Archive for Luciano Costalonga


Light and shadow

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Costalonga’s funeral was completely according to custom, beginning with the earlycomers standing around, on the lookout to see who else is coming, and the floral wreath by the door.  Both of these elements make it clear that the imminent event does not involve something cheerful, like a bride or a baby.

Day before yesterday, like yesterday, began in superb form: One of those dazzling winter mornings — gleaming air, scintillating sunshine, cold (but not too cold), no wind. Perfect. Just the kind of morning that makes you take deep happy breaths and think of going to a funeral.

Of course that’s a stupid thing to say.  Nobody wanted to go, least of all the suddenly departed.  And whether it’s winter or summer, sunshiney funerals make me feel worse than rain and gloom.

I don’t make a hobby of attending funerals, though by now I’ve been to a considerable number of them.  They almost always involve either someone in the rowing world, or a former colleague of Lino’s.  He only goes to them because not going would be worse, but there are plenty of people who seem to find them morbidly enjoyable.

Members of the Canottieri Cannaregio rowed his casket to the church in a caorlina, accompanied by quite a contingent of club boats. Many who didn’t row came in the club uniform anyway.

Maneuvering a coffin from a caorlina onto the funeral-company’s gurney isn’t so easy, but they managed it well. Then they put the “casket-cover” flowers back in place and into the church they went.

One of the most impressive funerals I ever attended was for legendary Venetian-rowing champion Albino “Strigheta” Dei Rossi in 2004.  The ceremony was in the basilica of San Giovanni and Paolo, and the casket was borne to its final resting place in the center of the “Disdotona” (the 18-oar gondola of the Querini rowing club), rowed by 18 of the cream of the current champions.  Thrilling, but it struck me as being more toward the spectacular and less toward the personally-moving end of the scale of mourning.  I don’t recall any damp eyes or expressions of sadness.

But day before yesterday was different, and even more so was a funeral last August, maybe because they were ceremonies for people who would never be legendary but who would be deeply missed.

The most recent occasion involved Luciano Costalonga, a former president of the Canottieri Cannaregio rowing club.  I knew him, though not well.  By now I more or less know a substantial number of people in the rowing world, and many of them have (unlike me) been getting older.  I wouldn’t have classified him as old –he was only 71.  But he had recently undergone an operation (I don’t know for what), and a few days ago just dropped dead.

It was slow going to follow the bier into the church, and not everybody went inside anyway. A good number of people always seem to prefer staying out, where they can exchange the usual platitudes, such as how young/old he was, really, and how much better to go suddenly like that than to pass (insert preferred length of time here) suffering in the hospital.

Something of the same thing, though worse, happened last August to a gondolier named Michele Bozzato (whom I didn’t know).  Lino knew him, but naturally Lino knows — or in this case, has known — almost everybody.

Bozzato’s real love was singing, the obituary said; he had even sold his gondolier license (he kept working as a substitute), so he could devote himself to music full-time, forming a trio called “The Gondoliers,” with whom he cut a disk of Venetian songs.

He was tall, he was strong, he never smoked, he barely drank.

On August 8, he started to have trouble breathing.  They discovered a tumor on his lung. They operated on him. Two weeks later he was gone.  He was 49.

Bozzato’s farewell was amazing; it was more like what happens when a fireman or policeman dies. He had been involved in so many different activities, from soccer to basketball to rowing, and it appears that everybody loved him. The Gazzettino said there were a thousand people there, which I believe — I’m no good at counting crowds, but the church of San Marcuola was so crammed it was like a Turkish bath.

We stayed outside because there was no point forcing ourselves into a large sweaty room pumped full of carbon dioxide.  Women were weeping.  Men were weeping.  I don’t mean wailing and keening, but there were many wet red eyes and the sound of many noses being blown. And the silences between people standing around together weren’t the comfortable “At least it wasn’t me” sort, but more of a stricken “Of anybody at all, it shouldn’t have been him.”

What the two funerals had in common, though, was the general sense of a family loss.  I’m not sure if I mean the Venetian family, which is shrinking inexorably, or the rowing-world family, or the gondoliering family. I do know that everyone seemed to belong to each other, and for the few intense hours of the ceremony it was not only easy to see, but to feel.

On the whole, there seems to be some difference of opinion on who to feel sorrier for: The person who’s gone, or those who are left.  Oddly (in my view), Venetian sadness is directed at the departed.  They have a little rhyme: El pezo xe per chi ch’el mondo lassa, chi che vive se la spassa.  (It’s worse for the person who leaves the world; those who are alive can keep having a good time.)

By the look of things at the churches on these two occasions, though, I’m going to have to say that the people who were alive weren’t enjoying it at all.

Michele Bozzato arrived in the funeral-company’s launch, as per normal, but behind it was a traghetto gondola (technically called a “barchetta”), rowed by four gondoliers, prepared to take him to the cemetery after the funeral.

The very old flagstaff carried in the barchetta belongs to the gondoliers’ association (NOT to be confused with the ENTE Gondola).

The traghetto barchetta is broader than the normal gondola, and has a simpler stern and bow. The white thwarts are there to support the casket; the flowers are there because it’s just absolutely the right thing to do.

Another custom on especially solemn occasions is to tie black ribbon to your boat — in this case, the gondolinos of two pairs of rowers preparing for the Regata Storica a few days later. The blue boat was assigned to Igor and Rudi Vignotto (both gondoliers, as it happens), while the green boat was taken by the Busetto brothers, Roberto and Renato.

Plenty of people were standing around outside the church of San Marcuola, on the side facing the Grand Canal as well as here, by the back door. Obviously the mourners have clustered in the shade, while the sun blazed down on more floral tributes than I have ever seen anywhere.

The ribbon across each arrangement is inscribed with the name(s) of the donors, and the range of names gave some indication of how full his life had been. From left, and I translate: “The Association ‘Note Veneziane’,” “From the Guys at the Ae Oche Pizzeria,” “The Reyer” (local basketball team), “Traghetto S. Sofia (gondolier station), “The Friends from the Bar La Tappa,” “The Checchini Dona’ and Fiorentin Families,””The Friends from Laguna Soccer,”  “The Virtus rowing club,” “The gondoliers of the Traghetto Dogana,” “The gondoliers from the Bacino Orseolo,” “The gondoliers from the Ferrovia,” The gondoliers from the Traghetto Molo,” “Gondoliers Association Venice.”  (The gurney is parked by the back door because no steps clutter the path between here and the Grand Canal.)

Considering the size of these arrangements (regardless of shape or exoticism of the flowers themselves), it’s unlikely that any cost less than 300 euros ($400), and the larger ones were at least 500 euros ($650) each.

All the same, it still is a fine summer morning; some people brought their kids, but you couldn’t expect them to stand around doing nothing.

There was a certain amount of down-time for the photographer from the Gazzettino, too.

When they start to take the flowers back to the launch, you know it’s almost over.

The throng follows — in this case, quite a throng. When the casket was placed on the barchetta, the gondoliers raised their oars in the traditional “alzaremi” salute, and everyone’s instinct was to applaud, so they did.

The barchetta departs for the cemetery, escorted by the two gondolinos.

The gondolino cortege departs. While I recognize that it was a scorchingly hot morning, and that the rowers were more interested in training than in funerals, I merely note that the Vignottini, in the blue boat, changed from their sweat-garb into the classic racing and otherwise ceremonially appropriate white pants and striped T-shirt. The Busettos had a somewhat different sense of the occasion.


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