Our Daily Bread

If you begin to pay attention to  the street names as you wander around — I mean, apart from seeking the one on which your hotel purportedly stands — you’ll quickly find that street names reveal the phenomenal variety of work that went on in Venice.    The street name could be a family name, but just as often it’s the name of a trade, or product, or ethnic  group, or activity, or institution.    Or even an action, as in the Ponte del Socorso, the Bridge of Succour.   Street names are one of my minor manias — they’re like the  tiny windows on an Advent calendar,  which open to show entire worlds, and I’ll be wandering in and out of them  often on this blog.  

These little white rectangles, which are called nizioleti (“little sheets”) in Venetian, teach  history  on every corner — literally.   They are  almost always written in the Venetian dialect, though  I have noticed  an ominous  recent move, culturally and intellectually indefensible, to repaint some of them in Italian.      I  can’t imagine one single reason to do  this.   I mean, it’s not as if they fall under some gleaming EU directive to standardize highway and road signage.  

After a few hours of wandering, you will have  noticed that there are lots of streets or courtyards where there  once was  a forno, or a forner (he who operates the forno, or oven), or pistor.   These are bread-baking terms, and bread, like every other business or craft, was produced and sold not only according to  its own guild rules but also the laws of the Venetian Republic.


The forneri baked bread and were also allowed to sell it, for themselves or for third parties.   They also resold bread which they had bought from a pistor.

The pistori, on the other hand,  also baked bread,   but weren’t allowed to sell it directly to individual customers; they sold their loaves on commission, so to speak, either to a forner or to private clients.   “Pistores” was the Latin term for millers as well as bakers, and was derived from pistrinum (mill) by way of pinsere, to pound.  

And speaking of millers, during the Middle Ages there were several mills  on the banks of the Grand Canal, which operated by the power of the tide.

In case  you suppose that baking and selling bread is more normal than the sunrise, it happens that after the fall of Rome (476 A.D. we’ll say), commercial baking ceased and people went back to  making their own bread at  home.   As most people  couldn’t afford wheat, they made their bread from other grains such as barley, oats, millet, spelt, and sorghum, which were not very well suited to bread, but they just made the best of it.  

In the feudal era some bakeries continued to exist in the convents,  but mills and ovens were usually the private property and privilege of the nobility, who also often  retained their own bakers.   However, with the establishment of free communes in the late 11th century, bakers re-established themselves as independent artisans, following their own, as well as state, regulations.

On May 13, 1422, the Council of Ten revoked the three Venetian confraternities of bakers that existed then with the purpose of combining them into one.      The scuola, or confraternity, of the forneri at the Madonna dell’Orto, formed on April 14,  1445, was therefore constituted in accordance with the Venetian government.

The rights and duties of the “brothers” were clearly set out, and among them were statutes governing the conduct of their work, their prices, and how long the period of apprenticeship would be.   Their bylaws also  conceded to the master baker  the freedom to rent one or two ovens, and to bake pan biscoto (hardtack) for the ships.   (Bis coto literally means “bread cooked twice,” from which we get the word biscuit.)   The number of bakeries was limited, and norms were established for the points of resale, even for the type of wood that could be used in the ovens.

There were also a  few rules of a religious character: Sanctions were imposed on those who named the Devil (maybe it was the flames in the ovens  that  brought him to mind, or perhaps it was more often the thought of their delinquent customers), and the obligation to go to confession and take Communion at least once a year, on  pain of being expelled from the craft.   Also, the  chimneys had to be built far from the bakeries themselves (I have no idea how that worked out in three dimensions), a rule which was obviously intended to prevent fires, and whose frequent neglect demonstrated what a very good idea it was.  

In 1773 there were 62 working bakeries in Venice,  with 62 master bakers, 149 workers, and 22 apprentices.   And 65 were opening.

The Venetian government was as  interested in overseeing the business of bread  as the business of drugs, dyeing, glass-making,  and everything else in which money changed hands.   If there was money involved, there were rules about it, and to make sure no one could claim ignorance of them the state literally carved them in stone.

On the Riva of the Santi Apostoli in Cannaregio, under a sotoportego of the Falier palace (now the hotel Antico Doge), there is a four-foot-high stone slab  which is punctiliously incised with what obviously is very important information.   (I pause  to reflect on what a good business it was to be a stonecarver in those days.)      

This tablet was placed here by the Venetian republic to publicize the state regulations on bakers and their various activities.   There are a number of such tablets around the city detailing  the appropriate behavior  in the vicinity —  or rather, the inappropriate behavior and the punishments therefor —  and they all begin in much the same trumpet-fanfare way.   (Translation by me, who declines any responsibility for the disjointed way in which these phrases come out.   Either they were using scriveners’ shorthand, which everyone was supposed to understand, or their normal way of issuing edicts required a style which translates amazingly badly.   But don’t imagine they didn’t mean every word of it).

The Most Serene Prince [i.e., the doge] makes it known, and by order of the Most Illustrious and Excellent Lord Inquisitor given above,

That no one, whether man or woman, should dare to make or cause to be made, bread made of wheat flour in any part of the city, whether foreign or native [i.e., Venetian], nor in houses, nor in boats, nor in the streets, nor at the gate of the Ghetto, the Riva of the Holy Apostles [approximately where the tablet is placed], nor in any other part of the city on pain of flogging, prison, the galleys,  and 25 ducats for every time they may counterfeit [I am supposing this term referred more to falsifying its provenance than to adulterating the product itself] the half of which the above-mentioned ministers that detained the guilty parties more than half of the bread and five ducats to the Art of the Pistori and they will not be released from the prison if they do not have a guarantee from the Gastaldo [elected head of the guild] above mentioned that they have been reinstated.   [There is a verb or something missing here but I’ve given up trying to make sense of it.   Perhaps these are two sentences no longer separated by any punctuation.]   Part of the five ducats paid out, if they should find themselves transgressing the bakers may risk double the penalty already decreed.   Children of an age not optimum  may be detained and subject to be sent as a deckhand/cabinboy to the public ships and if they try to evade this they will be subject to all the penalties given above to those who have sent them to sell that bread.

If someone should have the audacity to resist the detention of the guilty or the confiscation of the bread he should be considered subject to the same penalty as the criminal and may as much as anyone else be detained by any authority with the penalties given above.

Just as liable to be detained are any warehousemen, tavernkeepers, and those of the rooms at the inns who might keep bread, whether foreign or of any other place apart from that of the Pistori, who are obliged always to receive it with the correct mark and sign according to the obligation of the same and if it does not meet those requirements is always understood as contraband and the same shall be subject to the abovementioned penalties.

Should any boatmen in this city who transports bread or the persons who carry it fall [into the crime of carrying bread considered to be contraband] they will be given the penalty of 25 ducats and they are liable to have their boat burned and to be banished for two years from the traghetto [place assigned for tying up the boat] at which they have the right to work.   [This is more drastic than being sent to the galleys, believe me.]

The present proclamation shall be printed, published, and [illegible] in marble at the gate of the Ghetto, the Riva of the Holy Apostles, Saint Martin, and other places which are more frequented by counterfeiters [illegible] must  give their complete obedience and the same should not be adopted under the excuse of ignorance [last line illegible].  

Bread today comes out of the ovens in myriad forms and sizes, with all sorts of fanciful names which are  often related, if only dimly,  to their appearance (a “rosetta” does resemble a rose, if you like big soft crusty roses).   We used to buy “roses,” then we switched to rolls called “woman from Mantua,” which are twisted in a way that looks nothing like a woman, or Mantua, but might recall a headscarf, sort of.   It’s wonderful  to loiter in our local panificio (literally, bread-makery) to listen to people ordering their daily ration.    “I’ll take five slippers, two turtles, and an Arab.”   “Give me a couple of Hungarians.   (“We’re out of Hungarians, I can give you some French guys.”)   “I’d like  a bag of bones.”  

Bread comes in two categories, “special” and “common.”     “Special” bread could be made with a universe of extra ingredients: oil, butter, malt, sugar, milk, or other flours mixed with the basic wheat — say, barley, rye, corn, soy, or rice.   Hence the higher cost.   We prefer common bread not merely because it costs less, but because it’s so good there’s no point in trying to improve it.

As far back as Lino can remember, and probably before, bakers have been required by law to offer pan comune, or “common bread.”   Common bread was, and is, the simplest, cheapest bread possible: flour, yeast, water and salt.   (In Tuscany, they skip the salt.   Lino thinks  Tuscan bread is  uneatable.)   Because the government believed that nobody should have to go without bread because it cost too much, it passed a law which set the price of common bread lower than the normal bread, and if the baker was out of it when you asked, he was  required to sell you what he had at the price of common bread.   Lino thinks this law has been abandoned; he says people are embarrassed now to ask for common bread because it makes them look like poverty-stricken Okies, so the bakers have pulled back on making it.  I think pan comune is the best of the lot.   I always ask for it.  

However, Lino’s being dubious led me, as usual, to seek some information.   And I’m sorry to report that, as with many ideas which are easy to understand, simple to implement, and achieve only good, this one is gone.   When I went to buy our daily bread, I asked the bakery owner if this was still the case.   She gave me a startled  smile and said that at least ten years have passed since that law was sent to good-law heaven.   (I would bet at the insistence of the bakers, but I decided not to antagonize her.)   Today the making of pan comune is entirely at the discretion of the individual bread-maker.   So I guess all those times I’ve gone in and said, “Please give me two women from Mantua made of pan comune,” she saw me as some quaint  throwback.   She also volunteered a detail which I’d rather not have known: That even what they sell as pan comune today almost always has some little extra ingredient.

At least they haven’t tampered with the “pan domenical,” or Sunday bread.   This is made in long, robust loaves, and is sold only on Saturday.   It is made according to some occult recipe which allows/compels it to remain soft throughout Sunday, seeing as the bakers are at home all day Sunday, staring out the window.

(Above: Bread being taken from the baker either to restaurants or miscellaneous food shops.   Below:   Croissants being delivered.)

How long your bread remains soft may not worry you very much, but Roberto Vianello, who has always lived in this neighborhood, was telling me about the day the bread attacked him.   He was a boy here  just after the war, and his family was  scraping by, like most, and like most families, his  was large.   Nobody ever threw anything away, especially if it was remotely edible.   I’m not sure a penance existed  that could get you out of the hole for throwing away something you could, in some way, at some point, consume.   So there was bread, and occasionally there was leftover bread, which I can tell you dries out surprisingly quickly, though at that point it’s perfect for grating if you should need breadcrumbs.   He got to roughhousing with his brother and he fell against a cabinet.   There were some rolls stashed up there and one fell on his head.   “It cut my head open,” he told me, showing me a little scar.   “There was blood everywhere.”    I did not make that up, and I don’t believe he did, either.

When I was first living here and the bells rang at noon, Lino would  make me repeat a nursery rhyme:

Mezogiorno, el pan xe in forno/Se’l xe coto, damene un toco/Se’l xe cruo,  lasio la’/Mezogiorno xe sona’.

It’s noon and the bread’s in the oven/ If it’s cooked, give me some/If it’s not done, leave it there/Noon has rung.

The point of making me repeat this for what I swear were months, was to get me to pronounce the Venetian “l” correctly.   Or acceptably, anyway.   The Venetian “l” is a type of glottal “y” sound which doesn’t use any of your tongue except the very last part, back where it disappears into the abyss.   It isn’t so hard when the letter falls in the middle of a word (gondola  verges on gondoya), but it’s really recalcitrant at the start of a word.   I used to try just skipping over it, but Lino was implacable.   I felt like one of those suspected German spies who  were made to say  “Scheveningen.”   Fortunately,  Lino didn’t take me in for questioning.

Eventually I got to saying it acceptably, at which point — naturally — we stopped saying it altogether.