Archive for Arsenal
One of several reasons why there has been a lapse in my postings is that there is an atmosphere of lethargy in the city which translates into “not very much to write about.”
Of course there’s always plenty if one wants either to dig far enough, or continue blotting the spindrift from the waves of unsolved, or unsolvable, problems. But since the city government collapsed in a heap last June, the many problems which continue to afflict the city are almost always reduced to “Money, lack of.” And writing about Money, lack of is not only monotonous, but also pointless. And depressing.
Of course, “no ghe xe schei” has been the convenient phrase inserted into every situation for years, even when there was money; it was an excuse which the city administrators could turn on and off at will, as if it were the radio. Then we discovered that there really wasn’t any money anymore, because it had been given to most of the participants of the MOSE project. You know that sound when you’re sucking on a straw to get the last drops of your drink? The silence I’m referring to is the sound of ever-longer pauses between the municipal mouth and the municipal funds. Not many drops left, but if you stop sucking it means you’ve given up, and we can’t have that.
Apart from what it signified, I’ve enjoyed this somnolent January. We’ve had beautiful weather, and very few tourists. But now that Carnival is bearing down upon us (Jan. 31 – Feb. 17), that’s about to change. Thirty days of tranquillity isn’t enough, but it’s all we get.
The tranquillity induced us to take a few uncharacteristic aimless strolls. You know, like tourists do, and this confirmed what tourists know, which is how lovely it is to wander and what interesting discoveries you make in the process.
Here, in no particular order, is a small, confetti-like scattering of what I’ve seen recently.
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.
It’s so easy to get dragged down by the undertow (or do undertows drag out? another of the endless questions that fill my brain) — dragged on, let’s say, by the daily, hourly, secondly force of aberrant behavior here that you might wonder why I’m still here if it’s all so, well, aberrant.
Answer: It’s not ALL so aberrant.
Life here can also be really entertaining. I try to stay alert to the brighter side, even if I don’t always write about it. Things may calm down soon, and more brightness will be able to leave the Witness Protection Program where I’ve kept it while the summer rampaged on.
Here’s some of what I’ve seen lately that made me smile.
San Foca is the patron saint of caulkers, hence he is also the patron of The Societa’ di Mutuo Soccorso fra Carpentieri e Calafati: The Society of Mutual Aid between Carpenters and Caulkers.
I can’t say there’s much work for either of these categories here anymore — certainly not as much as there was when the Venetian Republic was in full cry. But these craftsmen were always near the top of the food chain, considering that Venetian power was essentially naval. A statement to this effect was recorded in the Venetian Senate, for what reason I know not, on July 13, 1487 (translated by me): “… carpenters and caulkers, have been at all times the most appreciated and accepted on the galleys and other of our ships because in every need of any sort these men are the most adapted and necessary of any other kind of man.” Considering the wear and tear a Venetian ship was likely to undergo in its life, especially after cannon began to be used, your caulker would have been up there with the navigator and the cook as far as the well-being and probable safe return of the crew were concerned.
If you’re still not convinced that caulking is such a big deal, consider how much, as the song goes, you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone. An example: On the night before a certain battle, which I’m not going to pause to look up just now, the Venetian admiral was pondering the odds for winning the imminent battle with the unpleasantly superior Turkish fleet. Hope for the best? Or just send a batch of men at night to swim under the Turkish ships and rip out the caulking sealing the planks of their hulls? Dawn broke to what must have been a quiet but busy sound from the Turkish bilges, something like blub-blub-blub….
Back to the mutual aid society. March 5 is San Foca’s feast day, so he was celebrated at a special mass in honor of him as well as the departed members of the sodality. And then, naturally, there was a party. You’ve heard it before: “All the psalms end with the ‘Gloria.'”
Seeing that I am a newly fledged (or whatever the ship-caulking counterpart might be) member of the SMSCC, Lino and I went to join in.
The ceremony was in the church of San Martino, which is right under the haunch of the Arsenal, and which is full of assorted tokens of carpentering and caulking. There was nothing especially noteworthy about the mass, except for the unusually large number of people attending. And the party followed tradition in its simplest and clearest outlines: People! Noise! A small, hot room crammed with loud, hungry humans and vats of Venetian food!
I don’t know if San Foca had a favorite dish, but I’m always going to associate him with tripe soup. An ancient and honorable comestible which deserves a wider audience and which I’d bet money you would like as long as you didn’t know what it was.
And I think next year we should all plan to hold the party in Calafat, Romania. It was founded by caulkers from Genoa, but I suppose we could overlook that for the sake of harmony. I’m going to get to work on the convoy’s banners: “Calafat or Bust.”