Archive for Madonna della Salute
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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…
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.
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 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.
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.
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.”
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.
“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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.