Archive for Pellestrina


The name game

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According to the article, there are TK people in Venice with the last name Vianello.

“The Vianellos beat everybody,” the headline states.  “The foreigners increase.” According to the article, there are 4339 people in the Comune of Venice with the last name Vianello.  I’m sorry to see that the Barbarigos and Mocenigos have gone the way of the great auk, though some once-noble families (Moro, Dona’) are on the list.

Not a game at all, but shards of information I consider interesting, in an ephemeral sort of way.  My favorite kind.

Meeting people here, or even just reading about them in the paper, will fairly quickly give you the sensation that there is only a handful of last names in Venice.  Reading Venetian history has the same effect.  There were 120 doges, and every five minutes it’s a Mocenigo or a Morosini or a Barbarigo or a Contarini (I feel a Gilbert and Sullivan patter song coming on).

In daily life nowadays, it’s Vianello or Zennaro or Busetto or Scarpa, all at some point from Pellestrina, where so many with these surnames dwell — and have dwelled — that the town is divided into four sections, each named for one of those specific tribes.  This situation was created by doge Andrea Contarini, who in 1380 sent the four eponymous families from Chioggia to Pellestrina to reconstruct and inhabit the former town which had been destroyed by the Genoese in the “War of Chioggia” (1378-1381).

The density of these four names in Pellestrina is such that the post office finally gave permission to put nicknames on addresses, to give some hope of distinguishing between the scores of individuals with the same first and last name, some of them even living at the same location.

In the Comune at large, Costantinis and Penzos abound, and every year there is a bumper crop of D’Estes and Dei Rossis.  Each name has its own provenance; some of them are obvious (“Sartori” means “tailors,” “Tagliapietra” means “stonecutter,” with which Venice had to have been infested) and some are more obscure (“Ballarin” meant “sawyer,” and “Bastasi” were the porters, specifically for the Customs or the quarantine islands).

Now comes the tricky part: The list enumerates

As we see, there are more Hossains now than Senos or even than Chens.  But after 500 years they might well be on the list of Venetians, if there’s still a Venice.

I’ve been here long enough — and it doesn’t mean you need to have spent a LONG time — to recognize the provenance of many of these names.  If you hear one of these, you have a good chance of knowing where the person comes (or came) from:

Chioggia:  Penzo, Pesce, Boscolo, Tiozzo, Padoan, Doria

Burano:  Vio, Costantini, Zane, Tagliapietra, Seno

San Pietro in Volta:  Ballarin, Ghezzo

Murano:  Toso, Gallo, Ferro, Schiavon

Cavallino:  Berton 

Venice (Dorsoduro): Pitteri

A few tidbits from the article, which are not evident in the table of numbers but are obvious to anyone living here:

First is that during the past ten years, the number of individuals bearing each surname has diminished.  That’s just part of the well-known shrinkage of Venetians.

Second — also fairly obvious to locals — is the addition of foreign surnames.  Of course, my surname is foreign too (German-Swiss), but I’ve been happy to disappear among many Venetians whose last names also begin with “Z,” and they aren’t German, either:  Zane and Zanella and Zuin and Zuliani.  It’s great down here at the end of the alphabet, I’ve finally got company.

As you easily notice, Muslim and Asian names are becoming more numerous.  (I realize that “Muslim” is not a nationality, nor a geographical area, but while the bearers of these names are most likely from Bangladesh, I decided not to guess).

So where would the “Vianello” clan come from?  According to my dictionary of Italian surnames, it springs from Viani, which isn’t a place, as far as I can determine, but a basic root-name.  Lino hypothesizes that it could derive from “villani” (pronounced vee-AH-nee in Venetian), which means farmers, tillers of the soil — “villein,” in the feudal terminology, a partially-free serf.  You can still hear someone around here vilify another person by calling him a “villano,” and they don’t mean “villain” — they mean clod, churl, oaf.

“Rossi” means “reds.”  It’s the most common surname in Italy, though in the Southern half it is often rendered “Russo” (the second-most common surname in Italy).  It most likely came from a personage with some strikingly red attribute, such as hair, beard, or skin.  Or all three.

“Scarpa” — It means “shoe,” so I’m guessing their forebears were shoe-makers, though then again, it’s possible that it was once somebody’s nickname (in Venice, at least, nicknames are fairly common and the person bears it for life and even sometimes leaves it to his children.)  However, another hypothesis holds that it could be a variation of Karpathos, the Greek island known as “Scarpanto” in Venetian, and which formed part of the Venetian “Sea State” from 1306 to 1538, plenty long to germinate names.  Thousands of Greeks lived in Venice, so the place name may have shifted to a personal name.

There are lots of names that come from places, sometimes Venetianized, such as:

Visentin (vee-zen-TEEN): Vicentino, or from Vicenza

Piasentini (pya-zen-TEE-nee): Piacentino, or from Piacenza

Veronese: from Verona

Trevisan (treh-vee-ZAHN): from Treviso

Furlan (foor-LAHN): from Friuli

Schiavon (skyah-VOHN): from Schiavonia, later Slavonia, which is now the easternmost part of Croatia. The Venetians were known to trade, among other valuable merchandise, in slaves, which often came from Central Asia or the Balkan hinterland. “Schiavo” (SKYA-voh), conveniently shortened, means “slave.”  Slav – Slave.  Not made up.

The names and the centuries may change, but the crime described on a plaque inside the Arsenal remains the same (translated by me):

The names may change, but the activity described on a plaque inside the Arsenal remains the same regardless of time, nation, or blood type (translated by me): “5 June 1743 Gabriel di Ferdinando was the Adjutant of the Admiral of the Arsenal He was banished under threat of hanging for being an unfaithful administrator guilty of enormous extremely grave detriments inflicted in the management of the public capital.”


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The Old Travelers meet the “Innocents”

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I am currently wandering around Europe in the highly entertaining company of Samuel Clemens, reading his account of the long and complicated trip he took in 1867 and wrote up in “The Innocents Abroad.”

The first page of the detailed itinerary advertising the trip. As we all know, it’s simple to plan trips that sound smooth and entertaining. Taking the trip reveals a different story.

It’s nice to get away from Venice for a while, speaking of tourism. And I’d accompany the famous Mark Twain wherever he wanted to go, even if it were downtown Bugtussle, Oklahoma.  Still, his five-months-long voyage of discovery is, in many respects, better experienced from afar. This way you don’t have to put up with the insufferable man he nicknamed The Oracle, for one thing, and also you don’t have to spend any money.

The ideal travel companion, in my view, needs not only a galvanized stomach, an indestructible curiosity and no need for sleep, but a sense of humor more finely tuned than any Stradivarius. To laugh at others and at oneself is harder than it looks, but Twain has got the touch.

More than all that, he, unlike many returning travelers we have all known and tolerated (or not), is usually interesting and occasionally informative and always, ALWAYS amusing, especially when he says something that totally nails the truth.

A fairly well-known example, still worth repeating, is from his first night in Paris:

After dinner we felt like seeing such Parisian specialties as we might see without distressing exertion, and so we sauntered through the brilliant streets and looked at the dainty trifles in variety stores and jewelry shops.  Occasionally, merely for the pleasure of being cruel, we put unoffending Frenchmen on the rack with questions framed in the incomprehensible jargon of their native language, and while they writhed, we impaled them, we peppered them, we scarified them, with their own vile verbs and participles.

But that isn’t the best.  The best is his portrait of the Old Travelers.

To get to the Gandakush Pass, first you have to go to a town called Dugoba, in Kyrgyzstan. A photographer known as igor_alay_2 has been there before you, as you see.

Old Travelers are hard to find because by now everybody’s on the road.  Nobody can travel like he did anymore, as we all know, because if we haven’t already been there, we’ve read or heard about it by one of a million means.  There will always be somebody who has preceded us to the remotest peak of the Gandakush Pass or some fleck of a barely-populated mini-Micronesian atoll.  No surprises left.

If you want to stroll around Poluwat Atoll, exploring its 3.4 square kilometers (1.3 square miles), I’d be willing to bet money you’ll find somebody already there, buying postcards.

But in his day foreign travel was still relatively difficult and expensive, so the Old Traveler was still at large, prepared to ruin the enthusiasm of any honest beginner.

And here is what he has to say about the ones he found in Paris:

The Old Travelers — those delightful parrots who have “been here before” and know more about the country than Louis Napoleon knows now or ever will know …

But we love the Old Travelers. We love to hear them prate and drivel and lie.  We can tell them the moment we see them.  They always throw out a few feelers; they never cast themselves adrift till they have sounded every individual and know that he has not traveled.  Then they open their throttle valves, and how they do brag, and sneer, and swell, and soar, and blaspheme the sacred name of Truth! Their central idea, their grand aim, is to subjugate you, keep you down, make you feel insignificant and humble in the blaze of their cosmopolitan glory! They will not let you know anything.  They sneer at your most inoffensive suggestions; they laugh unfeelingly at your treasured dreams of foreign lands; they brand the statements of your traveled aunts and uncles as the stupidest absurdities; they deride your most trusted authors and demolish the fair images they have set up for your willing worship with the pitiless ferocity of the fanatic iconoclast!  But still I love the Old Travelers.  I love them for their witless platitudes, for their supernatural ability to bore, for their delightful asinine vanity, for their luxuriant fertility of imagination, for their startling, their brilliant, their overwhelming mendacity!

If you are ever tempted to behave in this manner toward a fellow traveler (so to speak), be aware that the ghost of the sage of Hannibal, Mo. will be fleering at you from somewhere on high. It would be safer, and certainly more polite, merely to reply to whatever the less-traveled person may have said with the impregnable response with which H.L. Mencken is said to have answered every letter responding to his editorials in the Baltimore Sun: “You may be right.”

This vision from another world, another epoch, appeared at the regata of Pellestrina a few years ago. Countless hundreds were broiling in their own greasy sweat under the pitiless afternoon sun and suddenly there she was: Cool, pressed, perfect, sheltered by her own little shade. She’s even carrying a wrap! Where did she come from? Why is she alone? What is she doing here? There is NOTHING in Pellestrina to attract anyone except three hours of races once a year. She may or may not be an Old Traveler, but I’d give her about forty fathoms of slack: Whatever she might have felt like saying, it deserves admiration more than scorn.


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