Archive for March, 2011
If you’ve either flown into/out of Venice, or driven into/out of Venice, you already know that the mainland (a/k/a “the rest of the world”) involves a surprising amount of farmland. Or fields, anyway. It’s not Kansas, true, but there is a noticeable amount of cultivation going on.
Back in Venice, we have a first-rate country option which doesn’t involve going over the bridge. Or getting in a car. We go there in a small boat, rowing.
It’s the island of Sant’ Erasmo — the largest island in the lagoon (3.26 km/s, or 1.25 square miles), though that isn’t what makes it worth knowing about.
It’s farms. Or better, market gardens, though some of them are larger than what we usually think of as gardens, unless the garden were to be Longwood or Stourhead or the Villa d’Este.
I have mentioned Sant’ Erasmo from time to time — odd, perhaps, when you consider that it isn’t on the way to anywhere, and that if you’re not interested in vegetables or biking or mosquitoes, there isn’t much reason to come all the way over here.
Ninety-eight percent (I made that up) of the island consists of comfortably large plots of grapevines, artichokes, peas, asparagus, and whatever else is likely to grow in its appointed season.
The words “Sant’ Erasmo” scribbled on signs stuck among the produce at the Rialto Market always means something special (fresh, local, really good). I eventually discovered that (A) the label isn’t always accurate (fancy way of saying “untrue”) and (B) that I can get them at the source itself. This has made me insufferably demanding now. That may seem a little silly when discussing mere vegetation, but I can taste the difference, and I can really taste how much less expensive they are than at the vendor’s stall in the Big City.
Shopping for vegetables is also a great excuse for an excellent row across part of the lagoon.
We have two sources, so far.
Our first option is a modest but flourishing commercial operation called “Sapori di Sant’ Erasmo” (Flavors of Sant’ Erasmo — not a bad name unless you’ve come here often enough to associate the island with the flavor of mosquitoes). It belongs to Carlo and Claudio Finotello and there is virtually always someone there, ready to sell you some of their produce. If you’re lucky, also a bottle or two of their wine. I don’t drink, but I’m very happy that there’s a place where you can get some real local Raboso.
The second option is the modest but variegated plot belonging to a man — actually, his aged parents — two steps from where we pull the boat onto the beach near a rumpsprung bar/restaurant called Da Tedeschi. He’s been known to buy artichokes from him that he’s just cut off the stalk for us. Tomatoes, lettuce, cabbage, cauliflower, eggplant. Only problem is, he isn’t always there. And/or there’s nothing growing that’s ready or that we even slightly want.
The other morning we went ashore near the second option: The plot near the beach, where we found the man (I still don’t know his name) and his brother (ditto) tilling the soil by their parents’ house. Parents nowhere in sight. This is what kids are for.
The older man got to talking with us as we watched his brother working the soil with a broad hoe, preparing it to be sown with tiny little Ukrainian onions all ready to take root.
He imparted the following fragments of information: He retired three years ago after 45 years as a master glassmaker on Murano, work which he started when he was 12 because back then, not so many people went on to study and besides, he didn’t like studying all that much.
That there used to be a big acacia tree right over there (pointing toward the beach) that put out pink blossoms in the spring. They would pick the blossoms, then bread them and deep-fry them, the way people do more commonly now with zucchini blossoms. His expression as he remembered this delicacy told me that it was worth experiencing and that he misses it. I’ve never tried fried acacia flowers, but after having seen his face, I resent the fact that I never had the chance to.
Artichokes: Everyone, even I, knows that Sant’ Erasmo is famous for its “violet” version, and that the salty soil is one factor in their flavor. What I didn’t know is that one plant will put out roots to create four or five other plants, and that a normal plant will produce up to 21 artichokes.
I have now also learned that they can’t be grown in hothouses. You’ll be glad to know I can’t tell you why (we’d be here all day, at this rate), but I believe him when he says that under the big top the plants grow unnaturally tall, produce fewer artichokes than normal, and that the artichokes they do produce are kind of — he made a soggy, wilting sort of grimace — what they would call “fiapo” (FYA-poh). Fiapo is what happens to your grilled-cheese sandwich when you have to leave it to go answer the phone. People can also be fiapo, usually in August.
Unfortunately, artichokes from Sant’ Erasmo have one thing in common with pieces of the True Cross: There are too many of them to be real. In fact, artichokes from Livorno, which are trucked over to Venetian markets, come in so much earlier than the Sant’ Erasmo product that labeling them as local eventually caused serious protest. Telling that little fib will get you a fine, if you’re caught.
Then there was the year of the Big Freeze: His friend had 1,300 peach trees on Sant’ Erasmo. They were all destroyed.
But then there was this: The year of the Big Acqua Alta (Nov. 4, 1966, as all the world knows), was the only time Sant’ Erasmo has gone underwater. In fact, he said, the island was like a semi-submerged barena. Nobody had ever seen this happen, but there were two results.
One: All the crops were totally ruined by the salt water soaking. No surprise there.
Two: The following year, they had a mythically great harvest of just about everything. Whatever the Adriatic had taken away with the flood, it more than gave back the next year by means of whatever elements it had brought in. I don’t believe it was just salt, because salting the fields has been a time-dishonored way of destroying future crops for several whiles.
Lino supports my theory that the tide brought something that the salt couldn’t vanquish, because he said that when you raise a sunken boat out of the lagoon, it’s covered with the finest conceivable layer of some kind of material. I’m imagining melted earth that’s been clarified, like butter.
Anyway, that’s just my theory — obviously the fields knew what was happening, so let’s move on. What we do know is that the next summer, the memory of the lost winter harvest had been transformed into a glowing realization that life is, indeed, good.
At least on Sant’ Erasmo.
I mentioned carletti the other day: Their charm, their rareness, their brief life on earth, at least in their edible form.
I wondered for years what they really were, but just went on eating them anyway. If I were feeling very energetic, I would say to myself, “Sometime I must find out what these are.” My life being already sufficiently supplied with “I must”s, carletti came and went every year in tranquil anonymity.
Two nights ago, though, all was revealed. With the right question to Lino (which is often the key to new realms of knowledge), plus the right book — who knew it was sitting right there? — I can now tell you with complete confidence who are the carletti.
They are Silene vulgaris. In Italy they go by various aliases, such as stridoli, strigoli, bubbolino, or sciopetin (s-cho-pet-TEEN), for the little popping sound they make if you pinch the flower, it says here.
In English they are commonly known as bladder campion. As good a name as any, true, but hardly as charming as carletti. Everyone seems to agree that by any name their new leaves are delectable.
Here follows a moment of unsolicited candor: I love them because they are so fleeting, so wild, and so rare. But I have yet to identify an attribute I could call “flavor.” The books all say that their taste is delicate, and I can confirm that. In fact, I’d say would say “so delicate that you might as well imagine it.”
Delicate is not as helpful a description as one might wish. In my view, a delicate perfume means “disappears in two minutes, so why did I bother.” A delicate fabric means “I can wear it twice a year if I don’t mind spending the rest of the time giving it more care than you give the average premature polar bear.” Delicate health, in my opinion, often means “Great excuse to get out of doing anything strenuous or unpleasant while pretending to be distressed by this.”
Back to delicate flavors. I know they exist and I know they can be memorable. At least I think I know that. They’re so delicate sometimes I have trouble remembering. Ask me right now what carletti taste like and there will be long, long moments of radio silence. Interrupted by the muffled sound of eating.
1848, if you’ll cast your minds back, was a year that produced a bumper crop of uprisings, insurrections, and assorted revolutions all across Europe. It was a brief, incandescent period variously known as the “Spring of Nations,” “Springtime of the Peoples,” or “The Year of Revolution.”
It happened in Venice, too.
Venice, by then, had spent 51 years — two generations — under an Austrian army of occupation, except for a few scattered years when it was the French instead.
But on March 22, 1848, the independent Republic of San Marco was declared by a group of visionaries led by a Venetian named Daniele Manin (Mah-NEEN).
Historic Irony Alert: He was a relative, by adoption, of Ludovico Manin, the last doge of Venice.
I’ve often reflected on how odd it is that there should be more memorials to Daniele Manin around Venice than to any other individual (I’ve counted five so far), and yet it seems that he has become, like so many other heroes, just another distant star in the galaxy of indifference to which even the most passionate and brilliant people seem to be consigned. If anybody utters his name today (or any day), it’s probably because they’re referring to Campo Manin.
I’m offering this brief disquisition in order to enlarge your view of what history in Venice can entail. It wasn’t just doges and fireworks, it was also patriots and blasting artillery.
I suppose you could live in Venice if you didn’t care about history, though I don’t quite see what the point would be. But if you were to actually dislike history, you should probably move to Brasilia or Chandigarh. History is what Venice is made of, and history is made of people.
In addition to Campo Manin — which you can grasp is named for a person, even if you don’t know what he did — there is the more inscrutable street name of Calle Larga XXII Marzo: The Wide Street of the Twenty-Second of March.
On March 22, 1848, Venice rose up against the Austrian occupiers, and the flag of the independent Republic of San Marco was raised in the Piazza San Marco. It was war.
Not only did the Austrian army fire on the city with cannon placed on the railway bridge (which they had built two years earlier), it also made one of the first attempts at aerial bombardment. They sent hot-air balloons aloft loaded with incendiary bombs rigged with timers; the wind, happily, blew them back to where they came from.
The Venetians and their allies fought ferociously, but whereas once the fact of being surrounded by water had been a defensive advantage, now it became a fatal handicap. The Austrians clamped a siege around the city, reducing it to starvation, which was accompanied by an epidemic of cholera.
One of the best-known poems from this period is “Le Ultime Ore di Venezia” (The Final Hours of Venice), written in 1849 by Arnaldo Fusinato. He relates the desperate last days in the city, constructing an exchange between a passing gondolier and the poet in which they give a summary of the situation in which the former republic found itself. Each stanza concludes with the poignant refrain, “Il morbo infuria, il pan ci manca/Sul ponte sventola bandiera bianca” (Disease is raging, there is no more bread/on the bridge the white flag is waving).
It had to end.
On August 22, 1849, Manin signed the treaty of surrender. The Austrians re-entered Venice, where they remained until 1861. Manin, like several of his ministers, went into exile. He died in Paris in 1857, at the age of 53.
His body returned to Venice on — yes — March 22, 1868, to a city which had finally been liberated from the Hapsburg domination and become part of the Kingdom of Italy. A solemn funeral ceremony was held for him in the Piazza San Marco, and he was placed in a tomb against the north wall of the basilica.
Lino has often told me the anecdote of the little old Venetian lady who was crossing the Piazza San Marco not long after the Austrians returned to the devastated city. A soldier walked by, and his sword was dragging — perhaps only slightly — across the paving stones.
She couldn’t take it. “Pick your sword up off the ground,” she commanded him. “Because Venice surrendered — she wasn’t taken.” Starving a city into submission is one of the least noble ways to conquer your enemy, but history shows that it does get the job done.
Final tally: Slightly more than a year of independence, almost all of which time was spent fighting.
When I reflect on much of this — I shouldn’t, but it’s more than I can resist — and observe the condition of the city’s successive administrations over the past 50 years or so, each of which seems to be a copy of its predecessor, except slightly worse, I can’t bring myself to imagine what Daniele Manin and his dreadnought compatriots might be thinking.
I suppose it’s a good thing after all that he has been “disappeared” into the deep space of cultural oblivion.
[Translation by me]: Italian Soldiers! The war of independence, to which you have consecrated your blood, has now entered a phase which for us is disastrous. Perhaps the only refuge of Italian liberty are these lagoons, and Venice must at any cost guard the sacred fire.
Valorous ones! In the name of Italy, for which you have fought, and want to fight, I implore you not to lessen your efforts in the defense of this sacred sanctuary of our nationality. The moment is a solemn one: It concerns the political life of an entire people, whose destiny could depend on this final bulwark.
As many as you may be, that from beyond the Po, beyond the Mincio, beyond the Ticino, have come here for the final triumph of our common cause, just think that by saving Venice, you will also save the most precious rights of our native land. Your families will bless the sacrifices which you have chosen to undergo; an admiring Europe will reward your generous perseverance; and the day that Italy will be able to proclaim itself redeemed, it will raise, among the many monuments which are here, of the valor and glory of our fathers, another monument, on which it will be written: The Italian soldiers defending Venice saved the independence of Italy.
The Government 12 August 1848 MANIN
There ought to be a special Venetian handshake, or greeting, or food (what? no special food??) to mark this little anniversary.
But I did hear something that sounded like a mystic knock at the year’s door, loud enough to be heard but perhaps not enough to be noticed.
The knock that struck ever so faintly on the old cochlea was delivered at the Rialto market. (You see? Of course food belongs in the picture. I was only testing you.)
Instead of an occult greeting, there is an assortment of poetry passed on by the ancients to acknowledge the moment. Once again, it comes from the fathomless store of balladry that Lino memorized as a lad. If his teachers had had any notion that his brain was going to retain all this material far, far into the distant decades — maybe even forever — they might have wondered if it would have been better to have him memorize something else. Like algorithms, or the names of the then-68 member countries of the UN, or all the books of the Bible.
But poetry seems to have turned out to work better, because how often in any day or occasion would it be necessary, or even appreciated, to burst out with all the books of the Bible? Poetry, however, is always the Right Thing to say.
So this morning, like every March 21, was marked by a spontaneous recitation of the vernal poesy of Giovanni Pascoli and Angiolo Silvio Novaro. Read these to the mental music of blackbirds cantillating in the dawn, and the sound of the truck delivering the branches of peach blossoms from Sicily.
If I had time, I would research the reasons for selling peach blossoms, and not apple or apricot or almond or any other flowering tree. I myself would like to know the reasons, but for now I can only say that these are here because that’s what people do. “People” meaning the growers, sellers, and buyers. So don’t come asking for pear or loquat blossoms or any other frippery.
Valentino, by Giovanni Pascoli. Lino launches into it like greeting an old friend: “Oh! Valentino vestito di nuovo/come le brocche dei biancospini!/Solo, ai piedini provato dal rovo/porti la pelle de’ tuoi piedini…”
Then there are lines he doesn’t remember so I’ll skip those, then the conclusion and the link to March: “… e venne/Marzo, e tu magro contadinello/restasti a mezzo…ma nudi i piedi, come un uccello:/come l’uccello venuto dal mare,/che tra il ciliegio salta, e non sa/ch’oltre il beccare, il cantare, l’amare/ci sia qualch’altra felicita’.”
Valentino is a poor country boy whose widowed mother survives by selling the eggs from their chickens. Winter is brutally hard and he has outgrown the shoes she made for him. The poet compares his bare feet to those of a bird. But then in March come the first signs of spring, and he concludes, “like a bird that came from the sea, that leaps in the cherry tree, and doesn’t know that other than to eat, to sing, to love, there could be any other happiness.”
The second of these classics is a little paean to the soft rain of March, which makes the plants begin to bloom.
Che dice la pioggerellina di marzo? by Angiolo Silvio Novaro:
Che dice la pioggerellina di marzo/che picchia argentina/Sui tegoli vecchi/Del tetto, sui bruscoli secchi/Dell’orto, sul fico e sul moro/Ornati di gemmule d’oro?”
“What says the misty rain of March/that strikes silvery/On the old tiles/Of the roof, on the dry motes/Of the garden, on the fig and on the mulberry/Adorned with buds of gold?”
He goes on to say that winter is past, tomorrow spring will come out, trimmed with buds and frills,with bright sun, fresh violets, the beating of birds’ wings, nests, cries, swallows, and the stars of almond, white… The entire team, in other words, plus cheerleaders.
All this sounds much better in Italian, but in any language these poems and their ilk amount to a deep sigh of relief. Sometimes it’s not so much that spring is here, but that winter is gone. Less winter, more spring. If that doesn’t call for a poem, you may have a soul made of styrofoam.