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The best of “Burielo”

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A corteo is almost always preceded by a police boat which helpfully prevents collisions and hard words in the Grand Canal. This was, after all, a workday morning and plenty of people had other things on their mind than your funeral. (My, that sounded bad.)  In any case, the first intimation of this corteo, just emerging slowly from the bulk of upstream traffic, is the police boat.

A few days ago (last Monday, if anyone cares) there was a funeral.  In this city that hardly counts as news.  But it was the funeral of a young man — I consider 61 to be young — who had had a solid if untrumpeted career as a racer.  Umberto Costantini, nicknamed “Burielo,” was at the top of his game in his twenties, during the Eighties and early Nineties, and the newspaper was full of the glorious Venetian-rowing names, some of them much, much older than he, who came to do him homage.

The homage, according to what I read, was some of the best you could ever hope for, especially from this squabbling band.  “A great athlete and a good man,” stated several re del remo, the greatest champions, some of whom had rowed with him.  “In this world, full of controversy, he never argued with anybody,” said one of the greatest arguers of them all.

A few days before his passing, the paper reports, a group of the all-time great rowers went to visit him in the hospital.  “Ostrega,” he said, using the preferred Venetian expression for wow, good grief, heavens to Betsy, “I must really be in bad shape if you’re all here….”

He wanted a corteo, or boat procession, for his funeral, like the one he participated in when Bruno “Strigheta,” his friend and fellow Burano native, died two years ago.  And so it was.

Unhappily, it was on a workday morning, which cut into the number of participants somewhat. Not having been a rock-star name, that also may have left him somewhat unknown and unappreciated in the general rowing world.  Even more unhappily, there were people who knew him who just went to work as usual — we passed two gondoliers who were also Burano natives, and racers, as we wandered around town, who were clearly planning to be in their boats soon, but boats full of tourists.  That seemed harsh.

We thought about participating, but too many other factors intervened. So we stood at the vaporetto stop at the Ca’ d’Oro to watch the procession.  The deceased had said that he’d like to have a corteo, and by gum, they did it for him.

As it happens, I have my own small memory of “Burielo” — small to me, but an event that was big for him. I hadn’t even heard of him till then. It was 1997, and I was watching the Regata Storica sitting in a boat not far from the finish line.  Here the gondolinos came, thundering, so to speak, toward the finish line.  It’s definitely the peak moment of a peak experience, the entire world was screaming and yelling and shrieking and so on.

Burielo was in the bow, and Bruno dei Rossi (“Strigheta”) was astern.  They were in third place and rowing like mad to stay there, side by side, nose to nose, with the Busetto brothers, battling it out. The finish line was only, I’m guessing, 30 seconds away.  Four men turbo-rowing — it was wild.  But one man ran out of gas first: Burielo.

All at once, with that beautiful green pennant hopefully clutched in his (mental) hands, he stopped rowing, then collapsed.  I remember seeing him crumple down in the boat.  Just like that.  Two boats passed as the gondolino slid forward on its own momentum — I can’t do justice to his state of mind, not to mention his partner’s — and they came in fifth. No pennant, and definitely no glory. The ambulance zoomed up and he was headed — in another sort of turbo-manner — to the hospital, where he was checked in for a serious tachycardia.

That was the last time he rowed a gondolino, that’s for sure, and evidently the last time he raced, period.  You can understand that it would have been difficult to qualify for the required medical certificate.  Maybe he didn’t even try.

The human part of me is very sad this happened.  The secret mad-dog competitor part of me is sad that it happened before they could rip that green pennant from the (mental) hands of the Busettos.

The ten-oar gondolone, or “big gondola,” of the Francescana rowing club is rowed by some of the biggest names in the racing pantheon, some of whom were also his partners at one time or another. (Bruno “Strigheta” preceded him two years ago to the cosmic finish line.)  In the bow, Gianfranco Vianello “Crea,” and astern is Franco dei Rossi “Strigheta,” his old partner Bruno’s brother, with whom the deceased had won the race of the “galleons” of the Four Ancient Maritime Republics.  There were also Bepi Fongher, Giovanni Seno “Scherolin” and Luciano Tagliapietra “Panna,” three of his former race-mates, Palmiro Fongher, and Rudi Vignotto.  Only Vignotto is still winning races, but they’re all still rowing, which counts as a victory, in my view.

Not everybody rows at the same speed (some rowers always think that being in a boat means it’s a race), so the relatively few boats here began to spread out.  The motorboat to the left of the frame is the usual hearse, which probably brought the casket to the gondolone and will be waiting to carry it onward after the funeral.

Come on, everybody, this is a funeral cortege, not a wander through the park.  Though admittedly an eight-oar crew on a ten-oar boat is going to go faster than these vessels.

And so they passed out of view, turning left before the Rialto Bridge into the rio del Fontego dei Tedeschi, and on to the basilica of SS. Giovanni e Paolo (may I note, yet again, that nobody calls it “Zanipolo,” no matter how exotic it sounds). A vast crowd was waiting at the church, but we were not part of it.

And good night, farewell, auf wiedersehen, goodbye.

I forgot to mention that he had a life beyond racing.  He was a molecante, a type of fisherman who catches crabs and cultivates them in submerged wooden cages called vieri till they reach the stage where they shed their shells and become moeche (soft-shelled crabs) and can be sold at the market for a freaking king’s ransom.

The general procedure is this:  A fisherman (which used to be most, and now some still, men on Burano) goes out into the lagoon and strings his nets along poles he drives into the mud. He goes out and checks what has run into the net.  He divests the net of whatever is in it — all sorts of fish, and lots and lots of crabs.  (You can see these little crabs running around the shallows any time you are out in a boat.  Lino says that if you walk around in the semi-soft mud and then retrace your steps, each footprint will contain a crab.  He doesn’t know why.  I confirm that I have seen this.)

The fisherman separates the various critters and sells them, except for the crabs.  He’ll sort out the good ones, and put them in the vieri.  Every day or so he’ll pass to check on them, and takes out whichever are ready for market, tables, and unnumbered Swiss bank accounts.  They are currently selling at the Rialto for 60 euros per kilo, or $30 per pound, more or less.  I don’t know how much the molecante makes from that.  My experience of life leads me to assume that it would be dramatically less than that, but that’s not the point of this little cadenza.  The cadenza is that Burielo used to do this, and now (I hope) he’s doing it in heaven, because he loved it.

In a side canal by Mazzorbo, which is near Burano.

I’m imagining that this is Burielo’s corner of heaven.

And every so often the poles are pulled up and the nets brought to land and strung up to dry for a while. A windy morning in April is an excellent moment for this.

Categories : Venetian-ness
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Papal visit finale: The Gondoliers

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The results of the two elections held among the gondoliers have come in and now the pope can sleep easier knowing who exactly is going to be rowing him from one shore to the other next Sunday. (One of them won’t be Charon.  I presume.)

One can hope that the pope's voyage across the Grand Canal won't bear any resemblance to this little jaunt. ("Charon Carries Souls Across the River Styx," by Alexander Litovchenko.)

And the winners are: Franco and Bruno Dei Rossi, nicknamed “Strigheta” (not much of a surprise there, they were at the head of the pack several days ago), and one each of the two famous battling pairs of racers: From the “Vignottini,” Igor Vignotto; from the other, Giampaolo D’Este.

Comments in the Gazzettino on this outcome were as sardonic as they were swift:

“This is splendid news.  In the end, love always triumphs.”

“Since when have gondoliers all become basibanchi (these are those obsessively pious people who are always in church)?  Is this the miracle we’ve been waiting for from Giovanni Paolo II?” (who was beatified yesterday, first step on the road to official sainthood).

“Given the well-known diplomatic refinement among these four, it makes one wonder …  if they can manage not to swear at each other for ten minutes.  It wouldn’t be so bad even if it were to happen. Venice couldn’t present itself worse than what it is, even if it wanted to.”

So everyone has finally calmed down?  I know one person who hasn’t: Lino. He is all of the following: Astonished, infuriated, and offended, genuine, incandescent emotions far removed from the Lilliputian self-serving quibbling that has distinguished this whole affair.

Why is Lino so angry?  Because of all the people mooted for the Papal Row, he regards Igor Vignotto as the last — actually, far behind the last — gondolier who deserves this honor.

Yes, we remember in the end that rowing the pope is, in fact, an honor, and not just another gig.  I realize that “honor” is a word that rarely — well, never — seems to find a seat on the bus of normal conversation regarding gondoliers, but a papal visit is a noteworthy exception and the men who row him ought to have consciences which have been washed at least on the “delicate” cycle.

Igor and Giampaolo have two things in common.  One is that they  both row in the bow of the gondolino, which means that they, at least technically, can’t be considered guilty of all the skulduggery which has led to the current bitterness because they aren’t the ones responsible for steering the boat.  All they’re doing up there in the front is rowing their brains out.

Their other link, unfortunately, is that they both were banished from racing for the entire 2008 season because of their respective crimes in 2007.

In the case of Giampaolo, he was found guilty of having threatened a race judge with serious bodily harm, his way of asserting his innocence regarding an infraction during a race for which the judge had punished him.  The infraction is one thing, but stating in the hearing of many people that he would be prepared to settle the score by attacking the judge physically is, as they say here, “another pair of sleeves.” Also, there’s a rule against it.

Giampaolo D'Este.

I note that he only said he wanted to do it, he didn’t actually hurt anybody. This is a good thing, because while privacy laws make it difficult to discover his exact height and weight (I could probably do it eventually, but time is short), I can say that he appears to correspond to the stature of a two-year-old grizzly.  One of his nicknames is “The Giant.”  But rules are rules, even for midgets, and we can’t have racers going around volunteering to bash the judges.

But Igor’s case was worse, because what he did not only offended the rules and the judges, but all the other racers — those present as well as the hundreds stretching back into history — and the entire world of racing and, in a sense, the city of Venice itself.

It happened at the end of the culminating race of the Regata Storica three years ago (September 2007), in what then was a notorious altercation but which now seems to have been totally forgotten (which also adds to Lino’s indignation),

It’s true that the race had been unusually fierce, even by the standards of the searing rivalry pitting him and his cousin against the D’Este-Tezzat pair, and it’s true that the finish was so close that the judges had to check the video to determine the winner. But when Igor heard that they had given him second place, he kind of lost his mind.

Igor Vignotto exultant after passing D'Este to win the race at Murano in 2009, the year they both returned from exile.

Not only did he engage in a volcanic exchange with the mayor, Igor grabbed the prize pennants and threw them  into the Grand Canal.

Not just the two pennants destined for him and his cousin, but all eight pennants waiting to be awarded to the rowers of the first four boats to finish.

Of the many things which, in the view of various people, would have been much better thrown into the water (the “Boy with the Frog” being one of them), pennants have never, and should never, be treated in this manner. Set aside the fact that not all of them got fished out in time; or the fact that those that were fished out were essentially D.O.A., thanks to the salt water. It’s not even a question of whether the city made replacements.  It’s not even a question.  He shouldn’t have done it, and however good it may have made him feel at the moment, that’s how bad it made everybody else feel.

Not much is sacred to your average Venetian racer, but the prize pennant comes pretty close. Red for first place, white for second, green for third, blue for fourth. The remaining five teams just have to smile and look ahead to next time.

So when Lino heard that Igor was one of the Papal Rowers, it was Too Much, even in a city where things that are Too Much happen every day.

Bruno Dei Rossi "Strigheta," the only man ever to have won all the official races, rowing in the bow or the stern.

First a rower allows himself to essentially spit in the collective eye of the city, the race, the other racers, and history, and now he gets a reward?  Of all the people who could have been chosen, they chose a person who had committed an outrage that had never been committed by anyone, not even “Mad Dog” Sullivan.  And, strange to say, so far Lino is the only person who has expressed any opinion on this.

There’s a sprightly ditty in  the second act of “The Gondoliers,” by Gilbert and Sullivan.  It’s called “Here we are at the risk of our lives.”

Franco Dei Rossi "Strigheta." Oddly, for two such great racers, his seasons rowing with his brother were not their best.


I think it should be played in the background all day next Sunday.


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Perhaps your local gazette hasn’t mentioned it yet, but Pope Benedict XVI is planning a big trip soon. He’ll be touring Northeast Italy, and will be in or around Venice on May 7 and 8.

"King Henri III of France visiting Venice in 1574, escorted by Doge Alvise Mocenigo and met by the Patriarch Giovanni Trevisan," by Andrea Micheli "Vicentino." This is the kind of welcome everyone had come to expect.

Venice has a long and prodigious history of state visits — King Henry III of France and Poland, in 1574, was one of the more famous guests, just one of a seemingly infinite procession of princes, ambassadors, potentates, emperors and, of course, popes coming to see the sights, visit the doge, and usually ask for some favor, like money or soldiers. Reading the list of deluxe visitors over the centuries gives the impression that the main business of Venice was hosting foreign notables, while other activities such as running an empire filled the random empty moments, kind of like a hobby.

Yet His Imminence has aroused not only joy and excitement among the faithful, but tension and recrimination and a series of increasingly regrettable remarks among the city’s gondoliers concerning who is going to get to row him the approximately five minutes it takes to row from San Marco to the church of the Salute, and in what boat. By a mystic coincidence, gondoliers are also known as pope (POH-peh), because they row on the stern (poppa) of the gondola. I have no idea what this might portend.

"The reception of Cardinal Cesar d'Estrees 1726," by Luca Carlevaris. Just all part of a normal day.

Don’t suppose that the battle to transport the pontiff is any particular evidence that gondoliers are so pious. A pious gondolier would be a distant cousin to a pious illegal-clam fisherman, or a pious doctor of a cycling champion.  I’m not saying it’s impossible, just kind of unusual. But they do like to be the center of attention and, in fact, they’re used to being regarded as some sort of star.  At least to the damsels they may be so fortunate as to row around the canals.

Popes aren’t supposed to cause dissension, they’re supposed to resolve it. But Benedict has unwittingly set off a sort of collective seizure.

Pope John Paul II being rowed in the city's balotina by four "re del remo" in 1985; high astern is the legendary Gigio "Strigheta."

First: Luciano Pelliccioli, vice-president of the gondola station heads (and a gondolier) offered to join Aldo Reato, president of the gondola station heads (and a gondolier) to row His Sanctity in Luciano’s extremely elaborate and glamorous gondola.

No!! The cry went up.  Why should those two men profit by their position and crowd out equally (I mean, more) deserving gondoliers?  Why, indeed?

Furthermore!! Champion racer Roberto Busetto, never at a loss for an opinion (he isn’t a gondolier, but that’s a detail), objected on the grounds that if Luciano should ever think of selling his gondola, he could easily make a huge profit by marketing it as the gondola that had carried the pope.  Busetto gets five bonus points for crassness, though that doesn’t mean he’s wrong.

Anyway, Luciano withdrew his offer of his gondola and himself.  Reato also withdrew, but the incessant calls have continued. There are 425 gondoliers and by now probably each of the remaining 423 has called him at least once.  Some of them have fantastic reasons to be chosen: “Padre Pio came to me in a dream and said you should pick me,” said one.  Another person suggested Giorgia Boscolo, the first woman gondolier.  That idea burnt up on reentry into reality.

Then somebody suggested the “Strigheta” brothers, Franco and Bruno, sons and heirs (and gondoliers) of one of the greatest racers/gondoliers of all time, Albino “Gigio” Dei Rossi, known as “Strigheta.” (He rowed not only one, but four popes in his day.) They’re loaded with credentials and nobody hates them, which helps.

Then somebody suggested a four-rower gondola, rowed by the current racing champions, the Vignottini and D’Este and Tezzat. I think the idea was that rowing the pope could somehow magically bring peace to these two savagely feuding pairs, though somebody else opined that it wasn’t appropriate to expect the Holy Father to resolve every little neighborhood squabble. In any case, the four men have declared their willingness to row the Pontifex Maximus together, which is already a big step forward.

Then somebody asked: Why should it be a gondola?  Excellent question, considering that the city of Venice owns a more capacious gondola-type boat called a balotina, on which Pope John Paul II was borne along the Grand Canal in 1985.

Then some daring person suggested using the “disdotona,” or 18-oar gondola, which belongs to the Querini rowing club, and which in my opinion is not only the most spectacular boat in the city, by far, but would provide 18 men the chance to Row for Holiness.

Naturally, this idea got nowhere, because nobody thought one club should be given preference over another.  We’ve all got great boats, the thinking goes — why them and not us?

Even when it's not doing anything, the "disdotona" is impressive. I think the pope would look splendid seated in the bow, what with the velvet drapery trailing in the water and all.

I’m surprised nobody has yet suggested using the “Serenissima,” the huge decorated bissona with a raised stern, making the pope easy to see plus providing space for his entourage and some trumpeters, if that seemed appropriate.  But so far no mention of this little coracle.

Which brought up the next question: Why should the rowers be gondoliers? Another useful point.  In the olden days, a visiting potentate — such as John Paul II — would be rowed by the necessary number of “re del remo,” men who had won the Regata Storica five years in succession.  There aren’t many of them, because it’s fiendishly hard to do.  That would instantly reduce the number of candidates to something manageable.

And by now there has been at least one practical joke.  Someone purporting to be Aldo Reato (president of the gondola station heads) called the Gazzettino and said the matter had been settled: Luciano’s fancy gondola was going to be used after all, rowed by Franco Girardello, a retired gondolier who goes by the nickname “Magna e dormi” (eat and sleep). This fantasy was quickly dispelled by all concerned except the anonymous prankster.

The "Serenissima" was born for this kind of event. Odd that so far nobody has suggested it.

The most recent bulletin is that the matter will be put to a secret vote among the gondoliers.  The mind rather reels.  Busetto thinks the papal gondola is going to cost the moon at resale?  How much is a gondolier’s vote going to be worth, at this point?  No checks, no credit cards.

Comments from bemused readers of the Gazzettino run from “The pope doesn’t care who rows him” to “What a farce” to”Actually, Padre Pio came to ME in a dream and said I should do it.”

A certain Riccardo made the following suggestion:

“Requirements for candidacy:

Never to have blasphemed; Never to have used foul language; Never to have spoken in a coarse tone of voice.  In the case of more than one valid candidate (doubtful), preference will be given to the one who has a good knowledge of the principles of Catholicism, and/or who has read at least one of the 16 chapters of the Gospel of St. Mark, patron saint of our city.”

This pastoral visit has been in the planning stages for at least three months — probably more — and yet here we are, at the last minute, dealing with the frenzied bleating of the flock.

Meaning no disrespect, I think it would have been better for everybody if they had given a crash course in rowing to a Rastafarian and a dervish. I can’t think of a gondolier who could possibly be cooler than that.

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