Archive for September, 2011
I have a new hero.
He emerged from oblivion a few days ago wrapped in the shadows of a bygone regata which is being resuscitated this weekend, and I think he deserves more space than the regata and I want you to know about him not only for his own sake, but to demonstrate that Erla’s Venice does not consist exclusively of moldy leftovers and mismatched socks and intelligent people who believe crazy things and not-so-intelligent people who believe those things are brilliant.
His name was Luigi Graziottin (GRA-tsee-aw-TEEN): Born in Castello in 1852, died in Castello in 1926, and forgotten in Castello ever since.
The regata he was involved in organizing and promoting was inspired by the city-wide desire to celebrate September 20, a crucial date in the amalgamation process of the newly united Italy. The festivities in Castello were a huge neighborhood event.
The race was first known as the Regata di Castello, then the Regata of XX September. It was held ten times between 1887 and 1913, skipping some years for various, ever-more-political reasons, with assorted modifications. Then people stopped commemorating the date and the race had no reason to exist.
I know all this thanks to an excellent book, “La Regata di Castello o del XX settembre,” by Giorgio Crovato. Too bad it’s only in Italian, it’s crammed with fascinating stuff.
Back to Graziottin. He was a carpenter by trade, who worked in the Arsenal, and was also an ex-NCO of the Italian Navy. He furthermore devised a cure for cholera which saved a couple of hundred lives in the national epidemic of 1886, no small feat when you consider how many cholera epidemics decimated Venice and/or Italy in the nineteenth century (1835-36, 1849, 1854, 1886). He told a Roman reporter that he was known in Venice as the “king of cholera” — sounds funny unless you’ve been through a cholera epidemic, which I haven’t, thank God.
Most important — and this is where the heroic element comes in — he was Castello’s guiding light, a one-man social services agency who, without any particular qualifications, became the paladin of the poor, of which Venice at the turn of the century had an enormous supply. More than once, the regata’s festivities, apart from fireworks and the regata, included the distribution, organized by Graziottin, of “bread, yellow flour (polenta), and…wine to the poor of Castello.” Which means he had first managed to inspire donations from local merchants, which also impresses me.
Crovato describes him this way (translation by me):
“He is short and swarthy, with an unkempt beard, long hair….without much income and often in need himself, who runs where he sees the need of some social or civic intervention, without any direct political authority, but as defender of the weakest….”
He wrote so many letters to the Gazzettino to publicize his abundant concerns that the paper summed him up as “…a sort of local Garibaldi, who runs wherever there is need, engaged on diverse fronts, especially in the social realm. Honest and ingenuous, and loyal to his country, as a Venetian and an Italian.”
A man, in short, to whom the phrase “What’s in it for me?” would be incomprehensible, even if spoken in his native language.
In 1888 he wrote a letter to the mayor requesting new clothes for a poor shoemaker who had saved the life of a little girl who had fallen into the canal of Sant’Anna (as it happens, the canal that comes ashore at high tide just outside our door).
On the same day, he alerted the city that the shipyard workers at Sant’ Elena were in imminent danger of losing their jobs.
He got a meeting with the mayor to discuss the dire situation of 70 out-of-work boatmen, suggesting that the schedule for excavating the canals be modified in order to start, say, immediately.
He took four women to Padova to ask the wife of an important politician to intervene on behalf of the women’s husbands, imprisoned for their supposed participation in a sort of rebellion of the porters at the bridge of the Veneta Marina.
The next day he wrote a letter to the newspaper to solicit donations to help a 38-year-old woman with four children whose husband was in jail for homicide. I notice that he didn’t take on the husband’s case, focusing instead on the plight of his destitute family.
He also personally saved more than a hundred people from one life-threatening incident or another.
And on, and on, and on.
Eccentric as he may have been, with his proto-hippie persona buttressed by a blue-collar pragmatism — I picture him as looking something like a cross between Frank Zappa and Rasputin — Graziottin must have gleamed with sincerity and confidence, because people at every level responded. His personal motto, if he’d had time to bother with one, must have been “Get it done.”
The reason I have made room for him in my personal pantheon of heroes (in fact, he made room for himself) is not primarily his energy, or even his successes. It’s his altruism. I can’t express how startling and radiant that is in a city which seems unable to recognize any motive other than “ulterior.” I don’t doubt that the people to whom he appealed may have had many of their own reasons for responding, but I don’t perceive that he had any ambition other than to help people who had nowhere to turn.
I also can’t imagine him answering the numberless cries for help with the by-now ritual responses to problems of any sort or size: “I’ll think about it,” “We don’t have any money,” “I don’t know,” “Probably not,” “I wish I could,” “Maybe next year,” or merely “No.”
Now we have unions and Facebook and special-interest groups and talk shows and all sorts of ways to make our voices heard, even if they are ignored. But there seems to have been something in Graziottin’s voice that was more effective than your average riot, march, or hunger strike. And compassion fatigue seems never to have set in.
Not to idolize the man, I’m just observing the chasm that separates his view of the world and the orientation of large numbers of people here. Of course there are many who labor to help the needy. I even know some of them. But in general, those who have the power to improve things, even little things, don’t. And those who don’t have the power, they also don’t. There’s always time to complain, though.
Graziottin! Thou should’st be living at this hour:/Venice hath need of thee: she is a fen of stagnant/Waters…..
But there the similarity between Wordsworth’s Milton and our own little Luigi ends. Because while Poet A apotheosizes Poet B on the basis of B’s innate grandeur and magnificence, I would skip the sonnet and send a crate of compliments to Graziottin for his simplicity, integrity, and tenacity.
He could probably also have used a gift certificate to a day spa, which I’d happily include, but I doubt he’d waste his time getting his nails buffed and his beard trimmed. He’d probably give it to somebody who really needed it.
Sunday afternoon I managed to make a few snaps of the Great Gathering of those Bossi people (I block the scores of puns that surge into my mind), so here they are.
It appears that, in the end, there were more police than potential police patrons.
The organizers claimed that there were 50,000 of the faithful; the police estimated 6-7,000. The difference makes me think of those construction estimates which start on earth but when the job is finished the total cost is lost somewhere in Multiple-Zeroes Land. It’s been like this every year of the past 15 that this event has been staged: the participants want to make it sound as if there are more of them than Attila’s Huns.
The anticipated thunderstorms politely waited till evening.
One of the things I love most about Venice is its voluptuous, velvety silence. Many writers over the past few centuries have commented on this, though they have also commented (as do I) on the noise that is generated during the day by working people, their vehicles, and their voices. But hey, it’s daytime; people are supposed to be working, or at least doing things. “Get out of the house” is always good advice for physical and mental health, except where the mental health of your neighbors might be concerned.
In any case, people used to go home at night and things eventually got quiet.
The novelty in the past few decades is the noise by night. Summer, and now early autumn, is especially prone to nocturnal racket, what with kids zooming around the lagoon, and the city’s canals, in boats with motors of 40, 90, and even more horsepower.
Lino can’t figure it out: “It used to be that the only people who were out at night were fishermen,” he said this morning. “Now it’s everybody.”
Last night the situation took a turn for the worse.
We had already endured the usual nightly yelling and running (and yelling and standing still) of families going up and down the street outside our bedroom window. I’m not saying they ought to be home at 9:00 with the shutters bolted (though it would be nice if they’d do it by midnight). I’m merely saying that stopping to talk with loud voices about things ranging from what they’re going to do tomorrow up to and including their upcoming operation to remove their ovaries (not made up) is tiring and obnoxious. To say nothing of the man somewhere upstairs who, when the lights go off around the neighborhood, takes a handkerchief that must be the size of a tablecloth and begins giving two long honking blows of his nose, separated by a silence of about 18 seconds, followed by two long blows, etc., for way too long. It’s like the foghorn code, except he’s not warning anybody away. We’re stuck here.
I’m not saying he should be forbidden to blow his nose. I’m saying he might consider closing the window. Of course, we could close our window, but that would mean suffocating to death. So maybe closing his window means he would suffocate? Let’s just stop right here. I’m saying he could get some treatment for whatever this condition is, because it can’t be all that enjoyable for him in any case, after the first forty minutes or so.
So what does a certain Umberto Bossi have to do with all this cacophony?
He is the leader of a political party known as the Northern League, whose mission in life is to slag anything and anybody south of the Po River, and to promote the secession of said northern area (the regions of Veneto, Lombardy, and environs) from the rest of Italy. He and his cohorts want to establish a new entity known as Padania, an independent, financially and politically self-sufficient entity, in order to be rid of all of the injustices which a national government inflicts on the productive, honest, disciplined, hard-working, right-thinking northerners.
Unable, so far, to accomplish this goal, he and his cohorts spend most of their time in parliament blocking other parties’ initiatives.
So what do he and his followers have to do with the most-beautiful-city-in-the-world, and Erla’s nightly efforts to slumber?
Because every September he stages a huge rally here. Why here? Because the Po River, the aforementioned geographical and emotional frontier between Us and Them, flows into the sea not far away, and because Venice is the greatest stage set imaginable, perfect for publicity. You can’t imagine a serious rally being put on in, say, Rovigo, though they do have a very nice stadium.
This rally draws the faithful from all over, who come to hear his incendiary speechifying, and to witness his emptying of a flask of Po River water into the Lagoon. Great theatre, though I still don’t quite grasp its meaning. From 1600 to 1604, the Venetians cut the Po in half to send it southward; if it had continued to debouch into the Lagoon, by now Venice would be sitting in the middle of cornfields. But this is a detail. The Po belongs to Bossi and he wants to bring it to Venice.
So yesterday, in the build-up to today’s Big Event, there were clashes between groups demonstrating against Mr. Bossi and his League and the police who were trying to contain their destructive enthusiasm.
And last night, at about 3:30 (when silence was, in fact, reigning over our streets and canals), we were all blasted awake by a new and appalling noise.
A motorboat was going down the canal with an amplifying system brought from some exploded star. And it was playing music: “Faccetta Nera,” a marching song adopted by the Fascists (though it predates them), full of racist and colonialist overtones. Everybody over the age of two — even I, by now — know that it is hugely incorrect politically to play “Faccetta Nera” or any of its companions such as “Giovinezza” (Youth).
But there it was, ripping the night asunder a mere five steps from our front door. It faded away as the boat proceeded, presumably in a tour around most, if not all, of the city. But I wasn’t sure. I lay there awake for a while expecting it — them — to come back, thinking about how glad I am that whoever these people might be have the right to make so many people miserable. Democracy is indeed a great thing.
This morning, a sunny Sunday, the streets around here are full of police and carabinieri in riot gear, waiting to form up and get to work. Lino begged me not to make photographs, so I didn’t.
The enormous floating platform with its banners and podium, is tied up, as usual, at the riva dei Sette Martiri, between Arsenal and the Giardini. Police helicopters are rumbling around overhead. But I know at least some people are happy. Two bakeries are open — something unheard-of on a normal Sunday — because they also sell snacks and cold drinks, and the faithful are going to really need these items, especially if they do a lot of shouting.
“Non tutti i mali vengono per nuocere,” as the saying goes: It’s an ill wind that blows no good.
Perhaps the promised thunderstorms will indeed strike this afternoon. They would ruin the regata at Burano, true, but it could be worth it, to wash away all this detritus.
It’s September 11 again. Ten years have passed, which in a city this old is nothing. Even so, I don’t understand how a mere decade could occupy so much space and bear so much weight.
Everyone here was stunned, heartwrung — everyone. Five days after the towers fell, the last race of the season was held at Burano, and all the boats (27 of them) carried a black ribbon tied to their bow. I remember that an immense thunderstorm bore down, and how those little strips of mourning thrashed in the tearing winds under a battered sky full of bruised clouds, black and purple and green. The races had to be suspended. It was too perfect. If I hadn’t been there, you’d have thought I made it up.
There was a mass at the basilica of San Marco, with the chief of the New York Fire Department as a special guest. The service was entirely in Italian, including the Gospel text: Matthew 18: 21-25.
“Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, ‘Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?’ And Jesus answered, ‘I tell you, not seven times, but seventy times seven.'”
I sat there looking at his back and wondering if he understood it, and if so, what he could possibly be thinking.
At the mass they also read the Fireman’s Prayer (translated by me):
O Lord, who illumines the heavens and fills the abysses, make the flame of sacrifice burn in our hearts.
Strengthen the spirit of service which burns in us, make sure our eye, and secure our foothold, so that we may complete the rescue which we bring in Your name to our brothers in danger.
When the siren screams in the streets of the city, hear the beating of our hearts which have been offered to renunciation.
When, racing with eagles, we rise toward Thee, hold us up with Your wounded hand.
When the irresistible fire breaks out, burn the evil which makes its nest in the homes of men, but not the life and the affections of Your children.
Lord, we are the bearers of Your cross, and risk is our daily bread.
A day without risk isn’t even lived, because for we believers death is life and light: in the terror of the collapse, in the roaring of the waters, in the inferno of the conflagrations.
Our life is fire, our faith is in God.
For Saint Barbara, martyr. Amen.
An article was published under the title “C”ntarea Americii” (“Ode To America”) in the Romanian newspaper Evenimentulzilei, that translates “The Daily Event” or “News of the Day” on September 11, 2006:
Why are Americans so united? They would not resemble one another even if you painted them all one color! They speak all the languages of the world and form an astonishing mixture of civilizations and religious beliefs. Still, the American tragedy turned three hundred million people into a hand put on the heart.
Nobody rushed to accuse the White House, the army, and the secret s services that they are only a bunch of losers. Nobody rushed to empty their bank accounts. Nobody rushed out onto the streets nearby to gape about. The Americans volunteered to donate blood and to give a helping hand.
After the first moments of panic, they raised their flag over the smoking ruins, putting on T-shirts, caps and ties in the colors of the national flag. They placed flags on buildings and cars as if in every place and on every car a government official or the president was passing.
I watched the live broadcast and rerun after rerun for hours listening to the story of the guy who went down one hundred floors with a woman in a wheelchair without knowing who she was, or of the Californian hockey player, who gave his life fighting with the terrorists and prevented the plane from hitting a target that could have killed other hundreds or thousands of people.
How on earth were they able to respond united as one human being?
On every occasion, they started singing their traditional song: “God Bless America!” Imperceptibly, with every word and musical note, the memory of some turned into a modern myth of tragic heroes. And with every phone call, millions and millions of dollars were put in a collection aimed at rewarding not a man or a family, but a spirit, which no money can buy.
What on earth can unite the Americans in such a way? Their land? Their galloping history? Their economic Power? Money? I tried for hours to find an answer, humming songs and murmuring phrases with the risk of sounding commonplace.
I thought things over, but I reached only one conclusion… Only freedom can work such miracles.
(signed) Cornel Nistorescu
“AND THE WAVE SINGS BECAUSE IT IS MOVING,” by Philip Larkin (September 14, 1946):
And the wave sings because it is moving;
Caught in its clear side, we also sing.
We are borne across graves, together, apart, together,
In the lifting wall imprisoned and protected….
Such are the sorrows that we search for meaning,
Such are the cries of the birds across the waters,
Such are the mists the sun attacks at morning,
Laments, tears, wreaths, rocks, all riden down
By the shout of the heart continually at work….
Death is a cloud alone in the sky with the sun.
Our hearts, turning like fish in the green wave,
Grow quiet in its shadow. For in the word death
There is nothing to grasp; nothing to catch or claim;
Nothing to adapt the skill of the heart to, skill
And the waves sing because they are moving.
And the waves sing above a cemetery of waters.