories : Venetian-ness
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