After the doges were let go in 1797 by the new management team of Napoleon and Satan, there was a very unhappy lull in Venetian history. It was an unhappy lull even while it was happening, before it became history.
And it wasn’t what I’d really call a lull, either, unless you call being put to bed with dengue fever a lull.
This interval of tyranny and anguish was abruptly cut short on March 22, 1848, when the Venetians revolted against Austria, which had acquired Venice from France in a diplomatic trade-off immortalized in the Treaty of Campo Formio (October 18, 1797). Cleverly, Napoleon effected this trade only after he had disemboweled the former Queen of the Seas, carrying off wagonloads of treasure and razing palaces, churches, convents and scuole (thereby making more treasure available for his waiting wagons).
The man who led the uprising and the brief establishment of the Republic of San Marco was a Venetian lawyer named Daniele Manin. I’ve outlined the story in another post, so I won’t go over it again. I would just appreciate your pausing for a moment to consider the magnificence of this doomed attempt and the people who put everything into it.
And just think: Only twelve years later, the Austrians were gone. I’m not capable of determining to what extent 1848 led to 1861, but I still want to give my own puny recognition of a huge event which everyone by now just takes for granted, I guess.
It’s been a while since I grappled with any serious aspect of Venice today. (History is so much more amusing.) But I feel a strange sense of obligation to update the situation for people who are interested, and who may have the impression from assorted news reports that the city’s biggest problems are tourists or big cruise ships or acqua alta.
Part of my silence is because Venice is in an exceptionally confusing, depressing, and frustrating situation and I am becoming allergic to confusion and frustration. And by reading the daily bulletins, it can be difficult to grasp the big picture. So I’m here to provide it for you.
In my opinion, Venice is living (enduring, suffering) one of those critical moments which occur in every life, whether personal or municipal or national or whatever. I have no doubt that people are already writing books about it, and will continue to do so till the next critical moment strikes, and may it be far, far in the future.
This little update seems appropriate just now because yesterday there was a “primary election” to decide who will be the mayoral candidate from the political party known as PD, or Partito Democratico (Communists). Three men were vying for this nomination from their party, and this is already strange because normally the officers/directors/stringpullers of the party decide who their candidate is going to be. It’s rare for there to be such conflict within a party that the public has to intervene to decide who to run.
The election is scheduled for May 31, and many cities are going to the polls that day. Here in Venice, some politicians have already commented that the state of the city is so catastrophic that it might be better not to waste money on elections, but to just stick with the emergency governor, commissario Vittorio Zappalorto (or someone like him, appointed by the prime minister). I realize that this approach probably shouldn’t be a long-term plan, but if the electorate here were to take seriously the suggestion by one candidate that nobody from the previous city government should be permitted to run, that would leave slim pickings indeed.
My own feeling is that anyone who would want to be mayor of Venice would be someone who would want to scale Everest, walking backwards, and naked. There can’t be much difference between the two adventures — painful for him, and close to futile. Sorry, I meant fatal.
Before I relate any specifics, I share this observation by Professor Guido Vittorio Zucconi which I found on the homepage of the Ateneo Veneto, one of the city’s major cultural institutions which offers lectures and other presentations on a variety of Venetian themes.
He said that the programming of events will undergo some innovations (I translate): “To give more weight to topics tied to the ‘city that is being transformed,’ rather than those of the ‘death of Venice': the city is not dying, but it is changing radically, showing itself too fragile for the tasks and for the impact which it must sustain every day.”
I’m clear on the fragility and the impact, but it’s the economy that has become the new instrument of daily torture. Basically, Venice doesn’t have an economy anymore.
First, the global economic crisis that began in 2008 dismembered the Italian economy. In an effort to get the country back on a steadier fiscal footing, the parliament — urged on by the heat-seeking missile which is the Prime Minister, Matteo Renzi — passed a “Pact of Stability,” intended to establish budgetary limits all over the country and get everybody back on the black side of the ledger. If not? Budget cuts and penalties, and penalties and cuts, all outlined in the Pact.
Second, Venice, which for years has lived on the fat of government money via the “Special Law” for Venice, suddenly found itself not only required to prepare a budget according to the new limits, but one that would be based on real income, and not on subsidies. (Another “subsidy” of sorts, the income from taxes from the Casino, went into a death spiral about the same time.)
The city government tried all sorts of things: selling the Casino (failed), selling palaces (mostly failed), and a few mastodontic projects which instead of creating income, created only debt and grief. And money from the Special Law which had been intended for many uses had been funneled into the pockets and personal bank accounts of the Consorzio Venezia Nuova, otherwise known as “MOSE,” leaving everybody else with that “It’s only the sixth of the month and I’ve already spent my entire paycheck” feeling.
In 2005 (before the crisis) the national government passed a special decree called the “Mille Proroghe,” and repeated it each year till 2014 (it skipped 2012). A “thousand deferments” is a rough translation, and was meant to resolve or — better yet — offer extensions to facilitate the resolution of certain urgent financial problems.
But by 2008 Italy was leaping on ice floes across the raging financial river, like Eliza fleeing to Canada, except that unlike Eliza, it fell in. And cities that couldn’t make their budgets balance were on their own, even big cities such as Torino and even Rome.
On June 4, 2014 the city government imploded, and on July 2, 2014, Venice was placed under the administration of a temporary governor, Vittorio Zappalorto, whose assignment was to do whatever it took to force the budget even somewhat close to reality. In one of his first interviews, he said “I’m worried, but I’ll straighten out the accounts.”
That was then. After months of pitiless toil, cuts and slashes everywhere, Zappalorto finally concluded that there was nothing more that could be done to save the ship; he was even quoted as saying that if Rome didn’t step in with funds, all the sacrifices people had been forced to make would have been useless.
But Rome wasn’t feeling Venice’s pain; in fact, there were enough other cities in the same desperate straits that it seemed impossible, if not absurd, to favor one town ahead of the others. Why Venice and not Aquila? (Not a completely rhetorical question.)
Desperate meetings finally produced a way to save Venice from default. At 4:03 AM on February 16, 2015, the “Salva Venezia” (save Venice) amendment was inserted into the Mille Proroghe bill 2015 to be voted on.
This was only slightly good news, because there appeared to be a great reluctance on the part of the Prime Minister to give any special consideration to Venice, and hundreds of parliamentarians from all over Italy weren’t necessarily clear on the reasons why Venice deserves more help than their own region or city.
Of course, cutting spending (good) also means cutting jobs (very bad), and social services, and other non-frivolous aspects of city management. An example of what “cuts” mean: Only one and a half million euros of what ought to be nine million euros were allocated in the budget for 2015 for the 3,000 city employees.
Last year it was the then-mayor, Giorgio Orsoni, who went to Rome pleading for mercy. But now it was Zappalorto, the very man sent specifically by the Prime Minister to shape up the city, who had to step forward to ask for clemency.
On February 22, virtually at the last minute, the “Save Venice” amendment was passed, on the condition that the city’s budget be subject to monthly reviews for the next year. It’s sort of the equivalent of being grounded for the next twelve months.
The problem is how to fill in a hole in the budget that amounts to 56 million euros. I won’t start listing categories and amounts of cuts, or the various exceptions, but it’s worth noting that the city government isn’t going to have money to buy anything for its own daily operation except “paper, office supplies, and toner.” Not made up.
Before leaving this excruciating topic — and before anyone feels too tempted to weep — I have to say that although the city is broke, it has to a certain extent brought this on itself. Essentially, the city maxed-out its credit cards several years ago, and many things it has spent money on have not proved to be useful, and some are sitting half-finished, or not even started, growing weeds.
Somewhere there is a comprehensive list, but I’ll just give a few examples of the money that has been thrown out the windows with wild abandon on the Lido, summarized by the Gazzettino on March 6 under the headline “Projects and public works A flop of 100 million” (euros, rounded down). You may not care about the Lido, nor do I, but the following will demonstrate some part of the mentality which has driven the Good Ship Venice onto the pecuniary reef.
About ten years ago, more or less, a number of huge “improvement” projects were confected which would “re-launch” the island, which had lost its luster and also most of its tourist income.
The star project would be the new Palacinema for the Venice Film Festival, which was designed as a sort of multiplex with numerous theaters; another would be a vast yacht marina at San Nicolo’, a space which would be as big as the Giudecca; and another was the conversion of various buildings which comprise the once quite marvelous (and useful) Ospedale al Mare, or Hospital at the Sea, to private uses such as apartments.
The new Palacinema was approved in 2004; time was spent in the search for additional funding, work began around 2008 with the ripping out of a shady pine grove near the old building, and some excavating began. And then almost immediately stopped, because in 2009 the diggers began to pull up loads of asbestos trash, thrown away by God knows who over the years and then covered up by other occult hands. Nobody thought of taking soil samples before bringing in the backhoes.
And there the Palacinema sits — or rather, the hole sits — frozen in time, and 38,613,000 euros have been spent on a site which remains devastated and on which not one brick has yet been laid. Some wag has put up a street sign with the fictitious but too-true name, “Piazza Quaranta Milioni” (Forty Million Square). It’s a lot to pay for a hole that’s 9 feet (3 meters) deep.
Palacinema, Part 2: Seeing that the costs were rising, the city removed the project managers and installed a commissario, or temporary overseer, which cost an additional 1,500,000 euros. (I can’t explain this, I merely report it.) The financial magistrates stated that this whole affair was a “handbook example” of waste of public money.
Ospedale al Mare: Cleaning up and preparing the areas for the new uses, which have yet to even begin being realized, has cost 1,600,000 euros.
The glorious yacht marina at San Nicolo': 8,000,000 euros spent, with nothing done so far except court cases with lots of accusations. If I had time (and cared), I’d do more research on what could have cost that much for no results.
New traffic layout on the seafront: 2,000,000 euros spent, with no results so far.
Hotel Des Bains: This legendary landmark Belle Epoque hotel, famous for its starring role in “Death in Venice” (book and film), not to mention its 100 years of fabulous guests, remains closed since the project of turning it into a luxury-apartment complex failed. 30,000,000 euros spent so far, and its extraordinary decorations (fabrics, curtains, furniture) were put up for sale, even on the internet.
So yes, we should feel bad that Venice is broke, but we should also feel bad that it got this way because nobody cared about much of anything but themselves.
Prosperity depends on a simple choice: Make more, or spend less. They just got it backward.
Life under the Serenissima wasn’t all state occasions and visiting potentates. It was a whole lot of craziness, and often some of the main players were priests and nuns (separately and together).
I already knew that a good number of convents were forced-labor camps for generations of patrician Venetian women who, for whatever reason, didn’t win the marriage lottery. There were some cloisters which were notorious for having inmates who adhered closely to the “carpe diem” doctrine of the Church of Life. San Zaccaria, Ognissanti, Santa Maria Maggiore were only a few of the more notorious locations, and where this led is evident by what is sometimes found by men digging to lay new pipes or lines where convents used to be, viz.: a tiny skeleton. Not made up.
San Zaccaria, the Benedictine sisters thereof, built up quite a reputation over the centuries. The Venetian historian Sanudo records that on July 1, 1514, it having been decided (not by the nuns) to “close the parlor of San Zacharia for more honesty, the vicar of the lord patriarch Zuan di Anzolo di Santo Severino…went to accomplish this task with a few captains and officials; seeing that the nuns threw stones at them and forced them to flee…the patriarch himself went in person to accomplish this task. Then, by order of the Council of Ten, someone was sent to make windows.” Need to let some light in, and make it easier for others to see what’s going on. Theoretically.
But that was a temporary inconvenience. In the 17th and 18th centuries things were back to the way they’d been, if not more so. Persons of both sexes came to socialize, to conduct “brilliant conversations”; the nuns organized parties and masked festivities, and sometimes brought in puppet shows to amuse the children who tagged along with the brilliant conversers.
The nearby church of San Lorenzo, like many churches, also had a convent attached to it. The convent is gone and the church is shut, which is too bad if only for the fact that it contains (or contained) the tomb of Marco Polo, who was buried there in 1324.
But the convent is what I want to talk about. Why not? Probably everybody in Venice talked about it. I translate the quaint but pointed style of Giuseppe Tassini, in “Curiosita’ Veneziane“:
“We hinted in various places at the almost general corruption that reigned in the old days among our nuns. But one can say that those of San Lorenzo just about took the prize in that competition.
“On June 16 1360 we find condemned to a year in prison and a fine of 100 lire Marco Boccaso, Zanin Baseggio, and Giuseppe di Marcadello for having fornicated, the first with a Ruzzini, the second with Beriola Contarini, and the third with Orsola Acotanto, professed nuns of that convent.
“A short while later, that is, on July 22, 1360, Margarita revendigola (a renter of sumptuous garb), Bertuccia, the widow of Paolo d’Ancona, Maddalena da Bologna, Margarita da Padova, and Lucia (a slave) were publicly whipped for having carried, as go-betweens, amorous letters and embassies to those nuns.
“As time went on, by the sentence of March 25, 1385, Master Nicolo’ Giustinian, physician, was condemned to two years and three months of prison and a fine of 300 lire, because he was making love to Sister Fiordelise Gradenigo, entering several times with false keys in the convent of San Lorenzo to join his beloved, with whom he had a son.
“Lastly, on June 21, 1385, Marco Gritti had to undergo three years in prison, for having entered the same convent for dishonest ends.
“And in the 17th century the dress of the nuns of San Lorenzo breathes worldly vanity. The proof is in Viaggio per l’alta Italia del Sereniss. Principe di Toscana, poi Granduca Cosimo III, descritto da Filippo Pizzichi. He, speaking of the convent of S. Lorenzo, which he visited with the prince in 1664, expressed himself thus:
“‘This is the richest convent of Venice, and there are more than 100 nuns, all gentlewomen. They dress themselves most elegantly, with white habits in the French manner, the bodice of fine linen with tiny pleats, and the professed wear black lace three fingers wide on the seams; a small veil encircles their forehead, below which their curly hair falls, beautifully arranged; their bosom is half-uncovered, and taken altogether their habit has more of the nymph than the nun.’
But before you start shaking your fist at the nuns, you should hear something about the priests.
I return to Tassini:
“We read that in 1391 Giacomo Tanto, the pievano (parish priest) of San Maurizio, who had agreed with Tommaso Corner to kill a priest named Giovanni … brought him to a house situated at S. Aponal in the Carampane, under the pretext of giving him ‘a fourth of Malvasia wine for the Mass’ and there, aided by a companion, he slew him.
“Both men returned to the Canonica, where the deceased lived, and stole all of his goods. When the crime was discovered, Tommaso Corner, who was absent, was sentenced on September 28, 1392 to perpetual banishment, and the pievano was condemned to end his life in the cage suspended from the campanile of San Marco on bread and water.” He was the first man recorded to have suffered this castigation.
The “cage” was the cheba (KEH-bah), which is occasionally referred to on admonitory plaques around the city as a possible punishment for breaking whatever rules are set forth on the plaque. It was reserved for ecclesiastics, or for anyone committing crimes in a sacred place. One source says that these crimes were usually “homicide, sodomy, blasphemy, and false witness.”
This cage was either permanently attached to the side of the campanile (examples remain in Mantova and Piacenza), or suspended from a beam inserted, as needed, into the bell tower’s wall. The condemned was put inside it and that was that. Night, day, rain, snow, hail, passing pigeons — he got it all. And a daily ration of bread and water, which is not nourishment; it is only a cheap way to prolong starvation.
But Giacomo Tanto’s stepmother felt sorry for him languishing there, and so she found a way (fancy way of saying “bribed”) to induce an official of the Signori della Notte (the Lords of the Night, or the Almost-Everything Police) AND the chief of the guards of the Piazza, to slip her disgraced stepson other victuals. Not steak, unfortunately, or polenta with seppie, or anything else of a remotely nutritious nature (eat more fruit), but frittelle, and sweet focaccia with walnuts and almonds, and powdered sugar, and other confections which undoubtedly kept his spirits up as he was expiring. She got caught, and the official of the Signori della Notte lost his job and was sent to prison for a year, and Giacomo went back to his daily bread until he died.
But his was no isolated case. In the “Incorrigible Priest” division of the league of renegade religious, we have a very strong team:
Don Francesco of San Polo (1518) was accused of sodomy and consigned to the cheba. Documents report that some kind soul gave him a gaban (gah-BAHN) to wear, to protect him from the elements, even though it was April. The gaban was a long loose robe with sleeves, made of thick rough fabric.
Don Francesco, having plenty of time to spare, devoted himself to pulling the gaban slowly apart, till he had a collection of strips which he tied together, and you know where this is going. On the night of July 1 he somehow managed to get out of the cage, and clinging to the long improvised rope he began to lower himself toward the pavement, and freedom.
But the rope ran out “a good distance” above the ground — enough of a distance to have rendered a fall more conclusive than the cheba.
So he just dangled there, hanging on, and yelling for help. The night guardians came running, retrieved him (I don’t know how — with a net, like the firemen?) and carried him off to prison where the walls would be less accommodating than the cage.
But speaking of being accommodating, we last hear that he was succoured in his new incarceration by the nuns of San Zaccaria who, if you’ll remember, were not exactly “flour for making Communion wafers,” as they say here. So their succouring almost certainly made everything better.
I’m skipping over a few others, such as don Francesco at San Stae (1502), and another don Francesco at Ognissanti (1505), who begot their heirs among the abbesses and their flock, to arrive at the star player: don Agostino of Santa Fosca.
Agostino’s collar did nothing to stem his love for life, among which were girls and gambling. He didn’t interfere with the nuns, amusing himself instead with the commercially available ladies, but that wasn’t his crime. He was tried and sentenced for having blasphemed while playing cards. It can happen, but it’s unpleasant to hear a priest give way to that extent.
He was the last person sent to the cheba. On August 7, 1542, he was taken, hands tied, to the stocks placed between the columns of Marco and Todaro, and left there for six hours. A sign on his chest described his crime and the punishment.
A sort of crown was put on his head, on which were depicted the devils to whom the priest had listened: “…they made me an emperor without an empire….I was crowned without being given a sceptre, wanting to punish me for my iniquity…”. Perhaps you had to have been there.
Then he was taken up and installed in the cheba, where he remained for two months, after which he was taken to prison for another ten months.
Leaving prison, he was banished for life, which meant leaving the entire Venetian territory, which would have cut out a large part of Northeast Italy, the eastern Adriatic coast, and chunks of Greece, including Crete. Still, that left plenty of other places where they must have known how to play cards and lose money.
Don’t imagine this is an exhaustive list. It’s just all I know so far. But looking around, I notice that the mortal sins have continued to flourish, so I leave you with don Agostino’s penitential warning: “Flee from gambling, do not blaspheme the saints, even less the Lord God…abandon playing cards, blasphemy and prostitutes…”.
I admiringly acknowledge the exceptional research of a personage named Giandri, whose website is marvelous reading (in Italian, alas for many).
We are having perfect March weather (windy, chilly, sunny), which translates to perfect walking weather.
That’s a silly remark; it’s always walking weather here. But these mornings are much more appealing than some others. (August, I’m looking at you.)
So we are getting up and out the door early, when the streets are still almost empty and appear to be waiting just for us. Or if that’s a little too egotistical, they appear to be doing just fine without us. Or anybody. In any case, they look great.
Today we meandered as far as the Sacca San Girolamo, otherwise known as the “Baia del Re,” in remotest Cannaregio. And along the way, reminiscences sprang out. Lino doesn’t look for memories, they practically run into him.
Take, for example, the little, very old man who approached us as we sauntered along the fondamenta de la Misericordia. He was medium height, robust in a block-of-cement-like way, with a face that boasted three bright apples — his chin and both cheeks. His eyes were clear, if somewhat distant, and he was shuffling along very, very slowly.
He glanced at us both as we got nearer and somehow I had the impression that he recognized Lino. But no gesture was made, so we three continued on our way.
“You know who that was?” Lino asked me. I accept this rhetorical opener by now and resist making any sarcastical reply. I just wait.
“He was the coach of the national women’s volleyball team,” is the answer. Why would Lino know this?
“His job was driving the garbage barge in my old neighborhood,” so naturally they would have seen each other around.
“But he was also a kind of hoarder,” Lino continued. “I read in the Gazzettino that the neighbors finally complained about the smell, and the Public Health officers came to investigate and they made him move.” Like many trash-collectors, he not only nabbed good stuff that he could resell, but evidently also perishable items which, as we know, often get thrown away in medium-to-good condition. But then the organic matter began to go the way of all organic matter, hence the complaints.
“He moved to somewhere on the mainland,” was the conclusion. My next questions were fruitless. “I only know what was in the paper about that. It went on for months.”
But that remark wasn’t the conclusion. “I once offered him our family’s old Singer sewing machine.” It was an early foot-treadle model that his mother and sisters used to make all of his clothes for most of his childhood, “He gave me a 2-liter bottle of wine.” An excellent example of turning gold into straw.
We proceeded over the bridge and he pointed at one of the anonymous modern apartment buildings on the other side. In fact, he pointed to a particular door.
“Roberto used to go there for his piano lessons,” began the next chapter. I had met Roberto once; he was born blind, and we would encounter him strolling around Dorsoduro with his wife. In fact, I never saw him without her.
Robert was born at the corner of Lino’s courtyard and the main road near Campo San Barnaba, so they were always playing or hanging out together. (Roberto once told me that they would organize soccer games in their courtyard, and he was always the goalie. “They made the goal just a little bigger than I was,” he said. So cool.)
At least once a week, Roberto had to report for his piano lesson, and Lino and an undetermined number of friends would take him there, walking from Campo San Barnaba to the Baia del Re. “We’d wait outside while he did his scales, or whatever, and when he was finished we’d walk him home.”
“How long did that take?”
“Oh, I don’t know. An hour.” Tracing the route, I see they went about 2 km (1.3 miles) each way.
“His mother spent a fortune on him, with doctor’s visits and so many other things. His father unloaded flour at the Molino Stucky. He would stand by a chute, and the bag of flour would come down onto his shoulder and he’d load it onto the boat.” The bags of flour typically weighed 25 kilos (55 pounds). Does the term “herniated disc” come to mind? How about “chance fracture”?
“After a while, his mother sent him to an institute in Padova. These were common after the war, for children with various disabilities or injuries. Maybe they’d have picked up an unexploded mine. Or been kicked by a horse, or whatever.
“She thought it would be a good thing for him to have some time with his friends, so on Sunday my brother and I would take the train to Padova with her to visit him. We walked from the station all the way to the Prato della Valle.” That would be 2.6 km (1.5 miles) one way.
“There was still a lot of damage around, I remember, from the bombing. She’d buy us hot chocolate.”
We walked under a large archway separating two streets, not far from the train station.
“See this archway?” he asked as we passed under it. You have to start a story with a question, it’s something Talmudic. Of course I said yes, and waited.
“One night during the war my father was walking home from the station” (his father drove a train with a coal-burning engine, so he was pretty much one color on his way home, the color being black. Not that that’s especially important to the story, I’m just setting the scene).
“It was late, and the curfew was on — nobody was supposed to be out — and he got stopped here by a group of patrolling Fascists.” One remembers that they were also known as the Voluntary Militia for National Security, and they too were wearing mostly black, but for a different reason.
“They asked him who he was, and where he was coming from, and where he was going, and why, and show them some identification now.
“He explained the situation, and after a few very tense minutes they let him go.”
I am not romanticizing the past, and neither is he. Washing in cold water and short pants winter and summer. No plumbing. No central heating. I’m not talking about the Middle Ages, there are plenty of people who remember how life was. But when I say it was a small town, I’ve said everything.