You get so accustomed to the buildings here being in various stages of decrepitude that you become rather lax in looking at them. You see, but you do not observe. The particular example that comes to mind concerns a seemingly amorphous glob of concrete or stone or something hard above the door of the building just across the street from us. I say “seemingly amorphous,” because Lino suddenly recognized its morph the other day.
“Oh look,” he said. “That was a house where a gerarch lived.” Unlike the usual formula, this was not a reference to someone from his past. But it was certainly from the past. Specifically, from the year beginning October 29, 1926 and ending October 28, 1927, otherwise known as “Anno V,” or Year 5, of the Fascist era.
The clump of material, now that I look closer, retains the outlines of the fasces with the axe-blade which was the primary symbol of the National Fascist Party.
As for the gerarchs, there were 12 ranks ranging from the Secretary of the party to a humble “capo nucleo,” or head of a unit. I haven’t pursued the subject any further than this, though I’m guessing that it was not the Secretary of the party who lived out here on the fringe of civilization.
Over time, I’ve noticed (with Lino’s help, usually) a few other traces of the period between 1921 and 1943. Pictures follow with what bits of elucidation I can provide.
Here is what I have managed to learn about “Roma intangibile.” The expression seems to have resulted from a mashup of events and remarks. We begin with the “Capture of Rome” (“Breccia di Porta Pia“), on September 20, 1870. It was the final event of the Risorgimento; the Papal States were defeated, and the way was open to the unification of Italy under its first king, Vittorio Emmanuele II.
In 1875, Umberto I (King of Italy from 1878-1900) referred to Rome as the “unbreakable seal of Italian unity.” In 1886, he used the term “Rome, an intangible conquest.” (This deserves much explanation and exegesis, which is beyond me. Just stay with me here.) It is at that point that the principle of “Intangible Rome” entered history.
The phrase caught on; in fact, it became so popular that in 1895 a certain Carlo Bartezaghi, an enterprising industrialist from Milan, created a bronze medal showing the she-wolf (symbol of Rome) and the motto “Roma Intangibile.” He led people to believe that it was an ancient object and managed to fool a number of numismatic experts for a while, but that’s beside our point. The term became part of the popular lexicon.
In 1900, Vittorio Emmanuele III, in his first proclamation to the Italian people, recalled “…the unity of the Fatherland that is epitomized in the name of Roma intangibile, symbol of greatness and pledge of integrity for Italy.”
Fading monuments have such a melancholy aspect, not so much because they’re fading but because they used to matter, sometimes a lot, and now they’re fading.
Both phenomena can be extreme, disagreeable, and unavoidable. (Well, altitude sickness is avoidable, theoretically, if you have enough time to acclimate yourself.) I haven’t discovered a way to acclimate to tourism here, at the point it has reached, except by avoidance. Which is like solving altitude sickness by not climbing the mountain. No taking the vaporetto on the Grand Canal on Sunday afternoon, for example. No Piazza San Marco pretty much ever until winter.
But yesterday morning at the Rialto Market vaporetto stop I had a useful exchange of views with a heftily-middle-aged German lady. (Useful to me; she was untouched by the experience.)
So we’re standing on the dock, as I said. I snap a photo of some people I know from the rowing section of the Railway Employees’ Afterwork Club, as they rowed their gondola downstream. They were followed by a caorlina from another club. I didn’t raise my camera.
She speaks: “Don’t you want to take a picture of them?”
I reply: “No, I was just taking a picture of the other people because I know them.”
“Are they training for something?”
“No, they’re just out for a spin in the morning. It’s something people in the boat clubs like to do.”
“Well, I’ve never seen them and I’ve been to Venice many times.”
“Oh. That’s odd.”
“So you live here?”
“Yes I do.”
“HOW do you STAND IT with all the TOURISTS?”
I could tell — as perhaps you can too — that she wasn’t asking because she wanted to know. She wasn’t asking, actually. She was announcing her opinion on what it would be like to live here, and clearly it would be worse than five forevers in Hades. But I decided to go with it for a while, just to see where we might end up.
“Well, every place has its positive and negative aspects,” I said. (Aren’t you proud of me for being so tactful?) “If there is a perfect place on earth, please tell me where it is, and I’ll go there immediately.”
But she was not to be pried loose from the subject of all the TOURISTS. Though now that I think of it, I should have asked her which corner of paradise she comes from.
“I’ve always come to Venice in the WINTER when there is NOBODY. I went to (I can’t remember where) in the winter and there was NOBODY. It was WONDERFUL. I don’t LIKE people.” Something in her voice made me picture a scene of utter desolation in which she, rejoicing, wandered solitarily through deserted streets as the evening shadows thickened over the stiffening corpse of a large rat in the main square.
“So why did you come in April?” (The obvious question.)
“Oh, I’m on a CRUISE.” As if this made her presence on the dock at the market inevitable. Do they drive people off the ship with whips? And I suppose she had examined the itinerary, hence was not taken by surprise to find herself in VENICE. But I didn’t reach for any of these flapping loose ends.
Our vaporetto was pulling up to the dock. “I hope you enjoy your cruise,” I said. She didn’t reply but I had the impression she was already doubting that that would be likely.
As I thought back over this very unsatisfactory conversation, I realized that I had missed my chance to throw her to the mat and painfully pin her, even if she did weigh twice as much as me.
It would have been easy. All I needed to do was to say, ” If tourists annoy you, what are you doing here? Because you’re just as much a tourist as the rest of them. Maybe you’re annoying everybody else. So why don’t you get the ball rolling by going away?”
I know that Lino would have put it more succinctly; he’d have said “So go home already.” But that lacks the philosophical twist that interested me.
Who gets to decide who should be allowed to be a tourist in Venice? They’re irritating because they’re here? You’re here too.
As Stanislaw Lec observed, “No snowflake in an avalanche feels responsible.”
One of the many wonderful things about spring is that nobody can start it or stop it. That’s why the earliest signs are always the most eloquent. Here’s a glimpse of the past few days, in more or less chronological order:
By now you know how it goes. We’re out walking somewhere, or on the vaporetto, or just minding our own business, and somebody Lino knows will cross our trajectory.
Seeing people you know isn’t something remarkable in most towns. Seeing people you’ve always known is particularly Venetian. Or particularly Lino, anyway.
We were standing on the dock at “Rialto Mercato” waiting for the vaporetto and Lino glimpsed an average sort of man, rather innocuous, walking on behind us. “Oh boy,” said Lino. “There’s Piero.” Yes? Lino started doing that mysterious thing we all recognize which says I AM INVISIBLE YOU DO NOT SEE ME I AM NOT HERE. Very loudly. The reason being, as Lino muttered, that he would nab you and start talking and you’d never get away. This is a hanging offense in LinoWorld when he still has to finish the Gazzettino.
“We grew up together,” he began to explain, which also isn’t so remarkable. “Nursery school, kindergarten, elementary school. He lived on the calle de le Botteghe at San Barnaba. We went to day camp together.
“Then he went to work at the port. He was some kind of laborer — I don’t remember what. Maybe he weighed things, or operated the crane.
“Anyway, at a certain point he reached legal retirement age” (which is based on years you’ve worked, not your birthday-age, and people of Piero and Lino’s vintage started really early, usually around 16). “So they told him he had to retire. He didn’t want to, he wanted to keep working.
“So after he left the port he kept going around to anybody who he thought could help him find another job — the parish priest, the Patriarch. Anybody. He said he’d work for free. He didn’t care about getting paid, he just needed something to do.” But he didn’t find anything, so he has joined the ranks of the many unwillingly-retired men who go out every morning and glom onto whatever friend wanders into glomming range.
“He was muculoso,” Lino recalled. Mucusy. Always wiping his nose with his sleeve. Lino remembers a surprising number of people who answered that description, either individually or categorically (as in: When Lino sees a person he’s known since childhood who has clearly gotten above himself, forgetting or ignoring his/her humble origins, he might pointedly mutter, “He didn’t even have a handkerchief to wipe his nose.” Or, more vividly: “Quanti mussi al naso!” He was pretty snotty!). Ah, these are the real memories.
Piero’s nasal passages have calmed down, but he did come and sit down behind us and start talking to Lino. Fortunately, Lino’s friendly but short replies got the message through, and he decided to just sit quietly and let Lino read the paper. It took me several slow, painful years to learn that lesson. But then again, he’s known Lino longer than I have.
We were pausing in via Garibaldi for some reason one afternoon in early February. I remember the date because there was a big Carnival event impending (the corteo of the Marie), and there were plenty of Vigili Urbani around. These are like the first-tier policemen, all uniformed up. Three men in particularly serious garb walk by, one of whom is taller and somewhat more distinguished-looking than the others.
“Oh, there’s Rizzo,” said Lino. “I remember him. His father was a gondolier. Died young. He was as old as my brother Puccio (editor’s note: who also died young). I remember his grandmother.”
Having set the scene: “Wow. Look at him. He looks like a general.” (Which was said with only the tiniest inflection of “You ain’t all that.”)
So, we were walking homeward this morning from the vaporetto stop at San Pietro, after a visit to someone in the hospital. There were a few people walking ahead of us. “You see that man with his hands behind his back?” asked Lino. I did. “He’s a retired gondolier.” And you know this because……?
Easy answer: “He used to be at the stazio at the Molo.” In other words, you know him. Interesting answer: “Also, you can tell by the way he walks.” Yes, I could see that he was limping slightly, favoring his left leg, by which I mean that he let his weight fall more onto his right leg. Thus, discomfort on left side — hip, knee, etc. This is an occupational hazard — or virtual certainty — of the full-time gondolier after a very long while at the stern. The stern rower always has his left leg forward, which means that with each stroke of the oar, his weight is transferred onto that leg. Do that every day for days/months/decades, and in the end you will pretty much have worn your trochanters away.
I think gondoliers ought to get a special rate for hip replacements.