Archive for March, 2012
Zwingle’s Eighth Law states “The bigger your memorial, the less people remember who you were.” A wander around Westminster Abbey shines a blinding light on that truth. A black marble slab for Charles Dickens, a white marble meringue for James Cornewall.
In case anyone was wondering if there might be any memorials to the three patriarchs of Venice who became pope, the answer is yes. But you might not notice them, and if you did, you might not quite grasp who they were. Especially if the inscription is in Latin (grrr).
Trivia alert: Venetians refer to popes, especially the three that touched Venice, by their civilian last names, not their formal papal names. Also, the word for “pope” in Italian is papa (PAH-pah.) The nickname for your daddy is the same word, pronounced pah-PAH. If you mix them up, people will think the pope is your father.
Pope Pius X, “Papa Sarto,” was deeply moved on leaving Venice to go to Rome for the conclave of cardinals meeting to elect the successor to Pope Leo XIII. The throng which came to see him off at the station was exhibiting what we’d call intense separation anxiety. He reassured them by promising that he would return, whether alive or dead. Yes, he said those words. He was elected pope, and though he lived another 11 years, he never made it back. He died in 1914.
In 1959, Pope John XXIII (just coming up in our chronicle) — who knew of this unfulfilled promise — arranged for Sarto’s casket to be disinterred, organized a special train which left, in those days, from a station within the Vatican, and sent him back to Venice. The body lay in state in the basilica of San Marco for a month, then was returned by special train to the Vatican. Promise kept.
Footnote: Lino remembers the day the train arrived, not because he was present, but because all the employees of the Aeronavali, which maintained and repaired airplanes at Nicelli airport on the Lido, were taken in a bus to see where the new Marco Polo airport was going to be built on the mainland. The sacred and the profane just keep on running into each other.
Of the three papal memorials here, that of Saint Pius X is the most impressive by weight, but the least impressive by location: at the head of the Ponte della Liberta’ by Piazzale Roma, next to the Agip gas station. Lino says it’s because he’s there to guard the gate to the city. There may well be more to it than that, but I haven’t taken the time to root it out. That could be a project for my old age.
Pope John XXIII, Papa Roncalli, or “The Good Pope,” was known as a saint by anyone who ever met him, at least here in Venice. The beatification details that made it official were just extra.
Lino had two encounters with him. One was by surprise, crossing the patriarch’s path as he left the basilica of the Salute. Lino was strolling with his girlfriend, and Roncalli stopped to say hello. ”Are you two engaged?” he asked in a friendly, if generic, way. ”Yes, Your Eminence” — Lino repeats this in a tiny abashed voice. ”Love each other,” he said, patting each of them on the cheek. Evidently his charisma marked this little event in a powerful way, because on paper it looks like nothing.
The second encounter was at the airport, where Lino worked as an airplane mechanic. Patriarch Roncalli came to celebrate mass there for the workers, and he was lacking an altarboy to assist him. Lino volunteered.
My favorite bit of Roncalli lore is the nickname the gondoliers gave him: “Nane Schedina,” or Jack the Lottery Ticket. When he chose the name John XXIII, to the wags at the Molo stazio the Roman numerals looked like the pattern of the numbers on a lottery ticket.
If you needed any further evidence of his qualities as a patriarch/pope/human being, the nickname says it all. Gondoliers bestow them spontaneously, and only when they really want to. In fact, if there is any category which comes equipped with a built-in automatic crap detector, as Hemingway put it, it would be the gondoliers. The fact that Roncalli would sometimes walk over to the Molo to say hello, and even sometimes take them up on their offer of going to get a glass of wine at the nearby bar, obviously had something to do with their feeling for him. He’d play cards with the staff in the evening, too. Not with the majordomo, with the cook and the cleaning ladies.
He’s the only patriarch of the three that has two memorials. That doesn’t earn him any bonus points, I merely mention it.
Pope John Paul I, “Papa Luciani,” was smaller and, it turns out, more frail than his two patriarchal predecessors. But Venetians loved him, and not just because he came from the mountains just up the road. In his mere 33 days on the throne of St. Peter he earned the sobriquet “The Smiling Pope.” Venetians already knew that.
So far, no bust of him has been made, or if so, placed anywhere a human can see it. But he is remains an extremely tough act to follow, as his successors have amply demonstrated.
Venice doesn’t have a bishop — you may be fascinated to know — it has a patriarch. And as of last Sunday, it has a new one: Francesco Moraglia, who has now been launched to a higher sphere from modest but reverendable monsignor to patriarch and, very soon, to cardinal. Next stop? We don’t speak its name, but we know it’s there.
Three patriarchs of Venice in the 20th century were elected pope (Pius X, John XXIII, and John Paul I). Which means that one reason — perhaps the main reason — why it took six months to decide on the new occupant of the patriarch’s palace could be that the man needed to be considered papabile, as they say: “pope-able.”
As you can imagine, his welcome ceremony was a many-splendored thing, but the centerpiece — and the piece feasible only in Venice — was a corteo, or procession, of boats in the Grand Canal.
Corteos, if you do them right (as in: have lots of participants), are impressive when seen from the shore/bridge/parapet/balcony or wherever the viewer may be positioned. Certainly they’re impressive as seen from the vessel carrying the person being corteo’d.
Corteos, as seen from the boats involved, have a much different character. They are composed of friends — or people who know each other, anyway — and what may look like a stately progress is actually a continual jockeying for position in a limited space complicated by vaporettos, gusts of wind, and tidal forces. All of these factors conduce to moments of vivacious confusion which most of the rowers astern, responsible for steering, know how to navigate. I can promise you, however, that there will be at least one boat whose poppiere has a very uncertain grasp of the connection between the action of the oar and the reaction of the boat. Fancy way of saying: helplessly wandering hither and yon like a rudderless boat on the high seas. This person, whoever it may be, is always happiest right in front of us.
The Gazzettino reported that there were some 200 boats in the procession, and I can believe it. I think most of them, though, were there for the event in its Venetian, rather than spiritual, aspect. I’m not saying rowers are godless, I’m just saying that the mass of participants seemed to be divided into two groups: Bunches of people along the fondamentas with welcome banners who were singing hymns , and us in the boats who were living another sort of moment.
The routine usually goes like this: The boats gather in the Grand Canal at Piazzale Roma. We go to the command-post boat if we’re due any bonuses (T-shirts, bandannas, small bags of rations usually containing a sandwich, bottle of water or carton of fruit juice, a small pastry or piece of fruit.) You lounge around and keep track of your friends. At this point in my evolution here, there’s quite a list.
Small organizational point: Unlike most processions, which are in the morning, we were summoned to appear at 1:45 PM. This seemingly innocuous moment effectively wipes Sunday off your calendar, when you calculate the time needed to get to your boat, row it to Piazzale Roma, do the corteo, and row home. The fact that the timing effectively wiped your lunch hour off your calendar was also noticed. That’s why they gave us sandwiches. Not much to keep you going till dinnertime, but if you came, you’d already accepted this fact.
We get the signal to start, and we proceed down the canal to the bacino of San Marco, dodging taxis and vaporettos and gondoliers and each other’s oars. The principles of defensive driving all come into immediate play for the half-hour or so it usually takes to run this 3.7 km/2.3 mile route.
I’d never seen so many boats in a procession, not even when we put on the same event in 2002 for the recently-departed predecessor. The sun was shining, the breeze was generally docile, and we were going mostly with the tide.
The only drawback was the long wait for the patriarch to finish his invisible ceremonies ashore, board his boat, and get going. When the tide is pulling you along and large public conveyances keep jostling for space, you don’t really feel like hanging around, even for an Eminence. Rowers began to murmur and to comment.
But finally we were on our way. We managed to put on a burst of speed to get past the small boat slewing around in front of us. We waved to Lino’s sisters on the fondamenta. And when we passed under the Rialto Bridge and saw the straight stretch of Grand Canal covered with boats spread out before us, Lino actually got a little choked up. I can’t remember what he said, but I looked up and his eyes were wet. Just in case you think we get all blase and jaded about everything.
As the patriarch debarked at San Marco, the gathered boats gave the customary alzaremi, or raised-oar salute. It’s spectacular when done right, or even just sort of right. The annoying part for the executors of this feat isn’t the weight of the oar as you haul it upright (I discovered a trick) — it’s the way the water runs down the shaft and onto your hands. I have no picture of it because I was busy with my oar.
Then we row back to the club, across the bacino of San Marco, which will always be full of big heavy clashing waves. You may well also have the wind and tide against you, so by the time you get the boat ashore you’ve forgotten how much fun you had.
But enough about me. I can tell you that the new patriarch has already remarked that he believes one of our main priorities needs to be to make children happy. He put that in his short list of things we need to take more seriously, like create more jobs and be more just and fair in our dealings.
My inner Protestant (I.P.) finds this an amazingly dim recommendation. If making children happy is a goal, I can turn over and go back to sleep, because that must be the easiest thing on earth to do. Unload a dump truck full of sugar and fat and iEverything and then leave them alone. My I.P. — who is as devoted to children and their well-being as anyone, even him — would have preferred to hear something a little less fluffy. If happy children are what we want, I think our mission should be to make sure they’re educated, healthy, disciplined, kind, at least bilingual and don’t smoke. I suspect that happiness would be within their own grasp at that point, and wouldn’t have to be provided by a squad of round-the-clock muffinbrains.
Feel free to pass this observation along to him.
A reader named Alberto recently responded to my lament about the silence of the blackbirds so far this spring (bulletin: I heard two yesterday evening — but the dawn is still voiceless). He said he was thinking of making a video of their concerts.
As it happens, I was so enthralled by the morning recitals last spring that I recorded loads of them. Here is a sample — which I have taken to listening to in the meantime, just so things will seem more normal. Click here 11042001.
I wonder if playing this really loudly at 4:00 AM would encourage at least one to give it a try. Or maybe they’re on strike. If so, they’re the only creatures in the old bel paese, except me and Lino, that have never gone on strike at some point. I suppose there’s something noteworthy about that. I wonder if I should put “Never gone on strike” on my resume.
I’m sorry I didn’t think to check on the exact instant of the equinox in order to give Venice an appropriate little salute. I knew this anniversary was imminent and now I’ve discovered it was two days ago.
In any case, most of the signs have been with us for a while now. I can report that March came in like a lamb, but seeing how screwy the weather has become, I have no idea what sort of animal its departure is going to resemble. Maybe a bumblebee bat or a star-nosed mole. I’ll let you know.
Yesterday we rowed to Sant’ Erasmo to forage for some carletti. Unhappily, we didn’t find any at all, which is slightly disturbing (check one “sign of spring” off the life list). So we brought home a big bag full of dandelion greens instead. Lino’s happy because he says it’s good for “purifying the blood.” My grandfather did the same, he said, by dosing himself with blackstrap molasses. That’ll wake you up, no matter what it may do to your blood. I intuit that this instinct is somehow related to the rousing-from-winter-lethargy/hibernation process we watch on the Discovery Channel.
Speaking of rousing, though, I am still awaiting one fundamental sign of spring, which is the blackbirds singing at dawn. Every year I have heard one — evidently assigned to our neighborhood by the Chief Herald — which began to sing exactly at 4:00 AM. It was uncanny. I’m not saying I’ve been getting up at that hour specifically to hear it, though it would certainly be worth it. But considering that I’m up anyway, its solitary cadenzas always made the morning beautiful even while it was still dark.
So far, I’ve heard one (1) blackbird singing at 6:30 PM. Of course it can sing whenever it wants to, but I cannot fathom why I’m not hearing any before then. Frankly, I don’t understand how the sun — or me, for that matter — has managed to rise without it.
At any rate, my favorite phase of spring is already past. Anybody can love spring when the flowers begin to bloom (I’ve already seen early blossoms sneaking out of their buds on a few plum and almond trees, and of course there will be a deluge of jasmine and wisteria before long). But I love spring when the weather is still cold and unfriendly but you can just begin to detect tiny wisps of earlier sunlight and see even tinier buds on the trees just beginning to expand with their extremely tiny leaves, awaiting some signal I’ll never detect.
Once the daffodils come out, spring is so obvious that I consider it to be essentially over.