Now here is something different you can do on Christmas afternoon, if you’re not watching football and your family has allowed you to live. You can look at oldish photographs of Venice.
Not quite as old as the photograph above, but the last 50 years has produced an immense trove — some 80,000 images — of places all around Venice, and some 7,000 of those are now online. They belong to the Urban Photographic Archive of Venice.
These photographs weren’t made for any aesthetic reason, but as sturdy visual records of all sorts of projects, restoration, maintenance, new public works, and so on. Prose, not poetry.
In case anyone imagined that Venice has been encapsulated by time, like the proverbial black spitting thick tail scorpion in amber, a random scan of these pictures will show how much change has been going on here since the Sixties.
So go have a look at the Album di Venezia, click on the red words in the center that say “Archivio Fotografico Urbanistica Online,” and on the page that comes up, click on the red rectangle that says “Sfoglia l’album,” and go to it. As per frequently, there is no English translation. So working out the words ought to amuse you for a little while.
By then it will be time for another piece of pie, and you’ll have something to talk about that doesn’t involve pigskin.
Yes, I have returned to my mooring here and have been grappling with the holiday trappings — more mental than physical. Translation: I just haven’t felt like doing or writing or thinking anything, really.
But the ghosts of Calvinists Past have reared up and made harrowing threats if I continue to indulge this revolting lethargy. And I always respond to harrowing threats, in case you ever need to know. Hideous predictions about the afterlife usually do the trick.
In any case, Christmas in our lobe of Venice this year is so low-key that it’s hardly noticeable. The atmosphere in the city as a whole is so far from festive that I’m not going to go into it at all. But I don’t need lights and spangles to know that it’s just about show time.
We will do the traditional Christmas food and possibly the traditional staying-up-late, though that’s becoming more optional as the years go by. Then we will go to the mountains for the New Year phase.
And then we’ll all be back here together, not making it up.
The silence in not-making-it-up-land is because I am in the US for a month of my annual R&R.
I brought a folder of clippings with me, all excellent post material (that is, excellent material — I have no idea if the resulting posts would have been excellent). I may or may not get to them because it’s astonishing how little I think of Venice when I’m back on my native heath. It’s extremely relaxing, kind of like being in a mental thermal pool.
I shall return, of course.
Not a game at all, but shards of information I consider interesting, in an ephemeral sort of way. My favorite kind.
Meeting people here, or even just reading about them in the paper, will fairly quickly give you the sensation that there is only a handful of last names in Venice. Reading Venetian history has the same effect. There were 120 doges, and every five minutes it’s a Mocenigo or a Morosini or a Barbarigo or a Contarini (I feel a Gilbert and Sullivan patter song coming on).
In daily life nowadays, it’s Vianello or Zennaro or Busetto or Scarpa, all at some point from Pellestrina, where so many with these surnames dwell — and have dwelled — that the town is divided into four sections, each named for one of those specific tribes. This situation was created by doge Andrea Contarini, who in 1380 sent the four eponymous families from Chioggia to Pellestrina to reconstruct and inhabit the former town which had been destroyed by the Genoese in the “War of Chioggia” (1378-1381).
The density of these four names in Pellestrina is such that the post office finally gave permission to put nicknames on addresses, to give some hope of distinguishing between the scores of individuals with the same first and last name, some of them even living at the same location.
In the Comune at large, Costantinis and Penzos abound, and every year there is a bumper crop of D’Estes and Dei Rossis. Each name has its own provenance; some of them are obvious (“Sartori” means “tailors,” “Tagliapietra” means “stonecutter,” with which Venice had to have been infested) and some are more obscure (“Ballarin” meant “sawyer,” and “Bastasi” were the porters, specifically for the Customs or the quarantine islands).
I’ve been here long enough — and it doesn’t mean you need to have spent a LONG time — to recognize the provenance of many of these names. If you hear one of these, you have a good chance of knowing where the person comes (or came) from:
Chioggia: Penzo, Pesce, Boscolo, Tiozzo, Padoan, Doria
Burano: Vio, Costantini, Zane, Tagliapietra, Seno
San Pietro in Volta: Ballarin, Ghezzo
Murano: Toso, Gallo, Ferro, Schiavon
Venice (Dorsoduro): Pitteri
A few tidbits from the article, which are not evident in the table of numbers but are obvious to anyone living here:
First is that during the past ten years, the number of individuals bearing each surname has diminished. That’s just part of the well-known shrinkage of Venetians.
Second — also fairly obvious to locals — is the addition of foreign surnames. Of course, my surname is foreign too (German-Swiss), but I’ve been happy to disappear among many Venetians whose last names also begin with “Z,” and they aren’t German, either: Zane and Zanella and Zuin and Zuliani. It’s great down here at the end of the alphabet, I’ve finally got company.
As you easily notice, Muslim and Asian names are becoming more numerous. (I realize that “Muslim” is not a nationality, nor a geographical area, but while the bearers of these names are most likely from Bangladesh, I decided not to guess).
So where would the “Vianello” clan come from? According to my dictionary of Italian surnames, it springs from Viani, which isn’t a place, as far as I can determine, but a basic root-name. Lino hypothesizes that it could derive from “villani” (pronounced vee-AH-nee in Venetian), which means farmers, tillers of the soil — “villein,” in the feudal terminology, a partially-free serf. You can still hear someone around here vilify another person by calling him a “villano,” and they don’t mean “villain” — they mean clod, churl, oaf.
“Rossi” means “reds.” It’s the most common surname in Italy, though in the Southern half it is often rendered “Russo” (the second-most common surname in Italy). It most likely came from a personage with some strikingly red attribute, such as hair, beard, or skin. Or all three.
“Scarpa” — It means “shoe,” so I’m guessing their forebears were shoe-makers, though then again, it’s possible that it was once somebody’s nickname (in Venice, at least, nicknames are fairly common and the person bears it for life and even sometimes leaves it to his children.) However, another hypothesis holds that it could be a variation of Karpathos, the Greek island known as “Scarpanto” in Venetian, and which formed part of the Venetian “Sea State” from 1306 to 1538, plenty long to germinate names. Thousands of Greeks lived in Venice, so the place name may have shifted to a personal name.
There are lots of names that come from places, sometimes Venetianized, such as:
Visentin (vee-zen-TEEN): Vicentino, or from Vicenza
Piasentini (pya-zen-TEE-nee): Piacentino, or from Piacenza
Veronese: from Verona
Trevisan (treh-vee-ZAHN): from Treviso
Furlan (foor-LAHN): from Friuli
Schiavon (skyah-VOHN): from Schiavonia, later Slavonia, which is now the easternmost part of Croatia. The Venetians were known to trade, among other valuable merchandise, in slaves, which often came from Central Asia or the Balkan hinterland. “Schiavo” (SKYA-voh), conveniently shortened, means “slave.” Slav – Slave. Not made up.