Archive for Breccia di Porta Pia
I have a new hero.
He emerged from oblivion a few days ago wrapped in the shadows of a bygone regata which is being resuscitated this weekend, and I think he deserves more space than the regata and I want you to know about him not only for his own sake, but to demonstrate that Erla’s Venice does not consist exclusively of moldy leftovers and mismatched socks and intelligent people who believe crazy things and not-so-intelligent people who believe those things are brilliant.
His name was Luigi Graziottin (GRA-tsee-aw-TEEN): Born in Castello in 1852, died in Castello in 1926, and forgotten in Castello ever since.
The regata he was involved in organizing and promoting was inspired by the city-wide desire to celebrate September 20, a crucial date in the amalgamation process of the newly united Italy. The festivities in Castello were a huge neighborhood event.
The race was first known as the Regata di Castello, then the Regata of XX September. It was held ten times between 1887 and 1913, skipping some years for various, ever-more-political reasons, with assorted modifications. Then people stopped commemorating the date and the race had no reason to exist.
I know all this thanks to an excellent book, “La Regata di Castello o del XX settembre,” by Giorgio Crovato. Too bad it’s only in Italian, it’s crammed with fascinating stuff.
Back to Graziottin. He was a carpenter by trade, who worked in the Arsenal, and was also an ex-NCO of the Italian Navy. He furthermore devised a cure for cholera which saved a couple of hundred lives in the national epidemic of 1886, no small feat when you consider how many cholera epidemics decimated Venice and/or Italy in the nineteenth century (1835-36, 1849, 1854, 1886). He told a Roman reporter that he was known in Venice as the “king of cholera” — sounds funny unless you’ve been through a cholera epidemic, which I haven’t, thank God.
Most important — and this is where the heroic element comes in — he was Castello’s guiding light, a one-man social services agency who, without any particular qualifications, became the paladin of the poor, of which Venice at the turn of the century had an enormous supply. More than once, the regata’s festivities, apart from fireworks and the regata, included the distribution, organized by Graziottin, of “bread, yellow flour (polenta), and…wine to the poor of Castello.” Which means he had first managed to inspire donations from local merchants, which also impresses me.
Crovato describes him this way (translation by me):
“He is short and swarthy, with an unkempt beard, long hair….without much income and often in need himself, who runs where he sees the need of some social or civic intervention, without any direct political authority, but as defender of the weakest….”
He wrote so many letters to the Gazzettino to publicize his abundant concerns that the paper summed him up as “…a sort of local Garibaldi, who runs wherever there is need, engaged on diverse fronts, especially in the social realm. Honest and ingenuous, and loyal to his country, as a Venetian and an Italian.”
A man, in short, to whom the phrase “What’s in it for me?” would be incomprehensible, even if spoken in his native language.
In 1888 he wrote a letter to the mayor requesting new clothes for a poor shoemaker who had saved the life of a little girl who had fallen into the canal of Sant’Anna (as it happens, the canal that comes ashore at high tide just outside our door).
On the same day, he alerted the city that the shipyard workers at Sant’ Elena were in imminent danger of losing their jobs.
He got a meeting with the mayor to discuss the dire situation of 70 out-of-work boatmen, suggesting that the schedule for excavating the canals be modified in order to start, say, immediately.
He took four women to Padova to ask the wife of an important politician to intervene on behalf of the women’s husbands, imprisoned for their supposed participation in a sort of rebellion of the porters at the bridge of the Veneta Marina.
The next day he wrote a letter to the newspaper to solicit donations to help a 38-year-old woman with four children whose husband was in jail for homicide. I notice that he didn’t take on the husband’s case, focusing instead on the plight of his destitute family.
He also personally saved more than a hundred people from one life-threatening incident or another.
And on, and on, and on.
Eccentric as he may have been, with his proto-hippie persona buttressed by a blue-collar pragmatism — I picture him as looking something like a cross between Frank Zappa and Rasputin — Graziottin must have gleamed with sincerity and confidence, because people at every level responded. His personal motto, if he’d had time to bother with one, must have been “Get it done.”
The reason I have made room for him in my personal pantheon of heroes (in fact, he made room for himself) is not primarily his energy, or even his successes. It’s his altruism. I can’t express how startling and radiant that is in a city which seems unable to recognize any motive other than “ulterior.” I don’t doubt that the people to whom he appealed may have had many of their own reasons for responding, but I don’t perceive that he had any ambition other than to help people who had nowhere to turn.
I also can’t imagine him answering the numberless cries for help with the by-now ritual responses to problems of any sort or size: “I’ll think about it,” “We don’t have any money,” “I don’t know,” “Probably not,” “I wish I could,” “Maybe next year,” or merely “No.”
Now we have unions and Facebook and special-interest groups and talk shows and all sorts of ways to make our voices heard, even if they are ignored. But there seems to have been something in Graziottin’s voice that was more effective than your average riot, march, or hunger strike. And compassion fatigue seems never to have set in.
Not to idolize the man, I’m just observing the chasm that separates his view of the world and the orientation of large numbers of people here. Of course there are many who labor to help the needy. I even know some of them. But in general, those who have the power to improve things, even little things, don’t. And those who don’t have the power, they also don’t. There’s always time to complain, though.
Graziottin! Thou should’st be living at this hour:/Venice hath need of thee: she is a fen of stagnant/Waters…..
But there the similarity between Wordsworth’s Milton and our own little Luigi ends. Because while Poet A apotheosizes Poet B on the basis of B’s innate grandeur and magnificence, I would skip the sonnet and send a crate of compliments to Graziottin for his simplicity, integrity, and tenacity.
He could probably also have used a gift certificate to a day spa, which I’d happily include, but I doubt he’d waste his time getting his nails buffed and his beard trimmed. He’d probably give it to somebody who really needed it.