Archive for Madonna della Salute


The Patriarch clocks in

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Venice doesn’t have a bishop — you may be fascinated to know — it has a patriarch. And as of last Sunday, it has a new one: Francesco Moraglia, who has now been launched to a higher sphere from modest but reverendable monsignor to patriarch and, very soon, to cardinal.  Next stop?  We don’t speak its name, but we know it’s there.

Three patriarchs of Venice in the 20th century were elected pope (Pius X, John XXIII, and John Paul I).  Which means that one reason — perhaps the main reason — why it took six months to decide on the new occupant of the patriarch’s palace could be that the man needed to be considered papabile, as they say: “pope-able.”

As you can imagine, his welcome ceremony was a many-splendored thing, but the centerpiece — and the  piece feasible only in Venice — was a corteo, or procession, of boats in the Grand Canal.

Corteos, if you do them right (as in: have lots of participants), are impressive when seen from the shore/bridge/parapet/balcony or wherever the viewer may be positioned.  Certainly they’re impressive as seen from the vessel carrying the person being corteo’d.

The corteo finally begins. Some rowers, like the ones on the green boat, evidently have a different idea about what "dressing up for company" means.

Corteos, as seen from the boats involved, have a much different character. They are composed of friends — or  people who know each other, anyway — and what may look like a stately progress is actually a continual jockeying for position in a limited space complicated by vaporettos, gusts of wind, and tidal forces. All of these factors conduce to moments of  vivacious confusion which most of the rowers astern, responsible for steering, know how to navigate.  I can promise you, however, that there will be at least one boat whose poppiere has a very uncertain grasp of the connection between the action of the oar and the reaction of the boat. Fancy way of saying: helplessly wandering hither and yon like a rudderless boat on the high seas.  This person, whoever it may be, is always happiest right in front of us.

Don Marcello, the parish priest of San Giobbe, showed up to row in his cassock, just as he did for the previous patriarch, he told the Gazzettino, as well as Popes Benedict XVI and Paul VI.

The Gazzettino reported that there were some 200 boats in the procession, and I can believe it. I think most of them, though, were there for the event in its Venetian, rather than spiritual, aspect. I’m not saying rowers are godless, I’m just saying that the mass of participants seemed to be divided into two groups: Bunches of people along the fondamentas with welcome banners who were singing hymns , and us in the boats who were living another sort of moment.

The routine usually goes like this: The boats gather in the Grand Canal at Piazzale Roma.  We go to the command-post boat if we’re due any bonuses (T-shirts, bandannas, small bags of rations usually containing a sandwich, bottle of water or carton of fruit juice, a small pastry or piece of fruit.) You lounge around and keep track of your friends.  At this point in my evolution here, there’s quite a list.

We must have waited half an hour in front of the train station for Mons. Moraglia to conclude his prayers ashore. Half an hour is a long time when you're doing nothing.

But hanging around did give me time to admire this young woman, seemingly no more than 15 years old, who was the master and commander of an 8-oar gondola from the Canottieri Mestre rowed entirely by people her age.

Small organizational point: Unlike most processions, which are in the morning, we were summoned to appear at 1:45 PM.  This seemingly innocuous moment effectively wipes Sunday off your calendar, when you calculate the time needed to get to your boat, row it to Piazzale Roma, do the corteo, and row home.  The fact that the timing effectively wiped your lunch hour off your calendar was also noticed.  That’s why they gave us sandwiches.  Not much to keep you going till dinnertime, but if you came, you’d already accepted this fact.

We get the signal to start, and we proceed down the canal to the bacino of San Marco, dodging taxis and vaporettos and gondoliers and each other’s oars.  The principles of defensive driving all come into immediate play for the half-hour or so it usually takes to run this 3.7 km/2.3 mile route.

I’d never seen so many boats in a procession, not even when we put on the same event in 2002 for the recently-departed predecessor.  The sun was shining, the breeze was generally docile,  and we were going mostly with the tide.

The only drawback was the long wait for the patriarch to finish his invisible ceremonies ashore, board his boat, and get going.  When the tide is pulling you along and large public conveyances keep jostling for space, you don’t really feel like hanging around, even for an Eminence.  Rowers began to murmur and to comment.

But finally we were on our way.  We managed to put on a burst of speed to get past the small boat slewing around in front of us.  We waved to Lino’s sisters on the fondamenta. And when we passed under the Rialto Bridge and saw the straight stretch of Grand Canal covered with boats spread out before us, Lino actually got a little choked up.  I can’t remember what he said, but I looked up and his eyes were wet.  Just in case you think we get all blase and jaded about everything.

As the patriarch debarked at San Marco, the gathered boats gave the customary alzaremi, or raised-oar salute.  It’s spectacular when done right, or even just sort of right.  The annoying part for the executors of this feat  isn’t the weight of the oar as you haul it upright (I discovered a trick) — it’s the way the water runs down the shaft and onto your hands.  I have no picture of it because I was busy with my oar.

Then we row back to the club, across the bacino of San Marco, which will always be full of big heavy clashing waves.  You may well also have the wind and tide against you, so by the time you get the boat ashore you’ve forgotten how much fun you had.

The prow of a mega-gondola is a magnificent place from which to view the corteo. But I still can't figure out how the man is sitting. There's exactly the same area available on the right as you see on the left of the little flag. Where are his legs? Are his feet trailing in the water?

But enough about me.  I can tell you that the new patriarch has already remarked that he believes one of our main priorities needs to be to make children happy.  He put that in his short list of things we need to take more seriously, like create more jobs and be more just and fair in our dealings.

My inner Protestant (I.P.) finds this an amazingly dim recommendation. If making children happy is a goal, I can turn over and go back to sleep, because that must be the easiest thing on earth to do. Unload a dump truck full of sugar and fat and iEverything and then leave them alone. My I.P. — who is as devoted to children and their well-being as anyone, even him — would have preferred to hear something a little less fluffy. If  happy children are what we want, I think our mission should be to make sure they’re educated, healthy, disciplined, kind, at least bilingual and don’t smoke. I suspect that happiness would be within their own grasp at that point, and wouldn’t have to be provided by a squad of round-the-clock muffinbrains.

Feel free to pass this observation along to him.


More hanging around waiting, this time in front of the basilica of the Madonna della Salute, while the patriarch went inside to pay his respects to her. The golden curly thing is the stern of the "Dogaressa," the ceremonial boat that carried the pope last May. A good sign?


Some of us managed to find a parking place in front of the church, so we could relax during the interval.


Lack of food? Overcome by emotion? Meditating? Or just saving his strength for the next leg of the journey?


The "disdotona," or 18-oar gondola, belonging to the Querini rowing club, is easily the most spectacular boat in Venice and is always the sign of a Truly Important Event. The only drawback is finding a parking place.


The patriarch comes out of the basilica to wild acclaim. Wild, anyway, to everyone except the woman seated with her dog on the steps, reading the paper.

She’s probably reading the big article about the patriarch's arrival and wondering when he's supposed to show up.

I love this woman! She is totally impossible to impress! She's looking at her DOG.


"Just be patient -- he'll be along sooner or later."

Setting off on the last leg of the trip, across the Grand Canal to the Piazza San Marco. The police escort is an impressive touch -- we never see these zippy little craft except on big occasions. The firemen have them too. The men probably draw lots because everybody must want to drive them.


He looks happy and that makes me feel good. And he gets ten bonus points for standing up in the boat, a position he maintained, according to the Gazzettino, for the entire corteo. I have to say, that's cool.


Categories : Venetian Events
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A satisfyingly dim view of the panorama as we headed to church. This is the very least the weather should be doing for this holiday.

Yesterday one of the most important days in the Venetian (hence in my) calendar came around again: the annual feast of La Madonna della Salute, Our Lady of Health.

Health is one of those things, like air or the ability to speak your mother tongue, that you don’t give much thought to till it’s been impaired.  Or removed.

In a city that has the highest median age of any city in Italy, health is a subject that’s right up there on the short list of things to really worry about, several places ahead of acqua alta and even a close second to tourism.  Considering that the city government is currently debating (or not — I can’t keep track) whether to close the hospital here and send everybody who needs help to the big hospital on the mainland (pause for screams of rage and disbelief), health is clearly a big issue.

The sign is put up every year: "It is dangerous to lean out when passing under the votive bridge." Those who don't speak Italian probably discover this fact on their own.

But let us return to the health at hand.  This feast was established in 1630 in thanksgiving for the Madonna’s response to the desperate plea of the city of Venice for deliverance from arguably the worst plague in its history, though the pestilence of 1574 was also noticeably catastrophic.

If anyone (such as me) has ever tried to imagine what an epidemic of plague might entail, a few passages from “The Betrothed” by Alessandro Manzoni might help. They certainly provide a way to grasp the magnitude of this festa (not to mention the votive church, which took 50 years to build).

The votive bridge, made of a few bits of the big bridge that's installed for the feast of the Redentore (another plague situation). Highly useful for pedestrians but a large pain for transport, which is one of many reasons why it isn't permanent.

The plague of 1630 exterminated much of northern Italy, and drawing on contemporary documents, Manzoni describes the plague in Milan. I presume that it was much the same in Venice, where 80,000 Venetians died, including the doge, though here the carts obviously were replaced by boats.

…sickness and deaths began rapidly to multiply…with the unusual accompaniments of spasms, palpitation, lethargy, delirium, and those fatal symptoms, livid spots and sores; and these deaths were, for the most part, rapid, violent, and not unfrequently sudden, without any previous tokens of illness….

All the doorways into the streets were kept shut from either suspicion or alarm, except those which were left open because deserted or invaded; others nailed up and sealed outside, on account of the sick or dead who lay within; others marked with a cross drawn with coal, as an intimation to the monatti [men who removed the bodies] that there were dead to be carried away….

Everywhere were rags and corrupted bandages, infected straw, or clothes, or sheets, thrown from the windows; sometimes bodies, which had suddenly fallen dead in the streets, and were left there till a cart happened to pass by and pick them up, or shaken from off the carts themselves, or even thrown from the windows….

And while corpses, scattered here and there, or lying in heaps…made the city like one immense sepulchre, a still more appalling symptom, a more intense deformity, was their mutual animosity, their licentiousness, and their extravagant suspicion…not only did they mistrust a friend, a guest; but those names which are the bonds of human affection, husband and wife, father and son, brother and brother, were words of terror, and dreadful and infamous to tell! the domestic board, the nuptial bed, were dreaded as lurking-places, as receptacles of poison…

Men of the highest rank might be seen without cape or cloak, at that time a most essential part of any gentleman’s dress; priests without cassocks, friars without cowls; in short, all kinds of dress were dispensed with which could contract anything by fluttering about…And besides this carefulness to go about as trussed up and confined as possible, their persons were neglected and disorderly; the beards of such as were accustomed to wear them grown much longer, and suffered to grow by those who had formerly kept them shaven; their hair, too, long and undressed, not only from the neglect which usually attends long depression but because suspicion had been attached to barbers…

The greater number carried in one hand a stick, some even a pistol, as a threatening warning to anyone who should attempt to approach them stealthily; and in the other, perfumed pastils, or little balls of metal or wood, perforated and filled with sponges steeped in aromatic vinegar, which they applied from time to time, as they went along, to their noses, or held there continually.

Some carried a small vial hung around their neck, containing a little quick-silver, persuaded that this possessed the virtue of absorbing and arresting every pestilential effluvia; this they were very careful to renew from time to time…

Even friends, when they met in the streets alive, saluted each other at a distance, with silent and hasty signs.  Every one, as he walked along, had enough to do to avoid the filthy and deadly stumbling-blocks with which the ground was strewn, and in some places even encumbered.   Every one tried to keep the middle of the road, for fear of some other obstacle, some other more fatal weight, which might fall from the windows…

…the sick… were wandering about as if stupefied; and not a few were absolutely beside themselves: one would eagerly be relating his fancies to a miserable creature laboring under the malady; another would be actually raving; while a third appeared with a smiling countenance, as if assisting at some gay spectacle.

…two horses, which, stretching their necks and pawing with their hooves, could with difficulty make their way; and drawn by these a cart full of dead bodies, and after that another, and another, and another; and on each hand monatti walking by the side of the horses hastening them on with whips, blows, and curses.  These corpses were for the most part naked, while some were miserably enveloped in tattered sheets, and were heaped up and twined together, almost like a nest of snakes  unfolding themselves….at every trifling obstacle, at every jolt, these fatal groups were seen quivering and falling into horrible confusion, heads dangling down, women’s long tresses disheveled…

The entire story contained in one extravagant altarpiece by Giusto Le Court: On the left, the city of Venice (as usual, represented as a beautiful and wealthy woman) kneels to implore mercy and deliverance from the plague. In the center, the Virgin Mary, holding Jesus, makes a gracious gesture of assent. On the right, a cherub uses a torch to drive away the Plague, shown as a hideous hag, fleeing. Below is an icon of the Mesopanditissa, or Madonna of Health, brought from Crete by Francesco Morosini in 1670.


A few stalls are set up for selling candles; it's inconceivable to me that someone could come and not offer a candle, though I suppose there's no rule against it. The cheapest candle costs 2 euros (($2.69). The ones with the red base are often taken home, to be lighted in times of peril (usually storms). Burning a few leaves of the olive branch you brought home from Palm Sunday was (is still?) believed to ward off the danger.

Not wishing to spoil the party, I think it’s not a bad idea to acknowledge at least briefly that the day was fixed to express gratitude (or desire) for heavenly intervention in matters of life and death, and not primarily so we could buy balloons of Nemo and Spiderman and eat cotton candy and slabs of deep-fried dough slathered with chocolate.

The weather was perfect, by which I mean cold, raw, damp, foggy, and breezy. I’ve been to the basilica of the Salute to offer my candle on days when it was sunny and the temperature in the sixties, and I can tell you that it just feels wrong.  This isn’t a happy holiday, it’s a solemn, penitential, I-really-mean-this kind of day, even though there are plenty of balloons and highly sugared and fat-laden treats being sold from stalls behind the church.  It’s probably years before Venetian kids grasp the fact that the day isn’t dedicated to Our Lady of Fat and Sugar.  Amazing, now that I think of it, that she should be honored as the guardian of health with this payload of calories.  They ought to depict her —  no disrespect intended — holding an insulin syringe.

Back to the weather: The worse it is, the happier are the Ladies who Mink.  I’ve remarked before that this city is an unrepentant recidivist on the animal-skin subject.  (I don’t count shearling in this category.)  One winter evening I counted 11 mink coats on the vaporetto going home. Someone I know told me about a little old lady on the Lido who was packing her steamer trunks for a holiday in the Dolomites with four peltish coats.  This was the minimum a woman could rationally consider bringing; no telling what your friends would think if they should see you in the same old fur, day after day.

Therefore Lino refers to this legendary day as the feast of Our Lady of the Fur Coat.  And laughs on the rare days when it turns out to be, as I mentioned, sunny and warm, because wearing their fur coat to the basilica is more important to these ladies than offering a candle for their husband, or maybe even for themselves. We enjoy imagining them hanging tough in the heat, wrapped in mink, wearing terrycloth headbands, like sweating tennis players.

Yesterday, though, I only saw one fur-like garment, and I am dead certain it was fake.  This does not bode well, but I’m not sure for what.


You bring your candle into the basilica and eventually decide to join the crowd that clusters near the few points where volunteers are feverishly lighting and installing them in the racks.


It's rare to see someone with this many candles, this big. I can only hope she was offering them in thanksgiving, and not with pleas for intervention.

Sometimes the children get to hold the candles.






















It's hard work to take people's candles, light them and install them. Because you also have to remove somebody else's flaming candle first. These young men spend the day covered with wax drippings.

I wonder what the children are taking in; this little boy is not by any means the youngest child I saw.









A few of the classic thank-offerings for answered prayers are displayed on the wall near the high altar. When I came to Venice, the walls were covered with these tokens of gratitude, representing true healings, something much bigger than even a very big candle. I wonder where they went, and why.













The street behind the church is just as crowded, but a lot more cheerful. Finally the kids get to gorge.


This is just one small part of the panoply. Lino remembers when only Venetian frittelle were sold, at stalls in front of the church. Now, with a minor exception, it's all sweets from Sicily.


The balloons have all gone Hollywood and evidently Geppetto is moonlighting.




















Kids with candles, grown-ups with cotton candy. It's great.






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I have often mentioned that predictions of high water in Venice turn out to be as accurate as weather predictions anywhere else.  Sometimes even less accurate, given how sensitive the whole lagoon situation is to all sorts of factors, including wind.

The reality of acqua alta at a modest level is that it doesn't uniformly cover many streets. Here you see people going from dry to wet, then it will be back to dry again.

The reality of acqua alta at a modest level is that it doesn't uniformly cover many streets. Here you see people going from dry to wet, then it will be back to dry again.

The last week or so has undoubtedly been rather trying for the dauntless Paolo Canestrelli, director of the Tide Center. Because while the Gazzettino, rightly or wrongly, published a series of articles that sounded fairly alarmist: “Feast of the Salute with your hipboots,” “Feast of the Salute with no walkways,” “F of the S at 120 cm [four feet] of high water,” and so on, it didn’t turn out quite that way.

These stories were irksome for a few reasons, none of which had to do with whether or not I had to put on my hipboots.

First, the area around the basilica of the Salute is much higher than the Piazza San Marco, therefore a tide prediction which sounds drastic in one place won’t be nearly so much so in another.

As you see here in via Garibaldi. The board as walkway is a great idea but only if it's long enough.

As you see here in via Garibaldi. The board as walkway is a great idea but only if it's long enough.

Second, so far this autumn few forecasts have turned out as given.  The 120 cm repeatedly predicted for Sunday morning? We got 103 [3 feet].

The tide did finally manage to pull itself up to 122 cm, but that was at 12:10 Sunday night, when probably there  weren’t many people or taxis or barges around to be inconvenienced.

A few nights later, the sirens sounded with two additional tones, signaling the probable arrival of 120-130 cm [4-5 feet] of water.  Two tones means that we will have some water about halfway up the street outside our door. But in the end, our canal did no more than kiss the edge of the fondamenta. The fact that there was virtually no wind also helped.

Regardless of the height or non-height of the eventual water, articles dramatize that the city has “water on the ground” without specifying the depth — sometimes it can be two inches, but the term “high water” is usually used by the media to sound as if the levees have broken. And these articles never mention how much of Venice has water, making it sound as if the entire city were going under. Someone might be sufficiently original as to publish a story that says “Two tones means that  up to 29 per cent of the city is under water,” but I have yet to see one that says “71 per cent of the city is bone dry.”

I realize that drama is entertaining, but why dramatize it at all?  It’s not dramatic.  It’s temporarily slightly tiresome, at a very low level on the Zwingle Slightly Tiresome Index.  I’d rate it a 2, the same as hanging out the laundry.

This would qualify as a true annoyance. For some reason this delivery-person was put ashore at the wrong place, and now his way forward is completely blocked by the walkways. He must be thinking all sorts of thoughts just now.

This would qualify as a true annoyance. For some reason this delivery-person was put ashore at an ill-advised spot near San Marco, and now his way forward is completely blocked by the walkways. (They spread out in a long T-shape beyond the edge of this picture.) He has obviously recognized that his only option is to wait till the workmen make a break in the barrier, which will be soon, considering how far down the tide has already fallen.

Now let me turn a sympathetic eye on the indomitable Canestrelli at the Tide Center.  Because no matter what prediction he gives — predictions which are always made according to information which has been scientifically gathered, even if journalists then recast them to sound like the last act of “Gotterdammerung” — people revile him. This is either because the prediction turned out to be accurate, and inconvenient, or because it wasn’t accurate, in which case people throw another armload of brickbats at him.

This is regrettable because the Center has just recently created a new mathematical model which has attained notably higher precision — an accomplishment for which Canestrelli was recently awarded a prize by the Italian government.  No rude remarks, thank you.

But nature resists our assumptions, as Canestrelli is the first to admit. “Look at the disastrous rainfall on the Veneto on November 1,” he told the Gazzettino on November 11; “it turned out to be ten times more than what was predicted.   Unfortunately, even with progress, there is still a wide margin of error.”

In the case of the high water on November 10, he explained that  “On Thursday our models didn’t predict anything over 100 cm. Only in the early morning [Friday, November 10] did we see indications that it might be higher, so we activated the sirens to warn it might reach 110 cm.  We then raised the forecast to 115 cm.  But unfortunately high water, like other weather phenomena, is very hard to predict even if you’re continually monitoring it.”

That particular series of unpredicted events was caused by a number of factors which aren’t taken into account in the simplistic popular impression of the Tide Center’s skills.  “Even though the weather was improving,” Canestrelli continued, “there was the return of a seiche wave in the Adriatic” [the public, including me, isn’t very good at keeping track of the seiche waves out there], “a significant rise in the barometric pressure, and a drop in the wind.

“This was a very strange situation in that the increase in pressure didn’t blunt the tide; in my 30 years here I’ve only seen that happen once or twice. The problem is that the pressure, in spite of the increase of 10 millibars, remained at an extremely low level rarely seen in our latitudes.”

Technically one could say there was still acqua alta at the Piazza San Marco but it has obviously begun to subside.

Technically one could say there was still acqua alta at the Piazza San Marco but it has obviously begun to subside.

All this gives the tiniest indication of how many different and mutating factors affect the height of the tide and the accuracy of the forecasts.  Now let’s move on to another element which is much easier to grasp: Money and manpower.

“What can we do?” he asks more or less rhetorically.  “Few departments are as indispensible as the Tide Center, but we risk sinking to the bottom.

True, just on the other side of the walkways, there is still water in the Piazza. Evidently the person with the big bag isn't too worried about its contents, or about waiting ten minutes.But it is not spectacularly high, and obviously it's on it way out.

True, just on the other side of the walkways there is still water in the Piazza. Evidently the person with the big bag isn't too worried about its contents, or about waiting ten minutes. It's obviously on its way out.

“For 2010, the budget is for one million euros.  But 46,000 euros are for operating costs, and another 500,000 — allocated, but so far never actually seen — are earmarked for the maintenance of the equipment.

“How can we keep going with funding like this?  The money that remains is all we have to give to the personnel, who are on call 24 hours a day.

“How can it be that a department which is crucial to the well-being of an entire city isn’t regarded as the apple of the eye of the emergency services? There was a time when we had all the interest we needed to guarantee efficiency and accuracy. Now times have changed.

At 9:20 this shop in the Piazza San Marco had water on its floor, an event for which, judging by the paving, it has been well prepared.  The shop is supposed to open in ten minutes and you can see how agitated the owner and staff are.

At 9:20 this shop in the Piazza San Marco had water on its floor, an event for which, judging by the paving, it has been well prepared. The shop is supposed to open in ten minutes and you can see how agitated the owner and staff are. They're not even here yet.

“Furthermore,” Canestrelli goes on, “we risk reaching the limit of our capacity. Up until last year the Center had 17 employees; now we have 13 and those include people in administration and motor-launch drivers. This leaves very few who are involved in the forecast service.  With this level of personnel, during the high-water season of October till May, we can’t monitor the situation 24 hours a day.”

And a note that is drowned-out in the chaotic chorus of who needs to know how high the water’s going to be is from the so-called ecological workers. Not so much for collecting the trash, which they overlook on high-water days, but because they have to know — in advance, please — whether they’re going to need to muster the troops to set up the passarelle, or temporary walkways.  Preferably before the water is above the ankles.

The clever thing to do, it would seem to me, would be for the Tide Center to estimate the tide toward the higher end of the scale.  Just to be on the safe side.  I was very proud of myself for coming up with this clever and amusing idea.

Then Canestrelli told the Gazzettino that that’s  pretty much what they’re doing.

So all this being said, let us dial down the volume on the wails preceding the next expected high tide. It may turn out to be a little — or somewhat — or a lot — different than you thought it was going to be.  I suggest you buy a pair of boots and get on with your life.

Categories : Nature, Problems, Water
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Venice salutes its Madonna

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Of course you already know that “La Madonna della Salute” does not mean “Our Lady of the Salute.” She is Our Lady of Health, and every year on November 21 everyone in Venice who can walk, and even some who can’t, make the pilgrimage to her church to offer a candle and say however many prayers are filling their hearts.

Just like the feast of the Redentore, a votive bridge is installed -- here spanning the Grand Canal. It is intended to carry the faithful piously over the water, but it's also an excellent vantage point for snapshots.

Just as at the feast of the Redentore, a votive bridge is installed -- here spanning the Grand Canal. It is intended to carry the faithful piously over the water, but it's also an excellent vantage point for snapshots.

Yesterday was not a propitious day, meteorologically speaking.  For two or three days the  Gazzettino had been feverishly predicting acqua alta of 120 cm [four feet] that morning.  (It didn’t happen.) There was plenty of water, however, in the form of a frigid rain.  It wasn’t heavy, but it was determined, the kind of rain that isn’t thinking about anything else.  And it got dark early.

Perhaps they look innocent enough to you here.  That's because you can't smell them.

Perhaps they look innocent enough to you. That's because you can't smell them.

There had also been an anxious sub-theme, which began circulating several days early, on the impending castradina famine.  Castradina the basis of  the traditional dish for this festival, a soup made of cabbage and a haunch of mutton which has been dried, smoked, aged, slathered in dark malodorous spices, and possibly even beaten with sticks and dead-blow hammers. It’s an impressive little piece of meat.

But this year, the Muslim festival of Eid al-Adha, or Festival of Sacrifice, fell in the same period.  Which meant that the general supply of castradina — which has never been huge, seeing as the tradition had fallen into general disuse — had suddenly shrunk to almost nothing.  I have now learned that Muslims favor this foodstuff for their religious observance, and that they offered a better price to the few remaining wholesalers who carry it.

This is amusing, in a way (it takes so little to amuse me), because for years many people didn’t care about castradina.  We’ve had Venetians over to dinner who had never eaten it. We’d see these hunks of black flesh hanging in the butcher shops and would wonder what they did with the ones they didn’t sell.

But in the past year or two, castradina has come back into fashion.  So Venice, according to the Gazzettino, was pullulating with desperate people seeking castradina by any means, in any place, at any price.  I can’t think of a credible substitute.  You couldn’t fake it even with tofu.

Getting ready for the big day doesn't mean just cooking castradina.  It means getting the area ready for every contingency.

Getting ready for the big day doesn't mean just cooking castradina. It means getting the area ready for every contingency.

Back to the weather.  It was cold, dark, and wet.  Just what I think of as perfect weather for this feast, though the women in the mink coats were thwarted by the rain.  As you know, they come out in force on this day even in the driving sun.  The need to show off their fur is just too strong. If you’re wearing beaver or seal, fine.  But minks do not like rain any more than their humans do. I kind of missed seeing these self-contented matrons in their luscious garb.  They do love it so.  Lino calls this the feast of Our Lady of the Fur Coats.

And the delivery of several hundredweight of neatly boxed candles.

And the delivery of several hundredweight of neatly boxed candles.

There are at least five stands and they all sell exactly the same thing.  I don't get it.

There are at least five stands and they all sell exactly the same thing. I don't get it.

This year, to my surprise, we got into the church without having to battle a rugby scrum, and we walked right up to the candle-lighting station and handed over our candles. This was an odd but very pleasant sensation.  Last year there was such a crush of people that I honestly thought we’d be trapped there holding our candles till Christmas Eve.

Then, as usual, we joined the file of people who elected to walk past the high altar and venerate the little Madonna on the other side, crossing themselves and tossing some cash, and walking out through the sacristy.  We found two seats in the heavy wooden choir stalls and sat down to watch people go by. Even though there weren’t massive crowds, the flow was steady.  So far, so normal.

You can’t force pious thoughts.  If you try, they just slide off your brain.  So I sat there not thinking at all, somewhat lulled by the rosary recitation floating over from the other side. And then a thought came to me — more a realization than a thought. I realized that we were being faithful.

All those thousands of frantic, distraught Venetians had been watching people die of the plague all around them till all they had left to offer in exchange for their lives was to promise the Virgin that if she would intercede and save what was left of the city, they would build her a church and come to offer her candles and gratitude every November 21 forever. And after 380 years, people (us) who are so far away from the original promisers that their vow could be thought of as symbolic, or even meaningless, are still maintaining that vow.

Crumpled-up little old people, children of every shape and temper, families of various nationalities, teenage boys, an assortment of tourists — anybody who was there formed another link in the chain tying us to those helpless, despairing people who made a promise that they believed we would keep.

And we did.  And we will.

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