Venice has had its share of noteworthy visitors over the past millennium or so — popes, kings, emperors, and so forth. The usual cast of characters in your usual empire.
This weekend we had George Clooney and his bride, Amal Alamuddin, whose four-day wedding festival was quite the talk of the town. Not all happy talk, but that’s normal for here.
By now my trusty readers must be able to imagine the range of comments.
On the positive side: She’s gorgeous, she’s brilliant, her clothes are amazing. And may I add my own personal drama, my inability to decide which I would rather have, given the choice: Her 7-carat diamond ring, or her hair. I don’t think it’s fair that she gets to have both.
On the negative side: The lavish partying will not have much effect on the local economy (read: Expensive outsiders hired); blocking areas off for security (from whom?) such as the Rialto and even a stretch edging the Grand Canal, will create inconvenience for the indigenous people; all the glamour will not specially improve the image of Venice in the eyes of the world, considering the depressing degradation that continues unabated. The roiling maelstrom of waves caused by the journalist-bearing taxis and assorted motorboats accompanying the espoused pair and their A-list guests created more than the usual madness in the Grand Canal, inspiring yells of anger from gondoliers.
Several people interviewed by the Gazzettino have essentially said “Who cares?” More specifically, one woman opined, “He’s got a big villa on Lake Como. Why couldn’t he go there?”
Many of these remarks go to show, once again, that Venetians are phenomenally hard to impress. But what would be the opposite extreme (assuming that an event of this magnitude could go to an opposite extreme)?
Let’s imagine for a moment that they had decided to get married in Eek, Alaska or Bland, Missouri. In such a case, I think the whole town would have been totally agog, what with housewives bringing homemade coconut cakes to their hotel and draping big streamers and banners over the main street, like on Homecoming Weekend: “WELCOME GEORGE AND AMAL,” and there would be a parade like on the Fourth of July, with baton-twirlers and the big fire truck. And fireworks. And the local paper — say, the Bat Cave, North Carolina “Bat Biz” — would publish a long article, as they used to do in the old days, describing every dish eaten and every frock worn and every wedding present bestowed. We’ll have to wait for People magazine to do that for us.
A few details have sneaked out (despite all the vaunted vows of complete silence).
For example: They (he, she, their wedding planner, whoever) didn’t like the furniture in their five-room nuptial chamber at the Aman Canal Grande hotel. Too modern. So they had it changed. Out with what was there, which was put into a temporary storage tent, and in with a batch of antiques. I have NO DOUBT that their taste is better than the decorators’. I’m just saying. They didn’t complain about the Tiepolo fresco on the ceiling, fortunately. Maybe they didn’t notice it.
Also: The palace on the street behind the hotel was finally undergoing repairs, hence was covered with scaffolding. Ugly! So they paid to have it removed and, I presume, put back when the party was over.
But on the whole, for Venice this is just one more in an infinite procession of fancy guests and inconceivably lavish entertainments. In the Venetian Republic, when high-class people came for long visits, staying for weeks like relatives in the antebellum South, the city literally spared no expense.
When Henry III, King of France and Poland, visited Venice for a week in 1574, some noteworthy events included his attendance at the chanting of the Te Deum on the Lido (I presume at the church of S. Nicolo’, which is the only thing that was there), passing under a triumphal arch designed by Palladio and decorated by Tintoretto and Veronese. Then there was the state banquet, held in the Doge’s Palace in the monster Great Council Room; not only were all the ladies garbed in white and draped with spectacular jewels — the tablecloth, flatware, plates, and bread were all fashioned entirely of sugar. The table was decorated with elaborate sculptures of two lions, a queen on horseback between two tigers, David and San Marco, surrounded by kings, popes, animals, plants and fruits, also made completely of sugar.
Speaking of guests, Venice hosted, among others, Carlo Gonzaga in 1609, the Grand Duke of Tuscany in 1628, Maximilian of Bavaria in 1684, the Duke of Brunswick in 1685, Frederick IV of Denmark in 1708, Prince Frederick Christian of Saxony in 1740, the Duke of York in 1767, the Emperor Joseph II in 1769 and 1775. Pope Pius VI arrived in 1782 and Gustav III of Sweden in 1784. To read the schedule of festivities and what was built from the ground up to entertain Prince Paul Petrovich, the son of Catherine the Great and his wife in January, 1782, is to stagger belief.
You’d have to replace a lot of furniture to come up to the level Venice used to consider normal on these occasions.
So while I invoke for the happy couple “good wishes and male children” (auguri e figli maschi), as the saying goes, I appreciate a general grudging resistance here to make too much of the just-concluded joining in holy — actually, civil — matrimony.
Because, as Ernest Hemingway summed it up in 1950:
“She used to be Queen of the Seas, and the people are very tough and they give less of a good God-damn about things than almost anybody you’ll ever meet. It’s a tougher town than Cheyenne when you really know it, and everybody is very polite.”
I have nothing new to add to what I’ve already written, but I want to say that the indefatigable Vittorio Orio rowed his gondola today (with a partner), to keep alive the memory of the victims of the attack on the World Trade Center towers.
Someday I’ll have a long talk with him to discover why he feels such an attachment to New York — specifically, to the firemen of New York — and more about this always moving gesture which he has made every year since 2002.
He focuses on the firemen for his own reasons, but is fully aware of everyone else who was there. Meanwhile, it’s enough to know that he remembers.
Daily life in the Nation of Venice is made up of occurrences that aren’t uncommon in other latitudes: Unplanned events, things going screwy, people acting weird, having to spend twice as much time as expected doing something simple, and generally starting out with one scheme and ending the day with a mishmash of improvised solutions or brilliant ideas that worked once but will never work again.
Naturally these days do not pass without comment, and Venetians have inevitably devised innumerable expressions to convey the nuances of the aforementioned daily life, as well as the emotions which its many happenstances cause to spring forth in the Venetian bosom. Not that the emotions themselves are so nuanced. Au contraire.
Many of these expressions are used so commonly that they now come to me spontaneously, and I struggle to recall what American expressions might correspond. Not that I try very hard — the Venetian versions are so perfect for Venice that I just stick with them. They’re not all profound, and certainly they aren’t all unique. But a normal day in this abnormal city keeps emotions simmering, and the nearness of you, of them, of everybody, makes the urge to put them into words irresistible. At least I’ve never noticed anybody resisting that urge.
One of the great things about using a common saying, rather than blurting out what you really feel or think, is that clichés, truisms, proverbs, make it socially acceptable to say something which, if you expressed it impulsively in your own original heartfelt way, would create worlds of grief and embarrassment for you. Sincerity? Highly overrated. But thanks to these aphorisms you can say what you think without endangering the social equilibrium.
“Morte” — death — is a highly versatile word. You’d be surprised how often it can turn up in the most banal situations.
“Vedemo de che morte che morimo“ (veh-DEH-mo de keh MOR-teh keh mo-REE-mo): “Let’s see by what death we’re going to die.” Cheerful, no? I said it only a while ago, and I meant it. However, death itself isn’t intended in this remark, but it usefully conveys a foreboding of a probably unpleasant experience you can’t get out of.
In my case, we were on our way to the mainland to help some friends move an unspecified number of heavy, cumbersome, dirty objects for an unspecified length of time, on a searingly hot afternoon in a location which was almost certainly going to be infested with mosquitoes. (The instinctive American version of my emotions would have been “What was I thinking?”).
My saying the above conveyed that I assumed it was going to be a terrible experience but that I was going to do it anyway. (Note: There were no mosquitoes.) You can vary the intensity of this expression; it can be almost jaunty, depending on circumstances, but will always communicate at least some element of apprehension, or at least unwillingness.
“Gaver la morte con qualchedun” (gah-VEHR ya MOR-teh con kwal-keh-DOON). “To have the death with someone.” The American expression “Have it in for someone” serves the same purpose but doesn’t pack anywhere near the same punch.
You would say this about someone you really hated. Naturally there is a word for “hate,” but to call in “death” amps up your hostility to a complete, total, 100 per cent direness, an aversion which has no chinks or cracks through which second thoughts, forgiveness, or extenuating circumstances might enter. It’s a feeling that’s going to last forever. Unless the other person does something amazing to rectify whatever it was that went wrong, which can happen.
“Esser la morte de qualcossa.” (ESS-er ly MORE-te deh kahl-KOSS-ah). “To be the death of something.” In this case, “death” is a positive thing. And it almost always is related to food, the quintessential positive thing in life.
Let’s say that a certain item is more or less good prepared in various ways. But if there is one way in which a particular ingredient has reached its reason for being, that would be its “death.”
For example, you might really like seppie in their ink with polenta, and you’d be happy to eat seppie in their ink with pasta. But if you think that risotto is the best way on earth to eat seppie and ink, you’d say that risotto was their “morte.” A normal person might just comment, “Well, I think seppie risotto is best of all.” But if you are convinced that seppie were born to die in a plate of rice, you’d say “Risotto xe i so morte.”
Or take gray mullet. Lino states “Rosto xe i so morte.” You can fix them them any way you want, but he says that being grilled is their (correct, ideal, perfect) death. Think “destiny.” It sounds a little less drastic, but means the same thing.
Ghe gera per cani e porchi, or Ghe gera per santi e paoli. (Geh JEH-ra pehr CAH-nee eh POR-kee… pehr SAN-tee eh PAO-lee). “There was enough for dogs and pigs,” or “There was enough for saints and Pauls,” specifically Saint Paul. I cannot discover any reason why Paul would have been singled out for special mention. I’ve often heard the former, but only the other day did Lino come up with “saints and Pauls.”
They both mean the same thing: Abundance. Food and drink beyond any measurement that could be considered prudent or rational. It is a positive thing to say — it doesn’t imply waste, it implies generosity, hospitality, all you could ever deem necessary or acceptable in putting on a picnic or a wedding reception or a committee banquet. (If you use it to describe what was available on your cruise, it only implies that you got what you paid for.)
But you wouldn’t say this, however complimentary it may be, to the provider himself. You wouldn’t go up to the bride’s father and say “Wow, great party — there’s enough here for dogs and pigs.” You would describe the festivities thus to your friends the next day in answer to the question, “How was it?” If you say this, you’ve said it all, whether or not you go on to say there was Iranian caviar and Peach Melba and truffle risotto and millions of little salame sandwiches.
Multiplying a single saint (1: Paul, Unit: each) into a plural is an old-fashioned custom from the early 20th century; Lino says that his father, and many other Venetians, would make plurals out of names (not unlike the similar habit they have in Philadelphia of pluralizing nouns: “She writes for National Geographics,” for instance).
An example: In the old days Lino says it was normal to hear someone refer to the island, not as San Giorgio in Alga, but as San Zorzi in Alga (pronounced AH-eh-gah). Or, instead of Sant’ Angelo delle Polvere, it was “San Anzeli de le Polvere.” A linguist or etymologist would understand this shift. But people said it anyway, without wondering why.
Uno no xe da dar, Do no xe da tor, Tre xe d’amor, Quatro da mato, e Cinque d’inamorato. “One isn’t to give, two aren’t to take, three are for love, four are from a crazy person, and five are from someone who’s in love.” A curious bit of doggerel which defines the significance of the number of roses which a man might give to a lady.
It isn’t something you’d say every day, but this morning at the supermarket I was surprised to discover that Lino isn’t the only person left who still knows it.
The cashier had finished with me, and had just begun with the man behind me. She saw that he had only three bottles of mineral water. “Tre d’amor,” she quipped, to no one in particular, as she moved them down the belt, and on she went, ringing it up. It was great — it was like discovering I knew the secret password.
The numbers stop at five. Perhaps more than five roses are too expensive to consider. Anyway, if the number of roses were to continue past being in love, we’d be facing, say, Six is for your first fight, Seven is for getting lost because you wouldn’t stop to ask directions, Eight is for that vacation with the in-laws, Nine is for having gone to the soccer match with your buddies on your anniversary, and Ten is for having forgotten to close the car windows at the carwash. Or whatever the Venetian equivalent might be.
Stringer le strope (STRIN-jer eh STRO-peh). Essentially it means to tighten your belt — drastic economizing. I don’t know what they say in the rest of Italy, but in Venice this expression still does the job.
You could say “Gavemo da stringer le strope” (we’ve got to tighten the strope), or “Gavemo streto le strope” (we’ve tightened the strope). Given that for the past eight years all we’ve heard is how there isn’t any money in the city, those municipal strope must be worn to mere threads by now. Not to mention ours.
“Strope” are twigs of the Salix viminalis which have been soaked to become flexible, thereby serving, among other things, as natural cords for tying up things such as vine branches, bunches of flowers, or to make baskets, fish-traps, and so on. I believe that the correct term for these natural twist-ties is “withy.” The twigs also are used to make wicker-work objects. (“Wicker” in Italian is “vimini,” as per the scientific name.)
Bushes which could grow even to the size of small trees are found along the edges of canals and islands in the lagoon, and were just another of the innumerable useful things which the old Venetians harvested and used. Everybody knew what strope were. And most of those also knew what it meant to tighten them, either literally or figuratively.
Ti xe come parsemolo (tee zeh coh-meh par-SEH-mo-lo) or Ti xe pezio de la betonega (de ya beh-TON-eh-gah). “You’re like parsley,” or “You’re worse than betony.” What? The first is easy: Lazy or unscrupulous or unimaginative cooks are prone to cover a dish with chopped parsley when they are aware that it needs a little help but they can’t be bothered to figure out what.
Parsley, like many things, does not improve in quality along with the quantity. In fact, the more parsley on your plate, the more suspicious you should become. There are people who throw parsley on everything, like there are people who find a word they like and just keep using it. We had a neighbor when I was little who called everything “cunning.” That would have been like parsley.
Therefore, to compare a person to parsley is not to comment on his/her nutritional or aesthetic qualities, but merely to say that the person is ubiquitous. We used to see a certain man around town in so many different places and situations Lino nicknamed him “Parsemolo.” It was years before we found out what his real name was.
Betony, another plant (Stachys officinalis), is now lost to everyday medicinal use — its first use was to defend a person from sorcery, but soon demonstrated more helpful daily qualities, especially as a diuretic, but which apparently could also deal with everything from gout to gallstones to drunkenness to dog bites. Although nobody cultivates it around here, as far as I know, the expression lives on.
The Dizionario del Dialetto Veneziano (the touchstone of all Venetian words) says that this plant was once extensively cultivated in Venice, and that the usual phrase was “esser cognossuo come la betonega” — to be as well-known as betony.
The first time I heard somebody refer to betony, they were referring to Lino. He was “worse than betony” because he seemed to know everybody we ran across. They weren’t far wrong; a few days ago we were on a bus coming back from the mountains, and a lady got on at Strigno, a wide spot in the road about 130 km (80 miles) from Venice. As she climbed aboard, Lino murmured to me, “We were in nursery school together.”
It isn’t totally strange that a Venetian would be found up in the Sugana valley in the summer; thousands of Venetians have headed that way since forever, spending at least part of August in a cooler clime. But of all the Venetians to climb aboard at a truly insignificant place, it does strike me as noteworthy that Lino knew her.
But it just keeps happening. He opened the Gazzettino this morning and saw a little article in which don F. B., a parish priest in a small town on the mainland, was quoted. There was a picture of a conventional silver-haired priest with a one-size-fits-all expression.
“We were kids together,” Lino said. “His family lived where Giamberto lives” (that is to say, near Campo San Vio). Not enough information? How about this: “One of his brothers died when he (the brother) was very young. Their mother ran a casin (brothel).”
Chi ga santoli ga bussolai. (kee gah SAN-to-ee gah boo-so-YAH-ee). “He who has santoli has bussolai.” A “santolo” is like a godparent, but in a wider sense is someone who is perfectly positioned, with the perfect amount of power, to be the perfect person to help you do something important that you couldn’t manage to do yourself. A person who could find a job for your son would be a major santolo. Further, a santolo would be someone available to you, but perhaps not available to your friends at the bar. If you turn out to have a santolo who can help you resolve some difficulty, you automatically acquire an aura of special potency which you cannot — or won’t — share with anyone else.
So what are bussolai? Technically speaking, the word comes from “bussola,” or compass. They are circular baked goods which can either be crunchy dried bread (like a round breadstick), or softer and flatter and sweeter, essentially a heavy cookie laden with butter and eggs and sugar. The former is a specialty of Chioggia, or the islands, and the latter is a specialty of Burano (even though today the commercial bussolai are made on the mainland in Jesolo).
The overall meaning is: If you’ve got a protector, you’ll have food.
Snanarar (znah-nah-RAR). To futz around in a happy aimless way. I’ve heard it used almost exclusively aimed at children. (The adult version for any harmless incoherent activity is “tatarar via” (tah-tah-rar VEE-ah). You’d take your toddler to the beach to let him/her snanarar in the water, though you can snanarar doing enjoyable, meaningless things in other places. Perhaps “pottering about” might be a rough equivalent.
I can’t find it in Boerio, but Lino’s assertion that its root is “anatra,” or duck, sounds good to me. Ducks splashing and plotzing around with their webbed feet expresses at least a little of the delicious sense of formless pleasure doing whatever it is you enjoy. I don’t mean needlepoint or ceramics; I think there has to be some element of frittering away the time in the process. Sorry I can’t be more helpful, but every time I hear Lino say it about something it makes me smile.
Squaquarar (skwah-kwah-RAR). Another word obviously derived from ducks, but less benevolent than snanarar. In this case, the quacking would be from the mouth of somebody talking behind your back, saying unpleasant or untrue things. Gossiping, spreading tales, speaking disparagingly in a particularly thoughtless and unscrupulous way. I heard it for the first time not long ago when Lino said, “Well I’m not going to say anything about this to (name here), because he’ll just go and squaquarar around.”
It’s not surprising there are so many words in Venetian for the numberless ways in which people can talk about each other. Venice is, as I’ve often said, essentially a small town in Ohio, where you see the same people many times a day, and propinquity inevitably creates some instinctive interest in their history, their character, their behavior, their clothes, their dogs, their children, how they behave in church, whether they even go to church, and so on.
Today I saw the woman who hangs out for hours at the bar/cafe with her two hysterical tiny dogs; she was walking down the fondamenta without the dogs. And I thought, “How strange — I’ve never seen her without the dogs before. Are they sick? Did somebody kill them? Were they arrested? I never thought she could spend 20 minutes without the little vermin shrieking at her feet. Have they been impounded?” By the time she was out of sight I was still wondering about all this. That’s what propinquity does to your brain.
If you see little bunches of women, or even bunches of men, standing around on the street or on the bridges and talking, obliviously blocking your way, I can promise you they are not talking about the Milan stock market or the melting polar ice caps or the latest Bruce Willis movie. They’re talking about themselves, or their family, or your family, or retired people they used to work with, and they may well be squaquararing about them. You’d never squaquarar about somebody you didn’t know. What would be the point?
This is an unusual step for me, but I think it’s worth it. Even though I don’t place much trust in the power of petitions, maybe this time it will be different.
In any case, I’d like to inform you of one which has gone from 700 to 20,000 signatures and counting in about ten days. I think that means something.
“Gruppo 25 aprile” is a new group of Venetians and Venice-lovers which is concentrating its efforts on stopping the digging of the “Canale Contorta.” Its reasons are shared by many scientific and environmental experts, not to mention a huge percentage of everyday Venetians.
Once the subject of the big cruise ships and their potential to damage Venice became one of the hottest debates and power struggles of the year, the need for finding an alternate route from the Adriatic to Venice obviously became paramount. My own opinion is that any “cure” they find will be worse than the “disease” (i.e., the ships in the Bacino of San Marco) — or, as the Venetians put it, el tacon xe pezo del buso (the patch is worse than the hole).
Many solutions have been proposed, but only one had the political muscle behind it to get itself officially considered by the “Comitatone” (“Big Committee”) in Rome, which had the power to decide yes or no. That “solution” is the dredging of the Canale Contorta.
Thanks to a calculated maneuver by its promoters, the meeting at which the decision was to be made was held in August. (“August” is Italian for “vacation.”)
As Marco Gasparinetti, the coordinator of Gruppo 25 aprile, explains (translated by me from the Gazzettino):
“The decision of the Comitatone on August 8 was a summer blitz with which they hoped to surprise a city on vacation. But the city is fed up with being expropriated from the decisions which concern it, and this time is going to make its voice heard.”
The political vacuum in Venice since the government fell on June 4 has at least one positive aspect, and that is that finally there seems to be some possibility that the voices of Venetians might be heard somewhere beyond their living rooms and favorite bars. Yes, there is chaos in almost every aspect of daily life here now, but the fact that essentially only one man is in charge — Vittorio Zappalorto, the Commissario who is temporary governor — means that the city is less strangled by the political and bureaucratic tentacles of the past 20 years. It’s as if — to try another metaphor — a colossal dose of drain cleaner has ripped through the city’s emotional and civic pipes.
Back to the Canale Contorta. It may not be too late to stop it. Therefore Gruppo 25 aprile has created a petition addressed to Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, as well as all the ministers concerned (Environment, Infrastructure and Transport, Culture, etc.) urging them to withdraw the hasty approval of what it (and I) regard as a catastrophic move, the last nail in the coffin of the lagoon after the drastic effects of the MOSE floodgates, not to mention the Canale dei Petroli (“Petroleum Canal”), dug in 1969.
The page connected to the link above shows a map (left) from the 1980′s which outlines the major and some minor natural channels (ghebi) which used to cross and re-cross the lagoon. It represents a complex biological realm which the effects caused by the Canale dei Petroli, in 40 years, has done much to destroy, as shown by the NASA satellite image made in 2002 (right). Do you see ghebi? I see just a broad, anonymous stretch of bottom. That’s what the fish see, too.
Here is a section of a brief but pointed piece by Tom Spencer, reader in coastal ecology and geomorphology at the University of Cambridge, and director of the Cambridge Coastal Research Unit:
Coastal lagoons are transitional environments between fully terrestrial and fully marine conditions; in the absence of direct human intervention, their long-term tendency is to infill with sediments. Over the centuries, the Venetian Republic was instrumental in maintaining this vital yet delicate land/sea balance, starting with the huge undertaking to divert the main rivers in the 16th century and stop the region from silting up altogether.
Since that time, however, historical and near contemporary records of changing patterns of lagoonal topography and water depth; tidal currents; and sediment transport from the lagoon to the sea all show unequivocally that the current lagoon is moving in the opposite direction, becoming a downward-eroding, sediment-exporting system. It is thus on a trajectory that will turn it into a fully marine bay. That this process is well underway is evidenced by the appearance of plant and animal species in the lagoon that are characteristic of marine environments.
We may argue about the velocity of this trajectory but the evidence for such a trend, clearly related to a whole series of human interventions from the late 18th century to the present, is not in doubt. As wave height and tidal flows are strongly influenced by water depth, such a shift has critical importance for the sustainability of the historic core of Venice itself. If we drill down into the detail behind this general trend, it is clear that the excavation of two large canals (Canale Vittorio Emanuele, around 1925, and Canale Malamocco Marghera, around 1969) produced strong transversal currents across the original tidal network, with consequent siltation of channels and erosion of adjacent shallows.
There is one simple question that needs to be answered. Can we be assured that the large-scale excavation of the Canale Contorta will not have the same effect and not give the Venice lagoon a further shove in the direction of yet more environmental degradation and urban vulnerability?
The petition asks the national government to reconsider all the proposals. That seems like an extremely modest request.
The petition can be signed online. Here is the link explaining their position, with the possibility of signing. (“Firma” means “signature.”)
Or, you can copy and paste:
If anyone might be tempted to suppose that Venice can be happy and healthy in the middle of a maimed and deformed lagoon, that person should consider this: That the water through the Canale Contorta will enter or leave the lagoon with a force and a quantity that will endanger the city to a degree that the biggest cruise ship could never dream of.