Archive for January, 2011

Jan
11

The “First Row of the Year”

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So we have all somehow managed to hack our way out of the calorie-entangled canebrake of the holidays, and you might suppose that now we would all return to our lairs for three months of hibernation before thinking about going out and rowing around.

Maybe some people hibernate, but for the past 33 years, the rowing club “Voga Veneta Mestre” has rousted everyone who is roustable to come out on the earliest possible Sunday in January to form a boat procession, or corteo, in the Grand Canal.  This undertaking is known by the homespun title of the Prima Vogada dell’Anno, or  the first row of the year.

A snippet of rainbow from the hanging around, waiting to get going: Blue and white of the Settemari, blue and gold of the Voga Veneta Lido, red and white of the Club Ponte dei Sartori.

A snippet of rainbow as we all wait to get going: Blue and white of the Settemari club, blue and gold of the Voga Veneta Lido, red and white of the Club Ponte dei Sartori.

Of course people already have been rowing this year, your correspondent included. But the motivation for this event isn’t merely rowing, but rowing with the purpose of Doing a Good Deed. The corteo ends at the nursing home at San Lorenzo, behind the church of San Giorgio dei Greci, where the Mestre club prepares a festive sort of party/lunch/scrum, cooking a vat of pasta e fagioli, bringing useful gifts, and providing plenty of loud and cheerful talking and singing to entertain the inmates — sorry, I meant residents.

Quadruple parking as the early-arrivers wait for everybody else: purple and white of the club San Polo dei Nomboli, blue and orange of Voga Veneta Mestre, and a random blue-garbed man from the Querini.

Quadruple parking as the early-arrivers wait for everybody else: purple and white of the club San Polo dei Nomboli, blue and orange of Voga Veneta Mestre, and a random blue-garbed man from the Querini.

I have only gone once to this climactic phase of the morning.  We usually just keep rowing in order to make it home at a decent hour, so I can’t tell you much about the denouement.

But I can tell you that I think the Prima Vogada dell’Anno is one of the best little boating exploits in the whole year because it has absolutely no public relations value whatever, no touristic or fancy-poster or let’s-find-a-sponsor or we-have-no-money or who-shot-John or any other of the aspects that often begrime waterborne events here. There are just too dang many situations in which floating Venetians  are used as decoration to provide some kind of folkloristic color to somebody else’s hoedown. And God forbid that the event should be televised — then they tell you where you have to go and how long to stay there, even if you had come with the quaint notion of being a participant and not merely some kind of anonymous oar-carrier.

So the great thing here is that it’s Just Us Folks, and if the weather is raw and foggy, which it was on Sunday and still is today (the foghorns are blowing as I write), all the better.  There are fewer people out to snap pictures, and the fog makes all the colors of the boats and their rowers’ track suits really come alive.

A simple sandolo from San Polo dei Nomboli standing by, hanging onto us.  As you see, the Christmas Forcola has finally gotten out of the house and back to work.

A simple sandolo from San Polo dei Nomboli standing by, hanging onto us. As you see, the Christmas Forcola has finally gotten out of the house and back to work.

So the boats gather, in the usual disorderly way, between the train station and Piazzale Roma. Rowers wave to each other, call out mildly rude comments, check their cell phones for messages, and so on till the caravan moves out at 10:00.

There is relatively little traffic at that time on a fuzzy winter Sunday morning, so we have the Grand Canal pretty much  to ourselves.


Wherever we are at the beginning is not usually where we are at the end.  Lino likes to be near the front of any corteo, and rarely resists the temptation to perform all kinds of tiny, deft and seemingly impossible maneuvers to sneak past the other boats one by one and get ahead.

Gianni Bullo in the bow of his caorlina before the start. Perhaps he's rethinking his repertoire. ("Should I start with 'Un Bel Di?' Nah, let's just see what happens.")

Gianni Bullo in the bow of his caorlina before the start. Perhaps he's rethinking his repertoire. ("Should I start with 'Un Bel Di?' Nah, let's just see what happens.")

I’ll never forget how vastly he entertained himself one night a few years ago in a corteo for Carnival. The boats were all kind of mashed together in the semi-dark and we found ourselves wedged in behind a gondola of the Francescana club, rowed by four men. Giorgio Fasan was standing on the stern; he, like Lino on our 8-oar gondola, was the captain and steersman of the boat. At that time he was already very old but he was still as irrepressible as, I gather, he had always been, and still just as capable.

And we're off.  Generally speaking.  No rush.

And we're off. Generally speaking. No rush.

Lino, as always, was so perfectly in control of our boat, and so alert to everything and everyone around him (it’s long since become instinctive), that he decided to break the monotony by annoying Giorgio.  So we inched up behind Giorgio’s gondola, and with an imperceptible push on his oar Lino gave his gondola a little nudge against the stern.

Normally everybody tries to avoid touching, knocking against, running into, or otherwise coming into contact with other boats. Which means Giorgio wasn’t expecting his boat to move for any reason other than whatever he or his crew were doing. Lino’s little push, however, made his gondola unexpectedly begin to veer off-course, to the right.

"Mestrina," the 14-oar gondola and flagship of the Voga Veneta Mestre fleet, moves to the head of the corteo, as is only right and proper.

"Mestrina," the 14-oar gondola and flagship of the Voga Veneta Mestre fleet, moves to the head of the corteo, as is only right and proper.

Therefore Giorgio’s natural reaction was to start yelling at the man rowing in the prow, who he assumed was to blame for this deviation by having given a stroke that was just a little too hard.

“Why are you rowing?” he shouted.  “Can’t you see we don’t want to go right?  Tira acqua!”  (A counter-stroke that would have corrected the situation.)

I bet Lino nudged that gondola at least five times, just to watch Giorgio get more flustered and more mad — and of course, to listen to the exchanges between Giorgio and his supposedly incompetent but completely innocent crew member, which became increasingly warm.

Lino thought it was hilarious and I did too, I have to admit.  Childish?  Sure.  But I also thought it was pretty cool that he was able to pull it off, and it was so much the sort of thing I could imagine them all doing when they were all canal-rats together that I knew it wasn’t malicious.  Giorgio never did figure out what had happened.  He’s been rowing angels around the heavenly canals for several years now, but I bet he’s still blaming that guy in the bow.

Nothing like that happened on Sunday, though.  People stuck to the business at hand, Lino included, though after we passed under the Rialto Bridge, Gianni Bullo, in the bow of a caorlina from the Canottieri Mestre, suffered some sort of attack of euphoria (“rapture of the Rialto”?), and began singing snatches of a song, or maybe several.  Maybe he thought other people would join in — it happens sometimes, which is really nice. He was happy, though, and that’s something that always sounds good, though in his case it sounded better from a distance.

Me, I was savoring the boat-music, the sound of us swooshing along, and the boats around us also swooshing, each producing its own special swoosh-notes according to the size and shape and weight of the boat, not to mention the size, shape and weight of its rowers.  For once the main sound in the Grand Canal was not the snarling of taxi and barge and vaporetto motors, but just the water and the oars and the air combining in their own rhythmic, convivial, completely unorchestrated a cappella chorus.

I don’t think these guys, including Gianni Bullo, could possibly sing any song at the nursing home that would be more wonderful than that.

Coming out of the Grand Canal into the Bacino of San Marco, the boats tend to wander away from each other, becoming less of a procession and more of a small herd.

Coming out of the Grand Canal into the Bacino of San Marco, the boats tend to wander away from each other, becoming less of a procession and more of a small herd.

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Jan
08

Venetian laws and order

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Virtually every day of every year, the news here will include some mention of how deeply disappointing the municipal government is, and the many ways in which its decisions (bear in mind that not deciding also qualifies as a decision) fall short of the minimum necessary for decent human life.

I’m not here to defend anybody, but history shows that Venice has always presented an exceptional challenge to its rulers.

Beautiful?  Sure.  Challenging?  It never stops.

Beautiful? Often. Byzantine? Always.

Giving some consideration, as I do every day, as to how run a city and/or empire in the most efficient and beneficial way — principles which can easily be applied to other activities, such as running a house, or a large corporation, or a work-release program or whatever — I thought I’d give a sample of some of the laws which the Venetian government passed and also, I think, enforced.

In 1348 Venice, with more than 100,000 inhabitants, was the most populous city in Europe. Even before it grew that big, managing it, body and soul, was something like playing three-dimensional chess — its governing bodies had to keep track of everything (wars, famines, earthquakes, attempted coups, plague prevention, counterfeiting, ostentatious clothing, civil servants with sticky fingers) all at the same time.

Naturally they passed metric tons of useful laws governing business and commerce, goods and services, civil engineering projects, weights and measures, and the rights, duties and privileges of virtually everybody. These are not comic material, they’re the reason (among many) why Venice survived for  close to 1,500 years.

But as anyone who has ever been two years old knows, it’s one thing to establish a rule, it’s another to enforce it, most especially where behavior is concerned.  Passing a law makes everybody happy; enforcing it, not so much.

So as you read the following, cast your minds back, ever so briefly, to imagine the situation which had reached the point at which a law was required to control, or even stop it, we hope.  As you’ll see, all those squillions of different snowflake-patterns are nothing compared to the myriad misdemeanors that people are apt to get up to when living in a small area with thousands of other people, many of whom may not have your best interests at heart.  Or you theirs.

But also bear in mind that most, if not all, other European governments between 421 and 1797 A.D. were some variation on monarchy or despotry. Venice was governed, not by an individual, but by groups of people, groups which had been formed over time not merely to do a particular job but to ensure that other groups didn’t get the upper hand. This checks-and-balances system, which seems so obvious to us today, was one which many intelligent people devoted time and energy to devising, improving, and maintaining.  So no snickering from the cheap seats.

This is nothing -- you should see the Mercerie during Carnival.  Not what appears to be the ideal path for someone on horseback, even though you would obviously get the right of way.

This is nothing -- you should see the Mercerie during Carnival. Not what appears to be the ideal path for someone on horseback, even though the horse would obviously have the right of way.

1224:  It is forbidden to ride horses along the Mercerie [the street between Rialto and San Marco] due to the great increase in pedestrians. This seems so obvious as not to require a law, but as you see, it did.

1229:  It is forbidden to spend more than half a ducat per person for food when giving a dinner. Something had to be done to combat the phenomenally luxurious banquets which had already become common — common, that is, among the classes not known as common.  The relentless ingenuity of the wealthy patricians to find ways to out-spend each other sometimes verged on the potlatch mentality, and required a steady supply of ever-more-specific laws to control. One of many reasons why the government considered display worth controlling was because it was apt to stir up envy and other unpleasant emotions which could lead to even more unpleasant situations such as attempted coups, or the assassination of the doge.  I’m not sure how they enforced this  half-ducat limit but it sounds like the right idea.

1258:  Pharmacists are forbidden to sell medicine without a prescription. Furthermore, doctors, even the most illustrious, are required to treat poor patients for free. One of many examples of how innovative, not to say revolutionary, Venetian thinking often was.

1274, February 29:  It is prohibited to pass along the Mercerie on horseback because of all the people on foot [wait, didn’t we already have a law about that?].

I intuit that the column now in Campo San Salvador is where the tree used to be.  Not stadium parking in any case.

I intuit that the column now in Campo San Salvador is where the fig tree used to be. Not stadium parking in any case.

1287, February 29:  It is forbidden to go through the Mercerie on horseback [Are you people not listening?] except for foreigners who have just arrived. [Couldn’t find a parking place for their horse?]  Furthermore, anyone wanting to go to San Marco has to tie his horse to the fig tree in the Campo San Salvador. [Voila’! Parking.]

1315: It is forbidden to commit impure acts in sacred places [finally something the church and state can agree on].  This law was intended to stop the “dishonest and disgraceful” behavior running riot not only in the porticoes of the basilica of San Marco — to say nothing of the many convents — but inside the churches themselves. How effective this law proved to be is shown, for example, by Marco Grimani, who was fined for “having attempted to fornicate with a young lady under the arches of the basilica.”  This occurred in 1363. Venetian laws seem to have had a limited shelf life, more or less 50 years, or roughly two generations.  Time enough for people to quit listening.  Or  caring.

1322:  The government decrees the construction of 50 public wells, to be completed within two years. In 1424 another 30 were added.  Wells (whether cisterns for rain or installed over an artesian source), or barges from the mainland, were the city’s only means of obtaining fresh water.  The price of water was set by the government, and each year the waterboatmen were required to donate the contents of 100 waterboats to the public wells [4,506,000 liters, or 1,190,359 gallons, presumably not all on the same day]. It went on like this until the aqueduct from the mainland was built in 1884. Excellent planning, and execution, you old Venetians.

1350, April 11: Some six months earlier — on    September 25, 1349 — a certain nobleman, Stefano Manolesso, was riding his horse in the Piazza San Marco [doing WHAT?] and unfortunately ran over and killed a little boy. Therefore  The Great Council passes a decree  which requires that horses wear rattles to warn people of their approach. [So you don’t risk getting trampled by the horses that aren’t supposed to be there.]

1354: November 11.  It is prohibited to carry grimaldelli [picklocks], because they have become the favorite toy of young bloods, perfect for breaking into houses, especially where beautiful and wealthy girls are residing.

1392:  August 29.  It is debated whether on festive days it should be forbidden to ride your horse at a fast pace in the Piazza San Marco. [Now we’re just quibbling over speed?]

Not exactly the Circus Maximus, with or without acqua alta, but I suppose if you had a horse the urge to gallop eventually became irresistible.

Not exactly the Circus Maximus, with or without acqua alta, but I suppose if you had a horse the urge to gallop eventually became irresistible.

1397: It is decreed to place new lamps or candles for street lighting.  The problem of dark streets here has been obvious for centuries; in 1128 the first lights were placed, at government expense, on votive shrines around the city, in the hope of discouraging the nocturnal mayhem — mugging, homicide — that had become the norm.  Venetians would wake up in the morning to find murdered people lying in the streets.  So they started installing faint but well-intentioned illumination at many corners and intersections. Which was insufficient three centuries later. Was there more crime? More streets? Nobody replacing the candles or refilling the lamps?

1407, September 11:  It is severely forbidden to throw garbage or trash into the canals. A few years ago we were rowing along behind the Giudecca, and as we turned into a certain canal I saw a hand-lettered sign thoughtfully placed near the entrance.  It said (in Italian, of course): “WARNING. GO SLOW. WASHING MACHINES IN THE WATER.” What was so funny (it’s not funny) was the use of the plural.  In any case, the sign is gone now.  I have no idea if the washing machines themselves are also gone. Maybe not. Human nature is tougher and more resistent than I don’t know what.  15-5PH stainless steel. Which is also not to be thrown into the water.

1409, September 26:  Members of the Great Council are not to throw the cloth balls used for voting at each other. [And they’re making our laws?]

1411, January 27:  Servants and slaves are not to create a racket at night in the Palazzo Ducale. [Throwing balls of bread dough at each other?]

1414, April 18:  New, more severe rules [there already were some?] against people blowing bugles at night.

1415, July 25: Every year the names of those who have stolen state property will be announced in the Great Council, and this will be done for the entire life of the guilty parties. Public shame is supposed to be a deterrent, and maybe it was.  But I’d be willing to bet that everyone who heard those names only thought some variation of “Better him than me.”

1423, March 26:  The desks of the Chancellery are to be raised so that curious passersby can’t read the secret documents. [There. Mind your own beeswax.]

1425, February 7:  The government responds to the protest of many Venetians and decrees that church bells shall not be rung at night except in case of fire. It had reached the point where bells were being rung far into the night to celebrate all kinds of events. What with bells, bugles, and I don’t know what all, night in Venice must have been like noon in Shanghai.

1430, March 2:  The Great Council limits the height of the heels of women’s shoes.  I can’t say what height they had reached, but it was probably fairly ridiculous.  Not that most of the lower classes were wishing  they could have shoes that made them walk like flamingoes, but it’s just better to keep the footwear under control.

There is a fair number of similar plaques around the city -- yes, literally carved in stone -- which remind Venetians of how to behave.  This is one of the simpler versions, written in an interesting mix of Venetian and Italian and Latin.  "1633 22 June.  All games are forbidden, of whatever sort they may be, and also to sell things, set up a shop or corbe [large wicker baskets for carrying coal], to utter blasphemy or other indecencies around this church or any nearby sacred places, and this is by deliberation of the Most Excellent and Serene Executors against Blasphemy with the penalty for transgressors of prison, the galleys, banishment, and also [a fine of] 200 small lire [paid] to the accuser and the captors.

There is a fair number of similar plaques around the city -- yes, literally carved in stone -- which remind Venetians of how to behave. This is one of the simpler versions, written in an interesting mix of Venetian and Italian and Latin. Full translation at right.

1443, June 29:  The Republic guarantees the services of a lawyer to poor defendants who can’t pay.  This was the first time such a law was  made anywhere in Europe, and furthermore, the said attorney was to be chosen by the judge from among the best (no sneaking in raw beginners) and was required to follow the case with the maximum care or risk a major fine. As in the case of doctors, the government was unusually alert to the advantages of maintaining some semblance of fairness. The idea that the law could be equal for all was not something the French invented as they were hurling paving stones at the Bastille; there were even several cases in which the doge refused to intervene to save his own son from his deserved punishment, even when it was death. Impressive.

MDCXXXIII [1633] 20 June

All games are forbidden, of whatever sort they may be [note: these “games” were not hopscotch, but gambling] and also to sell things, set up a shop or corbe [large wicker baskets for carrying coal], to utter blasphemies or other indecencies around this church or any nearby sacred places and this is by deliberation of the Most Excellent and Serene Executors against Blasphemy with the penalty for transgressors of prison, the galleys, banishment, and also [a fine of] 200 small lire [to be divided] between the accuser (who will be kept secret) and the captors.  D. Francesco Morosini, Procurator, D. Nicolo Contarini, D. Marco Antonio di Priuli, D. Alvise Mocenigo, Executors against Blasphemy.

Note: Forbidding blasphemy does not indicate that Venice was in the grip of religious fanatics, but that it was included with other common forms of public behavior which were revolting.  The Executors against Blasphemy were responsible not only for punishing blasphemy (priests were also often guilty), but also the profanation of sacred places, the defloration of virgins promised in marriage (remember the picklocks?), pimping, the publication of forbidden books, and most other activities, of which there were many,  that degraded the quality of life.  It was a losing battle but they had to try. In 1512 Lorenzo Priuli, later doge, wrote in his diary: “In Venice there were two things that were very difficult to overcome: the blasphemy used by every grade of person and clothes in the French fashion.”

1455, March 20: It is decreed that it is illegal to deprive a condemned person of his clothes before the execution. [Good grief. They’d been sending the poor bastards to the block in their skivvies?]

1461, October 20:  It is illegal for a creditor to deprive a debtor of his cows or agricultural tools, even if he owes money to the State.

1570: It is decreed that  it is illegal for a creditor to deprive a debtor of his bed.

1469, December 27: It is decreed that the lawyers pleading cases in the Council or the College may not speak for more than an hour and a half. [Lawyers without “Off” buttons have always been with us.]

1474:  Once again in the vanguard, the Republic issues the first laws which protect patents on inventions and the rights of the inventors.

1476. November 17: The Republic creates a new office, the Supervisors of Pomp. It can issue laws [oh good, we need more of those] concerning the display of wealth [it just doesn’t stop], including but not limited to elaborate clothes and decorations, ostentatious display of jewels, excessive fancying-up of your servants or boats, over-the-top banquets, and anything else that is, as they put it, contrary to the spirit of the Republic, seeing that extravagant consumption [even if the money is all yours] is not only wasteful and teaches the wrong lessons, but also conduces to scandal [spending bags of money on stuff might weaken your grasp on the idea of boundaries, yours and everybody else’s] and thus is to be avoided. [Clear as a 25-carat diamond.]

1498, June 11: At the request of the people living on the Giudecca, it is forbidden to “roast” cinnabar. The government was vigilant to relegate hazardous or extremely obnoxious industries (dyeing and tanning among them) to outlying areas of the city, but in this case they neglected to make it an uninhabited part.  I can well believe that the residents objected; the idea of a furnace roasting mercury ore anywhere near groups of vertebrates is so ghastly that it’s hard to believe it was ever permitted to exist. I’m sure the councilors didn’t let this furnace get built because they were distracted by deciding how much silk you would be allowed to use to make your underwear [I made that up]. They must have been thinking about how important it was to produce mercury for hatmakers, and for pharmacists concocting treatments for syphilis.

1563: At an unspecified date, a momentous decision is finally made.  It is forbidden to ride horses anywhere in the city. Sometimes tourists marvel that there are no cars in Venice [before they notice the inconvenience of all those bridges].  However, if anybody had ever wondered why there are no horses, now we know.  It was forbidden. Seriously forbidden.  And this time we mean it, totally prohibited.  With this majestic edict all those rattles and rules could be thrown out and I suppose collected by the itinerant rag, bone, and scrap iron merchant to be turned into soap or paper. Certainly they weren’t thrown into the canals. That’s illegal.


Categories : History
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Jan
05

The Befana sweeps through

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Epiphany, which it says in the fine print is intended to commemorate the visit of the Three Kings to the Baby Jesus, offering him gold, frankincense, and myrrh, has metamorphosed over the centuries into a day dedicated primarily to a happy little hag known as the Befana.  Her name, which I suppose could just as well have been Hepzibah or Basemath, is a homely mutation of the word Epiphany.  You probably already figured that out.

She's almost always smiling.  That's a good sign.

She's almost always smiling. That's a good sign.

Her connection to the day is gifts.  No, of course children haven’t gotten enough of them yet.  Are you mad?  It’s been a whole 12 days since the last truckload of presents was dropped on them.

The Befana is a remarkable creature, and to love her you must get past your feelings about hook-nosed, snaggle-toothed harpies with broomsticks.  She’s actually closer to honey and poplar syrup and agave nectar, all sweetness and no light.  She flies at night.

Stockings don’t belong to Santa Claus, here they’re hung out tonight for the Befana to swoop through and fill with candy and doodads.  In my day, a doodad might have been a Slinky. Today, it’s probably an iPhone.

Here is a dish of candy coal, which makes as much sense as candy corn.

Here is a dish of candy coal, which makes as much sense as candy corn.

She is also liable to leave coal instead of candy, coal being the traditional judgment on Bad Children. But naturally  by now a loophole has been found — created, actually — by inventing a candy that looks like coal.  I’ve tried it, and it tastes exactly like what you’d think a block of black sugar would taste like.  Not that black has a taste, but your imagination instinctively supplies one.

The Befana is always changing, always the same. Averaging out the thousands of versions crowding the candy stores and pastry shops, I’d say she was a combination of Dame Edna Everage and Jimmy Durante. I found one that looked like a distant cousin of Porky Pig, but I’m sure that was unintentional.

IMG_3983 befThere are many and deep significances to this observance which I won’t repeat now; my post last year covered most of them.  I only note here that I am looking forward, as always, to detecting the smell tonight of woodsmoke blowing over from nearby farmland — Sant’ Erasmo, or, slightly further away, the settlements by the sea near Jesolo, Ca’ Savio, Treporti, smoke swirling out of the flaming bonfires which are lit in her honor.

I want to note — for the record, whoever may be keeping it, or reading it — that the occasional practice of burning the effigy of the Befana atop the pyre is historically wrong.  Bonfires, yes, but with the purpose of disposing of a lot of dead plant material you have to get rid of before next spring’s planting.  The “Vecia” (old lady) is more traditionally burned up at the middle of Lent, and some places still plan it that way.

Meaning no disrespect whatsoever to this venerable crone, I have to say that Venice once was swamped with cronish ladies, of various ages, whose mission in life was to patrol the family, and neighboring families, with relentless scrutiny.  Now that neighborhood life has changed so much over the past three generations — television, sufficient heating, children moving away, and death have taken their toll on the dense agglomerations of terrifying, invasive, implacable old ladies who could smile like angels as they slashed your reputation to ribbons behind your back.  I know this because Lino has told me Stories about them, and does a bloodcurdling impression of a typical conversation between a few of these matrons.

Even more, I can confirm that the Venetian language is gratifyingly rich in terms which describe the myriad nuances of ancient females.  I don’t imagine I can do them justice on my own, even though they’re words you could hear every day and eventually begin to use instinctively in certain situations: Marantega, carampane, grima, sbetega, peocio refa‘, and many more, all have deliciously complicated meanings.  The fact that there are so many words for the variations on these life-battered and -battering women (not to mention casual expressions to describe them, such as “Ugly as the plague,” “As ugly as hunger,” and so on), show the depth of feeling they inspired in everyone who knew them or even came near them, especially their families.

IMG_3980 befEspedita Grandesso, in her wonderful  book, “Prima de parlar, tasi,” has applied her exegetical scalpel to many of these terms.  Here is a brief sample (translated by me):

Marantega: [Ma-RAHN-te-ga].  The Befana is sometimes referred to as the “marantega barola” (barola meaning really old), but that is sort of a slur, in my opinion. A marantega, according to Grandesso, is primarily an ancient and misanthropic woman, dedicated to the cult of the dead in the sense that she keeps daily tabs on who has preceded her to paradise, spreading the news everywhere. This type of woman possesses a mournful sense of existence and is the town crier of every disgrace which occurs in her range of activity.  In days gone by, one could find her in the performance of these duties in church, at the hour of saying the rosary, or vespers, in the act of delivering the last horrid news in the ear of yet another unfortunate biddy, chosen from among the meekest and most impressionable.

Carampana:  [cah-rahm-PAHN-ah]. By now this term signifies a woman of decrepit agedness, who maintains presumptions of attractiveness and, for that reason, plasters her wrinkles with rouge and continues to dress in the style of the time when she was lovely. In general, she is a pathetic creature who, unfortunately, gives a helping hand to derision.  In the past, however, this term literally meant “prostitute,” and can still describe a trollop who is old and out of service, and who, with her excessive makeup and her attitude maintains an equivocal air that is almost the stamp of her long-practiced profession.  In fact, it was originally the name of the neighborhood near the Rialto which was the red-light district.

IMG_3982 befSbetega: [SBEH-teh-ga].  Literally a shrew and loudmouth.

Grima: [GREE-ma].  Much worse than a sbetega.  In this case it means a malignant woman who is, at the same time, aggressive and hard to neutralize.  Mothers-in-law often belong to this category, but daughters-in-law also do pretty well for themselves.

Peocio Refa‘: [peh-OH-cho reh-FA].  Literally a made-over cootie.  This is a person (who could also be a man) who has made money and enjoys a good financial position, remaining at the same time crude and mean-spirited, whose greatest pleasure consists of humiliating her neighbor, especially if that person is culturally superior to her.  The northeast Veneto [and, may I add, much of the Lido] offers excellent examples of this species.

These would be Befana Lite.

These would be Befana Lite.

Otovario dei Morti: [Aw-to-VAH-ree-oh day MOR-tee].  I myself haven’t heard this term used in daily life around here, but the character it describes is eternal. Grandesso says that the “ottavario” was the word indicating the repetition of a religious feast, one that was particularly solemn or deeply felt, eight days after its first celebration. Therefore the Ottavario dei Morti was tied to All Souls’ Day, or the commemoration of the deceased. This term is given to a person who is sad, either in appearance or temperament, who only talks about depressing or funereal events, whether public or private, reaching the apex of pleasure when they are particularly disastrous.  In the days of patriarchal families, this role was generally performed by widowed or spinster aunts, well along in years.  These charitable women, having long since left behind the joys of the world, busy themselves in extirpating them as well in the hearts of relatives, friends, and acquaintances.

None of these expressions could ever be used for the Befana, though.  She adores children and I myself don’t believe she cares what adults might think or say about her. You can tell she isn’t from around here.

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Jan
03

Venice: Let the New Year begin

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As I may have intimated, we didn’t plan on being in the Piazza San Marco at the stroke of midnight, and we in fact stayed home until midnight when we walked out to the waterfront to watch the fireworks over the Bacino of San Marco.

In the nabes they were still sweeping up on Monday morning.  Here, a little petardo carcass.

In the nabes they were still sweeping up on Monday morning. Here, a little petardo carcass.

This isn’t to say that our neighborhood was empty — au contraire.  There were plenty of kids out, and assorted adults, and the kids, at least, were intent on making things explode.  Here these variations on the firecracker are generically called  petardi (a petardo here is not something you would be want to be hoist with, even if it was your own) and they make a seriously loud bang and leave black smears on the street.

The first things to be called “petard,” I discover, were not used for entertainment.  They were small bombs used to breach walls and blow in doors.  The term derives from Middle French and/or Latin, from the word invented long before gunpowder to mean “fart.”

Cleaning the Piazza on January 1, 2009 was complicated by snow.  But the job eventually got done.

Cleaning the Piazza on January 1, 2009 was complicated by snow. But the job eventually got done.

But turning to more serious detonations, you probably know that Thomas Carlyle famously said that “The three great elements of modern civilization are gunpowder, printing, and the Protestant religion.”  My calculation is that there is an inverse relationship between the quantity of gunpowder in a place or time and the quantity of civilization represented thereby.  I understand that fireworks to mark the birth of a new calendar are common in many places and cultures and are loaded with symbolic meaning.  I only wanted to remark that I myself don’t regard pain and mutilation as being especially civilized, no matter what else your culture may have discovered or invented.

Here is the New Year’s morning  balance sheet from the merrymaking that involved things that go boom in Italy:

Many of the high-water walkways were stacked out of the way, to leave room for the throngs. On the third morning after New Year struck, these two bottles and their glasses are still here. I love the fact that the celebrators decided to put them inside the fencing. This required a high level of good citizenship.

Many of the high-water walkways were stacked out of the way, to leave room for the throngs. On the third morning after New Year struck, these two bottles and their glasses are still here. I love the fact that the celebrators decided to put them inside the fencing. This required a high level of good citizenship.

500 people wounded (four of them seriously, and 68 under the age of 12), and one person killed, almost exclusively by fireworks of the homemade variety, some of which could create explosions rivaling those we read about occurring in foreign marketplaces.  It’s too bad that my first reaction when I read that was “Great!  Only one person died!” It’s nothing to be pleased about, especially when I learned that    he was killed by a stray bullet when he went out in the courtyard with his friends to watch the fireworks. Guns are becoming a new way here to make noise and threaten life to welcome the next 12 months.

And various people have lost eyes and hands.  It’s the same every year.

At San Marco, at least, there were no damaging cannonades.  The mass celebration there seems to have gone without any particular hitch (or lost dogs).  The reports describe its dimensions:

60,000 people went to the Piazza to drink Prosecco (or whatever they brought), watch the fireworks, and share a kiss at midnight.  I’m not going to try to calculate how tightly these people were packed together; the Piazza is big,  but not unusually big, and I can imagine that once they locked lips it took some time for there to be enough space to unlock them again.  Concerning the  clip below, unless you’re a total crowd-and-fireworks maniac, skip to the last two or three minutes.  Just a suggestion.

As for trash (here the Countryside Code doesn’t apply — people don’t mind leaving their footprints and garbage behind), there was plenty.  To festivize properly seems to require discarding material, kind of like the solid rocket boosters falling away from the Space Shuttle at T plus two minutes.

One of the wagons is about to drop its contents into the barge.

One of the wagons is about to drop its contents into the barge.

At 2:30 AM the trash collectors took over — 120 of them, filling  140 garbage “wagons”  (or 104, the accounts aren’t consistent, but anyway, 40 wagons were loaded in the Piazza alone), the contents of all of which were dumped into 40 garbage barges.  By 5:00 AM the Piazza was clean again and I give everybody loads (two bargefuls) of compliments.

What was left behind in our little hovel was not smashed bottles or busted firecrackers, but there are still large amounts of great food sitting around, including homemade cake and cookies, which are going to make that New Year’s Resolution — you know the one I mean — that much harder to fulfill.

But I’m feeling hopeful about virtually everything at the moment, which is an inexplicable but very welcome byproduct of starting a new year, not to mention a new decade, and I’m going to try to make it last as long as I can.  The feeling, I mean.  Not the year.

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