Archive for March, 2011


Happy Birthday, Italy: Part 2

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All three flags, each flying its own way. It's very Italian.

At 10:00 AM yesterday — as you recall, the 150th anniversary of the Unification of Italy — I went to the Piazza San Marco to watch the ceremony of the alzabandiera, or flag-raising.

Or, I suppose, flags-raising, since there are always three: The gonfalone of San Marco (the historic flag of the Venetian Republic), the Italian flag, and the flag of the European Union.  There is a rule now that the national flag can’t be displayed without the EU one by its side.  That’s your bit of useless information for the day.

This is probably a larger flag than Lino carried when he was this boy's age, but it may be that he carried his with more emotion.

Most of the Piazza was cordoned off, so the spectators were pushed far to the edges.  I was around the corner, in front of the campanile entrance, where the procession of veterans representating each of the armed forces was forming up.

There were a few distant speeches from the invisible platform bearing the mayor and other notables.  There was lots of music by the band of the Bersaglieri (bear-sahl-YAIR-ee), who as always arrived and departed at a brisk trot.  This, along with their extraordinary feathered helmets, is their trademark.

And there were flags of all sizes carried by people of all sizes.  Not thousands of either, but a comfortable amount that made it clear that the spectators cared. The band played the national anthem, and some in the crowd also sang it, though there wasn’t exactly a roar of a myriad voices, swearing the oath of the Horatii. Oh well.

The bersaglieri play even better than they run. Or the other way around.

A bersagliere, whose steel helmet is covered with wood grouse feathers. If he's not trotting, this is how you can recognize him.

Half an hour later, the bersaglieri went trotting out, followed by their confreres in approximate formation.  The rest of the uniformed participants — assorted notables of varying grades of notability — wandered away in little clumps.  This is typical.  I realize that we’re not at a state funeral, or some other occasion that calls for sharp edges and crisp behavior. But the formless wandering always does something to reduce the atmosphere of the event in a small way.

This is what a procession looks like, leaving a ceremony.

And this is what wandering looks like, though if you're a carabiniere in full dress uniform you can do anything and still look amazing.

In the afternoon, a large procession formed up at San Marco, dedicated to around the carrying of an improvised longest (perhaps) -tricolore-in-the-world.  This creation was borne along the Riva degli Schiavoni, up and down bridges, along the Riva dei Sette Martiri, and ultimately came to rest at the monument to Garibaldi. They strung it around the fence that encloses him, his faithful soldier, and the regal, if wingless, lion at his feet.

The three long strips of cloth were more or less the right colors. The important thing was that it was long.

That was it for any public activities that I was aware of. There may have been others elsewhere, but I was cold and tired of standing up.  I realize that Garibaldi’s indefatigable troops wouldn’t have succumbed to a few drops of frigid rain and a gray, determined breeze, nor did they ever complain about their feet, at least not around him.

I didn’t complain.  We just went home.

The florist was one of several merchants who three-colored-up via Garibaldi.

There. This ought to keep that pesky flag from flapping around upside-down.

This girl brought her project home after school.

Our flag proudly mounted on the door of our little hovel.

Categories : History, Venetian Events
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Italian flags have been appearing on windows, balconies, even people -- a dazzling change from the usual bring-it-out-only-when-there's-a-soccer-game mentality.

Today, March 17, there is cause for rejoicing in the old Bel Paese.  In fact, it’s a national holiday. Some political parties have been bickering — you know how they love to bicker –about exactly how much joy is justifiable, but I think most of their shenanigans are going to be drowned out.  It’s just too big a deal.

What? One hundred and fifty years ago today — March 17, 1861 —  Italy was born. The process of labor had lasted 41 years (120 years, if you count the uprising in Genoa on December 5, 1746 as the start), but here it finally was: A whole country with one name where before there had only been jostling, homicidal kingdoms, duchies, princedoms, and the occasional city-state such as Venice and the Papal States, each loaded with greed and heavy weaponry and ruled by people whose characters were so stuffed with ambition that there wasn’t much room left for scruples. Mostly.

Revolution: Italy wasn’t a country for most of history, recorded or otherwise; it became a country as the fruit of heroic and idealistic travail, a period known as the Risorgimento. This process involved not a few bloody and horrific battles, conducted by people whose names deserve to be read aloud in every public square today. Actually, every day. They believed in a unified Italy with passion and conviction (like most revolutionaries), and certainly more strongly than a lot of people today believe in anything, considering that they were willing to die for it.  In fact, there were no fewer than three Wars of Independence which led ultimately to the country we associate so happily with pizza and “O’ Sole Mio” and Vinnie and Guido.

So today is known as the anniversary of the “Unita’ d’Italia,” the unity, or uniting, of Italy. Let us pause briefly for the national anthem, and I hope any of you hecklers can look these people in the face.

The National Anthem: It goes by several names : “Inno di Mameli,” “Fratelli d’Italia,” or the original title, “Canto degli Italiani.” This stirring piece of 19th-century patriotic romanticism is crammed with historic references , each of which plays a specific symbolic role. Goffredo Mameli composed this poem in 1847 at the age of 21. not long before his untimely death. The text exhorts Italians to awaken, reclaim their historic pride, and struggle till independence is achieved. Even I know the first of its five verses.

The most moving passage begins the second: “For centuries we’ve been trampled and derided, because we’re not a people, because we’re divided. Let us all gather under one flag, one hope, to fuse ourselves together….” The term is the same one used for producing alloys of metal.

The Great Men: The struggle for independence was led by the even-then-legendary General Giuseppe Garibaldi and his noted partner, General Nino Bixio, and many other patriots, particularly Mazzini and Cavour.

The maximum monument to Garibaldi, near his eponymous street in Castello. His is one of those names, like Bolivar, that's bigger than ten ordinary people.

And what founding a nation be without certain mythic phrases? Every child learns them and they become part of the common vocabulary, even if you don’t use them. More or less like I cannot tell a lie.”

Garibaldi, at a certain crucial point in the struggle, is supposed to have turned to Bixio and declared, “Nino, qui si fa l’Italia, o si muore” (Here one creates Italy, or dies). He probably didn’t say that, scholars point out; the rallying cry that is documented also has a certain ring to it: “Italia qui bisogna morire!” (“Italy, here we need to die,” the sense being the need to make a desperate assault, once and for all, without thinking of survival).

There is also his equally famous reply to King Vittorio Emanuele II of Savoia, who commanded him to halt his imminently victorious advance on Trento: “Obbedisco,” said Garibaldi.  “I obey.” It’s hard for me to come up with a one-word response so freighted with meaning, one that isn’t profane.

Every revolution needs at least one philosopher, and Giuseppe Mazzini was it. Considered one of the fathers of the nation, he now watches over the vaporettos milling around the Rialto stop.

While these terms might not be needed every day, it’s more common to hear somebody describe a thing that’s been done, created, thrown together, really fast, as having been done “alla garibaldina” — like a soldier of Garibaldi. This isn’t to disparage a man who was universally admired, even by his enemies, for his courage and discipline, but to express how his troops had to keep improvising in order to keep going.

Unity Today? You might think that unity would be something nobody would argue with today, but you would be in error. The politicians governing some Italian regions (what correspond to our states), are all tangled up in snarly disputes about how valuable it really is to be part of one whole country with one name. (Sorry, Garibaldi, I guess all those men of yours died for nothing.  Oh wait — they died so that politicians could argue later about whether what they did ever mattered.  Impressive.)

In the Piazza San Marco, this almost totally unnoticed plaque says: "Garibaldi here greeting free Venice expressed his hope that Rome be made the capital of Italy. February 26 1867." His wish was fulfilled in 1871.

The Northern League wants the northern regions to secede, for example, and when its intensely right-wing members look at the unified Italy they see only disaster and bankruptcy of every sort (financial, moral, political, etc.) where many people from beyond the borders notice only a great country with a great history and great food and great art and and great music and so on.

And speaking of music, the League doesn’t even like the national anthem. And they don’t just nag about it, some politicians have even left their city council meetings when the anthem was played. Apart from being moronic, it shows some invigorating hypocrisy.  They seem to have forgotten (or dismiss) the fact that when most of them fulfilled their compulsory military service (until the draft was suspended in 2005), they swore a solemn oath to defend their country.  Sounds a little strange to say later, “Oh well, we didn’t mean THAT country.”  Second, they got elected to governmental bodies of some sort, which to me represents a sort of agreement to the system as organized by the Constitution.  Put more crudely, they’re happy to have the gig, and now they’re going to waste time talking about how stupid it is.

Vittorio Emanuele II, the first king of Italy, always ready to attack at San Zaccaria. Italy remained a kingdom until 1946, when a referendum determined that it would become a representative democracy.

What I think: While flaws and defects and even derelictions of duty may abound (this being a country populated by people and not by angels, though the gross tonnage of paintings and statues of the winged beings might make you doubt it),  this is a country that deserves all the admiration usually lavished on more famous peoples and revolutions, such as the French, or the American, or the Russian.  Furthermore, until a person can say “I could have done everything they did, and I’m willing to die, just tell me where to stand and what to have on,” that person would do well to take several deep breaths and change the subject, because comments from people who can’t say that matter less than a sack of dried split peas.

The Soundtrack:  Like most children of his generation, Lino also learned, along with kilometers of poetry, a slew of the patriotic songs which were composed and sung during the Risorgimento. He can still sing verses and verses of them — it’s extremely cool.  He vividly recalls being taken, with the rest of his class, to the Piazza San Marco on April 25, 1946 (Liberation Day). He was eight years old, and the teachers had armed everybody with little Italian flags to wave.  He remembers singing “O Giovani Ardenti,”  among various pieces, and as you’ll see below, it practically sings itself.

I’d love to translate all of these songs for you, but I suspect you can interpret the main words, which are the ones you’d expect in songs such as these (independent, liberty, union, battle, sword, slave, and so on).  “Camicia Rossa” refers to the emblematic red shirt worn by Garibaldi’s soldiers; “Suona la Tromba” is a call-to-arms rally, and “La Bandiera dei Tre Colori” (or “La Bandiera Tricolore“)  is plainly about the flag, the most beautiful in the world.  

So a big shout-out to all my Italian friends in the US, of whatever generation they may be: Camilla, Bill, Ben, Francesca, and Nicolo’.  I hope you’re proud as all get-out.  I am.

Next: The celebrations.

Categories : History
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Another day, another mollusk

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We went out rowing the other afternoon, which is always a good thing but not exactly news. Other people might have been unenthusiastic — and in fact, we didn’t see anybody else out — but we don’t wait for the weather to sing its little Lorelei song. That’s a waste of valuable time especially in March, what with Lorelei being so skittish.  We just go.

A nondescript March afternoon, soon to become much more descript with the gathering of the oysters.

For a while, the most notable thing about the excursion was the faintly hazy, vague color scheme of the part of the lagoon where we like to go. Then the breeze began to get to me. It wasn’t so strong, but it was raw and insistent, which began to be annoying, like a crying baby in the apartment at the end of the hall.  Part of the effect of the crying baby, as with the wind, is that there’s pretty much nothing you can do about it. Things I can’t do anything about really, really annoy me.  Just so you know.

But the situation became much more interesting when we ran the boat onto the exposed mudbank — the tide was out — so Lino could go exploring. I would have gone too, but wasn’t wearing shoes that would have made even the slightest effort to resist the squishy, waterlogged terrain.

And what he found were oysters.  I knew they were out there because he’s brought them home before.  Lagoon oysters on the half-shell were our antipasto for Christmas Eve dinner a few years ago, and they are delectable, not too large, not too small, and faintly sweet.  One source states that this breed is known for its “unique tannic seawater flavor…and [is] considered excellent for eating raw on the half shell.”  As I said.

To be precise, these unsung lagoon creatures are known elsewhere as the highly prized Belon oyster, the stuff of high-wattage chefs and cultivated feeders.  Here, nobody cares about them anymore. Even less than not caring, nobody seems to even know they exist. Here the restaurants are fixated on clams…clams…clams…clams, like a stuck culinary record.

These animals (Ostrea edulis) go by various names, from the clearly appropriate "mud oyster" to the much"European flat oyster" to the much more glamorous Belon oyster. Too bad about the lone canestrello, or "lid scallop," that was forced to come along. Lino would gladly have brought a batch of friends for him, if he'd found them.

Oysters were once as common in the market as clams.  A particularly Venetian habit, more firmly rooted than kudzu, is to exclaim “Ostrega!” (OSS-tre-gah) which means “oyster” in Venetian. (Italian: ostrica).  It’s an all-purpose term that would instantly reveal you to be Venetian anywhere  in Italy; in fact, it carries amusing overtones of charming quaintness to anyone not from here. It is one of those clever next-to words (like “hello” instead of “hell”) that people employ to avoid using a really serious and socially inadmissible word — in this case, “ostia,” which is the Communion wafer. Ostrega is close enough to get your meaning across without offense.

“Ostrega” is a flexible word which, depending on your tone of voice, can express a variously emphatic reaction from astonishment to agreement, disbelief, displeasure, wonder, delight, and so on.  “Ostregheta” (OSS-tre-GHE-ta, or “little oyster”) is a gentler variation. I have a Venetian friend who will sometimes say “OO-strega,” which I think is adorable.  I keep meaning to ask him if he invented this.

On the building at the corner of Campo San Pantalon is a small stone tablet where fish used to be sold. One of several that remain from the Venetian Republic, it shows a list of the fish for sale and the legal minimum size.

Back to the oysters themselves. One of the clauses in the numberless regulations governing fishermen (which began to be documented in 1270), as stipulated in 1765, stated that  “To only the fishermen who personally exercise the laborious toil of fishing, should remain the usual freedom to go to the neighborhoods selling fish at retail such as eels, flounder, mullet, sardines….cuttlefish, clams and oysters in the permitted times.”

Another plaque with fish and sizes is in Campo Santa Margherita, here pleasantly accompanied by three stands selling fish.

But now, as with so many things (such as papaline), they have fallen out of favor and I’m not sure anyone can say why.  There seem to be fashions in fish. It can’t be because oysters are difficult to collect, because they’re generally easier than clams. Clams lurk beneath the sediments, but oysters — like canestrelli — are often found lying there on the muddy/sandy bottom, right out in the open, not even trying to hide. You can just pick them up, like Lino does, though back when they had commercial value men would take them by means of a cassa da ostreghe, more simply known as an ostregher (oss-treh-GHEHR).

A bragozzo in the lagoon, with an ostregher attached to each mast. (Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana, Venezia.)

An ostregher was a sort of baggy net weighted with a strip of iron which was tied to the stern of your boat, and which you would drag along the bottom as you rowed or sailed.   Something similar, called a “cassa da canestreli” or “scassa diavolo” was used to take canestrelli (Pecten opercularis), as Lino often did when he was a lad; he sometimes shows me where, along the edges of the Canale del Orfanello stretching from the Bacino of San Marco toward the island of  San Servolo. Or in the Canale del Orfano, from San Servolo to the island of La Grazia. Lots of people did this, just for themselves. Even now, a few people might still joke, when the vehicle you’re in (say, the vaporetto) is slowing down for no apparent reason: “Are they dragging a cassa da canestreli?” I imagine that most youngsters have no idea what they’re talking about.

All the fish go by their Venetian names here; the ostrega is second from the bottom, with minimum length of 5 cm (1.9 inches).

Then the city outlawed this technique as damaging to the lagoon.  You might say this was a good thing — it’s certainly fine as a concept, like peace on earth — except that it wasn’t damaging, and if it were, why was this method outlawed while illegal clamming continues, night and day, by people using a mechanized version of basically the same technique, leaving utterly barren, completely devastated tracts of lagoon behind?

Lino happily returned to the boat with a bag containing a batch of oysters and a lone canestrelo which he couldn’t resist.

All now frozen solid, awaiting their moment of glory in Lino’s next fish soup.

It turned out to have been, as the saying goes, an excellent day to die.  For the oysters, I mean.

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Everybody creates their own ranking of what’s important to them, or to their friends, or to the world supply of gum arabic, or to the Ethiopian wolf, and so forth.

Naturally many people would have considered yesterday, the last Sunday of Carnival, to have been a day of supreme importance to Venice. And considering what beautiful, warm, sunny weather was bestowed on the revelers (and, by extension, to the phalanxes of people making money from them), it was indeed a day worth noting.

The poster for the tournament. Too bad you never saw it around town.

Lino and I, being somewhat naturally contrary to many kinds of commonly accepted tendencies, did not go to the Piazza San Marco to look at people in costumes.  One reason was because we knew we wouldn’t have been able even to get close to the Piazza, and the idea of spending hours standing wedged into a wall of humanity attempting to get there didn’t sound like fun at all.  You know the amazing ashlar masonry at Machu Picchu?  San Marco would have been like that, with people instead of stones.

So we went to the Palasport, an all-purpose sports facility just around the corner, safely out of the way behind the Naval Museum, to watch a fencing championship.

But this was not just any championship.  Our little Venice, which seems to exist only to be looked at, was hosting what happens to be a honking important international sporting event, the 34th Coppa Citta’ di Venezia (City of Venice Cup).

Moments like this were frequent even during the quarter finals. Unlike Aspromonte, though, these men didn't yell.

We know nothing about fencing, except that it’s very cool and extremely different from our usual activities. (Years ago I spent a few months at it, trying to get the hang of the basics, but eventually gave up.)  So instead of wandering around outside in the sun and fresh air like everybody else, we sat inside for four hours breathing indoor-fluorescent-lights air and watching what amounts to a dramatically physical version of chess.

The City of Venice Cup is one of the most important elements in the Venetian events calendar. Even if you don’t care about sabers, en garde, touche’ or parry and riposte, you might be surprised to learn that this contest is a major component of the World Cup of fencing, Men’s Foil division. Which, I assume, leads eventually to the Olympics.

The international aspect was emphasized by the array of flags, most important of which is clearly that of the international fencing ("escrime") federation.

Venice is not merely one of only three cities holding meets composing the world Grand Prix of fencing, the other cities being Tokyo and St. Petersburg. This was the only Men’s Foil competition for the World Cup to be held in Italy.  Yes, right here in can-you-bargain-for-a-gondola-ride Venice.

Therefore intense international attention was focused Saturday and Sunday on the athletes, which were among the best in the world. I noticed only a few of the country names on assorted teams: Japan, France, Ukraine, Germany, Korea, Russia, and the increasingly redoubtable China. It was impressive.

We got in (for free, like everybody else) to watch the end of the eliminations, the semi-final, and the final, which was broadcast live on national sports television.  From about 3:00 to 7:00 PM, we sat on concrete risers surrounded by families, girlfriends, aficionados, assorted kids, and momentarily unoccupied athletes, most of whom urgently needed to go somewhere and then return by way of the tiny space in front of us.  More was going on in the stands than there was on the floor.  (I exaggerate, somewhat.) There may not have been thousands of spectators, but we still felt as if we’d parked ourselves on the shoulder of I-95.

There were a number of families who brought their kids. Some were enthusiasts and some, like this little princess, weren't. I could read her body language from across the arena. It says, "I'm doomed. They dressed me up and brought me here to die."

This fan, however, didn't let a little fencing tournament interfere with his Carnival trajectory. He showed up rocking the classic tricorn hat and a mask typical of the Commedia dell'Arte character, Capitan Zerbino. He never took either of them off.

It was gripping to watch.  You don’t need to be an expert in the sport, nor to be a fan of any particular competitor, to find yourself involved in what was obviously serious battle at an extremely high level. There were many exotic details — the judges’ gestures were as gnomic as those of a baseball catcher signaling the pitcher, or bidders at an auction — but even in complete ignorance you could appreciate the differing styles of the players and feel the intensity of their confrontation.

The winner by one point was Valerio Aspromonte (for the record), bringing joy to the old Bel Paese.  It’s always great to win before a home crowd. Second, by one point, was a certain J.E. Ma, a tall, serene, spectacularly ferocious fencer from China. Third was a tie between Simoncelli and Cheremisinov (Russia). The trophies were large beautiful objects of blown Murano glass.

I was rooting for Ma, but didn’t dare clap or call out his name for fear of being lynched.  I loved his concentration, his reflexes, his skill not only in scoring points but avoiding the attacks of his adversary.

Aspromonte’s arsenal of tactics involved a series of highly annoying antics. For example, his primal scream whenever he scored, or whenever his opponent scored.  This must be a custom borrowed from soccer, but struck me as ridiculously out of place in a sport (like dressage) which was born of elegance and noblesse.

This excellent character behaved perfectly. Not only did he watch without protesting, he would break the monotony by getting up and practicing his fencing footwork, lunging forward and back again.

He also frequently stopped, however briefly, to attend to an endless series of temporary, perhaps genuine, injuries (rubbing his ankle — sprained?  no, it’s okay — massaging his calf — torn muscle?  no, it’s okay — manipulating his shoulder — inflamed rotator cuff? no, it’s okay), and so on. He changed foils three times.  He even pulled off his mask after Ma’s foil touched it, rubbing his left temple as if having nearly missed being blinded.  I still can’t understand what could have happened behind the wire wall that protects the face, but it was all part of the show. He reminded me of James Brown at the culminating moment of a concert, simulating near-collapse and being helped off the stage, only to suddenly spring to life again.

Outside, there were plenty of kids dressed up as Zorro, or Prince Charming, or a medieval knight, or any other character required to carry some sort of spadroon.

Inside a very ugly cement building there was brilliance and beauty flashing among men who had the real thing, and knew exactly how to use it.

I want to come back next year, but I may bring a big wool sock for Aspromonte. Bless his heart.

Ma attacks, during one of the many moments when he was ahead on points. I really thought he was going to win, he was built like an American staghound compared to his opponent. But not this time.

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