Archive for September, 2010
Blessedly, there is an antidote to the histrionics of the racing world, and it is composed of the assorted boating events strung across the calendar which are conducted by us plain folks.
One of the prettiest, for the rowers, at least, is called the “Riviera Fiorita,” or “flowered riviera,” which consists, among many other events, a boat procession (“corteo“) which meanders down the Brenta Canal from Stra to the lagoon over the course of one long and (one prays) sunny day — usually the second Sunday in September. Participation is optional, so the number of boats and rowers can vary, but some years have seen nearly a hundred boats.
Two weeks ago was the 33rd edition of this event, which means that by now many of the participants have long since forgotten two of its basic motives, if they ever knew them in the first place.
One, that it was conceived in order to draw attention to the calamitous condition of this attractive and very historic little waterway, which till then was known primarily (and still is) for the ranks of Renaissance villas standing along its banks. There are anywhere between 40 and 70 of these extraordinary dwellings, depending on what source you’re reading; plenty, in any case.
Back in 1977, in the attempt to rally the public to the aid of this stretch of former Venetian territory, a few local organizations engaged a number of the fancy “bissone” and their costumed rowers from Venice in the hope of drawing some spectators, raising awareness and concern for the river’s plight, and so on. As you see, the plan worked.
Second, that the event is intended to recall (“evoke” would be impossible for anyone today even to imagine, much less pay for) the corteo which was held in July of 1574 to welcome Henry III, imminent King of France, King of Poland and Grand Duke of Lithuania, on his approach to Venice.
Henry’s visit inspired all sorts of memorable incidents; every time you’re reading about the 16th century hereabouts, he keeps turning up. The magnificence of the entertainment provided by all and sundry over the week he spent in the Doge’s territory makes it a little hard to remember that the basic purpose of his visit was to ask the Doge to lend him 100,000 scudi, without interest. Next time you want your buddy to spot you a twenty, see what happens if you ask him to organize a boat procession in your honor. And a couple of masked balls,while you’re at it. But then, your buddy probably isn’t the only thing standing between you and the Spanish Empire.
Then this thought crosses my mind: If the Doge had had any notion that some two centuries later the republic would be ravaged, wrecked, and exterminated by a Frenchman, maybe he would have thought twice about lending him the money and giving all those parties. One of countless useless afterthoughts gathering dust in my brain.
So why is there a Brenta Canal (“Naviglio del Brenta”) when there’s a perfectly good Brenta River? Because the river, which springs from the lake of Caldonazzo in the foothills of the Alps near Trento, and wends 108 miles (174 km) southeastward till it reaches the Venetian lagoon, is too unruly and too silt-laden to have been permitted to continue its traditional path to the sea which was, in fact, the Grand Canal.
The Venetians had been fiddling with the river’s course since the 1330’s, and by the 17th century had diverted the main river south, to debouch into the Adriatic at Brondolo, leaving a more docile little arm of the river, plus several crucial locks, to use as a direct connection between Venice and Padua. It was perfect for the transporting of all sorts of cargo in barges towed by horses, some of which cargo included patrician Venetian families with lots of their furniture shifting to their summer houses/farms for as much as six months of partying.
That’s the short version.
This waterway has now come to style itself the Riviera del Brenta, sucking up new streams of tourism by promoting its amazing collection of villas. These vary in size and splendor, from the monumental Villa Pisani at Stra (yearning to matchVersailles, or at least Blenheim) to many elegant and winsome mansions — my favorite, the Villa Badoer Fattoretto — down to a ragged assortment of deteriorating properties whose history deserves something better than what they’ve been doomed to suffer.
The boats, fancy or otherwise, were towed upstream from Venice on Saturday. Sunday morning we took the bus to Stra, where we joined the throngs getting themselves and their boats ready to depart. We were on a slim little mascareta, just the two of us. At about 10:00 (translation: oh, 10:30) the procession moved out.
The sun was shining, the air was cool, the spectators were happy, and I was feeling pretty good myself. We had 17 miles (27.3 km) to go, but by now I knew what the stages would be, so I was prepared not only for the effort of rowing (not much) and the effort of not rowing (strenuous).
“Not rowing”? What do I mean? If we were to row at top speed, bearing in mind that we’re going with the current — slight as it may be — we could theoretically make the trip in three hours. But speed isn’t the point, and there is also the factor of those three pesky locks and three pesky revolving bridges we to have to pass through. As in: Wait to be opened for us to pass through. Wait for everyone else to catch up so we can all get moving as a group again. No stringing out the procession, it loses all its charm if we’re not together.
Here’s what I love about this event: The families clustered along the shore just outside their gardens, where picnic/barbecues are in full swing. I made a game of counting the number of houses we passed from which the perfumed smoke of ribs grilling over charcoal was billowing. When I got to five I gave up, because I knew I wasn’t going to be getting any and it just made me hungry.
Kids, dogs, people on bicycles, babies, fishermen, little old ladies — they’re watching us but I think they’re hundreds of times more fun.
Here’s what else I love: Passing the Villa Foscari “La Malcontenta.” Not only is its elegance and repose something especially beautiful when we pass in the dwindling afternoon, when the sun begins to descend and the light warms to honey and amber. Reaching this emerald curve also means we’re almost at the end, an idea which is gaining appeal with every bend in the channel.
Here’s what I don’t love: The aforementioned locks and bridges, not in themselves but because of the sort of frenzy that overtakes people trying to squeeze their boat in when there obviously isn’t enough space for a toothpick. They start to get tired and cranky, and maybe they’ve had one or two glasses of wine (it could happen) and so these little solar flares of emotion begin to overheat my own sense of benevolence toward my fellow man.
Here’s what I especially don’t love: Wind in the lagoon. It has happened more than once that by the time we were leaving the river at Fusina and heading into open water, we were facing a wall of wind. Which brings waves. Which means just when you really want it all to be over, you have to seriously get to work rowing.
In 2001 — a date branded into my brain — there was so much weather that the trip to the Lido in the 8-oar gondolone which normally would take an hour took three times that long. Doesn’t sound so bad? Maybe not now, but we had no idea when it was going to end, if ever, as we were struggling through the tumult, crashing along, the boat stopping every time we went into the trough between the waves, of which there were many. I also lost my oar overboard. Having to retrace lots of waves we’d just conquered in order to recover it is not a memory I revisit with any pleasure.
You might think that this kind of experience would really build your muscle mass, and I suppose it does. I counted several whimpering new ones the morning after. But what it really toughens up is your mental mass. Mental stamina, some level of fortitude you never needed till now. Plain old grit. You’re out there and suddenly realize you’ve completely run out of the stuff and you’re still not home? You’ve got to make more grit right there. There is no alternative.
One of those nights we were rowing back (it’s always getting dark in these return voyages, which adds to the dramatic element) in the six-oar caorlina with four teenagers who hadn’t done much rowing. I was in the bow, so I couldn’t see anything but night ahead of me. Rowing, rowing… It felt like we were rowing in a sea of cement, pushing against a brick wall. And as I rowed, I gave myself comfort in the only way I could: Swearing a series of oaths in my mind, more sincerely than any juror with both hands on the Bible, oaths which I fully intended to voice to Lino whenever we made it to shore, and calling on the angels, prophets and martyrs as my witnesses, as follows:
“Forget my name. This is the last time. I’m never doing this again. This is insane. I hate this. Why am I here? What was I thinking? Forget my name. This is the last time…..”
I can’t remember how long ago that was, and well, I’m still doing it. So much for my oaths, and I think my witnesses have all gone home.
But this year the return row was heavenly. We were towed, with ten other boats, from the last lock at Moranzani out into the lagoon. When we got as far as the Giudecca, at about 7:45 PM, we untied our little mascareta from the others and rowed through the darkness back to the Remiera Casteo, at Sant’ Elena. The other end of Venice, in other words.
I love rowing at night. The sky gleams like black onyx and the darkness somehow makes it feel like you’re going really fast. There is almost no traffic (it’s not summer anymore, thank God) so the water is smooth and silky. It’s dreamy.
Then we had to cross the San Marco canal– sorry, dream over. There’s less traffic at 8:30 at night, but there are still waves, spawned by an assortment of vaporettos and the ferryboat and some random taxis, none of whom is likely to be looking out for any stray mascareta. Yes, we had a light. No, it wasn’t a floodlight. This created enough tension to inspire me to speed up. and we briskly made it across in only a few minutes.
Home free. And very sorry it was all over. And very ready to shut the door on today and turn on the shower. Boats are great but 12 hours in one is plenty.
The past few days in the world of the oar have been pretty agitated here.
The Commission of Discipline (no remarks please) has listened to the rowers and the judges involved in the dramatic events of the Regata Storica and has rendered its decision. An assortment of decisions, really, which amounted to throwing a couple of spare barrels of oil on the waves of accumulated anger.
Angry rowers are nothing new, and a fan that isn’t enraged and offended by something isn’t worthy of the name. But this time the judges — angry too, which also is no novelty — made the unusual step of revealing their antagonism to the public. This is an alarming sign of how far order in the world of Venetian racing has deteriorated.
And I sense that it’s not over yet, not least because when you throw oil on turbulent waters, you often get covered in oily spray. But usually the situation at that point is so perilous that the benefits outweigh the oil.
To review: Ivo Redolfi-Tezzat and Giampaolo D’Este (celeste gondolino) were disqualified in the throes of the Regata Storica on September 5, the most important and hugely most remunerative race of the year, because they did something(s) to prevent their lifelong rivals, Rudi and Igor Vignotto (canarin gondolino), from accomplishing some maneuver that might have been to their advantage. In fencing terms, this could be called the celeste parrying the thrust (or probable and/or imminent thrust) of canarin. Celeste was disqualified, canarin won.
The Verdict: The appeal of Tezzat/D’Este was rejected. The new regulations stipulate that the judge’s verdict is unassailable, which in some ways ought to make the judges more punctilious. But that would be true only in an ideal world, and the Grand Canal is beautiful, but not ideal.
First point: Under the new rules, the order of finish is carved in titanium, hence celeste had no hope of being judged the winners in the cool light of the morning after. But that didn’t stop Tezzat/D’Este from registering a formal protest, hoping for a severe punishment to be inflicted on canarin. Hoping is fine, seeing as hope costs nothing. But their status as disqualifees remains unchanged.
Second point: The Vignottini did not escape completely unscathed, however. They received an official admonition (“diffida,” or warning) for “unsportsmanlike conduct” during the race. This is a black mark on their record, but does not comport any material damage.
Observation: I am not the only person who has noticed a certain incongruity between a decision which says that (A) celeste sinned and deserved its punishment but that (B) canarin also sinned but only needs a rap on the knuckles.
Third point: The judges. The two judges in the first boat, Gianni Tonini and Sandro Fort, were reprimanded for a series of errors which did not help, and perhaps aggravated, the situation during the race. In the simplest terms, their function (true for most judges) is to anticipate and prevent problems by timely warnings during the race. A judge, as one of them commented to me, doesn’t show how brilliant he is by the number of punishments he inflicts, but by the number of imminent problems he manages to resolve before punishment becomes inevitable. That didn’t happen here.
Tonini got an official “richiamo” from the Commission, and Fort got a richiamo because he let the race start even when the starting gun misfired. (As in: didn’t fire at all. The rules say the judge has to fire again and return all the racers to the starting line.) There were also a few commands issued to the rowers during the race by both men which are hard to justify even if you don’t care who won. But the important point is that this is the first time a judge has been publicly reprimanded.
Extra surprise: Startling but true, Ernesto Ortis, the coordinating judge, formally and publicly disassociated himself from the actions of Tonini and Fort. I believe this is a first here; like many groups, the judges have always prefered to present a united front even while they bicker inanely among themselves. It is no secret that bile has been bubbling for quite a while against the perceived hubris of Fort.
Outcome: The reaction to all these decisions (all of them wrong, of course, in the eyes of everybody except the commission) was to be seen at the regata at Burano last Sunday.
REVENGE AT BURANO
You may recall that the infuriated Tezzat first claimed they weren’t even going to try out for this, the last regata of the official season. But they did. Rowers make all kinds of affirmations that they never act on, usually some variation on “Take a good look at my oar, because it’s the last time you’re ever going to see it.” Next day, there they are.
So Tezzat and D’Este did the eliminations (What? Aren’t you supposed to be in Queen Maud Land?) and qualified for the race.
They showed up at Burano on Sunday on the green gondola. It was time for the race. All the gondolas were at the starting line, each poppiere (person rowing astern) clinging to the rope and struggling to keep his boat straight in the face of an annoying headwind and contrary tide.
But where’s green?
At the last minute, Tezzat and D’Este rowed, not to the starting line, but to the judge’s stand (all you racers just wait there till we’re done….). There they handed a piece of paper to the race announcer, who read it over the loudspeaker to the officials grouped on the dock, and to the suspenseful, murmuring hordes crushed along the water’s edge.
This document announced to the world, in the loftiest terms and the purest tones of innocent, persecuted victims, that Tezzat and D’Este would not only skip the race that was waiting to start, but won’t be racing again until All This gets cleared up once and for all. It was a sort of “J’accuse” aimed at the judges, collectively and individually (corrupt, incompetent, superannuated, cretinous) and at the Comune, represented by its execrable functionaries.
Their declaration did not use the exact terms employed by Emile Zola in his immortal denunciation (“…a great blow to all truth, all justice…”…”It is a crime to poison the small and the humble…”…all the revulsion of an honest man…”…”And these people sleep at night, and they have women and children whom they love!”). But I think they would have used those terms if they’d thought of it.
They then consigned a pair of symbolic oars to the new Counciler for Tourism, Roberto Panciera, and rowed back to the boathouse. I was on the dock and didn’t see anything oar-like changing hands, but maybe they were coffee spoons modified to look like oars.
This pantomime was not followed by stunned silence, it was followed by every shape and size of bellowed protest of passionate partisanship. There was one woman who yelled rolling phrases of excoriation in a voice of doom that could carry to the mainland and possibly farther. She was amazing. Just think, she could have summarized everything in the simple phrase “String ’em up,” but she clearly had quite a lot on her mind which had been pent up too long. If you’ve ever wondered what the vox populi might sound like, she was it.
Then the race proceeded and the Vignottini won. No surprise there, naturally. God, how it rankled the public! I’ve never heard so many people so rankled. This was one situation where the daily habit of everybody talking at once turned out to be useful, because except for the Voice of Doom, you couldn’t understand anything anybody was saying. I thought about cheering for the Vignottini just to see what would happen, but the fans were like a mob of maenads, and I didn’t feel like being dismembered and devoured raw. Maybe some other time.
What next? I have no idea. There is already a sub-theme being promoted which demands the immediate dismissal of all the judges (why not — let’s just kill them all) and the installation of an entirely new cadre of judges, a new Commission of Discipline, a new everybody.
Only problem is, every time the Comune invites people to apply to become judges, nobody responds. Nobody wants to spend summer Sundays in all kinds of weather dealing with the racers, their relatives, and their fans who are howling that the judge’s dead relatives are dogs. Judges are likely to lose all their friends, too, who would suddenly regard them as unspeakable traitors. I know judges whose friends look the other way when they walk past on the street. I know: So they’re not real friends. But still. All this for 40 euros ($52) a race, and now there’s the chance to be publicly chastised as well? How could anybody turn that down?
The only option left to Tezzat for reclaiming his symbolic oar is to appeal to the mayor. The Vignottini resorted to this a few years ago, back before Igor threw his pennant into the canal in front of the mayor and their relationship turned to stone. But now there’s a different mayor, and let us not forget: Tezzat and D’Este are innocent.
I’ll see you on the barricades.
Walking home yesterday afternoon, I noticed this boat. And I instantly deduced that hunting season is about to open in the Venetian lagoon. It isn’t just the camouflaging reeds that give the game away, it’s the fact that they are freshly cut.
Actually, a glance at the Veneto Region’s official calendar of hunting season shows that it had already begun (September 1, and a few scattered dates thereafter) for a small group of winged creatures that keep to the shore, such as turtledoves, blackbirds, jays, magpies, and crows.
The Veneto has the highest density of hunters in Italy. However, the total number of hunters in Italy has fallen from 1.4 million in 2000 to about 800,000 today. I can’t usefully interpret either one of those facts but there they are.
Bird hunting — I don’t mean pheasant and duck and other famous flying comestibles, but lesser-known sort-of comestibles such as song thrushes and skylarks — is a topic that could easily lead us into unpleasant political and environmentalist territory (the island of Ponza, for example, is essentially a seasonal killing field for any avian who enters its air space), so I’ll just stick to the basics.
In the Veneto, from September 19 till January 31, a person sitting in a blind freezing in the dark in the middle of the water is permitted to attempt to slay mallards, coots, common moorhens, common teals, shovelers, pochards, gadwalls, water rails, wigeons, Northern pintails, garganeys, tufted ducks, common snipes, Jack snipes, and lapwings.
Their landbound confreres gazing skyward will also be freezing and waiting for partridge, red-legged partridge, pheasant, ruff, skylark, woodcock, fieldfare, song thrush, redwing, common wood pigeon, and quail.
The catbird isn’t found in Europe, but all these hunters will be sitting in its proverbial seat starting tomorrow, because the Venetian lagoon is situated on one of the most important flyways in Europe. At certain times of year there can be as many as 200,000 birds here, nesting or resting or spending the winter diving, dabbling, or digging through the mudflats at low tide.
When UNESCO designated Venice as a World Heritage Site in 1987, it specifically included the Venetian lagoon. You wouldn’t have guessed that by the antics that go on in it, but let’s move on for now. The lagoon covers an area of some 212 square miles, and is one of the few coastal wetlands left in Europe, a region which has lost 2/3 of its wetlands in the past 100 years.
In other words, the lagoon is one of the best places in Europe to be a bird, except in the winter. Depending on your species, a hunter is allowed to bag from 35 to 50 of your relatives in a season.
The days designated for this divertissement are Wednesday and Saturday in the Southern Lagoon, and Thursday and Sunday in the Northern and the Caorle Lagoon (where Hemingway used to love to hunt).
When you have shot one bird flying you have shot all birds flying,” Ernest Hemingway wrote. “They are all different and they fly in different ways but the sensation is the same and the last one is as good as the first.” You can’t say that about everything, or even most things, in this life, so I’ll let him have the last word on the subject.
I’m glad I mentioned hunting, though, because it constitutes a direct link to the Great Days of the Venetian Republic.
From farthest antiquity, the doge was expected to give a specific Christmas present to all the noble families, who formed the Great Council (there were 1,200 such families for a long period, then the number began to increase).
That present was five mallards per family, which comes to 6,000 ducks a year. Eventually this number dropped to two, but finally there were so few birds that on June 28, 1521, the Council decreed that instead of the ducks, the doge would give each patrician a coin specially minted for the occasion, worth one-quarter of a ducat. This coin was known as an osella, Venetian for “bird.”
With the exception of two extremely short-lived gentlemen, every doge from Antonio Grimani (1521) to Ludovico Manin (1797) minted an osella each year. One side bore a generic image of him kneeling before San Marco, and the obverse a particular design highlighting an important event or aspect of the past year.
The Banca Popolare di Vicenza (People’s Bank of Vicenza) happens to own the most complete collection of oselle in the world visible to the public, which comprises 275 coins. After the middle of the 17th century, the oselle were minted in gold. The Bank of Vicenza collection was on display here for a short while last spring, and even though I know next to nothing about numismatics, they were spectacular.
Just think: Even when they start with ducks they end up with money. I love this town.
The newspaper was bubbling like a large pot of overcooked beans the two days after the big race, what with charges and countercharges flying amongst the rowers. Most of these wails of injured pride came from the embattled and disqualified pair on the celeste gondolino: Ivo Redolfi-Tezzat and, by extension, his partner, Giampaolo D’Este. D’Este doesn’t make public statements, he leaves the heavy lifting to his buddy. Who by now has made a second career of said lifting, considering all the trouble he seems to have been born to create, then complain about. At least one of his former partners actually gave up racing, he couldn’t take the tsuris anymore.
What I have been able to discern is that the judges in the first boat, who were keeping their eyes on the gondolinos in the lead, had already called out a warning to Tezzat for creating an impasso — a term which generally means “blocking.” To create an obstacle, in one of a myriad ways. Obviously this doesn’t mean he tried to literally put his boat in front of the Vignottini, but he was doing something which clearly made problems for them to proceed at optimum speed and trajectory.
It seems that the judges called eight warnings. That ought to be enough for anybody to grasp that it’s time to stop. Because after one warning, and another, and perhaps even another, the judge will call out that the racer now has a richiamo (ree-KYAM-oh) on his record, which is not good but not fatal. But if he gets more than one richiamo in a race (as in, if he persists in whatever he or she is doing), he is liable to be disqualified. Which is exactly what happened. Tezzat knows this, so I’m not real clear on why he took such a risk. Except that it seems to be his specialty. Perhaps he races because he can’t go skysurfing.
And he did not help his case by admitting that he had committed an error, which while it sounds extremely sportsmanlike and almost penitential, makes his rants against the judges a little hard to take seriously. He wants them to be fired, if not exiled and then executed. This is a reaction that’s not uncommon in soccer, but is a little hard to make credible when the athlete has been warned eight times.
I did mention that money was involved in this conflict. Glory, bragging rights, the satisfaction of having pulverized and humiliated your lifelong rivals, whatever else may be concerned, there is in fact a tidy sum set aside for the winners. “Tidy” as in 2,850 euros ($3,682.65). Per person. And then there are other prizes that come rolling in, too, such as the money offered by the Gazzettino for the first boat that passes under the Rialto Bridge on the outbound leg (775 euros per person in 2004), or the prize offered by the other newspaper, La Nuova Venezia, for the first boat to pass under the Accademia Bridge, and so on. Even though these prizes have been slashed, like everything else in the budget, losing them would make you bubble too.
As things stand now, he and his partner will only get the “training subsidy,” a symbolic little payment which is the city’s consolation prize. For the other races this payment would be around 200 euros, which might cover the cost of gas for his motorboat for a month. But for the Storica it’s 1,427 euros ($1,854.11). More than nothing, sure, but for a professional gondolier, which both of these men are, it is, how you say, chicken feed. Going home with only this batch of change in your pocket is unthinkable.
And then there was Tezzat’s threat to not even try out for the race at Burano next Sunday, which is popularly regarded as the Revenge of the Storica. It sounded good, but he and D’Este showed up, as expected, for the eliminations, and so will be confronting the Vignottini one last time this year. Yes, that sound you hear is daggers being sharpened to a scalpel’s edge.