Archive for festa
Before we leave the subject and the scales and bones and gift-wrapping of Christmas behind, one last glimpse of holiday merriment. I wasn’t there, I’m sorry to say — I was sorry to say it the day it occurred, too, which was December 21.
The event: A “corteo,” or boat procession, in the Grand Canal, composed of anyone who wanted to row as long as he or she was dressed as Santa Claus (or “Babbo Natale,” as he’s known here).
The reason: First, because it seemed like a fun thing to do. Second, because it seemed like an amusing occasion for the Coordinamento delle Remiere (the association of rowing clubs) to give a prize and a big round of applause to the dwindling group of hardy souls who have rowed in all 40 Vogalongas. I say “dwindling” because in May there were 24 such persons, and on Santa Sunday there were 22.
The special bonus: Fog. Fog and just enough wind to make the air feel even sharper. But would this deter anyone willing to pull out the boat and pull on the red-and-white outfit? Obviously not.
Because I was busy elsewhere, Lino armed a modest sandolo and headed for the lineup joined (happily for Lino and I think also happily for the others) by Gabriele De Mattia, a former rowing student of his and ex-cadet of the Francesco Morosini Naval School, and his girlfriend, Francesca Rosso. She had never rowed before, but Lino soon took care of that.
So the three of them spent the morning rowing, and Lino was awarded a red pennant, such as those given to the winners of races here, with his name on it, and everybody was happy. Especially when the sun finally came out.
So a big shout-out to Francesca, who when she wasn’t rowing, was taking pictures. If she hadn’t been there, you all would just have had to imagine it. As would I. This is better.
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.
Anyone who has lived longer than 25 minutes has discovered the Law of Unintended Consequences. It’s not that you are deprived of the consequence you wanted — though you might well be — but discover that you’re stuck with five that you didn’t want and can’t escape.
Last Sunday (July 21) was the day of the Feast of the Most Holy Redeemer (Santissimo Redentore), about which I have written many times. And for an event which has been held every year since 1577, hence qualifying as a genuine tradition, this tradition’s components have gone through many, many revisions. In fact, I never knew that a tradition could be so pliable.
For example: Fireworks over the Bacino of San Marco. When Lino was a lad, nobody bothered about the Bacino. Everybody (99 percent Venetians) came in their boats (and there were many — no, a hundred times more than many — all propelled by oars) and tied them up in the Giudecca Canal in the area between the votive bridge and the Molino Stucky. Far from the Bacino. Uptown. Washington Heights, practically.
And the races on Sunday afternoon. We’ve always had them, hence, we always will have them.
Or maybe not.
The week preceding the festa saw a fearsome struggle between the racers and the Comune, and after a series of meetings and reports on meetings, which occurred up until race time, the racers enacted a protest and decided not to race. In a word, they went on strike.
Their issues, as reported by the Racers’ Association, are the increasing neglect (“profound abandonment”) of the races by the city over the past few years. I’m not clear on what “neglect” means here, because their press releases were not especially specific, though I know that the prizes have been dwindling and, in some cases, disappearing, which indeed is disturbing.
A digression: Unlike the racers in the old days — up to about 50 years ago — I don’t believe that any racers today need the money. While it’s true that they have, as they put it, “spent months of training, sacrificing work and family” (they sacrificed WORK?), none of them races because otherwise the gas company is going to interrupt service for lack of payment. The men have jobs ranging from acceptable to spectacularly lucrative (a fancy way of saying “gondolier”), and most of the women racers are married to them.
But racing for nothing does have a depressing sort of parish-benefit vibe, and last year some of the races began to be put on for free.
Did I mention depressing? I had no idea how dejected one could feel on a so-called feast day when the big event is canceled. Some hardy souls might maintain that the big solemn mass and the blessing of the city are the most important elements of the weekend, and there are thousands upon thousands who come only for the big fireworks party the night before. But a Redentore afternoon with no races made me feel as if we were the ones who had been abandoned.
Naturally the racers hope and intend that this dramatic gesture will bear the fruit they desire, which is to wake everybody up, city and citizens, to the imminent demise of one of the last — or last — truly Venetian elements still barely surviving in the most beautiful city in the world.
I hope it all works out for them, but I have some mini-doubts. One is based on the suspicion that if they try this again, somebody in the city government is going to wonder why go through all the tsuris with the big-league racers when there are plenty of bush-league rowers around who could do the same thing, for nothing, without complaining. Tourists don’t know the difference. I agree that it’s an ugly thought, but I have thought it.
Or what about this idea: If the tsuris continues, the city could start canceling races. Another possible unintended consequence, almost as unpleasant as racing for free.
Or the city might even make the racers pay to race. Or at least make them pay for the race they didn’t do last Sunday. Because when you sign up to enter the eliminations, you sign a document that says you agree to the terms of the enterprise. I have no idea if the city, which did incur expenses for an event which didn’t take place through no fault of its own, would regard this as breach of contract and consider legal recourse against the racers. If I were a city, I would think so.
Let me conclude with another disagreeable little idea that has come to my mind via other people who have said it out loud. Why is all this happening now? Some people think that the Racers’ Association got all het up because two of the biggest rock-star racers (Giampaolo D’Este and Igor Vignotto) were punished for serious offenses committed during the regata at Murano on July 7. Their punishment was to be forbidden to participate in the next race, i.e. the Redentore.
Apart from the right or wrong of this decision, it is objectionable for two reasons. One: Their partners, who hadn’t done anything wrong, were also, by extension, also excluded from the race of the Redentore. Two: There is an undercurrent of doubt among some participants that the Racers’ Association would have gotten so all-fired mad if, say, Irving B. Potash and Melvin Bluebonnet or anybody else had been so punished. Perhaps righteous anger based entirely on principles (deterioration of tradition, say) isn’t quite so righteous after all? Or does it strike only me as odd that the people who claim to be the last defenders of tradition were the first to break it to bits?
And you thought that parties were supposed to make you forget your troubles? This one just delivered a whole new batch. Some assembly required.
I haven’t communicated in a bit because I was waiting for Carnival to end (midnight last night, as everyone knows) so I could sort through the rubble and look for something to report.
Judging by the mass of photographs clogging my computer, I evidently found plenty to chronicle, but mainly within the confines of our little lobe of Venice. We didn’t go the Piazza San Marco even once; the revelers aboard the vaporettos were enough for me.
Every year, the organizers of this event form it around a particular theme, something they hope will be irresistible. This year’s title was “Live in Color,” but I can tell you that it ought to have been called “Drenched in Color,” or “Freezing in Color.” Or “Sloshing in Color.” The colors mainly being the blue of your bloodless fingers and the gray of your bloodless lips.
This year’s carnival was all about weather. In the space of the festivities (Jan. 26-Feb. 12), we got rain, wind, snow, and acqua alta. Sometimes together, sometimes separately. Several keystone events had to be reshuffled (one good reason to extend Carnival — this year, it was 18 days) not only because there wouldn’t have been any spectators, but because in some cases it would have been dangerous for the performers.
It didn’t matter to me because I hadn’t spent thousands of dollars making or renting a fabulous costume whose purpose in life was for me to wear it where people could see it and admire it and envy me. There are many people — primarily French — who spend months planning and preparing their appearance (not to the extent of the samba schools of Rio, but still). I hope they’ve taken home some beautiful memory.
The open salvo didn’t exactly make you want to dance: A headline at the start of Carnival announced that the President of the Province of Venice (bigger than the municipal area) had declared that she was banning confetti/coriandoli that would naturally be strewn festively by and among partyers in the main piazza of a town called San Dona’ di Piave. Why? Because “It makes a mess.” That’s the point! If there were any time in the year when it would be laudable to focus on civic hygiene, I’d say that Carnival isn’t it. But maybe this is her way of saying “We only have ten garbage collectors this month, please don’t give them more work to do.” Or, based on my experience in this neighborhood, don’t give them any work to do.
Here is a look at Carnival in ErlaWorld: