Archive for January, 2014
“Journalism,” said G.K. Chesterton, “is telling the public that Lord X is dead when the public didn’t know that Lord X had ever been alive.”
The case of the recently departed Umberto Da Preda might be a case in point.
Those who knew him, or at least had heard of him, were saddened to read on December 27 that he had died the day before, after a month-long illness in the hospital. The first article announcing this event was fairly long, partly in tribute and partly to refresh the memories or succor the ignorance of the day’s readers. Because while many people in his native sestiere of Cannaregio were genuinely grieved– though not taken entirely by surprise — Lino is convinced that there are plenty of Venetians who learned of his existence for the first time in the obituary.
Da Preda was “The ‘voice’ of the Venetian song,” as the Gazzettino termed it. Another report headlined: “Death of Da Preda, the most beautiful voice of the Venice which is no more.”
If such standards as “La biondina in gondoleta” or “El gondolier” are now widely known, it’s thanks to his innumerable performances and abundant recordings. The two respective links are: http://youtu.be/A0I0m6IPHtU and http://youtu.be/THinSRIRek0
The Gazzettino continues: “Umberto Da Preda leaves … a vast musical repertoire, 90 per cent of which is made up of traditional themes which even now represent the classics of the gondoliers during the serenades, and to which he gave a completely personal imprint.” (Note: Gondoliers almost never sing; the warbling comes from a singer hired to entertain his clients.)
Da Preda’s mainstays, some of which began to be composed in the 18th century, are generically termed “canzoni da batelo,” boat-songs, intended to be sung to the passengers out on the water enjoying a nocturnal summer fresco, (literally, “cool”). Many are anonymous pieces, passed along between generations. Like many of his vintage, Lino learned most of the approximately 8,319 songs he knows from his father, or from other Venetians. But Da Preda delved into deep cultural troves to bring forward an extraordinary assortment of songs, some of which were created by noteworthy poets and composers. They’re not all little ditties about wanting to take Ninetta out in the lagoon when the sun goes down.
Da Preda was on the way to an international career; he performed, with his guitar, in the Bahamas, in Russia, in Israel, in the US, and in England, where he sang for Queen Elizabeth II. But he loved Venice and preferred staying here, close to home, singing at the Danieli and Cipriani hotels, or in private palaces at what seems to have been a steady stream of fetes, entertainments, and soirees.
“What did he die of?” we asked a friend of his the next day.
He shrugged. “The sand in the hourglass ran out,” he said. “And he drank a Mississippi in his life.” Evidently Da Preda kept a bottle of whiskey close at hand on the many evenings he performed in assorted boites and restaurants. Singing is thirsty work, and I think in those days the sparkling-water-with-lemon-slice hadn’t been discovered. Not that he would have wanted it. I drink it and I don’t want it.
In any case, the friend continued, Da Preda didn’t take seriously any warnings about hard living he might have gotten from his nearest and dearest. “He said once, ‘I’ve eaten, I’ve drunk, I’ve done what I wanted in my life,'” the friend told us. “‘When it’s time for me to go, I’ll just head on out'” (vado in zo, which is the most casual leave-taking phrase there is in Venetian).
I went to his funeral on January 2 — a week ago today — a dreary, raw day. I admit I was curious to see what sort of farewell would be given. Naturally I can’t judge what emotions the 150 or so mourners were feeling, which may have been deep and intense, but if so they kept them well under control. It was a subdued ceremony, distinguished mainly by two things.
The first was the playing, as the casket was being taken out of the church, of Da Preda singing one of his best-known songs, “Ciao Venezia.” The second was the alzaremi, or oar-raising in salute, by rowers from the Settemari and Querini rowing clubs. The presence of any Venetian boats is always a beautiful thing, and although he wasn’t particularly prominent in the boating world, he was 100 percent Venetian, and this calls for some special acknowledgment, in my opinion.
He lived his life just the way he wanted to and if he had any regrets, he kept them to himself. That’s what I’m going to remember. Here’s the link: http://youtu.be/D8zmgatPh-w
Every country has so many holidays, commemorating events and personages that matter mainly (or only) to them, that something as modest, as wholesome, as foursquare as a Flag Day gets lost in the scrum. But there are plenty of them, I discover.
Forty-six countries, of the 180 or 190 or 206 countries on earth at the moment, celebrate a day either named, or at least mentioned in some way, as Flag Day.
I just found out this very morning that today, January 7, is Flag Day in Italy. It commemorates January 7, 1797, the day on which the Cispadana Republic was established by Napoleon. It was a transitory entity, a puppet creature of the French government, but the flag that was created by representatives of the cities of Reggio Emilia, Bologna, Modena and Ferrara lives on in their choice of red, white and green.
The day is celebrated with varying degrees of pomp around the country. In Reggio and Bologna, it gets a lot of attention, because their city colors are red and white. (Green represents hope, if that needs explaining.)
In Venice, the day is kept extremely quiet; so quiet that no notice whatever is made on the daily calendar of the Comune. I only was alerted to the significance of January 7 by a temporary sign set up at Sant’ Elena, propped against the flagpole. At least somebody cares.
In Rome, more fuss is made of the date, as you might imagine. At 3:15 PM, in front of the Quirinale Palace (residence of the President of the Republic), a special ceremony of the changing of the guard is performed by the Corazzieri, the branch of the carabinieri designated as the President’s honor guard. They always look great, partly because of their size (minimum required height: 190 cm, or six feet, 2.8 inches), partly because of their horses, and especially because of their dress uniforms. Not everybody can rock a shiny metal breastplate and helmet crowned with a horse’s tail. Here’s the link: http://youtu.be/tfGCTVfNo8E
Note: If the marching in begins to pall, skip to 7:45 for the moment of the changing of the guard.
Lino, like everybody of his vintage, learned batches of patriotic songs when he was a lad. It was like us memorizing “Trees” for Arbor Day. The minute I started playing “La Bandiera Tricolore” he began singing along. It’s short, but sweet. It basically says that our flag has always been the most beautiful and it’s the only one we want, along with liberty. Long live the three colors.
Here’s the link: http://youtu.be/IY0NwMrEL6c
For more patriotic history, and music, see my post on the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Republic.
Probably nobody is thinking about New Year’s Eve anymore, no matter where they spent it. But here in Venice it’s not over yet, as the papers continue to publish a cascade of ever-more-detailed articles, personal stories, and editorials on how things went.
In a word: Badly.
So I’m going to back up from my earlier post and try this report again. Because in case you don’t know, the three most beautiful words in the English language are not “I love you” (though they’re not the worst, either).
Nope. The three MOST beautiful words are “You were right.” And in my case, its close cousin: “I was wrong.”
I admit that I felt uneasy writing that sunny little post about New Year’s Eve. Even as I wrote it, I had the strange feeling that I was unaccountably speaking in some unknown language from the planet where life is beautiful all the time.
I must have inadvertently disconnected my internal smoke-detector, because the news is demonstrating, in ever more lurid detail, why I will never go near the Piazza San Marco on the night of Saint Sylvester. And how inexplicably incapable the city is of organizing big events in some reasonable manner. And when I refer to the organization of big events, I have some small experience elsewhere; for example, the Fiesta of San Fermin at Pamplona, which I have attended twice. And I’d go back again, no matter how much I hate crowds, and one of many reasons is because it is organized and maintained in the most dazzlingly intelligent and diligent manner for nine solid days and nights. And a mere twelve hours drives Venice to its knees.
From 9:30 PM, rivers of young people arriving by train filled the streets heading toward the Piazza, smashing bottles and setting off firecrackers as they went.
Far from being a scene of frolic and light-hearted conviviality, as the night dragged on the Piazza San Marco (and Piazzale Roma, whence thousands tried eventually to depart the most beautiful city in the world) resembled a war zone, or a frat party of intercontinental dimensions. Words such as “assault,” “devastation,” and “outrage” highlight the reports of the night, and the morning after.
Piles of shattered glass bottles and pools of biological fluids from either or both ends of homo stupidus prostratus were only some of the abundant remains. There were also the bodies of comatose sleeping revelers scattered around the streets, lying where they fell when the fumes ran out.
The story in figures:
80,000 partyers, 10,000 more than the past two years. Most of the yobbos weren’t Venetian, but from everywhere else — what in New York are called “bridge and tunnel” people. I’ve seen them there at the St. Patrick’s Day parade, and it’s not lovely. It’s no lovelier here.
50 interventions by the 45 emergency medical personnel from the Green Cross, Civil Protection, and SUEM, the ambulance entity; most crises related to alcohol drunk, alcohol spilled (rendering the already wet pavement dangerously slippery), cuts by the broken glass of bottles blindly hurled into the air, blows to the head, and panic attacks caused by the mob and the explosions of firecrackers at close quarters.
100,000 euros ($135,868) the estimated cost to the city, excluding fireworks. This approximate number comprises: 60,000 euros for the collection and removal of 135 cubic meters (4,732 cubic feet)of garbage, of which 20 cubic meters (706 cubic feet) were of glass; 15,000 euros for the 60 Municipal Police agents on security duty. And the cost, not yet quantified, of the extra transport personnel (50 bus drivers and an unspecified number of vaporetto pilots). And the fuel required by the 20 garbage barges.
60 extra buses coming into Venice from the mainland; 123 extra buses between midnight and 7:00 AM from Venice to the mainland. Does this sound like a lot? Au contraire; the ACTV, in its wisdom, put on extra vaporettos, which worked well, but reduced the basic number of bus runs on a holiday eve. Because it’s, you know, a holiday, and the drivers want to be at home. New Year’s Eve in Venice, with reduced bus service. Explain this to the masses of tired, cold, exasperated people who were trying to get back home, who even overwhelmed the relatively few taxis in Piazzale Roma. Explain it to anybody, if you can. And I still can’t figure out how 50 extra bus drivers were sent to work if there were fewer buses. Or were they put to work scrolling the “Out of service” sign onto the buses’ forefronts?
The story in voices:
“It was hard, if not impossible, to move. Funky air, a mix of piss and drugs, the pavement “mined” with bottles, cans, and every sort of garbage…The Piazza was a disaster. Electronic music at full volume incited the crowd that was already drunk and out of control. A great number of young people had taken over, armed with every type of alcohol…the center of the Piazza was an inferno. Not just fireworks, but young people, Italian and foreign, were competing in a new entertainment: the launching of bottles…I didn’t see any security agents that would have forbidden this behavior…The day after, the marks remained on our city, heritage of humanity, devastated by barbarism.” (Margherita Gasco)
“According to a recent international survey, the night between the last and first of the year shows Venice to be among the principal capitals of the festivities on the planet. This shouldn’t prevent us from … reflecting critically on how these events are carried out — if they’re worth the trouble, if they still have their original sense.” (Gianfranco Bettin, the assessore for the Environment).
“Such a high number of people wasn’t predicted, nor predictable,” said Angela Vettese, the assessore of Culture and Tourism Development. (It wasn’t predictable? Does she not read tourism surveys?). “In the future, more prudence is necessary to protect the Piazza, and to invest in more surveillance, so that the police can check, count, and keep access to the Piazza within a determined limit. Furthermore, it’s necessary to organize only high-quality events, with spectacles that involve the public (more involved than they already were?), maintaining greater tranquillity.” She’s still new on the job, or she wouldn’t be talking like that; all these things have been said before, and before, and even before that.
Social network comments were divided between those who think New Year’s Eve in the Piazza is the greatest thing ever, and those who think the care and protection of the already fragile city is more important; those who insist it was just a normal night of festivity, and those who characterize is as another example of sheer lunacy.
“I urge the church to make itself heard, seeing that the civil authorities don’t feel any special need to safeguard the Piazza San Marco…Can we imagine an event like last Tuesday in the Piazza San Pietro in Rome?” (Franco Miracco, art historian).
“San Marco can’t be the only stage for events” (Mons. Antonio Meneguolo, diocese of Venice). “It’s not the number of people which creates bad behavior,” he said. “We can increase the security but it would be better to organize other activities elsewhere, and remove the emphasis of the publicity for “New Year’s in the Piazza,” seeing how the event ends up.”
“Venice continues to be seen as a city to exploit touristically down to the bone,” said Lidia Fersuoch, president of Italia Nostra. “More than limit access to the Piazza, it’s necessary to limited access to the city itself, because it’s impossible to contain more than a certain number of visitors.”
“Certainly, if we take as the limit the Pink Floyd concert of 1989, anything even just barely below that is considered tolerable…But hurling bottles, explosion of firecrackers, people who urinate and vomit in the streets, are these part of the normal course of public socializing? For some people, yes, but for us, no. Especially if it happens in the Piazza San Marco, which isn’t just any piazza, but a monumental area, as it was defined when concerts were stopped (because they have an excessive impact on the Piazza itself)… But why no to concerts, and yes to New Year’s Eve? We speak of “outrage” precisely because it’s a monumental area; you can’t remain indifferent seeing people climbing up the 16th-century columns of the Loggetta of Sansovino at the feet of the campanile. The piazza has always been the place for socializing, for events. But what events?” (Davide Scalzotto)
Here is what I ask myself and anyone who might be listening: There is a Superintendency of architecture, of art, of treasures. There is the Polizia di Stato, the carabinieri, the municipal police, the Guardia di Finanza. There are ordinances forbidding almost every dangerous and tumultuous form of behavior and the hazardous objects associated with them. Why is there no evident point at which any of these elements meet? The behavior and objects are at Point A, and any uniformed persons authorized to intervene are at Points Q, X, and Z. All told, there may have been more garbage collectors than anybody else at work in the Piazza, which seems backwards, to me.
In theory, if there were more agents of public order on duty, there would be less need for the First Aid stations, not to mention the ambulances and garbagemen.
But let me move on to a much more distressing thought.
Venice is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, which, unlike many of the 981 sites on their list, is a real place where real people live and move and have their being. This presents special problems which nobody seems able to anticipate, or resolve. I am at a loss to say why, except that with ten fingers per city councilor, there’s plenty for pointing at other people.
There are 49 UNESCO sites in Italy, more than any other country on earth. So far, none is marked as being “in danger.” I think Venice should be. I cannot conceive of shenanigans such as New Year’s Eve in the Piazza San Marco being tolerated in Angkor, or Machu Picchu, or the Alhambra, or the Red Fort Complex, or the Etruscan Necropolises, or the Potala Palace, or the Galapagos Islands. And this is not the first time. And yet, it goes on.
And I’ll say one more thing, as long as I’m on the subject: Of all the “properties” on UNESCO’s list of World Heritage Sites, only two, so far, have been de-listed. The reasons are given on this page of their website.
Between the catastrophes visited upon Venice under the ever-fresh rubber stamp of the Superintendency of Architectural Treasures (the tormented issue of the maxi-posters in the San Marco area has only been moderately resolved, among other things), and the continued abuse of the lagoon, which is also part of the World Heritage designation (from the Canale dei Petroli to MoSE and now to the imminent approval of the digging of the Contorta canal), I don’t think it’s inconceivable that eventually Venice could see itself de-listed from the UNESCO panoply.
This is not the most improbable scenario I’ve ever come up with. Except that I’d love to be able to say “I was wrong.”
First, apologies to those who subscribe; the link to a YouTube clip did not come through in the e-mail version. (I keep forgetting about that, because it makes no sense….).
Here it is. Background music for the New Year: http://youtu.be/EOt4VDDjuYQ
News from the Western Front, where all was not quiet on the night of Saint Sylvester (Dec. 31). The Gazzettino this morning gave some details.
At 10:30 PM the Liberty Bridge to the mainland was closed because there was no more room to park (38 buses and 1,500 cars were stashed at Tronchetto, 750 in the Comunale garage and 450 in the San Marco garage, both at Piazzale Roma).
Police estimated there were 80,000 people partying in and around the Piazza San Marco. Despite regulations requiring plastic bottles for your chosen beverage, there was plenty of broken glass around, which wounded 39 people. One person fell in the water, but not from the Piazza San Marco.
Astonishing, but the vaporettos and buses were sufficient and efficient. (As my old choir leader used to say when we did what he wanted, “Now you’re in trouble — now I know you can do it.”)
So much for the turn of the year. I’m facing forward now.