Archive for Espedita Grandesso


The Befana sweeps through

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Epiphany, which it says in the fine print is intended to commemorate the visit of the Three Kings to the Baby Jesus, offering him gold, frankincense, and myrrh, has metamorphosed over the centuries into a day dedicated primarily to a happy little hag known as the Befana.  Her name, which I suppose could just as well have been Hepzibah or Basemath, is a homely mutation of the word Epiphany.  You probably already figured that out.

She's almost always smiling.  That's a good sign.

She's almost always smiling. That's a good sign.

Her connection to the day is gifts.  No, of course children haven’t gotten enough of them yet.  Are you mad?  It’s been a whole 12 days since the last truckload of presents was dropped on them.

The Befana is a remarkable creature, and to love her you must get past your feelings about hook-nosed, snaggle-toothed harpies with broomsticks.  She’s actually closer to honey and poplar syrup and agave nectar, all sweetness and no light.  She flies at night.

Stockings don’t belong to Santa Claus, here they’re hung out tonight for the Befana to swoop through and fill with candy and doodads.  In my day, a doodad might have been a Slinky. Today, it’s probably an iPhone.

Here is a dish of candy coal, which makes as much sense as candy corn.

Here is a dish of candy coal, which makes as much sense as candy corn.

She is also liable to leave coal instead of candy, coal being the traditional judgment on Bad Children. But naturally  by now a loophole has been found — created, actually — by inventing a candy that looks like coal.  I’ve tried it, and it tastes exactly like what you’d think a block of black sugar would taste like.  Not that black has a taste, but your imagination instinctively supplies one.

The Befana is always changing, always the same. Averaging out the thousands of versions crowding the candy stores and pastry shops, I’d say she was a combination of Dame Edna Everage and Jimmy Durante. I found one that looked like a distant cousin of Porky Pig, but I’m sure that was unintentional.

IMG_3983 befThere are many and deep significances to this observance which I won’t repeat now; my post last year covered most of them.  I only note here that I am looking forward, as always, to detecting the smell tonight of woodsmoke blowing over from nearby farmland — Sant’ Erasmo, or, slightly further away, the settlements by the sea near Jesolo, Ca’ Savio, Treporti, smoke swirling out of the flaming bonfires which are lit in her honor.

I want to note — for the record, whoever may be keeping it, or reading it — that the occasional practice of burning the effigy of the Befana atop the pyre is historically wrong.  Bonfires, yes, but with the purpose of disposing of a lot of dead plant material you have to get rid of before next spring’s planting.  The “Vecia” (old lady) is more traditionally burned up at the middle of Lent, and some places still plan it that way.

Meaning no disrespect whatsoever to this venerable crone, I have to say that Venice once was swamped with cronish ladies, of various ages, whose mission in life was to patrol the family, and neighboring families, with relentless scrutiny.  Now that neighborhood life has changed so much over the past three generations — television, sufficient heating, children moving away, and death have taken their toll on the dense agglomerations of terrifying, invasive, implacable old ladies who could smile like angels as they slashed your reputation to ribbons behind your back.  I know this because Lino has told me Stories about them, and does a bloodcurdling impression of a typical conversation between a few of these matrons.

Even more, I can confirm that the Venetian language is gratifyingly rich in terms which describe the myriad nuances of ancient females.  I don’t imagine I can do them justice on my own, even though they’re words you could hear every day and eventually begin to use instinctively in certain situations: Marantega, carampane, grima, sbetega, peocio refa‘, and many more, all have deliciously complicated meanings.  The fact that there are so many words for the variations on these life-battered and -battering women (not to mention casual expressions to describe them, such as “Ugly as the plague,” “As ugly as hunger,” and so on), show the depth of feeling they inspired in everyone who knew them or even came near them, especially their families.

IMG_3980 befEspedita Grandesso, in her wonderful  book, “Prima de parlar, tasi,” has applied her exegetical scalpel to many of these terms.  Here is a brief sample (translated by me):

Marantega: [Ma-RAHN-te-ga].  The Befana is sometimes referred to as the “marantega barola” (barola meaning really old), but that is sort of a slur, in my opinion. A marantega, according to Grandesso, is primarily an ancient and misanthropic woman, dedicated to the cult of the dead in the sense that she keeps daily tabs on who has preceded her to paradise, spreading the news everywhere. This type of woman possesses a mournful sense of existence and is the town crier of every disgrace which occurs in her range of activity.  In days gone by, one could find her in the performance of these duties in church, at the hour of saying the rosary, or vespers, in the act of delivering the last horrid news in the ear of yet another unfortunate biddy, chosen from among the meekest and most impressionable.

Carampana:  [cah-rahm-PAHN-ah]. By now this term signifies a woman of decrepit agedness, who maintains presumptions of attractiveness and, for that reason, plasters her wrinkles with rouge and continues to dress in the style of the time when she was lovely. In general, she is a pathetic creature who, unfortunately, gives a helping hand to derision.  In the past, however, this term literally meant “prostitute,” and can still describe a trollop who is old and out of service, and who, with her excessive makeup and her attitude maintains an equivocal air that is almost the stamp of her long-practiced profession.  In fact, it was originally the name of the neighborhood near the Rialto which was the red-light district.

IMG_3982 befSbetega: [SBEH-teh-ga].  Literally a shrew and loudmouth.

Grima: [GREE-ma].  Much worse than a sbetega.  In this case it means a malignant woman who is, at the same time, aggressive and hard to neutralize.  Mothers-in-law often belong to this category, but daughters-in-law also do pretty well for themselves.

Peocio Refa‘: [peh-OH-cho reh-FA].  Literally a made-over cootie.  This is a person (who could also be a man) who has made money and enjoys a good financial position, remaining at the same time crude and mean-spirited, whose greatest pleasure consists of humiliating her neighbor, especially if that person is culturally superior to her.  The northeast Veneto [and, may I add, much of the Lido] offers excellent examples of this species.

These would be Befana Lite.

These would be Befana Lite.

Otovario dei Morti: [Aw-to-VAH-ree-oh day MOR-tee].  I myself haven’t heard this term used in daily life around here, but the character it describes is eternal. Grandesso says that the “ottavario” was the word indicating the repetition of a religious feast, one that was particularly solemn or deeply felt, eight days after its first celebration. Therefore the Ottavario dei Morti was tied to All Souls’ Day, or the commemoration of the deceased. This term is given to a person who is sad, either in appearance or temperament, who only talks about depressing or funereal events, whether public or private, reaching the apex of pleasure when they are particularly disastrous.  In the days of patriarchal families, this role was generally performed by widowed or spinster aunts, well along in years.  These charitable women, having long since left behind the joys of the world, busy themselves in extirpating them as well in the hearts of relatives, friends, and acquaintances.

None of these expressions could ever be used for the Befana, though.  She adores children and I myself don’t believe she cares what adults might think or say about her. You can tell she isn’t from around here.

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Secrets? Where?

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Someone told me the other day that I should look at a blog called Venezia Nascosta (Hidden Venice),so I did.  It’s as attractive as several others which are more or less on the same beam, but it appears to concentrate primarily on history. I’m as interested in Venetian history as the next person, perhaps even more than many (if I may say so), but not when it’s the same old history that turns up in so many books, over and over, like the turkey for weeks after Thanksgiving.  And adding a title which is even more trite only makes it worse.  “Hidden.”  Oy.

It's not Venice that's mysterious, it's people.  Any people, anywhere.

It's not Venice that's mysterious, it's people. Any people, anywhere.

But what has driven me to mention it is because it’s yet another in an infinite series of examples of the insatiable need people seem to feel to refer to Venice as “hidden.”  “Secret.” “Mysterious.” Despite scores of other worthy adjectives (I like “peerless,” though “incomparable” is also good), people can’t resist using these exhausted banalities to describe a city which evidently was built, not on a batch of marshy wetlands, but on quivering Jungian swamps of the unknowable.  Maybe it’s Carnival, with everybody in disguise, that has doomed Venice to be labeled “mysterious.”  Maybe it’s the fog. Maybe it’s the wonders of low tide.

I object to this tendency for several reasons.  One, because it is a cliche, and cliches annoy me.  The image of the city as an enigmatic, unfathomable, a faintly (or overtly) sinister place, an amniotic sort of realm ruled by inscrutable forces illuminated by a faint but lurid aura of romanticism, began to germinate in the 1600s, when visitors began to be interested in the city less  as a political or commercial power and more as a place of intrigue, decadence, and general dissipation.

Pigeons have a refreshing outlook -- the only mystery in their world is where to find food.

Pigeons have a refreshing outlook -- the only mystery in their world is where to find food.

Mystery, in fact, is a quality that was promoted by the city itself, whose patrician families and government (which were the same thing) knew that secrets had real power. Discretion and dissimulation were serious weapons of self-defense in a world composed of much larger and more dangerous nations, all of which wanted to hurt, or, if they were having a very good day, to kill you at some point or another.  This much we can certainly appreciate.

“The first who wrapped the city in mystery were the Venetian rulers,” Espedita Grandesso, a Venetian writer and historian, told me once. “Because the Serenissima was a little bijou in the midst of iron barrels.  So this state of things made the nobles and merchants keep everything secret, even the most foolish thing.  They weren’t completely mistaken.  All they needed was the rumor of something going wrong, and all the governments of Europe would be breathing down her neck.”

“All the secrets of the crafts had to be protected, like the secret of making scarlet dye,” costume designer Stefano Nicolao added.  The same paranoia applied to the techniques of glass-making, and many other trades, such as the formula for the best teriaca in Europe.  (Teriaca was the all-purpose medicament of choice for centuries, but the recipe has been lost. Would that be a mystery?)  There were obvious commercial reasons — survival reasons — for relying, not on a hearty handshake and a call for another round of drinks, but merely the shimmer of a sideways glance, a tiny shrug.  Did that little frown mean yes or no?

Sometimes even Venice takes the easy way out.  Anything looks mysterious in the fog, even me taking this picture..

Sometimes even Venice takes the easy way out. Anything looks mysterious in the fog, even me taking this picture.

But by the Romantic era, the idea of Venice’s inscrutability had gotten completely out of hand.  Once secrecy had become the way of life, aided by the custom of wearing masks up to half the year, it didn’t take long before the entire city came to be viewed as a fantastic decoction of intrigue, deception, and eventually — why not? — erotic adventure.  But I still don’t see how all that adds up to “mysterious.”

Which leads me to my second objection to this cliche, which is that I don’t understand how a city which covers just three square miles, with only 59,000 inhabitants, and is visited by millions of people every year (though admittedly in very short bursts of time and attention), can possibly be presented as retaining even the tiniest shred of a secret.

Tokyo has 35,676,000 inhabitants and covers 5,200 square miles– you could make a very good case for there being a mass of secrets as big as the Sears Tower hidden in there somewhere.  Probably a much better case than you could make for Venice.

Would this be an image of some hidden mysteries?

"Mysterious" means something that can't be known or understood, not something that only appears perplexing.

Maybe the force governing  these Venetian so-called secrets is the city’s beauty. But why should beauty have anything to do with secrecy?  I’d be willing to bet money that there are as many, or more, secrets in Lincoln, Nebraska, as there are in Venice.  But nobody indulges in reveries about the secrets of Shreveport, or contemplates the mysteries of Walla Walla.  Why?

And another thing.  If there were to be secrets here, how have they managed to stay secret all this time? lists 11,696 books under the keyword “Venice.”  Secrets?  Where?

My opinion on the subject can best be expressed by Sherlock Holmes’s astute comment to Dr. Watson: “You see, but you do not observe.”

This wasn't hidden, it was sitting right there where people could walk straight through it.

This wasn't hidden, it was sitting right there where people could walk straight through it.

Why insist on seeking something ephemeral and perhaps even indefinable?  If you really want to discover Venice, don’t go looking for secrets; look at exactly what there is.  Anything you can see in broad daylight anywhere in the city is going to be as complex, as brilliant, as astonishing as any rumpsprung old “secret” foisted off on you by yet another Venicemonger.

Yes, of course the city has an eccentric glamor, an insinuating fascination that can indeed sneak up on you and trap you.  Venice is beautiful; to say that is to have said little more than that the sun rises in the east and water runs downhill.  It is unforgettable, fatal, addictive, whatever you want. People become infatuated with it, or the idea of it.  I offer myself as a case in point. But that doesn’t make it mysterious.

Now here's a Venetian mystery for you.  Who is leaving their bag of garbage outside our house when they know perfectly well that it would be picked up from in front of theirs?  And why?

Now here's a Venetian mystery for you. Who is leaving their bag of garbage outside our house when they know perfectly well that it would be picked up in front of theirs? And why?

So let me make a heartfelt, and I’m sure completely inaudible, plea for some new word to describe Venice that will take the place of any term that is synonymous with secrecy, concealment, enigma, or anything more subtle than a bowl of pasta and beans, or a couple of fried clams. Please. Just try.

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The period around St. Peter’s feast day (June 29) is notable for two things beside the annual bacchanale at the church, as described in my last post.

The littlest ones are St. Peter's pears.  They'll only be around for a brief time and that's why I like them, even if they have almost no flavor at all.

The littlest ones are St. Peter's pears. They'll only be around for a short time and that's why I like them, even if they have almost no flavor at all.

The two notable things are:  “St. Peter’s pears,” which I haven’t been able to identify in any other way (maybe they’re here so briefly that Linneaus was never quick enough to nab them with a name), and thunderstorms.   Everyone expects thunderstorms in this period (we’re still waiting, oddly enough, though this year the weather has been very strange; last week it snowed in the mountains.   Maybe St. Peter is trying something new with water).  

St. Peter's fish (John Dory) by TK MacGillivray

St. Peter's fish (John Dory) by William MacGillivray.

For the record, there is also a fish, not necessarily associated with the feast day, which is  commonly called “St. Peter’s fish” (Zeus faber), known in English as “John Dory,”  who wasn’t a saint as far as I can discover.   This fish has a particularly gobsmacked expression which doesn’t resemble any saint I could ever respect, but maybe everybody in the Dory family has that look, not to mention the underbite.

June weather coming in: Roll out the barrel.

June weather coming in: Roll out the barrel.

Back to the storms.   Around here, the ones that crash down around us in this period  have long since been associated with  the Big Fisherman; well-meaning adults reassure their little people that the scary thunder is nothing more than the sound of  St. Peter cleaning the wine barrels.  

But there is one folk-tale, recounted by Espedita Grandesso in her exceptional book on Venetian expressions (Prima de parlar, tasi, Edizioni Helvetia) that puts the blame squarely on his mother.   As told in Venetian it has an irresistible back-porch-stringing-beans atmosphere, as if the speaker  were talking about a fractious family known to everybody in the neighborhood.   I’ll do what I can  to render it  here.


Well, St. Peter’s mother was so nasty and so nasty that when she died, even though her son was such a honking big deal as a saint, he had to send her to hell.  

When she got to hell, she got up to so many shenanigans, busting everybody’s fishing lines [polite euphemism for “balls”] and complaining and whining and calling her son at all hours of the day and night, that the saint went to Jesus Christ to tell him He had to let his mom into  heaven.

“Can’t,” said Jesus, “she’s just too bad.”

Saint Peter wasn’t very happy because,  when you get down to it, she was his mother, and the Lord was so sorry to see this that he told  him, “Well, you know, Pete, if, maybe, she were to have done at least one good deed…”

Peter was quiet for a while, because his mother, as far as good deeds were concerned, had never done one in her entire life.   Then he remembered that, one time, his mother gave an onion to a little old man who was begging.

“Okay,” said the Lord, to make a long story short, “take this onion that’s got a few little roots still on it, and, if you can manage it, pull her up here with this onion.”

T-shirt design for the festa of San Piero in 2008. No onion, no roots, no mom. He looks so happy.

T-shirt design for the festa of San Piero in 2008. No onion, no roots, no mom. He looks so happy.

Peter went to the mouth of hell and said to her, “Mom, grab onto the roots of this onion and I’ll pull you up here.”

“Onion roots?   You nitwit!   How do you think they’re going to support me?”

“Don’t worry about that, just grab on.”

The old lady, grumbling, grabbed onto the roots of the onion and she started to rise off the ground, but she didn’t make it  as far as  the mouth of hell because a batch of other souls, who wanted to get out of hell too, grabbed onto her skirt and  her ankles.  

St. Peter’s mother started to go crazy, screaming “Get  out of here, you disgusting damned souls, the onion’s for me, it’s mine,  and my son is St. Peter!!!”    [This is undoubtedly one of the best moments for the person who is telling this story to imitate the meanest, crankiest woman in the neighborhood.]

Onion roots do not inspire as much confidence as, say, a steel cable.

Onion roots do not inspire as much confidence as, say, a steel cable.

Seeing that the souls were still hanging on, she started to kick them to try to get rid of them.

At that point, the onion roots  tore off, and St. Peter was left holding the onion while the old lady fell back down into the very center of the flames.

“What the heck have you done, mom?” St. Peter said.   “All you had to do was have a tiny bit of charity and you’d have made it out and so would all those other souls.   Now you’ve got to stay in hell forever.”   [Pause for  cheers from the kids who must all be imagining whichever of their relatives–obnoxious big sister? busybody aunt?–would most deserve this doom.]  

BUT [the kids suddenly stop cheering], being that not even the Devil himself could stand to have  this hellion among the damned souls, and also, well, it wasn’t exactly decent that the mother of  St. Peter,  he who carries the Keys to the Kingdom, would have to stay in hell, the old shrew got pulled out and stuck in a corner and given the task of washing the barrels of heaven before the season of new wine.

Wine barrels at the Robert Mondavi winery, Napa Valley, presumably not washed by St. Peter's mother.  (Photograph: Sanjay Acharya).

Wine barrels at the Robert Mondavi winery, Napa Valley, presumably not washed by St. Peter's mother. (Photograph: Sanjay Acharya).

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