Archive for September, 2013
The interval of silence that has passed between my last post and this was not caused by my retreat to a Carthusian convent, though the thought has often appealed to me.
No, we skipped out to Orleans — the old, not the new — for the Festival de Loire, a five-day traditional-boat festival on the cobblystoned banks of the river.
Every two years, the City of Orleans puts on this fiesta, with stands and food and games for the children and demonstrations of crafts and lots of stuff for sale (like cases of the local wine, to pick an example at random). It is a massive undertaking, and what with logistics and cost I can see why they need a year to recover.
Here is what I can tell you about Orleans, from what I remember:
It’s the first city that Joan of Arc liberated from the English stranglehold, after a hideous siege, in 14something; it was the capital of France for a long time, before (fill in King Name here) decided he liked Paris better; the historic center is beautiful and extremely clean; the cathedral is really high, and I can say that because I stopped counting the stone steps on the way to the pinnacle after about 852; the local dish is andouillette (an-doo-ee-YET), an alarming sausage-like creation composed of the internal organs of either pig or calf.
If I’d ever gotten downwind of chitlings I might have been prepared for this, and I have to admit I’ve never tried haggis, which conceivably could be even more alarming. But as for andouillette, the odor alone is enough, as it approaches your face, for you to think again about biting into it. (Actually, you don’t have to think about it at all. The mouth shuts without any prompting.) It’s something like the aroma of a slaughterhouse in summer which has never been inspected or cleaned. Apologies to people who love andouillette or haggis.
I did in fact read up briefly on this extraordinary invention, just to see if I was being needlessly finicky. After all, I love tripe, and I have consumed brains and kidneys and pig’s feet, so how bad could this be? “It has a strong distinctive odor related to its intestinal origins and components” — my source tactfully puts it — “and is stronger in scent when the colon is used.” I rest my case.
On other hand, I discovered real smoked herring (not the salty little pieces of herring-jerky known as kippered herrings in England), which is now my new favorite thing and which I don’t imagine ever eating again, short of a trip to the Netherlands or some Viking country. Lino says it used to be very common in Venice; small gobbets went very well with polenta.
We went to Orleans to represent Venice, the guest of honor for the 2013 edition of this mega-fest, bringing four Venetian boats and 20+ Venetian rowers from the Settemari club and Arzana‘, a smaller organization dedicated to the conservation of old boats. We are members of the latter, though there are several people who belong to both.
Our duties consisted of rowing the boats up and down the stretch of river fronting the one-kilometer (half-mile) stretch of festival stands and hordes. We did this for a while in the morning, and another while in the afternoon. We were there to look beautiful and fascinating, and so that’s what we did. Between eating and drinking, that is. And climbing the cathedral.
Now we’re all back to the most beautiful city in the world, where our absence wasn’t noticed, and neither is our presence, usually. Still, if I had to choose between Venice and Orleans, my choice is clear. It’s true that Orleans has a phenomenally efficient and clean tram system. But we have the vaporettos, which are administered by highly-paid people who obey the instructions transmitted by alien beings through the fillings in their teeth.
So I’m sticking with Venice. What’s mere efficiency compared to that?
Here are two clips Voce036 Voce035recorded on my cell phone; remember we were all floating down the river, so this is not studio quality. It was sort of superlative-moment-in-ordinary-life quality.
As all the world knows, Venice used to be one of the most important cities in Europe for printing — books, music, heretical works banned by the Catholic church. Even in the last century there were still 20 printing presses in Venice.
If one were to want to know more, it’s pretty much enough just to read the story of Aldus Manutius (Aldo Manuzio, in Italian), who singlehandedly midwifed the Renaissance by printing (and translating) many of the Greek classics which survived antiquity, few as they are. Do I exaggerate? It’s thanks to him we non-Greek-speaking people can read Aristotle, Thucydides, Sophocles, Herodotus, Xenophon, Euripides, Demosthenes….
He also invented the pocket-sized book, and italic letters. You see how many things we take for granted?
But this is not a post about Aldus. It’s about Antonio Gardano and Johannes Buglhat and their big battle of the woodcuts.
They were part of the brigades of other excellent printers hard at work in the 15th and 16th centuries, and these printers were not all drinking buddies. Being merchants, they had to keep a sharp eye on their competitors. Sometimes very sharp eyes.
A friend has sent me an article by David Plylar, from the Library of Congress blog, which deals with the woodcut slanging between the aforementioned publishers.
Rather than reprint it here, the author has suggested that I only give the link. I myself think it’s pretty funny. But you decide.
Money in Venetian is known as schei (“skay”). It is also known, by extension, as the thing we need most and have least. In fact, we have none. We never have any. There isn’t any. We can’t pay for anything because we haven’t got anything to use, not even bricks of salt or boxes of tulips. We’re broke, and proud of it.
I’m broke because no money comes in. The city is broke because money comes in but then it goes out again, somewhere, lots of somewheres, all according to accounting systems that bear more resemblance to Advanced Squad Leader than simple little double-entry bookkeeping, which was invented in Venice, by the way.
It’s something astonishing. Venice can’t pay for the Regata Storica. It can’t pay for the city hospital. It can’t pay for repairing (fill in name of favorite monument, church, work of art here). It can’t pay to build a new cinema for the Film Festival. It can’t pay to correct the errors which were paid for with money which it didn’t have. It’s trying to sell the Casino because the once-flourishing cash cow is running out of butterfat. Somebody wrote to the Gazzettino that the best way to settle the evergreen conflict about whether the Italian Region of Alto Adige is really the Austrian Region of South Tyrol is to sell it to the Austrians. Conflict over, coffers bursting.
The only way to confront snaggly streets and exhausted bridges and anything else that needs fixing is to seek a sponsor. The word “sponsor” has acquired the lonely, sacred, unattainable significance of “Holy Grail.” “We have to find a sponsor” is the most annoying, monotonous, “I got nothin'” phrase since “Have a nice day.” It means “We have to find an oil field,” “We have to find a rhodium mine,” “We have to find something that doesn’t cost us anything and gives us everything.”
But money there is, because it keeps popping up where it isn’t supposed to be — not only in Venice, but all over Italy. Bribes. Payoffs. Fake blind people imbibing state subsidies for disabilities. (A woman has just been nabbed for having requested — and received — a 300-euro contribution to pay for her children’s schoolbooks. She claimed to have only 6,000 euros in this world. But in fact, she turns out to have 480,000 euros in this world.) One man who has finally been cornered for some malfeasance I haven’t been tracking was discovered to have 238 bank accounts. Is that a lot? I have no way of knowing.
I do know that there were long, convoluted negotiations between the city and Pierre Cardin about the “Palais Lumiere,” the cyclopean ultra-modern glass skyscraper he wanted to build on the edge of the lagoon. Everybody but the two aforementioned entities thought it was a terrible idea and finally he gave up and took his idea and went away. Which means that now the city suddenly doesn’t have the 30 million euros (I believe it was) which they had already happily scribbled onto the “Income” side of the ledger. Which means that now they haven’t got enough to pay for extending the tram across the bridge from Mestre to Piazzale Roma. Evidently the phrase “You should have thought of that sooner” applies to more situations than to five-year-olds in the back seat of the car who suddenly have to go to the bathroom.
As usual, everyone is wailing about taxes and many are wailing about the cost of government. (Feel free to wail in your own language.) But if anybody has the sensation that the taxes are going nowhere, it’s possible to discover at least some of the wheres. Such as running the government. We heard on the radio that the cost of government in Germany is 4 euros per person; in Greece it’s 6 euros per person; in Italy, it’s 27. It’s expensive to keep 630 people in Rome arguing all day about the other parties’ members and mistakes.
Am I going somewhere with all this? Certainly.
I am reading a very diverting book entitled “A Book of Scoundrels,” by Charles Whibley (1897), which delineates the careers of England’s most notable highwaymen and other sorts of thieves and criminals. Short version: In spite of their faults and failures as humans, he was basically on their side as long as they had panache, originality, and/or great clothes.
I offer the following segment in honor of all the fiscal frivolity that crowds the newspapers and the courts. This may be the only period that I’ve ever wished I were a lawyer; I’d be fixed for life.
The characters: James Hind (1616 – 1652) a notorious highwayman of Royalist sympathies who happened to get his clutches on John Bradshaw, the judge who had condemned King Charles I to decapitation. The scene: The luxurious open spaces of Dorset, near Sherborne.
First, Hind took all of the judge’s money, told the bodyguard (who had judiciously decided to suspend his active service) to take off his hat, and then delivered the following discourse on gold:
“This is that incomparable medicament, which the republican physicians call the wonder-working plaster. It is truly catholic in operation, and somewhat akin to the Jesuit’s powder, but more effectual.
“The virtues of it are strange and various; it makes justice deaf as well as blind, and takes out spots of the deepest treason more cleverly than castle-soap (sic) does common stains; it alters a man’s constitution in two or three days, more than the virtuoso’s transfusion of blood can do in seven years.
“‘Tis a great alexiopharmick, and helps poisonous principles of rebellion, and those that use them. It miraculously exalts and purifies the eyesight, and makes traitors behold nothing but innocence in the blackest malefactors.
“‘Tis a mighty cordial for a declining cause; it stifles faction or schism, as certainly as the itch is destroyed by butter and brimstone.
” … The very colour of this precious balm is bright and dazzling. If it be properly applied to the fist, that is in a decent manner, and a competent dose, it infallibly performs all the cures which the evils of humanity crave.”
Thus having spoken, he killed the six horses of Bradshaw’s coach, and went contemptuously on his way.
Take that! And that! Hind’s scorn might be wasted on the prime exemplars of modern brigandage here in the cradle of the Renaissance. Not that they’re unfamiliar with scorn, and some irony manages to make itself heard from time to time, but discourses such as Hind’s would lack flourish in Italian, where utterances often depend more on blunt instruments (words such as “shame”) than the whetted poniards of true rhetoric.
But I feel better now. Why? I don’t know. Maybe because it shows that there’s no point in struggling to be better people. It’s been this way forever. Here we are, and here we’ll stay. Evolution is over.
It’s so easy to get dragged down by the undertow (or do undertows drag out? another of the endless questions that fill my brain) — dragged on, let’s say, by the daily, hourly, secondly force of aberrant behavior here that you might wonder why I’m still here if it’s all so, well, aberrant.
Answer: It’s not ALL so aberrant.
Life here can also be really entertaining. I try to stay alert to the brighter side, even if I don’t always write about it. Things may calm down soon, and more brightness will be able to leave the Witness Protection Program where I’ve kept it while the summer rampaged on.
Here’s some of what I’ve seen lately that made me smile.