Archive for Busetto
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.
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.
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.
If you’ve ever been to Murano, one of the world’s great glass-making centers, you will know that it’s impossible to race through it. You will be exhausted, but not because you’ve been going so fast; au contraire, you will have been plodding along at the pace of those debilitated galley slaves in Ben-Hur, going in and out of so many shops you’ll think they’ve been breeding in dark corners when you’re not looking. The five islands that make up Murano, of which you will probably only visit two, cover barely one square mile, and the Yellow Pages list 61 shops. I think there must be more.
Anyway, you will not have been racing. Unless it’s the first Sunday in July, in which you can come to Murano to watch other people race, and believe me, they’re going to be more tired in less time than you and your whole family after an entire day.
The regata of Murano is really three regatas, each involving solo rowers, which calls not only for stamina but for skill. The races are for young men on pupparinos, women on pupparinos, and grown men on gondolas. It’s always hot, and there is always wind, and sometimes, like a few years ago, there can be sudden thunderstorms with pouring rain. But the race must go on.
The city of Venice organizes nine regatas a year, plus the Regata Storica. Each race is designed for a particular type of boat and number of rowers, and each is held in a different part of the lagoon, which means that the conditions and course present their own particular quirks. These changing venues also means that some are easier to watch from the shore than others, and the one at Murano is especially exciting not only because you can see both the start and the finish, but because there are good vantage-points along the fondamentas, and even a big cast-iron bridge from which to get a spectacular view of the finish.
Regatas (a Venetian word, by the way), have been an important feature of Venetian festivities since the Venetians crawled out of the primordial ooze; sometimes they were part of a religious celebration, or part of the myriad spectacles staged for the amusement of visiting potentates, but they were one-time events.
But in 1869, the regata at Murano was established as a regular annual event and not for any prince or pope but to entertain — yes — tourists. And whether or not tourists can look up for a few minutes from the heaps of glass necklaces and picture frames and flower vases, this race is arguably the most important occasion for a Venetian racer to show what he, or she, has really got. I can tell you that the man who wins the gondola race is universally regarded as having won something akin to Wimbledon, or maybe the Ironman Triathlon, or the Tour de France. Maybe all of them.
Here’s what it takes to win: Strength, stamina, skill, luck, and extreme and ruthless cunning. It also helps if you’re tall. It’s a physics thing; short rowers have a hard time keeping up with taller ones, though sometimes a short person has pulled it off, especially if he or she (I’m thinking of a she) is lavishly gifted with the aforementioned luck and cunning. Or just cunning.
My two most vivid memories of this race are from one of the earliest ones I ever attended, and the one from last Sunday. Both, oddly, involve a certain racer named Roberto Busetto.
Mr. Busetto is strong — he looks like Mr. Clean, and he has biceps that make you think of whole prosciuttos. He is also experienced, and very determined (I’m not sure that he’s made it up to “ruthless”), but if anything ever upsets him during the race — even if it may not have prevented him from finishing really well — he can be counted on to show up for his prize yelling about it. In fact, there will always be something that’s wrong, and he goes all Raging Bull at the judges, at some fellow racer, at some onlooker, at anyone or anything that might have created even the tinest problem for him. Or who looks like they don’t care. It’s never easy to understand, in the midst of his tirade, what actually went wrong. But you know he’s mad.
The first time I saw Busetto at full throttle, he had barely crossed the finish line when he started ranting. It had something to do with what he claimed was some sneaky, illegal thing that another racer, Franco Dei Rossi, had inflicted on him, thereby preventing him from finishing better.
But it wasn’t his tantrum that stunned me, though I didn’t know at that point that tantrums are his normal means of expression, the way some people can’t help starting every sentence with “Well” or “You know.” It was the fact that under this deluge of outrage, Dei Rossi was sobbing as he mounted the judges’ stand to be awarded his prize. A grown man, one of the greatest (in my view) racers of his generation, son of one of the greatest racers in history, was standing there weeping uncontrollably. It was so astonishing and distressing that I know I didn’t imagine it, and I’m not exaggerating, either. I’m glad I didn’t have a camera with me, I wouldn’t be able to bear looking at the pictures. It really left a mark on me.
So we come to last Sunday. It’s Busetto again. He has been racing for at least 20 years, maybe more, but he had only a very brief peak, and that was quite some while ago. In fact, I’d have to stop and do some research to determine when was the last time he won a pennant. I think the Beatles may still have been together. (Just kidding; it was in 2000.)
But this year, he finished third. Which means he won the green pennant, which means that after a ten-year drought he had managed to pull himself back into the ranks of the demi-gods. Pennants are awarded to the first four finishers, and they really matter to the racers, almost as much as the cash prize.
Finishing third is pretty great, but about two seconds after crossing the finish line, he collapsed. First he sort of let himself fall down backwards on the stern of the boat, which isn’t so strange except that it’s usually the younger men who want to show how completely wrung out they are. It’s like when they throw their oar in the water (rage, joy, some other intense emotion — looks very dramatic, till you realize how dumb it is).
But then my friend Anzhelika said, “He’s too white.” Then I noticed that his boat had drifted slaunchwise across the canal, blocking the arrival of the last gondolas. Then there was some commotion, then the sound of the water ambulance arriving at full speed.
Much pouring of cool water on his head, much checking of his blood pressure. He tore himself away long enough to come pick up his pennant, annoyed (of course), though not yelling, because everybody was fussing over him. He likes attention, but nobody with arms like prosciuttos wants it to be because he fell apart.
But some things in life are bigger than prosciuttos, and rowing under the searing sun for 40 minutes at full blast if you’re not in astronaut-type physical condition is asking for it. “It” being an ambulance and a blood-pressure cuff, and lots of people suddenly looking at you like you’re some kind of invalid.
You know it’s serious when Roberto Busetto isn’t yelling.