Archive for April, 2011
Perhaps your local gazette hasn’t mentioned it yet, but Pope Benedict XVI is planning a big trip soon. He’ll be touring Northeast Italy, and will be in or around Venice on May 7 and 8.
Venice has a long and prodigious history of state visits — King Henry III of France and Poland, in 1574, was one of the more famous guests, just one of a seemingly infinite procession of princes, ambassadors, potentates, emperors and, of course, popes coming to see the sights, visit the doge, and usually ask for some favor, like money or soldiers. Reading the list of deluxe visitors over the centuries gives the impression that the main business of Venice was hosting foreign notables, while other activities such as running an empire filled the random empty moments, kind of like a hobby.
Yet His Imminence has aroused not only joy and excitement among the faithful, but tension and recrimination and a series of increasingly regrettable remarks among the city’s gondoliers concerning who is going to get to row him the approximately five minutes it takes to row from San Marco to the church of the Salute, and in what boat. By a mystic coincidence, gondoliers are also known as pope (POH-peh), because they row on the stern (poppa) of the gondola. I have no idea what this might portend.
Don’t suppose that the battle to transport the pontiff is any particular evidence that gondoliers are so pious. A pious gondolier would be a distant cousin to a pious illegal-clam fisherman, or a pious doctor of a cycling champion. I’m not saying it’s impossible, just kind of unusual. But they do like to be the center of attention and, in fact, they’re used to being regarded as some sort of star. At least to the damsels they may be so fortunate as to row around the canals.
Popes aren’t supposed to cause dissension, they’re supposed to resolve it. But Benedict has unwittingly set off a sort of collective seizure.
First: Luciano Pelliccioli, vice-president of the gondola station heads (and a gondolier) offered to join Aldo Reato, president of the gondola station heads (and a gondolier) to row His Sanctity in Luciano’s extremely elaborate and glamorous gondola.
No!! The cry went up. Why should those two men profit by their position and crowd out equally (I mean, more) deserving gondoliers? Why, indeed?
Furthermore!! Champion racer Roberto Busetto, never at a loss for an opinion (he isn’t a gondolier, but that’s a detail), objected on the grounds that if Luciano should ever think of selling his gondola, he could easily make a huge profit by marketing it as the gondola that had carried the pope. Busetto gets five bonus points for crassness, though that doesn’t mean he’s wrong.
Anyway, Luciano withdrew his offer of his gondola and himself. Reato also withdrew, but the incessant calls have continued. There are 425 gondoliers and by now probably each of the remaining 423 has called him at least once. Some of them have fantastic reasons to be chosen: “Padre Pio came to me in a dream and said you should pick me,” said one. Another person suggested Giorgia Boscolo, the first woman gondolier. That idea burnt up on reentry into reality.
Then somebody suggested the “Strigheta” brothers, Franco and Bruno, sons and heirs (and gondoliers) of one of the greatest racers/gondoliers of all time, Albino “Gigio” Dei Rossi, known as “Strigheta.” (He rowed not only one, but four popes in his day.) They’re loaded with credentials and nobody hates them, which helps.
Then somebody suggested a four-rower gondola, rowed by the current racing champions, the Vignottini and D’Este and Tezzat. I think the idea was that rowing the pope could somehow magically bring peace to these two savagely feuding pairs, though somebody else opined that it wasn’t appropriate to expect the Holy Father to resolve every little neighborhood squabble. In any case, the four men have declared their willingness to row the Pontifex Maximus together, which is already a big step forward.
Then somebody asked: Why should it be a gondola? Excellent question, considering that the city of Venice owns a more capacious gondola-type boat called a balotina, on which Pope John Paul II was borne along the Grand Canal in 1985.
Then some daring person suggested using the “disdotona,” or 18-oar gondola, which belongs to the Querini rowing club, and which in my opinion is not only the most spectacular boat in the city, by far, but would provide 18 men the chance to Row for Holiness.
Naturally, this idea got nowhere, because nobody thought one club should be given preference over another. We’ve all got great boats, the thinking goes — why them and not us?
I’m surprised nobody has yet suggested using the “Serenissima,” the huge decorated bissona with a raised stern, making the pope easy to see plus providing space for his entourage and some trumpeters, if that seemed appropriate. But so far no mention of this little coracle.
Which brought up the next question: Why should the rowers be gondoliers? Another useful point. In the olden days, a visiting potentate — such as John Paul II — would be rowed by the necessary number of “re del remo,” men who had won the Regata Storica five years in succession. There aren’t many of them, because it’s fiendishly hard to do. That would instantly reduce the number of candidates to something manageable.
And by now there has been at least one practical joke. Someone purporting to be Aldo Reato (president of the gondola station heads) called the Gazzettino and said the matter had been settled: Luciano’s fancy gondola was going to be used after all, rowed by Franco Girardello, a retired gondolier who goes by the nickname “Magna e dormi” (eat and sleep). This fantasy was quickly dispelled by all concerned except the anonymous prankster.
The most recent bulletin is that the matter will be put to a secret vote among the gondoliers. The mind rather reels. Busetto thinks the papal gondola is going to cost the moon at resale? How much is a gondolier’s vote going to be worth, at this point? No checks, no credit cards.
Comments from bemused readers of the Gazzettino run from “The pope doesn’t care who rows him” to “What a farce” to”Actually, Padre Pio came to ME in a dream and said I should do it.”
A certain Riccardo made the following suggestion:
“Requirements for candidacy:
Never to have blasphemed; Never to have used foul language; Never to have spoken in a coarse tone of voice. In the case of more than one valid candidate (doubtful), preference will be given to the one who has a good knowledge of the principles of Catholicism, and/or who has read at least one of the 16 chapters of the Gospel of St. Mark, patron saint of our city.”
This pastoral visit has been in the planning stages for at least three months — probably more — and yet here we are, at the last minute, dealing with the frenzied bleating of the flock.
Meaning no disrespect, I think it would have been better for everybody if they had given a crash course in rowing to a Rastafarian and a dervish. I can’t think of a gondolier who could possibly be cooler than that.
However you may have been observing the past six weeks of penitence, Easter is now steaming into port with the pilot onboard and will be here in three days.
Special Spring Bonus: Click here (11042001) if you would like to hear a small soundtrack of the blackbird chorus outside the window every morning before dawn.
Older Venetians remember a bit of rhyming versification which highlighted each Sunday of Lent by attaching it to one of the miracles of Jesus.
I have no information whatever on how this started, who came up with it, or anything else other than its now-fading existence. By doing some random research (fancy way of saying “asking around”), I discover that children are no longer taught this bit of lore. In fact, so far I haven’t been able to nab anyone of any age in this neighborhood who’s ever heard of it, so perhaps it’s a relic of life in long-ago Dorsoduro.
Therefore this missive may be one of the few places to acknowledge this fragment of tradition before the last traces are gone.
It goes like this: Uta, Muta, Cananela/Pane e Pesce, Lazarela/ Oliva/Pasqua Fioriva.
It is pronounced: OO-ta, MOO-ta, Canna-NAY-a/ PAN-eh eh PEH-sheh, YA-za-RAY-ah/oh-YEE-va/PAS-kwa fyoh-REE-va.
The significance of these gnomic utterances is as follows:
Uta: I don’t know. This is a bad start, but I am still researching this curious word by means of any elderly Venetians and/or priests I can find. It hasn’t been easy, which only proves that this verseology is on its last legs. Perhaps “uta” refers to one of the many healing miracles: bleeding, or blindness, or demon-possession, or paralysis, or dropsy. You can take your pick until further notice.
Muta: The healing of the man mute from birth (Mark 7: 31-37).
Cananela: My sainted sister-in-law (age 82) maintains that this refers to the meeting of Jesus with the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well (John 4: 4-26). She is very firm on that, even though it wasn’t technically a miracle, but seeing as the reading for the Third Sunday is, in fact, that passage, I think we can consider the matter settled.
Lazarela: The resurrection of Lazarus (John 11: 1-46). Makes a nice rhyme. Also worth remembering for its own self.
Oliva: “Olive.” Although here, as in many other places, they call the Sunday before Easter “Palm Sunday” (Mark 11: 1-11; Matthew 21: 1-11; Luke 19: 28-44; John 12: 12-19), or “Domenica delle Palme,” the fronds distributed in church aren’t palm, but olive. This is very lovely, considering the ancient link between the olive branch and peace, and the various Gospel accounts only agree on the fact that clothes were spread on the ground before Jesus’ feet. Obviously nobody has ever thought of calling it “Clothes Sunday,” so I’m just going to leave that alone. We get olive twigs, take it or leave it. In Latvia they use pussy willows.
A bit of meteorological magic holds that “Se piove sulle olive/ Non piove sui vovi” (If it rains on the olives, it won’t rain on the eggs). Meaning that if it rains on Palm (excuse me, Olive) Sunday, it won’t rain on Easter. Much as it distresses me to give any credence to this sort of thing, I have seen it turn out to be true something like 95 percent of the time. I can’t explain it.
The following event was so peculiar that naturally I have to tell you about it.
Protagonists: One (1) mother, one (1) 3-year old son (hers), one grandmother, one ambulance, and a couple of bystanders. Jesus said that “Ye have the poor always with you,” but I think he could have just as well said “bystanders,” at least in Venice.
As reported by the Gazzettino, Lucia, the mother, is a 39-year-old Moldovan who works as a waitress in a restaurant at the node where via Garibaldi reaches the lagoon.
Last Friday, the afternoon was sunny and beautiful, so naturally anybody who had the chance was wandering along the Riva dei Sette Martiri to enjoy the rays, the breeze, the lagoon view, etc.
Among these wanderers was the grandmother, pushing her little grandson in his stroller, sharing some quality time till mom got off work at 3:00. Alessandro had been to the pediatrician that morning for a check-up after a week with bronchitis — an interesting detail considering what happened next.
Everything was proceeding in the most predictable way, with the grandmother ambling along the fondamenta, when suddenly she tripped on one of the myriad uneven, busted-up paving stones. I note that these stones did not start to shift and break up overnight; it’s been a long and continuing process and unfortunately anyone could see it if they were looking.
She tripped and lost her balance, and she must have been strolling on the very edge of the pavement because she fell overboard, pulling the stroller and grandson with her, down into the lagoon. By a strange stroke of good luck, she had not strapped Alessandro into the stroller, otherwise he would have gone straight to the bottom with his fatal vehicle. His grandmother managed to grab him.
All this happened in nanoseconds, but at that VERY INSTANT, Lucia came out of the restaurant and saw, a mere few steps away, that a woman and a stroller had just fallen into the water.
Without an instant’s hesitation (though she later confessed to having a desperate fear of the water), she raced to the brink and dove in, grabbing the little boy. At which point she discovered to her shock that the child she was saving from imminent drowning was, in fact, her own.
She started screaming, “It’s my son! It’s my son!”, and managed to get to one of the nearby wooden pilings, to which she clung for dear life.
Cue the bystanders. A few of them managed to pull Alessandro up onto dry land, while someone else called the ambulance, one of which miraculously happened to be nearby. It zoomed up, the rescuers proceeded to rescue the two women and the boy, and whisked them to the Emergency Room. Lucia and Alessandro were dismissed (evidently the bronchitis conceded the right of way in the face of a larger threat), but the grandmother was checked in for an injury to her leg. All told, though, you could say that everybody was going to live happily ever after.
Except that I wonder about that. The fact that it was Lucia’s mother-in-law would almost inevitably have a certain bearing on life chez Alessandro till both women pass away, and possibly after. Because I would bet money that the family’s future is going to be composed of daily doubts, half-uttered recriminations, dark silences, and about a million spiky little questions before anybody goes out the door anymore.
And Alessandro, who may or may not remember much of this, and who certainly qualifies as a bystander as much as any geezer down the way fishing for seppie, is doomed to live the rest of his life trapped in this family drama like a trilobite in slowly hardening mud.
In case you were to be tempted to think this event too improbable to be true, a reality check is provided by the immediate finger-pointing and blame-assigning which followed.
Let me ask who you think is to blame for this near tragedy?
If you said “The city of Venice, because they let the pavement deteriorate to such a state that a grandmother with a stroller is virtually destined to trip and fall, risking her life, the unthinking cads,” you’d be in line with Lucia, who stated that it is shameful that people can’t walk along the riva without risking their life, though she didn’t specify at which point on the riva a rational person (the very edge?) might be likely to meander.
The Gazzettino has interpreted this event in the same way, concluding its report by observing that this kind of disaster was practically inevitable, given the constant degradation of the pavement which the city continues to ignore, except for occasionally slapping some cement on the worst problem spots.
On the other hand, if you said, “The grandmother,” you’d be in line with me.
I realize that in most situations, one’s first impulse is not to blurt, “Crikey, I totally screwed up, what was I thinking?” But while I am usually several steps behind the last person to defend the city from its innumerable instances of neglect and indifference, I think it’s a bit of a reach to criticize the paving stones for where you put your feet. Or, for that matter, your entire body (plus stroller and grandchild).
The Riva dei Sette Martiri is about 70 feet (22 meters) wide. I don’t believe that walking along its center would put your life at risk. Why would anybody (who wasn’t fishing for seppie) feel the urge to walk along its very edge? It’s like somebody walking along the shoulder of a six-lane interstate highway stumbling on some gravel and then blaming the city because a truck nearly ran them over.
They’re all alive, though, so I guess the city doesn’t have to scramble the fighter repair crew. Until something really, really serious happens, the administration tends to take the “It seemed so real, but thank God it was just a bad dream” approach to the city’s problems.
But let me respectfully point out to any future grandmothers that whether the stones are smooth or jagged, there will always be water in the lagoon.
Or maybe the city’s to blame for that too.
Spring here is in constant evolution, as it is anywhere else, so it’s slightly silly to talk about it at all, considering that by the time you read this, things will have changed. A few of the earliest (and therefore best) highlights are already gone, making way for subsequent highlights, and so on till we get to summer, which would probably like to have highlights except that the heat and humidity kind of destroy them. Or at least destroy my will to notice or care about them.
When we lived at the other end of the city, near Santa Marta, my spring herald was a small weeping willow tree that drooped over a brick wall bordering the rio di Tre Ponti (canal of Three Bridges). Its first minuscule leaves created the faintest conceivable film of pale tea green, or pale celadon, or pale eau de nil, or pale honeydew melon, or probably a combination of all of these. Maybe I should call it “pale first leaves of weeping willow” green.
I would check up on this little tree as if it were on probation. But all my watching didn’t reveal its very best moment, I’m sure, because the tree always seemed to leaf too fast. I suspect it was working at night, like an illegal Moldovan bricklayer. In any case, it passed its exquisite birth stage and grew up far too quickly for my taste. It should have lasted just two days longer and I’d have been happy. But no.
Now we live at the other extreme of the city — as of everything else — and instead of a willow tree my heralds are one little plum tree, and a whole slew of blackbirds who seem to be able to sing everything up to Elizabethan motets.
There are also the flying heralds: I’ve seen scatterings of bees, of course, and unexpected little apprentice herald showed up today in the form of a roaming fly that buzzed through the house. He seemed to be on some sort of reconnaissance mission.
The plum and cherry blossoms have come and gone; the wisteria is just beginning to take their place, to be followed by the magnolia, and the jasmine. It sounds as if I’m living on some Veneto-Byzantine tropical plantation.
Flowering Venice: I hope you’ll add this to your list of images of this city, along with the bridges and canals and ogee arches.