Archive for April, 2012

April 25 is here again, one of the bigger days in the Venetian calendar.  Its importance is in inverse relationship to the ceremonial recognition of it, which is modest to the point of near-invisibility.

A long-stemmed red rose (the “bocolo”) and a scattering of fresh laurel wreaths leaning against important municipal monuments are about the only signs of anything different about today.  Lovely, but small.

This year, however, a special significance joins the memory of San Marco and of the liberation of Italy in 1945.

One hundred years ago today, the campanile of San Marco was inaugurated — that is, the reconstructed tower which had collapsed at 9:53 AM on July 14, 1902.

The bells are rung every July 14 at 9:53 AM. It has nothing to do with Bastille Day. The ringing commemorates the fall of the tower, and the one surviving bell, the "marangona," is still going strong.

The city was justifiably proud of having rebuilt its most visible monument as it had vowed to do: “Com’era e dov’era” — as it was and where it was.  And in a mere ten years, too.  Not bad, considering that they had had to work on the foundation, cast four new bells, repair the pavement of the Piazza, and sift tons of wreckage to recover any bits that were reusable.  And it may well be the only public work which was not undertaken to the accompaniment of “no ghe xe schei.”

The history of this belltower is — like most things here — very interesting and very complicated.  The version we see today was constructed in 1511, the last in a line of ever-heightening towers on that spot which had served as lighthouse, lookout point, and bell-bearing structure.  Every church has its bells somewhere nearby, and the basilica of San Marco has this monolith.  Whether or not you think it’s beautiful or appropriate (naturally opinions swarm all over the place), it is undeniably the guardian of Venice.  “El paron’ de casa,” as it is known more familiarly — the head of the house.

You’d have to be a real campanile or Venice maniac, though, to have read anything of the story of why it fell down and what was involved in putting it back on its feet.  The Gazzettino recently put out a little book to commemorate this centennial which briefly but comprehensively describes the phases of this history.

If nothing else, the fall and rise of the campanile of San Marco stands as yet another monument to political and bureaucratic  misfeasance.  Because while the city can be justly proud of its accomplishment in rebuilding it, a dark, thick veil of silence covers the reasons for why it happened in the first place. As in: It shouldn’t have happened at all.

Here is a rapid review.  The campanile had suffered almost every kind of damage over the centuries — earthquakes, fires caused by lightning strikes, general wear and tear — and had undergone more restorations than Joan Rivers.

But with the arrival of modernity, more things were done which a 400-year-building weighing around 13,207 tons (11,981,224 kilos) wasn’t able to withstand.  Such as the cutting of a hole in the brick wall big enough to get the caretaker’s new stove in.

The tower was constantly monitored, but opinions of what was happening and what to do clashed on a regular basis.  In the months leading up to the disaster, all sorts of ominous signs were seen, till the largest fissure went all the way up to the top and was widening by the day.  The dangers were obvious even to the naked, ignorant eye of your average passerby.

While discussions continued (the eternal confrontation between the “bail! bail!” party and the “row faster!” party), a cordon was placed around the tower to keep the public at a safe distance.

On July 13, some of the technical experts — engineers! architects! — were still proclaiming that there was no danger of collapse, but recommending further study.

At 4:00 AM on the morning of July 14, a worried Luigi Vendrasco, the master mason, came to the Piazza.  He could see that the deterioration was increasing at a noticeable rate.  At 5:30 came Domenico Rupolo, the architect in charge of the works.  Together they rushed to Pietro Saccardo, the overseer of the basilica of San Marco.  They all headed for the Prefect, where they were joined by Federico Brechet, director of the Regional Office for the Conservation of Monuments, and Alberto Torri of the Civil Engineers.

Brechet and Torri wanted to go up the campanile for a closer examination, but Rupolo talked them out of it.  I’m guessing they sent him a big gift basket every Christmas for the rest of their lives.

Meanwhile, a passing journalist asked a policeman stationed as a guard in the Piazza for any news.  The policeman replied, “Mi digo che no passa sinque minuti e casca zoso tuto.”  (I’d say that in less than five minutes the whole thing is going to fall down.)  He called it.

At 9:30 the shops on the south side of the Piazza were ordered closed, and the Piazza was cleared out. At 9:47 pieces of stone began to fall.  At 9:53, the whole thing went down with a dark, heavy roar, raising a cloud of dust of Biblical proportions.

"The Campanile was demolished by the imperizia of the government engineers," the Gazzettino's headline read. "Imperizia" is somewhere between fecklessness and incompetence.

“What is there to marvel at?” raged Luigi Vendrasco, the  master mason who had been pleading for years for immediate and correct intervention to prevent this very occurrence, creating so many enemies that he lost his job.  “It fell? I’ve been saying this for ten years! I’ve been amazed that it hasn’t happened sooner.  And then, it hasn’t ‘fallen’ — they threw it down and it obeyed!… Without a doubt the campanile could have been saved, if since 1892 certain things had been done and certain other things hadn’t been done.  Even in these last few days, if, instead of putting on lots of monitoring devices on a wound that even a blind person could see, that that wound had been directly addressed.  The final and determining cause of the breakdown was the cut at the base for the work on the Loggetta di Sansovino.”

He was referring to the little job undertaken in early July to replace the lead roof of the Loggetta, which was attached to the campanile facing the basilica. To prevent rain from filtering into the bricks, an overhanging slab of an undefined material had been inserted into the campanile.

Removing the roof meant removing this protecting protrusion, and the workmen got right on it.  They intended to replace it immediately, but for some reason this never happened.  What remained, therefore, was a cut stretching nearly the entire width of the campanile facing the basilica, a channel 11-15 inches (30 -40 cm) deep and 25 inches (40 cm) high. Instead of jamming something hard into the space to balance the tower’s weight, this slash just sat there.

There is a little game kids used to play at the beach — maybe they still do — called the “gioco della polenta.”  You make a big mound of wet sand.  Then each of you in turn  c-a-r-e-f-u-l-l-y removes a handful of the sand from the base of the mound.  The object is to not be the person whose handful causes the whole thing to cave in.

The mayor said the collapse of the campanile had been unforeseeable.  He must never have gone to the beach.

The beautiful thing is that you can see the campanile from everywhere. It's strangely reassuring. There were people, however, who immediately said that the Piazza was more beautiful without it.








Categories : Venetian History
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Some big-ships lore

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Yesterday at a family gathering I got to talking with my nephew-in-law, someone I don’t get to see very often.

He is in his 33rd year of working as a tugboat captain for the port of Venice, so I made the most of the moment, grilling him lightly on both sides with questions about the floating Alps.  Specifically, what sort of danger they present to the city — especially that nightmare scenario in which a ship the size of Madagascar goes off course and cleaves the Piazza San Marco in twain.

Here is what he told me:

1.  The ships have many propellers (I forget the number) and it is highly unlikely that they would all go out of service.  More than the propellers, I think it’s probably the motors one should be more concerned about.  Here too, the probabilities are notable:  Cunard’s Queen Victoria (my floating Alp of choice) has six diesel engines, as well as three bow thrusters.  Could they all stop at once?  I suppose, if you lived long enough.

2.  The big ships each arrive and depart Venice with two tugboats attached, one at the bow and one at the stern.  If the ship were to suddenly go dead in the water, the two tugs would be capable of keeping it on course. Pushing, like two little sheepdogs.

3.  The last factor which is perhaps unique to Venice (at least in the big-cruising world) is that what’s down under the surface is mud.  The channel along which the ship traces its passage provides a rather narrow strip of sufficient depth; tide and the action of many motors have pushed mud up against the embankments.   We don’t have rocky shores, like some islands I won’t mention, which dealt the fatal blow last January 13 to a ship whose name I will not utter.  So even if a ship did suddenly head straight for the Doge’s Palace, it would run aground in the mud before it got there.

I have rowed a little mascareta at full speed (arguably not comparable to that of the Queen Victoria) up onto a mudbank.  You’d be amazed how fast the boat stops.  Which I mention to confirm that mud has phenomenal braking powers.  And when you try to pull the boat off the mudbank, you appreciate that even more.

So I’ve stopped caring about the buoyant metropolises that steam past us all summer.  I’d be a thousand times more afraid to find myself in the path of an illegal clam fisherman at night, as he races across the lagoon with his 300-horsepower engines trying to get away from the Guardia di Finanza.  I promise you, he wouldn’t even ask his friend “Did you feel something?” as he went over you and kept on going.  But I shouldn’t change the subject — because the world is lying awake at night worrying about Venice, not about me. I merely note that on the “clear and present danger” list, big-ships-sundering-Venice is pretty low.


Categories : Venetian Problems
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On beyond Easter

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In my last communique, Easter was tapping on the windows asking to be let in.

Now it has passed, leaving the usual signs — peace, joy, and crumbs.  I have the feeling that the crumbs are going to last the longest.

The dove traditionally represents the Holy Spirit. Its edible version contains candied peel but no raisins, for which I find no Biblical explanation, but it works just fine. Naturally it would be best if it were all crust.

There are crumbs of a colomba, the Easter dove, the traditional spring stand-in for the Christmas panettone, in the general form of a bird and covered with almonds and bits of pearl sugar. Crumbs of the hollow chocolate Easter egg strewn among shards of its busted hulk, crumbs of a small chocolate-covered cake in the form of a bunny, with a fragment of an ear. There is still a small bin of chocolate eggs, and another whole colomba in the form of a flower frosted in pink. But you know what? I’m sugared out.

The best thing I’ve eaten since last Sunday’s feast of roast lamb and assorted sugar-bombs was set on the table last night — bought, transported, and prepared by the indefatigable Lino.

First, we had seppie in their ink, which we’d bought just-caught from the fisherman that morning, and which had passed the afternoon simmering in their black essence.  We sploshed around in it with chunks of polenta, the old-fashioned kind Lino likes to make in his mother’s copper cauldron — it requires 40 minutes of almost constant stirring.  These two items alone would have satisfied most mortals.

Mr. Finotello senior working in the artichoke bed. Some of his plants have just begun to evince their very first flower, a "castraura." You did know that artichokes are flowers, yes?

There it is, just one per plant.

But best of all, we had something I had always heard of but never tasted: castraure (kahs-tra-OOR-eh).  These are tiny artichokes, in this case being of the violetto di Sant’ Erasmo breed, but they are more than that: They are the very first artichoke, cut from the plant in order to allow its fellow ‘chokes to prosper.

You’d be right in guessing that “castraura” has something to do with castration.  Linguistically, it does.  Physiologically, it makes no sense, but let us not dwell on the details.

My impression is that they have become something of a minor culinary myth, in the sense of being apotheosized to the point where to meet the demand (or to justify the price), there are more castraure offered in the Rialto Market than the last reported total number of pieces of the True Cross. For there to be that many castraure, even assuming most of them come from hothouses all over Italy and not simply from local fields, there could scarcely be enough land left to grow a bouquet of begonias.

This is a sight that trumpets "spring" more melodiously than even the currently rampant wisteria. Which may also be good to eat, but I prefer these.

Castraure are small, as you might expect, but so are its subsequent siblings, which are called botoli (BAW-toh-lee).  As far as I can tell, there’s no way to tell them apart, just by looking at them. If you have the chance, then, go buy them from the farmer, like Lino did.  He saw the little morsels cut from the plant just for him, so no debates about their provenance.

You can eat them grilled, or saute’d in garlic and oil, or raw, sliced paper-thin with oil and salt and vinegar.  Or raw, whole. Just make sure there isn’t any wildlife running around among the leaves. Trivia alert: Technically, they’re not leaves, and they’re not petals, either. They’re bracts. It’s a word which won’t get you very far in the kitchen, but at least now you know.

Or you can eat them breaded and fried, which is what Lino did. I’m not a huge fan of frying, since there seem to be more than 8,000 ways to do it wrong and only one way to do it right.  Also, frying seems to blunt or distort the flavor of the object fried.  But there was no bluntage last night.

Our little castraure were tender enough to eat whole, stem included, and best of all, they were bitter. It’s a purposeful flavor, stronger and more complex than the everyday artichokes I already love.  Certainly stronger than the later-blooming botoli.  If you don’t like bitter flavors, whether simple or complex, you should abandon your dream of the castraure because they will not compromise or ingratiate themselves, not even for you.

I admire that in a plant.

A few castraure. There was a crowd of confused ants concealed in the blossoms, running around saying "So this is Venice? Gosh, we thought it would be more Gothic or something."

Categories : Venetian Food
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Happy Easter

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Here is what Easter is looking like out in the country, a/k/a Sant’ Erasmo.  We rowed over to the island today to buy some vegetables from the Finotello brothers and came home not only with bitter chicory and a couple of fresh eggs but also two bussolai buranelli and hearts full of spring.

As I write, it’s 11:00 PM and the bells have just begun ringing outside. This means it’s Easter.  They don’t wait till a sedate, well-bred 8:00 in the morning. In fact, they don’t want to wait at all.  If nothing else could make Easter beautiful, it would be enough just to hear all the bells singing in the dark.

I had a fleeting notion of looking up some Easter poetry for you.  Then I decided to just let the world speak for itself.

Somebody in the Finotello families -- two brothers and wives and small children -- always assembles some sort of festal creation. Whoever does it manages to make it look like it wasn't any effort at all.


Even the rosemary is in bloom.


And the baby fruit trees.

And some embryonic fig trees, branches already budding with teeny little figs.

This is what an Easter basket for that happy Primrose family looks like.

Of course you knew it was all going to come down to food. For anyone who thinks chocolate is too simple or trite, let me present their homemade bussolai buranelli. This is how I like to consume my Easter eggs. All you need is large quantities of flour, whole eggs, egg yolks, butter, sugar, and small quantities of lemon and vanilla. Like most homemade comestibles, these bear little resemblance to the ubiquitous commercial version.

A sample was thoughtfully and craftily offered. Because only one small chunk was needed to convince me to buy two. Believe me, this is not a confection to scarf like popcorn. It demands to be taken seriously, to be eaten with appreciation and complete denial of any knowledge of what it's made of. If you think of the ingredients, you're doomed.

Buona Pasqua!






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