Archive for Canaletto
Before wristwatches, there were bells, usually in towers. But for the bells to be useful, somebody had to know what time it was, so a clock needed to be lurking somewhere — preferably attached to the bells. Of course, clocks didn’t have to have bells. But bells were irrelevant without a clock.
So if ingenuity appeals to you, I suggest you go to the church of S. Geremia, near the train station, to observe one of the oldest clocks in Europe; it is the still-functioning mechanism that kept their two bells ringing — with a 70-year interlude — ever since the 1500’s. (No, there doesn’t seem to be a definite date to the clock’s arrival; I have turned the booklet’s information inside and out, and now it’s my brain that feels like a piece of origami. So “1500’s” will have to do for now.)
(For those whose minds can never be at rest, let me add that the first public clock in Italy was installed in the tower of the church of Sant’ Eustorgio in Milan between 1297 and 1306.) (I will not be reporting anything about Sant’ Eustorgio.)
The tower of S. Geremia has a clock, but no clock-face. In fact, only a few churches in Venice whose bells still alert us to the time also display a visible clock. Clock-faces became common in the 1500’s, the result of I don’t know what impulse, because when you think about it, the striking bells told you everything you needed to know without a visual aid. The belltower of the church of the Carmini, whose bells told me the time for the ten years I lived nearby, has no clock face. I never thought about that till this moment. Just hearing the hour and quarter-hour struck was enough to keep me oriented over the course of the day (and night). But because somebody had to know exactly what time it was, there was a sundial, still visible, on the tower of S. Geremia, which enabled this person to calibrate the works, by hand, exactly at noon. I’ll explain the importance of that in a minute (sorry).
This mechanism is probably one of the simplest, but it still impresses the hoo out of me. Not being literate in the language of wheels — cog, fly, escape, Catherine — I’m not convinced that it was made by an engineer and not by an alchemist or general all-purpose thaumaturge. The important point is that it was maintained in working order till 1950. At that point it went into retirement, until a restoration project brought it back to life in 2015.
Venice was a city of towers and there were many more than there are today. In 1601, a certain Franz Schott, writing a guidebook entitled “Itinerario d’Italia,” stated that Venice contained 27 public clocks, and “towers for church bells 114.” Today, there are 84. We can thank Napoleon for this devastation.
Schott, being German, made those useful distinctions because they weren’t all clock-towers — some were watchtowers, or signal towers, or showing-off towers built by especially rich people.
The need for clocks (have you never reflected on why there was a need for clocks?) seems to have begun in the Benedictine monasteries, to ensure the correct timing of the Liturgy of the Hours throughout the day — and night. But there was also a need for order in arranging the day’s activities out in the profane world, so people got used to organizing themselves according to the bells rung for religious purposes.
Here is how a typical medieval day in Venice rolled along, at least until the 1500’s, from the comprehensive booklet written by Francesco Zane (translated by me):
“Until the 1600’s the devout custom continued of following the divine offices during the night, and the doge never missed attending in his chapel, just as the Greek emperors (I presume he means Byzantine emperors) and the French and Longobard kings. (The “divine offices during the night” would have occurred at midnight and 3:00 AM. No wonder he dozed off in meetings.)
“As the sun rose behind the campanile of San Marco, at the sound of a bell each person got busy working, and seeing that the most numerous artisans were the carpenters, in Venice called marangoni, they named that bell the Marangona. The magistrates seated and the workshops already buzzing, not a few patricians … gathered at Rialto beneath the porticoes, which are to the right as you descend the bridge, for the sole purpose of seeing each other and talking together, while at the same hour and in the remaining porticoes (was) a crowd of merchants — Florentine, Genoese, Lombards, Spanish, Saracens, and of whatever nation of the world was involved in major business. They stayed there till noon, when it was time for lunch.
“…lunchtime was brief, only half an hour after noon had struck, when another bell … struck for a half hour calling everyone back to work, so that the entire time allowed for the pause was only one hour. When night fell, work and public business necessarily ended, but it wasn’t unusual whenever and where it was requested or needed that the magistrates would continue to work on state business.
If you’ve ever noticed the bell ringing every day at 2:00 PM from the campanile of San Marco, that was the signal ending the lunch break for the Arsenal workers.
“Finally, at the third hour of the night (Compline, or 9:00 PM), another bell was rung … after which you could no longer walk around the city … nor could you keep fires burning in shops and houses on pain of a fine of 100 soldi, by which provision the habitations, which were, for the main part, of wood, were preserved from fire. But in the 1400’s it was permitted for barbers and small food shops to remain open after “terza della notte” (6:00 PM).
All these are times that correspond to the canonical hours, which persisted till the 1700’s. Slightly confusing, because the day was considered to begin at sunset. “Prime” was 6:00 AM, “Terza” was 9:00 AM, “Sesta” was 12:00 PM, and “Nona” was 3:00 PM. Documents often refer to meetings and other events as occuring before or at or after a certain named bell. Everybody knew what “Nona” meant, just as I’ve gotten used to knowing what “Candelora” and “l’Immacolata” mean in terms of dates.
It fell to the bells to keep a city of 100,000 people functioning efficiently; the Venetian government needed to ensure that everybody knew what time it was, and S. Geremia was one of four churches which officially sounded the time for any governmental meeting, especially the Great Council. (The other official churches were the Frari, San Francesco della Vigna, and, of course, San Marco, all the highest towers in Venice and all necessarily synchronized, which is where the sundials came in.) Seeing that the Council numbered some 2,000 members who lived all over the city, these four strategically placed belltowers totally removed any chance for someone to arrive late saying he hadn’t heard the summons. Being sure of a standard citywide time enabled the office timekeeper to define what “showing up late” meant, which made it easy to impose the appropriate fine.
Out in the parishes, when the bells rang for Prime (dawn) every morning, the appointed persons would open the thousands of public wells, which had been covered at night. (Reports of the occasional suicide make it clear why this was desirable.) This practice was maintained, perhaps toward the end without the bells, until the acqueduct from the mainland was built in 1884.
Also at Prime, every day from 1516 to 1797, the bells from S. Geremia signaled the guards to open the gates to the Ghetto. At the bell of 6:00 PM the gates were closed and bolted, and the night patrol began its circuit — in boats, naturally — of the walls of the Ghetto.
Who paid for this clock? S. Geremia didn’t have a monastery to justify or fund it; its use was entirely secular, and the parishioners paid for it. San Geremia was one of the largest parishes in Venice, and by the late 1200’s had developed both economically and socially well beyond its poor, marshy beginnings. There were many businesses which depended on knowing what time it was — for example, the foundries.
The city’s oldest foundries were in the parish of S. Geremia, in the area which later was assigned to the Ghetto. The period between the 13th and 14th centuries saw rapid innovations throughout Europe, and one writer says that it was no coincidence that the first artillery and clocks began to appear at the same time. Among other things, the Venetian foundries cast bombards, or early cannon, as well as creating the alloys used for other assorted weapons. Foundry workers were required to live in the parish. I give this as a fact, though I can’t provide the reason, except for the fact that virtually everyone resided near their place of work.
To return to the clock: There are signs that it was cast by the “Dondi” foundry. Several generations of Dondis distinguished themselves in the realm of timepieces. Clock people (of whom I am not one; I’m just passing through) venerate the name of Giovanni Dondi Dall’ Orologio (“of the clock”), who in 1364 completed work on his Astrarium, a complex astronomical clock which one source calls “one of the most important machines of all time.”
To sum up: Artisans and engineers at the pinnacle of their skill collaborated to make this sturdy, unstoppable instrument. I have no doubt that they looked upon it and saw that it was good, though they might not have imagined it would keep going for 500 years. That’s a heck of a lot of TOCKs.
July 29, as all the world knows, is the feast day of Santa Marta. Or in any case, now the world knows.
She is essentially forgotten here; her church has been deconsecrated, swallowed and partially digested by the Maritime Zone, and her celebration — once one of the greatest of the many great festivals here — is gone forever. Only a painting by Canaletto brings us the tiniest (and darkest) glimpse of what was once a very big night in Venice. Her name today is used mainly to refer to the adjacent neighborhood.
The reason I didn’t get this post finished by July 29 is because I got lost reading assorted accounts, some of them first-hand, about this uber-fest. It didn’t take me long to conclude that the fabled feast of the Redentore, which has remained a very big deal, was really nothing so remarkable compared to Santa Marta’s. The Redentore had fireworks, it’s true, but Marta had fresh sole.
Fish was an excuse for a colossal boating party? Why not? The Venetian civil and religious calendar was bursting with events of every type and voltage. A very short list would note the festivals of Santa Maria della Carita’, Palm Sunday, S. Stefano, “Fat Thursday,” May 1, or the Doge’s Visit to the Monastery of the Virgins, S. Isidoro, the taking of Constantinople (1204), the regaining of Candia (1204), S. John the Baptist “Beheaded,” Sunday after Ascension Day, the victory over Padua (1214), the defense of Scutari (1479), the victory of Lepanto (1571), S. Rocco, Corpus Domini, the victory of the Dardanelles (1656), and the conquest of the Morea (1687). These are just a few of the major events; the Venetians also commemorated defeats. There was something going on almost every day.
But there was always room for more, and although Santa Marta couldn’t claim to have sponsored any particular victory, discovery, or other noteworthy occurrence, her feast day conveniently fell in the period when the weather was suffocatingly hot, and the sole were in season. Plus, her church was located on a little lobe of land facing lots of water, and there was a beach. All this says “Put on your red dress, baby, ’cause we goin’ out tonight” to me.
The basic components were: Everybody in Venice, either on land or on the water, regardless of social station or disposable income; every boat in Venice — so many boats you could hardly see the water, festooned with illuminated balloons and carrying improvised little arbors formed by frondy branches; music, song and dance, and lots and lots of fresh sole.
July is the season for sfogi zentili, or Solea vulgaris, and while the Venetians could bring their own vittles, plenty of them also bought the fish which had just been saute’d, either on the beach or on the street by enterprising entrepreneurs. If you were really in luck, there would be moonlight, too.
The best and most famous chronicler of this party was Giustina Renier Michiel, who was born in 1755 and belonged to several patrician Venetian families. She spent 20 years researching her six-volume work, Origine delle Feste Veneziane (1830), but the fact that she had personal memories of many of these events makes her books exceptional.
I started to translate what she wrote about the feast of Santa Marta, but she went on so long, and her style sounded so curious in English, that I became tired and discontented. So I’m going to give some bits and summarize the rest. Anyway, it’s clear that the event was so phenomenal that even people who saw it finally gave up trying to describe it adequately or coherently.
Here is her version of how the festa was born:
“In the old days many groups went out in certain boats to fish for sole, the best fish that one eats in July. (Lino concurs with date and description.)
“And in the evening they would go back to the beach by the church of Santa Marta and feast on the fish, enjoying the cool air that restored their depleted strength after the labor of fishing, as well as the heat of the season.
“Later on, as the population became richer, and softness set in, the work of fishing was left to the poor people, who had to do it in order to live, and what used to be a fatiguing labor changed into a singular entertainment.”
My version: It didn’t take long for everybody else in Venice to say “A cookout on the beach? We’re on our way.” Everybody started making Santa Marta’s Eve a great reason to head for her neighborhood and eat fish, garnished and enlivened by the classic saor sauce of sweet-sour onions. It was like a gigantic clambake, a barbecue, a luau, for thousands and thousands of people.
Obviously the beach was too small for everybody, so the boats made themselves at home on the Giudecca Canal, “whose waters could only be seen in flashes, and almost seemed to be strips of fire, agitated by the oars of so many boats that covered the water and which doubled the effect of the lights which were on the boats.”
The patricians came out on their fabulously ornate peote, and often carrying musicians who sang and played wind instruments. There were scores of the classic fishing boat called a tartana, draped with variously-colored balloons and loaded with laughing families and friends. There were artisans in their battellos, and hundreds of light little gondolas, and plenty of gondolas da fresco, and there were even the burchielle, the heavy cargo boats that carried sand and lumber. If it could float, it joined the vast confusion of boats being rowed languidly in every direction, or tied up along the Zattere where there was just as much happy turmoil ashore.
The Gazzetta Urbana of 1787: “Along this riva, called the Zattere, the cafe’s and bars are crammed to overflowing with people. There are tables set up outside their doors, and everything is so lit up that it seems to be daytime.
“The passage (of people) in all the streets leading to Santa Marta was dense and continuous, and the splendid gathering at the Caffe of San Basegio, at the head of the Zattere, formed a separate spectacle, in which our Adriatic beauties, wearing modern shimmering caps in the Greek style, ornamented with plumes, inflamed with their glances the hearts of the young men who, like butterflies, always flutter around the flare of a woman’s beauty.”
Also amid the throng were little ambulatory kitchens — a man with a basket of sole would put two stones on the ground, then lay two bunches of sticks crosswise on them, light a little charcoal under them, pour some oil in a pan, and stand there bawling for business. He kept a container of saor ready to put on the fish.
Renier Michiel: “The entire length of this district was full of a grand concourse of people, moving toward the piazza of Santa Marta which was the best vantage point to enjoy the spectacle. On the piazza there were more food vendors, some of them selling roast chicken. There is a racket of cups, plates, the yells of the vendors, the music from the boats on the water. Every house is transformed into a sort of tavern where people eat and drink, and there was perfect joy and harmony.”
“Perfect joy and harmony”? How can this be (apart from the fact that she was looking back on it, years later, when the festival was gone forever)?
I think it’s because Santa Marta was secretly taking care of people. She is the patroness of cooks, butlers, laundry-workers, servants, housewives, and waiters. Though I suppose you could just say “housewives” and leave it at that.
Because as Santa Marta, and 99 percent of women on earth, can attest, while some people at a party are laughing and scarfing the canapes and playing with the dog and singing comic songs and reveling in industrial-size helpings of joy and harmony, there’s at least one person somewhere in the background doing everything to make it seem as if there is absolutely nothing that needs to be done.
And I have no doubt that when the boats went home at dawn on July 29, there was somebody who had to put the boat away and swab the bilge and pick up every single fishbone, as well as deal with the dishes and the wine- and saor-stained clothes. Behind every great saint is somebody with a bucket and mop, I say.
We left our story — “The Interminable Quest for the True Provenance of the Viale Garibaldi, as Recounted by People Living and Dead (I suppose that should be “living or dead”), with Illustrations and Funny Spelling” — at an uncomfortable point between things I knew and things I only thought I knew.
Several readers have since written me giving me more information and opinions than I’d expected (that’s not saying much, considering that I expected none). My ensuing labors to sift, evaluate, cross-check, confirm, and make at least one educated guess have led me to the last thing I’m going to say about viale Garibaldi. Not that there couldn’t be more, and there probably is more, but my interest is dimming and I’d bet yours is too.
The story so far:
Canaletto painted a picture showing a section of Castello as it no longer appears. I deduced from the painting that the vantage point from which he painted it was a canal which was later filled in to make the present gravel walkway lined by lime trees named the viale Garibaldi.
Please note that much confusion can be avoided by remembering that via Garibaldi and viale Garibaldi are not the same thing. “Viale” is a word which, among various translations, means “tree-lined avenue.”
A reader questioned my original assertion and its various geographical and geometrical elements, and proposed that the water seen in the painting was instead a glimpse of the Bacino of San Marco, where its rippling wavelets caressed the smooth stone surface of a working riva (fondamenta). He proposed it in less overwrought terms.
I found a map by Joan Blaue (date unknown by me, except that it was made in the 1600’s) which shows that there was indeed a riva in that place, leading down into the waters of the Bacino of San Marco, and not at all the canal I had imagined.
In brief, I was wrong and he was right.
Another reader then wrote with more information and opinions, and attached a detail from another map, which I am showing here. It was made by Ludovico Ughi in 1729 — slightly after Canaletto’s time, but probably not long enough to matter to our story.
As you see, Ughi identifies a clearly non-canal strip of territory as “Cale di S. Domenico di Castello.” If it was a calle (street) in 1729, I’m going to assume it was a calle in 16-whatever-it-was when Canaletto painted his picture.
Or maybe you can’t see it. It’s the broad line that begins in the “crook” of the waterfront and goes north till it hits the “rio di Castello,” the canal which became via Garibaldi.
Conclusion: Making assumptions can be dangerous, as my original post demonstrated, but I think the evidence is now reasonably clear that the present viale Garibaldi was not a canal in the 17th century.
That’s really all I’m interested in saying about this. Whatever it was, or wasn’t, or dreamed of being, but couldn’t, or might have been if Napoleon or Nikola Tesla or Fannie Bloomfield Zeisler hadn’t intervened, is a story I’m not going to be pursuing anymore.
I’m all for knowledge — the more, the better, even as it gets broken and reassembled in ever-tinier pieces and shapes. But unless somebody can convince me that Jimmy Hoffa is buried under the third bench on the right, I’m going to leave this subject and go on to something else. Perhaps something more interesting, maybe even more important. But at least it won’t be about the viale Garibaldi.
A reader whose brain is no less sharp than his eyes has written to query (fancy word for “question”) a point I made concerning the provenance of Viale Garibaldi.
He was skeptical concerning my statement that the viale had once been a canal, despite the painting by Canaletto which I presented as evidence. And he referred to three sources which, while not conclusive, did dim the lights on what I had thought was pretty clear.
Naturally, being questioned brought me up short, but it was a fine excuse to do some research of my own. I enjoy this because it means I’m acquiring, if only briefly, big topheavy loads of knowledge, and that’s just about my favorite thing. When I was little they would have had to send out the rescue squad — if anybody had noticed — to pull me safely from the pages of the encyclopedia, where I would float for hours, drifting from one unexpected thing to another.
The ease of being able now to paddle along the Interweb, as a friend calls it, means that I can be lost for more time than ever before, clicking my way through people, battles, cities, works of art, plants, styles of architecture, titles of neorealistic films, and if I pause for breath, seeing what Wikipedia entries look like in some extraordinary language like Frysk. May its tribe increase.
Here’s a philosophical puzzle: Was I seeking information in an effort to prove myself right? Or was I trying to prove him wrong? In the great scheme of things, they aren’t exactly the same, though probably the pleasure one feels at being right isn’t one of those pristine emotions enjoyed by spiritual mystics, but is given an agreeable little zing by the fact that your questioner was wrong. After all, if a person is right in the forest, and there’s nobody there to hear…. Well, let’s move on.
I was wrong. Viale Garibaldi wasn’t born as a canal, it was a riva (embankment with steps) facing the Bacino of San Marco. And while it doesn’t give me much satisfaction to be seen as having purveyed likelihood as certainty, this has been a useful reminder to check anything I write before I hit “Fly, little birdie, fly!” and off soars my prose.
So although the time involved in this effort has only shortened my infinite to-do list has exactly one item so far, I can say the day has not been wasted.