Archive for Igor Vignotto
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
I think it should be played in the background all day next Sunday.
Day before yesterday (Sunday, September 5, for the record) was the day of what is arguably the most important — certainly most spectacular — race of the Venetian rowing season: the Regata Storica, or “historic regatta.” Or, as I also think of it, the Race that Launched a Thousand Postcards — which depict, not the race(s) themselves, but the decorated boats loaded with rowers in costume. If you skrinch your eyes and don’t think, you could imagine you were seeing something from centuries ago. Sort of.
We were there, as usual: Lino in a boat (one of the red launches used by the judges, though which one depended on which race he drew), and me also in a boat (this year in the six-oar balotina, “Katia,” of the Remiera Casteo). Lino’s role was to administer justice; my role was to participate in the corteo, or boat procession, preceding the races, then to tie up somewhere convenient in a spot where we could get a good view of the races, then to scream our lungs out, if and when the spirit moved us. (It did.)
Every year, obviously, is different, though there are equally obvious similarities. Boats of all types and persuasions, from tiny one-person s’ciopons to honking big motorized barges carrying entire clans and enough food and drink to support them till Christmas.
And of course there were the spectators — official estimates said 90,000 — massed together at certain key points: sitting on the steps in front of the church of the Salute, in temporary bleachers just beyond San Toma’, and in rows of chairs at the Rialto market. Maybe somewhere else further on that I didn’t discover. I’m not very clear on how 90,000 people fit into those very limited spaces, but I imagine the estimate includes all of us in the boats lining the Grand Canal, and the relatively few, those happy few, partying on the balconies of the palaces. In any case, there we all were. however many thousand we might have been.
I suppose it’s exciting to watch from the shore, wherever you find a space, but if you were ever to be in Venice on the first Sunday in September, I’d strongly urge you to smash the old piggybank and hire a gondola for two or three hours and watch it from the water. Don’t suppose you can just imagine how it would be. It’s not just the fact that you’re floating, it’s the fact that being in a boat makes you a participant in a way you can’t be if you’re merely pasted along the sidelines, waving.
Two things distinguished this year’s edition. One was the unexpected anarchy (I think it was unexpected, though murmurings a few days earlier may have been a sort of warning) that overwhelmed the corteo near the Rialto Bridge.
The Master Plan, as devised by tradition and the Comune (not always the same thing), was for the corteo to splash along all the way up to the train station, then return to the vicinity of the finish line at the “volta de Canal,” or “bend of the canal,” by Ca’ Foscari.
The first few years I engaged in the corteo, that’s what we did. Then the Comune, responding to the pressing programming needs of the RAI television wallahs, and who knows what other dark urges, decreed that we all stop on the return leg at the entrance to the Cannaregio canal to let the first one and a half races pass by. It was like shuffling a deck of cards, to get the corteo and the races organized in such a way as to leave not a second of the dreaded dead-air time in which people could, God forbid, get bored or something.
So we did this for a few years, then increasing numbers of boats began to turn around and head back downstream before they got to the station. Then they began turning around even earlier, and so on, till we reached last Sunday, when suddenly it seemed as if some animal instinct urged the migrating boats to virtually all begin turning around just after the Rialto Bridge (which is where the last serious group of spectators are clustered, after which it’s just scattered random boats and who really cares who’s hanging around in front of the train station?). Or turning, as in our case, before the bridge, because the mass of confused retreating boats made forging ahead difficult, as well as pointless. The general atmosphere amid the boats could be summed up in the rude Venetian phrase, “Si ciava” (see CHA-vah, or “screw this/them/it”).
So that was entertaining. I’ve spent years here listening to rants from certain elements among the organizers about how it’s the Venetians’ festival and we should do it the way we want to, not how They tell us to, but this was the first time I’ve ever seen what “Take Back the Night” would look like in real life. It was kind of cool, actually. For anybody, of whatever race or clime, who is annoyed by being treated as a spear-carrier in somebody else’s drama, it was highly invigorating.
Not sure what the Comune has to say about it, though, because the Gazzettino was awash yesterday in the floods of rancor and glee from the four men contending for first place in the race of the gondolinos. Which brings me to the second thing that distinguished this year’s edition.
These “four men” would be cousins Igor and Rudi Vignotto, on the yellow (canarin) gondolino, and Ivo Redolfi-Tezzat and Giampaolo d’Este on the blue (celeste). To give you some perspective on this rivalry, the “Vignottini” have been rowing against d’Este and Tezzat since 2002, and against d’Este with other partners since 1995. And that’s just the big races; they all started this as kids. Speaking of being able to imagine things, I myself can’t imagine what fifteen years of battling in seven races each year adds up to when the crunch is on in the Grand Canal. But it could not, as the saying goes, be pretty.
So what happened was that the eternal triad (including the purple, or viola, gondolino of Andrea Bertoldini and Martino Vianello), entered the Grand Canal in a virtual dead heat, and remained so until the Rialto Bridge: celeste, canarin, and viola. And it’s not merely that they accomplished this feat, it’s that they did it for two miles (3.2 km). At top speed, or about 7 mph (12 km/h).
“When I saw those three entering the Grand Canal side by side like that,” Lino told me later, “I got a lump in my throat. It gave me goose bumps.” He and the judges in the other boats following the race literally could not hear each other through their walkie-talkies, even yelling, because however many thousands there were who could see the boats were all screaming their brains out. It was thrilling.
Then, as usual, Something Happened. Last year it was Tezzat falling overboard and taking d’Este with him as their boat (celeste, as it happens — coincidence???) capsized. This year it was Something up toward the temporary piling in front of the station which marks the turnaround point.
The details are still coming out, and of course they’re as dissonant as a quartet by Charles Ives. The judges warned Tezzat more than once to alter something he was doing to the detriment of the “Vignottini,” which Tezzat evidently ignored. (I’m not taking sides here, I’m just trying to give the outline.)
When a racer does not obey the judge, after a certain number of calls the racer is disqualified. And that’s what happened. Three-quarters of the way through the race, suddenly one of its biggest stars was off the field, never to be seen again. At least not that day.
The next day the Rage of Tezzat reverberated through the pages of the Gazzettino; if this matter isn’t resolved (the “matter” being the injustice and infamy of the judge’s action), he says he’s going to hang up his oar, as they say, and quit racing. He won’t even show up to try for the final race of the year at Burano in two weeks.
To which one might reasonably reply, “Knock yourself out.” (“Fa di manco,” would be the closest Venetian equivalent, or “So don’t bother.”)
If there are any developments worth wasting electrons to report, I will do so.
Otherwise, I want to leave you with the joy of the bellowing, shrieking, hysterical crowds who got to see, if only briefly, one of the most dazzling moments in big-time racing anyone has witnessed for quite some time. That’s what I’m going to remember.