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The Patriarch clocks in

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Venice doesn’t have a bishop — you may be fascinated to know — it has a patriarch. And as of last Sunday, it has a new one: Francesco Moraglia, who has now been launched to a higher sphere from modest but reverendable monsignor to patriarch and, very soon, to cardinal.  Next stop?  We don’t speak its name, but we know it’s there.

Three patriarchs of Venice in the 20th century were elected pope (Pius X, John XXIII, and John Paul I).  Which means that one reason — perhaps the main reason — why it took six months to decide on the new occupant of the patriarch’s palace could be that the man needed to be considered papabile, as they say: “pope-able.”

As you can imagine, his welcome ceremony was a many-splendored thing, but the centerpiece — and the  piece feasible only in Venice — was a corteo, or procession, of boats in the Grand Canal.

Corteos, if you do them right (as in: have lots of participants), are impressive when seen from the shore/bridge/parapet/balcony or wherever the viewer may be positioned.  Certainly they’re impressive as seen from the vessel carrying the person being corteo’d.

The corteo finally begins. Some rowers, like the ones on the green boat, evidently have a different idea about what "dressing up for company" means.

Corteos, as seen from the boats involved, have a much different character. They are composed of friends — or  people who know each other, anyway — and what may look like a stately progress is actually a continual jockeying for position in a limited space complicated by vaporettos, gusts of wind, and tidal forces. All of these factors conduce to moments of  vivacious confusion which most of the rowers astern, responsible for steering, know how to navigate.  I can promise you, however, that there will be at least one boat whose poppiere has a very uncertain grasp of the connection between the action of the oar and the reaction of the boat. Fancy way of saying: helplessly wandering hither and yon like a rudderless boat on the high seas.  This person, whoever it may be, is always happiest right in front of us.

Don Marcello, the parish priest of San Giobbe, showed up to row in his cassock, just as he did for the previous patriarch, he told the Gazzettino, as well as Popes Benedict XVI and Paul VI.

The Gazzettino reported that there were some 200 boats in the procession, and I can believe it. I think most of them, though, were there for the event in its Venetian, rather than spiritual, aspect. I’m not saying rowers are godless, I’m just saying that the mass of participants seemed to be divided into two groups: Bunches of people along the fondamentas with welcome banners who were singing hymns , and us in the boats who were living another sort of moment.

The routine usually goes like this: The boats gather in the Grand Canal at Piazzale Roma.  We go to the command-post boat if we’re due any bonuses (T-shirts, bandannas, small bags of rations usually containing a sandwich, bottle of water or carton of fruit juice, a small pastry or piece of fruit.) You lounge around and keep track of your friends.  At this point in my evolution here, there’s quite a list.

We must have waited half an hour in front of the train station for Mons. Moraglia to conclude his prayers ashore. Half an hour is a long time when you're doing nothing.

But hanging around did give me time to admire this young woman, seemingly no more than 15 years old, who was the master and commander of an 8-oar gondola from the Canottieri Mestre rowed entirely by people her age.

Small organizational point: Unlike most processions, which are in the morning, we were summoned to appear at 1:45 PM.  This seemingly innocuous moment effectively wipes Sunday off your calendar, when you calculate the time needed to get to your boat, row it to Piazzale Roma, do the corteo, and row home.  The fact that the timing effectively wiped your lunch hour off your calendar was also noticed.  That’s why they gave us sandwiches.  Not much to keep you going till dinnertime, but if you came, you’d already accepted this fact.

We get the signal to start, and we proceed down the canal to the bacino of San Marco, dodging taxis and vaporettos and gondoliers and each other’s oars.  The principles of defensive driving all come into immediate play for the half-hour or so it usually takes to run this 3.7 km/2.3 mile route.

I’d never seen so many boats in a procession, not even when we put on the same event in 2002 for the recently-departed predecessor.  The sun was shining, the breeze was generally docile,  and we were going mostly with the tide.

The only drawback was the long wait for the patriarch to finish his invisible ceremonies ashore, board his boat, and get going.  When the tide is pulling you along and large public conveyances keep jostling for space, you don’t really feel like hanging around, even for an Eminence.  Rowers began to murmur and to comment.

But finally we were on our way.  We managed to put on a burst of speed to get past the small boat slewing around in front of us.  We waved to Lino’s sisters on the fondamenta. And when we passed under the Rialto Bridge and saw the straight stretch of Grand Canal covered with boats spread out before us, Lino actually got a little choked up.  I can’t remember what he said, but I looked up and his eyes were wet.  Just in case you think we get all blase and jaded about everything.

As the patriarch debarked at San Marco, the gathered boats gave the customary alzaremi, or raised-oar salute.  It’s spectacular when done right, or even just sort of right.  The annoying part for the executors of this feat  isn’t the weight of the oar as you haul it upright (I discovered a trick) — it’s the way the water runs down the shaft and onto your hands.  I have no picture of it because I was busy with my oar.

Then we row back to the club, across the bacino of San Marco, which will always be full of big heavy clashing waves.  You may well also have the wind and tide against you, so by the time you get the boat ashore you’ve forgotten how much fun you had.

The prow of a mega-gondola is a magnificent place from which to view the corteo. But I still can't figure out how the man is sitting. There's exactly the same area available on the right as you see on the left of the little flag. Where are his legs? Are his feet trailing in the water?

But enough about me.  I can tell you that the new patriarch has already remarked that he believes one of our main priorities needs to be to make children happy.  He put that in his short list of things we need to take more seriously, like create more jobs and be more just and fair in our dealings.

My inner Protestant (I.P.) finds this an amazingly dim recommendation. If making children happy is a goal, I can turn over and go back to sleep, because that must be the easiest thing on earth to do. Unload a dump truck full of sugar and fat and iEverything and then leave them alone. My I.P. — who is as devoted to children and their well-being as anyone, even him — would have preferred to hear something a little less fluffy. If  happy children are what we want, I think our mission should be to make sure they’re educated, healthy, disciplined, kind, at least bilingual and don’t smoke. I suspect that happiness would be within their own grasp at that point, and wouldn’t have to be provided by a squad of round-the-clock muffinbrains.

Feel free to pass this observation along to him.


More hanging around waiting, this time in front of the basilica of the Madonna della Salute, while the patriarch went inside to pay his respects to her. The golden curly thing is the stern of the "Dogaressa," the ceremonial boat that carried the pope last May. A good sign?


Some of us managed to find a parking place in front of the church, so we could relax during the interval.


Lack of food? Overcome by emotion? Meditating? Or just saving his strength for the next leg of the journey?


The "disdotona," or 18-oar gondola, belonging to the Querini rowing club, is easily the most spectacular boat in Venice and is always the sign of a Truly Important Event. The only drawback is finding a parking place.


The patriarch comes out of the basilica to wild acclaim. Wild, anyway, to everyone except the woman seated with her dog on the steps, reading the paper.

She’s probably reading the big article about the patriarch's arrival and wondering when he's supposed to show up.

I love this woman! She is totally impossible to impress! She's looking at her DOG.


"Just be patient -- he'll be along sooner or later."

Setting off on the last leg of the trip, across the Grand Canal to the Piazza San Marco. The police escort is an impressive touch -- we never see these zippy little craft except on big occasions. The firemen have them too. The men probably draw lots because everybody must want to drive them.


He looks happy and that makes me feel good. And he gets ten bonus points for standing up in the boat, a position he maintained, according to the Gazzettino, for the entire corteo. I have to say, that's cool.


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