Only fog could make Father Christmas look so ominous.
I love charity benefit events; I also love Santa Claus (for the brief period each year in which I give him even one thought). And last Sunday we came upon — or it came upon us — the third edition of an annual run/trot/stroll around half the city called the “Corsa dei Babbo Natale,” or “Race of the Santa Clauses” (Santas Claus?)
This is not unique to Venice, though the landscape here obviously presents some traits not present in Milan, Brescia, Verona, Savona, Belluno, and undoubtedly lots of other places all over Italy. Sometimes it’s for charity, sometimes it’s just for fun. Check your local listings.
In the case of Venice, it was organized to benefit AVAPO, the association of volunteers who assist cancer patients and their families. The event was managed by The Venice Sport Shop and aided by various sponsors, primarily Mizuna, a maker of running shoes. For a modest fee anyone could sign up, get a number and a Santa Claus outfit and some other goodies, and join the crowd running/trotting/strolling from Rialto to Sant’ Elena and back to our own little lobe of Venice, the Giardini Pubblici, where music and refreshments waited.
I would happily have followed it and made lots of pictures of them running across the Piazza San Marco and other landmark sites, but we were set up to go rowing and join the boat procession of — yes — more Santa Clauses in the Grand Canal. Curses! We were foiled by fog! Vast, shifting, impenetrable banks of fog which not only would have spoiled the fun for us, but rowing to the church of the Salute would have rendered us a spectacular hazard to navigation.
But on our disappointed walk homeward, we suddenly found ourselves facing an army of S.C.’s swarming toward us. They were tired, but they were determined, and it was great to see whole families out together. And then people started greeting Lino by name as they passed, which was especially nice in the case of those who hadn’t yet removed their sweat-inducing beards because somehow Lino recognized virtually every one of the people greeting him. Was it their voice? Their glasses? Jewelry? Birthmark? But as usual, this came as no surprise. It’s the call of the DNA, which I can confirm overrides costumes, fog, and the passage of time.
But the Clauses on the bridge were only the forerunners — or forewalkers. They were followed by more and more red-breasted Saint Nicholases, who at this point had begun to ditch the beards which are cute, but undoubtedly hot and damp after a while.
They are not making Olympic qualifying times, but who cares? They’re still in the game.
Man Mountain Santa is a prime candidate for testing for growth hormones. Or for supplying them.
I have no idea where this boy got such a burst of energy — at this point there were children being pulled along on their razor scooters. He may have had a vision of something thrilling, though he may just be excited that the fog has lifted enough for him to see anything.
What an adorable chorus line of little girls who appear to have foregone the provided outfit in favor of something more like Little Red Riding Santa.
As you see. Who but Italians (or I don’t know, maybe they’re Albanians. Anyway, they’re in Italy) could make this outfit look so cool? In any case, I know for a fact that at least one of these munchkins is half-Moldovan, because that’s her mother smiling at me. She’s an amazing seamstress and now that I think about it, she probably made all these outfits. In an hour. In her sleep.
And Fido makes three. His version of “Ho Ho Ho” was impressive.
If this Santa hasn’t run to Venice straight from the North Pole, she at least must come from Hammerfest, where weather like this qualifies as a heat wave.
Bibendum has decided to branch out.
Santa needs funds, his reindeer need fodder.
The finish line for the race is the starting line for the party, just inside the gate at the “Serra,” or municipal greenhouse. They’ve got LAWN SPACE!
And the emergency squad’s everyday uniform blends perfectly with the Santa color scheme. If you needed to find the first-responders in this crowd, you might have a problem.
People who paid the premium registration fee got the garb, a gadget of some sort, and entrance to the party and rehydration agents. I didn’t inquire as to what they were sipping, but there was music and people looked happy.
And then it was time for Mom-Santa to go the supermarket, get some grub, and take it and the kids home. When Santa lands the sleigh, the party’s over.
As you know, I don’t usually mention other websites about Venice (or anywhere else, actually). There are many reasons for that, but in this case I’m making an exception. Sharp-eyed readers will notice that I have contributed a few fragments to the list, and I hope you will explore other places suggested by their traveling correspondents:
This is a date which has sunk somewhere below the waterline of general knowledge, but in Italy it still carries serious significance. By which I don’t imply that people commemorate it or talk about it, but it remains one of those watershed dates in European/national/sometimes individual history.
I bring it up — today being September 8 — not to indulge in a monologue about politics and World War II, but because Lino’s father was briefly and importantly involved.
The barest outline is this, with apologies to true experts and connoisseurs of all the fine points: Italy and Germany were allies at the outbreak of the war. The war was going very badly for Italy because it had begun to go badly for Hitler, so Hitler essentially abandoned his Italian so-called friends. Abandoned (as noted), the Italian government decided to forego large amounts of futile bloodshed, and asked the Allies (more particularly General Eisenhower) for an armistice. One of the conditions of this surrender was that the Americans would land on the Italian mainland. It was an excellent plan; the armistice, known as the Armistice of Cassabile, was duly signed on September 8, 1943. All this was kept as secret as possible for reasons which even I can grasp.
Except that secrets are tricky. The change of label from “enemy” to “friend” or vice versa worked fine on paper, but nobody told the army this was going to happen. Came the dawn on September 9, and the troops didn’t know who they were supposed to be fighting anymore. Even their generals, who were similarly blindsided, basically told their men “Do what you want, we have no idea what’s going on.” So the armed forces disbanded, just like that, every man for himself. Most just ran away somewhere (not to be confused with “running away”); many headed for home, a good number struck out for the mountains to hide and become guerrilla partisans. Not everybody made it, however.
The Germans saw the Italians as traitors, i.e. adversaries, and proceeded to occupy the peninsula, up to and including Venice. And here, as elsewhere in Italy, the Germans began to round up all the Italian soldiers they could find to cart them away to Germany as prisoners. Ships were engaged to hold the growing collection as the Germans went up and down the Adriatic coast seeking Italian deserters. Some of those ships were in Venice.
Therefore, one day in this turbulent and panicky period, a ship was moving along the Giudecca Canal, sailing away with its load of Italian troops, destination: Depths of Hell. Some of the prisoners decided to risk an escape, and jumped overboard. And that day Lino’s father was rowing back home from an interlude of fishing (there were ten mouths at home to feed), and was crossing the Giudecca Canal when he saw one man hit the water.
Lino’s father rowed over (I don’t know how far he had to go), pulled the man into his boat and threw a spare jacket on him as a makeshift disguise. He rowed the man home and hustled him upstairs. His name was Mario Dossi, and he was from Naples. Lino says they used to have a photo of him standing with Lino’s brother, Puccio, on the Ponte della Paglia near the Piazza San Marco.
But the apartment was small (Lino’s sister still lives there, and it’s perfectly fine for one person. But not for ten — or rather, eleven.) Some ladies down the street took Mario in, and there the story ends.
Except that it’s a happy ending, because some time after the war, one of Lino’s sister’s boyfriends was in Naples, and looked Mario up. So he was fine.
A substantial number of films, some of them famous classics, deal with the war and Italy after the fateful September 8. Their common theme is brutality, as you might expect. I’ve seen Spike Lee’s “Miracle at Sant’Anna” (one of many massacres committed as reprisals). “Captain Corelli’s Mandolin” follows the same thread of warfare between the Italians and Germans after September 8 in Greece. In my opinion, two films on this theme that belong in the pantheon of great cinema, however, are “Everybody Go Home” with Alberto Sordi (“Tutti a Casa”), and “The Two Marshals” with Vittorio de Sica and Toto’ (“I Due Marescialli”), if for nothing else than the divine scene of the German colonel and the unidentifiable fart.
If you can see those movies, you’ll be glad. Just remember that there wasn’t anything funny about September 8. But be glad for Mario Dossi.
Pomegranates begin to ripen here in September. I wonder if anybody noticed.
To recapitulate: These were the gondolinos on August 19. (Photo taken from remieracasteo.blogspot.it.)
The restored boats were a thesaurus of synonyms for “gleam.” If you can discern where the cut was made and repaired, you’re not human. No offense.
I may have mentioned that I was RUDELY interrupted on Sept. 2 by my computer, which cut my post into chunks and then wouldn’t give them back (hence only that brief mention of the Return of the Gondolinos).
Although a few days have passed, I won’t be happy until I’ve finished the job. So cast your minds back to last Thursday, when part of the “world of the oar,” as it’s called here, gathered for the annual ceremony of the blessing of the gondolinos and, unusual at this late date, the drawing of lots for the assigning of the boats to the racers. Who gets what color boat is random, and the drawing usually follows shortly after the last elimination has whittled the list of rowers down to nine competing teams plus one reserve team, to be called in at whatever moment before the starting gun it’s clear that one team is not going to be racing. It happens — not often, but I’ve seen the reserve boat actually win one time. Considering that being the reserve means that you barely squeaked into the lineup against faster men (or women) than you, this outcome makes it clear that all sorts of factors, apart from sheer speed at the trials, come into play in the race itself.
This may well be true in many other athletic competitions, but I’m sticking to what I know.
There is no significance to the colors; the boats are painted in order to make it easy to distinguish and identify them from medium to far distance. This ensures that the onlooker (say, a judge….) is identifying the appropriate boat as it crashes into its closest neighbor, or as it crosses the finish line. (Even in good weather, red and orange are almost impossible to tell apart.) Furthermore, in the non-official races in which people sometimes race on their club boats, there is almost no way to identify the boats because they’re all pretty much the same mash-up of colors. The relatives of the racers know who’s who, but the judges almost certainly don’t. To avoid any possible problems, the judges following the race in motorboats call out instructions and warnings by color, not by racer’s name.
As an extra security measure, which is very useful when there is rain and/or fog, numbers have been painted on the bow of each boat, as follows:1 white, 2 yellow, 3 purple (lavender, violet, whatever), 4 light blue, 5 red, 6 green, 7 orange, 8 pink, 9 brown, reserve: red and green.
The racers get a sash and a neckerchief to match the color of their boat; it used to be considered helpful. Now it’s just part of the tradition. The neckerchief was supposed to deal with the sweat (this was before terrycloth headbands), and the sash was intended to help truss up what sometimes, in the old days, were men who either did, or would soon, need one.
I had never seen an entire fleet of new Venetian boats, nor would I ever have thought I’d see one, considering how much the things cost. (The total bill came to 80,000 euros, which means a paltry 8,000 euros each, but these were repairs. A knowledgeable source told me a new gondolino could cost 30,000 euros.) It was thrilling, from their perfect shine to their perfume of still-recent paint. Eau de Regata Storica, with subtle top notes of epoxy.
As the crowd gathered, the Coro Serenissima provided the festive soundtrack with many of the classic Venetian songs. A good number of these ditties involve gondolas, the lagoon, and romance; so far no song has come out that features electric saws and battered boats. I’d like to hear one about the maestri d’ascia (“masters of the adze”) who rebuilt the gondolini. Something along the lines of “The Ballad of John Henry” could work really well.
(L to R): Roberto dei Rossi, Dino Tagliapietra, and Gianfranco Vianello, nicknamed “Crea” (KRAY-uh). Not only does Crea carry the title of “Re del Remo” (“king of the oar”) for having won the Regata Storica five times consecutively, he also built the boats which he now had to repair. Sad as he was to see them butchered, he said he was really happy to discover how well they’d held up over 35 years. And if “king of the oar” sounds silly, it’s as hard as winning the Triple Crown in horse racing. He won his title on the gondolino in 1981, and nobody has done it since.
The ceremony gets underway with photo-worthy hugs by the mayor, Luigi Brugnaro, wearing his official sash. To their right, the white-haired man in the black jacket is Mario Eremita, the artist who designed and painted the “palio,” or banner, depicting the Regata Storica. This is new this year and is loaded with symbolism.
As the artist explained to me, the lion of San Marco at the top depicts an African lion, because St. Mark was buried in Alexandria, Egypt. Venice is always represented as a woman, of course, here wrapped in a cloak which repeat the colors of the gonfalone, or banner, of San Marco. In her mid-section (womb, if you like), is the Piazza San Marco, with basilica and belltower, from which are emerging the boats of the Regata Storica and spreading across the water of the Bacino of San Marco. Her right hand holds an olive branch, the emblem of peace, and in her left she holds an ouroboros, the ancient representation of a snake devouring its tail which symbolizes rebirth and renewal; in this case, the repetition of tradition.
While everyone is milling around taking pictures, the racers are examining the boats. Here, Igor and Rudi Vignotto are analyzing where the boat was cut. If they ever found a trace, I’d be impressed.
Speechifying ensues. Here, Giovanni Giusto, president of the Coordinating Committee of the Rowing Clubs and city councilor for rowing and traditions, shares his thoughts. The gonfalone of San Marco adds the right touch, even if the rest of the ribbons can’t be seen.
Due to the delay in having the boats themselves, the gondolinos weren’t assigned to the racers after the last elimination was held. So the usual drawing of lots had to wait for today, with just three days before the event. Drawing your boat at random limits the possibility of skulduggery, or the appearance thereof, the same reason why each team’s position at the starting line is also drawn by lot. It’s not unheard-of for racers to consider a color as bringing victory or doom, so let’s just make everybody’s chances equal. As is customary, here the “poppieri,” or men rowing on the “poppa,” or stern, come to draw a small numbered ball — number corresponding to color — from the green bag held by Crea. He is fulfilling this duty because he is now also the president of the race judges.
All the racers posing with their sashes which match the color of their boat.
The men begin pulling out their forcolas (oarlocks) and oars, ready for the blessing and, immediately thereafter, the launching of the boats.
The stern forcola, made of the traditional walnut.
Finally we reach the moment of the blessing. The priest, pretty much hidden by the boats and the racers, has said his prayer and is now shaking holy water from his aspergillum across some of the gondolinos. He was rather perfunctory, by which I mean he did not sprinkle all the boats. I don’t know if that made a difference to the race, but it prevented me from getting a better picture.
A closer look.
So let’s get these boats in the water already. The white gondolino has just been launched and now it’s the yellow boat’s turn to be rolled out, on a small trolley, to the edge of the fondamenta where some pieces of red carpet have been placed to ease the slide.
The boat was tilted off the small trolley and slid along the edge of the fondamenta. At the halfway point, the poppiere — in this case, Luca Ballarin — climbed aboard and, as it were, took possession of his chariot. It’s extremely unusual to have a person aboard when putting a boat in the water this way; it’s evident that you’re risking damaging the boat even if the water is fairly cooperative. I can’t explain why they decided to do it this way, but considering that we have three master boatbuilders on hand, I’m guessing they know what they’re doing.
Ignore the change in boat color — the next phase was to lift the bow and push the boat free of the fondamenta, dropping it in the water. This required some strength and skill (I could just imagine the ferro of the bow striking the stone edge and I’m sure everyone else could imagine it too).
Flinging the boat into the water made a very satisfying sploosh. Here, Rudi Vignotto has been flung. The man with the red trousers is not involved in these maneuvers in any way, but is taking a photo (I think) from a long pole.
No need for me to expound upon the beauty of this moment. But the gondolino is a startling contrast to the chaos of taxis, vaporettos and private motor boats that continues to swarm past. Yes, they were going slowly, due in part to a sentinel police boat. But there are far, far, far too many. And they and their passengers are living in a parallel universe which never touches ours.
But in the interest of fairness, I should mention that most rowers — I’m going to say all rowers — have motorboats, some of them pretty hefty. The boat, I mean. It makes sense because it’s useful for towing your boat, or for getting quickly and efficiently to wherever you have to train, which could be fairly far away. But of course everybody thinks their motorboat makes sense.
Luca Ballarin hanging out with Franco Dei Rossi “Strigheta,” one of the greatest racers but who this year has “hung his oar up on the nail,” as they say of retired people. He’s still working as a gondolier, but no more racing. You might not believe it, but it takes great strength of character to stop trying when your house is full of victory pennants but you’re past 60 and not up to your old speed. At least one famous racer kept at it for years after he should have quit, on ANY boat and ANY race, even if he finished last. It was like one of those endless farewell tours by superannuated sopranos. Depressing. I’m sorry not to see “Strigheta” racing anymore, but I admire his dignity.
Kudos gathered, gondolinos gone, the party’s over. All that’s left is Roberto dei Rossi and lots of spare sawhorses and shadows. As for the race, I’ll save you any suspense: The first four to finish (which is what counts, because they get a pennant) were: Blue, White, Orange, Brown. If you want more particulars, even if they’re in Italian, go to: http://www.veneziatoday.it/cronaca/regata-storica-venezia-2016-classifica-risultati.html