Archive for April, 2014
Now that I have pulverized every last fermion of the subject of death in Venice (book, author, phenomenon, movie, original language, salt-free-recipe-for), I’d like to amaze everyone’s questing minds by talking about being born in Venice.
It happens a lot, though not as often as one might wish. But if you really focus as you migrate from gelateria to gelateria, you may notice a number of plaques incised in Italian which include the word “nato” or “nascita” or, if they’re being grammatically fancy, even “nacque.” This means “born.”
Famous people came to Venice to be born? Wonderful!
Even more wonderful is how many famous people there are whom I’ve never heard of (thereby perplexing the meaning of “famous”). But I have just discovered someone whose birthplace I pass numerous times a day, and who, once I stopped and paid attention, I acknowledge as deserving not only his fading testimonial, but probably much more. A park, a lake, a bullet train bearing his name would not be too much. Elsewhere he may well receive more recognition than here; in Venice, honor has always been distributed in very small and carefully eye-droppered quantities. He should be glad he got a plaque.
His name is Carlo de Ghega (or Karl Ritter von Ghega), and after being born in Castello, he went on to do some prodigious things that merit at least a slice of marble nobody notices.
Now that I know who he is and what he did, I am going to tell you, because not all of us have had the benefit of an Austrian elementary-school education. An Austrian friend of mine was very unimpressed that I’d discovered somebody she’d learned about when she was a mere child. But then again, she may not know as much as I do about Stephanie Louise Kwolek, so there we are.
Did I say born in Venice, and he’s Austrian? (Actually, his parents were Albanian. That’s the beauty of an empire, in this case the Austro-Hungarian version. Lots of everybody everywhere.) Read on.
First, here is the runic summary of his life, as carved in stone:
Before I go further, you might want to know that the Noric Alps are a mountain chain between Italy and Austria encompassing the Tyrol, Salzburg and Carinthia.
And in this stretch of peaks and valleys Mr./Signor/Herr/Zoti De Ghega built a railroad known as the Semmering railway, named for the mountain pass it overcame. It is considered the first true mountain railway ever built, and was a feat so phenomenal that it is now on the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
Not everybody believed it could be done. The gradients were too steep (25 percent), the curves were too tight (180 meters/590 feet). It was too complicated, too difficult, impossible, actually, and also useless. In the face of such doubting and carping, it was obvious that he was going to do it. Also, I believe the Austrian emperor had specifically asked him to.
The pass isn’t so high (965 meters/3,166 feet above sea level), but connecting the villages of Gloggnitz and Murzzuschlag appears to have resembled a monumental cat’s-cradle. From 1848 to 1854, 20,000 workers blasted 14 tunnels and built 16 viaducts, 11 small iron bridges, and more than 100 curved stone bridges. All this over a distance of a mere 41 km (25 miles).
“Curved” is the important concept here — there isn’t a straight line anywhere. The curves were so insidious that new instruments and new methods of surveying had to be developed to deal with them. Further — stay with me, this is important — a new locomotive had to be created (the Engerth locomotive finally won out), and which did not rely on anything so simple as a cog-wheel system to drag it uphill.
De Ghega is a celebrity in the world of railway engineering and design, not to mention trains. But what else could one expect of a man who graduated from the University of Padua with a degree in mathematics at the age of 17? Here’s the answer: Being asked (told) to design the entire state railway system of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
I’m not saying he was a genius because he was born in Castello; you’ve got to be born somewhere. But it probably didn’t hurt him, either. In one way or another, great people keep showing up here.
April 25, as all the world knows, is a double holiday here. Not only is the day a national holiday (National Liberation Day), but it is the feast day of Marco, one of the four evangelists and the city’s (once republic’s) patron saint.
There are several ways to observe either or both of these memorable events, but this year another element was added: The Living Rose, or The Human Rose, or The Rose by Any Other Name, or however one wants to put it.
Alberto Toso Fei, a Venetian writer, and Elena Tagliapietra, an artist, came up with a new way to celebrate the traditional “bocolo,” or long-stemmed red rose, which is the customary Venetian homage from a gentleman to his ladylove, or wife, or girlfriend (perhaps both?), sister, aunt, or other deserving feminine personage in his life or family. But why give a rose when you can be one?
Some time earlier, the Gazzettino offered its readers the possibility of applying to participate as one of some 1,000 people who would form the design of the bocolo in the Piazza San Marco on April 25. This would be a sort of flash mob/performance art creation, to last only long enough to be photographed and filmed from the campanile of San Marco.
So we applied. And we were accepted, notified via e-mail, and asked to appear between 1:30 and 2:00 dressed in as much red garb as we could muster. We would embody part of Petal #12.
The day was hot and sunny, but there was a breeze, and although normally I wouldn’t have gone near the Piazza San Marco on a national holiday, the chaos was tolerable and the other rose-components all contributed to a surprisingly sprightly atmosphere.
Almost the best part of the entire event, which went off without so much as a drooping leaf, was to glimpse the by-now famous Tiziana Agostini, she of the mangled-nizioleti fame. She came to join in, dressed in red, which I think is somewhere beyond amazing, considering that the event had the additional purpose of raising funds to pay for the repair of the nizioleti in the area of the piazza. A lesser person might have avoided the piazza, saying “Nizioleti? What nizioleti?” But she was there, and I give her a fistful of gold stars.
I read that there were a number of other meanings, purposes, significances, and so on which had been layered onto the event. One headline referred to it as a “cry to the world from Venice,” to show that Venice is still a living city and not just a touristic snakepit. I merely pass that along.
Down at Piazza-level, though, the only thing that seemed to matter was enjoying a few minutes of doing something unusual that made you smile. Not that I’m against Deep Meaning, but for me, the smiling was reason enough to do it. Here’s the YouTube link: http://youtu.be/ZRL4Xh8VDkE
Dimensions: The Gazzettino says that the bloom covered some 850 square meters (9,149 square feet), and the stem and leaves some 150 meters (1,614 square feet). I cannot understand, sitting here, how that might be. It sounds like the size of an average Adirondack Great Camp, the kind that were built by the robber barons of the late 19th-century. But let that go. It didn’t last long enough for its size to really matter.
It was fun. Indubitably there are things that are more important, but God knows there’s a dangerous shortage of frivolity around here, so I’d be happy to leave it at that.
If we saved Venice in the meantime, that’s nice too.
Perhaps you missed this recent bulletin from “Entertainment Weekly”:
The previously announced, highly anticipated drama from The Weinstein Company about the adventures of Marco Polo has begun production for Netflix.
The show, which will have a 10-episode first season and premiere on Netflix in late 2014, will follow the famed explorer’s journey as it takes him to the center of a brutal war in 13th century China, “a world replete with exotic martial arts, political skullduggery, spectacular battles and sexual intrigue,” according to the press release.
What it didn’t mention, but which was relatively reliably reported by a cast member, is that the production will cost 120 million dollars, the most expensive TV series in the history of Marcos, Polos, and any number of fabulous khans. When you hear somebody say, “After Venice, we’re going to spend five months in Malaysia,” you begin to get an idea of where some of the money is going. Ditto when you hear that the cast and a batch of the crew are staying at a multi-star hotel whose cheapest room is called “Deluxe” and costs $750 per night. Perhaps they were bunking 18 people per room, like sweatshop immigrants.
But I like our no-star hovel. I could get room service there, too, if I really wanted it.
The world to be depicted will also be replete with scenes staged in Venice two weeks ago, which were made even more replete by Lino and me as extras. As was the case two years ago with the still-MIA film “Effie Gray,” we were engaged to row some old boats and give some credible watery backdrop to whatever was happening on center stage, or street or square.
To be an extra essentially means either moving (walking, running, rowing) or standing still. You might be called on to fake conversations or other normal activities (conversations, I mean — I don’t mean faking them is normal) for a few seconds at a time. I wouldn’t call it acting, but the real actors with lines to speak were faking just as much as we were, when you think about it.
Lino got in a few extra days of work before filming began because somebody needed to teach young Marco Polo (played by a certain Lorenzo Richelmy) how to row in the Venetian way. He says Lorenzo was not only a good sport but not a bad beginner. This is high praise, considering that a ferocious bora (northeast wind) was blowing all week. Not the best weather for learning how to do anything except hold onto your hat.
Here’s what’s fun: The costumes make you look like something from the Permian-Triassic Extinction Event that’s been dug up from under a dead tree. Ditto the make-up. And it’s extreme fun to get up at 3:30 AM to be ready for makeup at 5:00. After which you do nothing for hours.
It’s also fun to try to climb around in a big heavy boat, and even row it, when you’re swaddled in three layers of fabric, plus a long piece of cloth on your head which falls everywhere, especially in front of your face, when you’re trying to do real work. I still have green-gray and dark-brown bruises all over my legs from encounters with wood, stone, wickerwork, and other things that got in my way when I had to get from here to there while also fighting with my personal drapery. I felt as if I’d been wrapped in Miss Ellen’s portieres, before they were made into dresses.
It was less dramatic, but also less interesting, to spend an hour or two out of the boat, joining a small group required to walk over a small bridge, then walk back over it, then walk back over it, then walk back over it, then walk back over it….
But I’m happy. At times in my life I’ve been paid very little to work really hard. To be paid (also very little) to do scarcely anything, and even to do nothing, seems like an excellent way to spend some of my time. In my normal life, I don’t get to stand still and do nothing for any reason, and I certainly don’t get paid for it.
So thank you, Marco Polo, Harvey Weinstein, and all the ships at sea. I can’t wait for the next chance to play dress-up and do nothing. At 3:30 AM.
A super-sharp friend has just written to me, and apart from remarking pleasantly on my prose and panache, and admiring my musings on cuttlefish and the meaning of life (I think that was what I was doing), asked me why I didn’t explain how to cook them.
This blast of practicality was just what I needed, the perfect antidote to wandering around discoursing on how the once-delectable and desired seppie had become, through exaggeration, just Something Else to be Dealt With in Life.
I will now describe the process, in the style of Mrs. Beeton and others of her era, who were not too precise about quantities of ingredients (example: “a wine glass” amount of something. What wine? Bordeaux? Chardonnay?). But I will approximate as best I can. Here is the recipe according to Chef Lino of the Trattoria Bella Venezia, otherwise known as our kitchen:
2 pounds of seppie, cut in bite-sized pieces, with the ink sacs removed and put aside
extra virgin olive oil
1/3 cup chopped onion
1/2-3/4 cup of tomato sauce (not seasoned, just cooked strained tomatoes) OR
a big squirt of tomato paste, diluted
Saute’ the onion in a biggish pot.
Add the tomato sauce.
Add lots of water (1 1/2 quarts, more or less).
Add some salt and pepper (the seppie need to cook with some salt, but I suggest putting a minimum amount because as the sauce cooks down, the salty flavor will become stronger).
Bring to boil.
When the liquid boils, add the pieces of seppie, and the “latti” also (see below).
Take the ink sacs one by one, gently tear them to release the ink into the water, and drop the sacs into the water.
Simmer the seppie in the blackish liquid until the sauce is reduced to a thickish consistency and the pieces are tender.
Eat with pasta, eat as risotto, eat with polenta.
Watch the heck out for the ink as you work with it (and the inky sauce, too) because it makes a stain which is virtually impossible to remove from fabric. Or wear black clothes.
Whether you prepare pasta or risotto, you not only are permitted, you are essentially required, to add grated Parmesan cheese. Venetians don’t put cheese on any fish dish, as far as I know, but seppie requires it. I’ve tried seppie without cheese, and it has a wan, Little-Match-Girl sort of flavor. Try it yourself if you doubt me.
This section is a public service.
I suppose that whatever fish market sells cuttlefish in your neighborhood will have someone capable of removing all the inedible bits before you take them home. But Lino does the operation himself, and if you were ever to want to see a perfectly happy man, you would have to see Lino cleaning seppie. But he can’t clean yours, so if any brave reader wants to chance his or her arm, here is how you do it.
Press outward on the head so that the mouth comes forward. Pull it out. Be careful, because there is a very sharp little “beak” in there.
Make an incision with a sharp knife in each eye, then press behind them in such as way as to make the whole eye apparatus come out.
Taking the body of the seppie in both hands, press against it toward the head, in order to push out the solid white cuttlebone. If you have any friends with birds, you can give it to them and make them happy.
Make an incision in the back of the cuttlefish and open it. You will see the ink sac. Remove it v-e-r-y c-a-r-e-f-u-l-l-y. Of course, if you don’t want to put ink in the sauce, just throw it away, but I think eating seppie without their ink is like writing without verbs.
Put each ink sac into a small container for the moment; Lino uses an espresso cup.
Inside the seppia you will see two smallish white globes with a small red mark on them. These are the “latti,” or “latte,” and are the ovaries, if you want to know. Remove them and keep them to add to the pot. (Or, you can boil them, add some salt, pepper, and olive oil, and you’ve got one fantastic little antipasto.)
Now tug on the edge of the seppia’s body and pull off the skin. It may come off in pieces. Persevere.
Cut the flayed seppia into bite-sized pieces.
You’re done. Go give yourself a reward.