July 29, as all the world knows, is the feast day of Santa Marta. Or in any case, now the world knows.
She is essentially forgotten here; her church has been deconsecrated, swallowed and partially digested by the Maritime Zone, and her celebration — once one of the greatest of the many great festivals here — is gone forever. Only a painting by Canaletto brings us the tiniest (and darkest) glimpse of what was once a very big night in Venice. Her name today is used mainly to refer to the adjacent neighborhood.
The reason I didn’t get this post finished by July 29 is because I got lost reading assorted accounts, some of them first-hand, about this uber-fest. It didn’t take me long to conclude that the fabled feast of the Redentore, which has remained a very big deal, was really nothing so remarkable compared to Santa Marta’s. The Redentore had fireworks, it’s true, but Marta had fresh sole.
Fish was an excuse for a colossal boating party? Why not? The Venetian civil and religious calendar was bursting with events of every type and voltage. A very short list would note the festivals of Santa Maria della Carita’, Palm Sunday, S. Stefano, “Fat Thursday,” May 1, or the Doge’s Visit to the Monastery of the Virgins, S. Isidoro, the taking of Constantinople (1204), the regaining of Candia (1204), S. John the Baptist “Beheaded,” Sunday after Ascension Day, the victory over Padua (1214), the defense of Scutari (1479), the victory of Lepanto (1571), S. Rocco, Corpus Domini, the victory of the Dardanelles (1656), and the conquest of the Morea (1687). These are just a few of the major events; the Venetians also commemorated defeats. There was something going on almost every day.
But there was always room for more, and although Santa Marta couldn’t claim to have sponsored any particular victory, discovery, or other noteworthy occurrence, her feast day conveniently fell in the period when the weather was suffocatingly hot, and the sole were in season. Plus, her church was located on a little lobe of land facing lots of water, and there was a beach. All this says “Put on your red dress, baby, ’cause we goin’ out tonight” to me.
The basic components were: Everybody in Venice, either on land or on the water, regardless of social station or disposable income; every boat in Venice — so many boats you could hardly see the water, festooned with illuminated balloons and carrying improvised little arbors formed by frondy branches; music, song and dance, and lots and lots of fresh sole.
July is the season for sfogi zentili, or Solea vulgaris, and while the Venetians could bring their own vittles, plenty of them also bought the fish which had just been saute’d, either on the beach or on the street by enterprising entrepreneurs. If you were really in luck, there would be moonlight, too.
The best and most famous chronicler of this party was Giustina Renier Michiel, who was born in 1755 and belonged to several patrician Venetian families. She spent 20 years researching her six-volume work, Origine delle Feste Veneziane (1830), but the fact that she had personal memories of many of these events makes her books exceptional.
I started to translate what she wrote about the feast of Santa Marta, but she went on so long, and her style sounded so curious in English, that I became tired and discontented. So I’m going to give some bits and summarize the rest. Anyway, it’s clear that the event was so phenomenal that even people who saw it finally gave up trying to describe it adequately or coherently.
Here is her version of how the festa was born:
“In the old days many groups went out in certain boats to fish for sole, the best fish that one eats in July. (Lino concurs with date and description.)
“And in the evening they would go back to the beach by the church of Santa Marta and feast on the fish, enjoying the cool air that restored their depleted strength after the labor of fishing, as well as the heat of the season.
“Later on, as the population became richer, and softness set in, the work of fishing was left to the poor people, who had to do it in order to live, and what used to be a fatiguing labor changed into a singular entertainment.”
My version: It didn’t take long for everybody else in Venice to say “A cookout on the beach? We’re on our way.” Everybody started making Santa Marta’s Eve a great reason to head for her neighborhood and eat fish, garnished and enlivened by the classic saor sauce of sweet-sour onions. It was like a gigantic clambake, a barbecue, a luau, for thousands and thousands of people.
Obviously the beach was too small for everybody, so the boats made themselves at home on the Giudecca Canal, “whose waters could only be seen in flashes, and almost seemed to be strips of fire, agitated by the oars of so many boats that covered the water and which doubled the effect of the lights which were on the boats.”
The patricians came out on their fabulously ornate peote, and often carrying musicians who sang and played wind instruments. There were scores of the classic fishing boat called a tartana, draped with variously-colored balloons and loaded with laughing families and friends. There were artisans in their battellos, and hundreds of light little gondolas, and plenty of gondolas da fresco, and there were even the burchielle, the heavy cargo boats that carried sand and lumber. If it could float, it joined the vast confusion of boats being rowed languidly in every direction, or tied up along the Zattere where there was just as much happy turmoil ashore.
The Gazzetta Urbana of 1787: “Along this riva, called the Zattere, the cafe’s and bars are crammed to overflowing with people. There are tables set up outside their doors, and everything is so lit up that it seems to be daytime.
“The passage (of people) in all the streets leading to Santa Marta was dense and continuous, and the splendid gathering at the Caffe of San Basegio, at the head of the Zattere, formed a separate spectacle, in which our Adriatic beauties, wearing modern shimmering caps in the Greek style, ornamented with plumes, inflamed with their glances the hearts of the young men who, like butterflies, always flutter around the flare of a woman’s beauty.”
Also amid the throng were little ambulatory kitchens — a man with a basket of sole would put two stones on the ground, then lay two bunches of sticks crosswise on them, light a little charcoal under them, pour some oil in a pan, and stand there bawling for business. He kept a container of saor ready to put on the fish.
Renier Michiel: “The entire length of this district was full of a grand concourse of people, moving toward the piazza of Santa Marta which was the best vantage point to enjoy the spectacle. On the piazza there were more food vendors, some of them selling roast chicken. There is a racket of cups, plates, the yells of the vendors, the music from the boats on the water. Every house is transformed into a sort of tavern where people eat and drink, and there was perfect joy and harmony.”
“Perfect joy and harmony”? How can this be (apart from the fact that she was looking back on it, years later, when the festival was gone forever)?
I think it’s because Santa Marta was secretly taking care of people. She is the patroness of cooks, butlers, laundry-workers, servants, housewives, and waiters. Though I suppose you could just say “housewives” and leave it at that.
Because as Santa Marta, and 99 percent of women on earth, can attest, while some people at a party are laughing and scarfing the canapes and playing with the dog and singing comic songs and reveling in industrial-size helpings of joy and harmony, there’s at least one person somewhere in the background doing everything to make it seem as if there is absolutely nothing that needs to be done.
And I have no doubt that when the boats went home at dawn on July 29, there was somebody who had to put the boat away and swab the bilge and pick up every single fishbone, as well as deal with the dishes and the wine- and saor-stained clothes. Behind every great saint is somebody with a bucket and mop, I say.
We left our story — “The Interminable Quest for the True Provenance of the Viale Garibaldi, as Recounted by People Living and Dead (I suppose that should be “living or dead”), with Illustrations and Funny Spelling” — at an uncomfortable point between things I knew and things I only thought I knew.
Several readers have since written me giving me more information and opinions than I’d expected (that’s not saying much, considering that I expected none). My ensuing labors to sift, evaluate, cross-check, confirm, and make at least one educated guess have led me to the last thing I’m going to say about viale Garibaldi. Not that there couldn’t be more, and there probably is more, but my interest is dimming and I’d bet yours is too.
The story so far:
Canaletto painted a picture showing a section of Castello as it no longer appears. I deduced from the painting that the vantage point from which he painted it was a canal which was later filled in to make the present gravel walkway lined by lime trees named the viale Garibaldi.
Please note that much confusion can be avoided by remembering that via Garibaldi and viale Garibaldi are not the same thing. “Viale” is a word which, among various translations, means “tree-lined avenue.”
A reader questioned my original assertion and its various geographical and geometrical elements, and proposed that the water seen in the painting was instead a glimpse of the Bacino of San Marco, where its rippling wavelets caressed the smooth stone surface of a working riva (fondamenta). He proposed it in less overwrought terms.
I found a map by Joan Blaue (date unknown by me, except that it was made in the 1600′s) which shows that there was indeed a riva in that place, leading down into the waters of the Bacino of San Marco, and not at all the canal I had imagined.
In brief, I was wrong and he was right.
Another reader then wrote with more information and opinions, and attached a detail from another map, which I am showing here. It was made by Ludovico Ughi in 1729 — slightly after Canaletto’s time, but probably not long enough to matter to our story.
As you see, Ughi identifies a clearly non-canal strip of territory as “Cale di S. Domenico di Castello.” If it was a calle (street) in 1729, I’m going to assume it was a calle in 16-whatever-it-was when Canaletto painted his picture.
Or maybe you can’t see it. It’s the broad line that begins in the “crook” of the waterfront and goes north till it hits the “rio di Castello,” the canal which became via Garibaldi.
Conclusion: Making assumptions can be dangerous, as my original post demonstrated, but I think the evidence is now reasonably clear that the present viale Garibaldi was not a canal in the 17th century.
That’s really all I’m interested in saying about this. Whatever it was, or wasn’t, or dreamed of being, but couldn’t, or might have been if Napoleon or Nikola Tesla or Fannie Bloomfield Zeisler hadn’t intervened, is a story I’m not going to be pursuing anymore.
I’m all for knowledge — the more, the better, even as it gets broken and reassembled in ever-tinier pieces and shapes. But unless somebody can convince me that Jimmy Hoffa is buried under the third bench on the right, I’m going to leave this subject and go on to something else. Perhaps something more interesting, maybe even more important. But at least it won’t be about the viale Garibaldi.
A reader whose brain is no less sharp than his eyes has written to query (fancy word for “question”) a point I made concerning the provenance of Viale Garibaldi.
He was skeptical concerning my statement that the viale had once been a canal, despite the painting by Canaletto which I presented as evidence. And he referred to three sources which, while not conclusive, did dim the lights on what I had thought was pretty clear.
Naturally, being questioned brought me up short, but it was a fine excuse to do some research of my own. I enjoy this because it means I’m acquiring, if only briefly, big topheavy loads of knowledge, and that’s just about my favorite thing. When I was little they would have had to send out the rescue squad — if anybody had noticed — to pull me safely from the pages of the encyclopedia, where I would float for hours, drifting from one unexpected thing to another.
The ease of being able now to paddle along the Interweb, as a friend calls it, means that I can be lost for more time than ever before, clicking my way through people, battles, cities, works of art, plants, styles of architecture, titles of neorealistic films, and if I pause for breath, seeing what Wikipedia entries look like in some extraordinary language like Frysk. May its tribe increase.
Here’s a philosophical puzzle: Was I seeking information in an effort to prove myself right? Or was I trying to prove him wrong? In the great scheme of things, they aren’t exactly the same, though probably the pleasure one feels at being right isn’t one of those pristine emotions enjoyed by spiritual mystics, but is given an agreeable little zing by the fact that your questioner was wrong. After all, if a person is right in the forest, and there’s nobody there to hear…. Well, let’s move on.
I was wrong. Viale Garibaldi wasn’t born as a canal, it was a riva (embankment with steps) facing the Bacino of San Marco. And while it doesn’t give me much satisfaction to be seen as having purveyed likelihood as certainty, this has been a useful reminder to check anything I write before I hit “Fly, little birdie, fly!” and off soars my prose.
So although the time involved in this effort has only shortened my infinite to-do list has exactly one item so far, I can say the day has not been wasted.