Archive for Redentore


pitching in

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“Tarring the Boat,” 1873, by Edouard Manet (Barnes Foundation, Lower Merion, PA).  Lino was born in time to see this seemingly simple procedure before it went the way of the dodo.  One man gripped a large handful of blazing reeds, and the second man spread the scalding tar by means of a stick which was tightly wrapped at the end with pieces of sheepskin.  The burning reeds kept the pitch at a higher and therefore more spreadable temperature as Man 2 laboriously applied it to the boat’s hull.  I have seen a gondola-builder use these burning reeds, passing them slowly across the hull to gradually remove the varnish; he told me that the lagoon reeds emitted a flame that was more humid than that of many other potential tools, and was thus less traumatic to the boat.  You see?  People don’t use a technique just because there isn’t any other — there is almost always a reason.

Here is a new warp (or weft) to the fabric of life in LinoLand, otherwise known as the place where he has known just about everybody still left in Venice.  Or in this case, not still left.

The case in point: A death notice we came across for a certain Gastone Nardo.  Strangely, this is someone I also knew (a little, and very late. Like, I met him twice.)  He was the gondola-maker at the Squero San Trovaso when I came to Venice, and I was invited to a boat-launching there one freezing February day.  That’s the most I can say about him on my own account.  But of course Lino knows more.

“Well,” Lino said, “he wasn’t always a squerariol (boatbuilder) He came from a family of pegoloti.”  “Pegola” is Venetian for “pitch,” not as in baseballs but as in scorching hot tar, which was the immemorial way to water- and shipworm-proof boats until the middle of the last century.  Knowing how to handle, and apply, boiling pitch to the hull of a boat is probably not something you’d learn as a weekend hobby; it was certainly an important craft.  But you can understand that a pegoloto was several hundred rungs below squerariol, so I admire him intensely for having undertaken to learn how to build gondolas.  Working your way up from chopping lettuce at Quiznos to chef at the Restaurant Le Meurice is one thing, but it isn’t much easier working up from a searing cauldron of pine-derived hydrocarbons to constructing one of the great boats of the world. But he did it.

A friend walks past a recent harvest of reeds by the lagoon of Caorle. They were also useful, not to say ideal, for many uses other than boat-scorching, often woven together in various ways by fishermen and sailors to form latticework known as “grisiole” in Venetian.

But just because nobody uses pitch anymore doesn’t mean it has left Venice altogether — it lives on in a very common daily phrase which is almost as useful as the stuff itself.  It’s a verb, actually: “impegolar” (im-pegh-o-YAR), to metaphorically cover with pitch, to cleverly entrap somebody in a way that a tiptoeing saber-toothed tiger at La Brea would perfectly understand.

I’ve never heard it used by someone admitting to having committed this act on someone else — it’s always been the person who has been deviously empitched who will say it.  Life in Venice, and anywhere else, still offers far too many opportunities to use this expression. Generous, well-meaning, let-there-be-peace-and-let-it-begin-with-me people are fated to walk right into somebody’s loaded tarbrush.

A perfect example of this phenomenon happened to Lino years ago at the hands of his late brother-in-law, Sergio; they were two guys who have rarely, if ever, been known to block out a cry for help.  Sergio, especially, was famed across campi and campielli as one of the best-natured men ever to walk the earth, so of course he was exploited.  But he didn’t go alone.

One day he agreed to help some neighbor carry “a table and four chairs” downstairs and transport them to an apartment on what was virtually the street next door.  Keep “four chairs” and “street next door” firmly in mind.

A boat was needed.  Lino had a small boat.  Would Lino help him fulfill this modest and glowing-with-goodness little project?  Of course Lino would.

And of course Lino and Sergio found themselves “impegolai” in a gigantic moving project that lasted two whole days, schlepping chairs, tables, huge plants in massive clay pots, a divan, credenza, and all the kitchen furnishings including the stove down four, or maybe it was five, flights of stairs. Moving Day! Meanwhile, the beneficiary of this effort, the man of the house, lay peacefully sleeping in bed, and they were even cautioned to work quietly so as not to disturb him.  Naturally this apartment was on the top floor of the building.

And all of this cargo had to carried into the new apartment, naturally, including the bed which was available after the man of the house had awakened (not because of any random noise by the trio of movers), and gone out to do something else, thoughtfully getting out of their way.

From Point A to Point B in Lino’s little boat. The inconvenience of the water route is matched only by the inconvenience there would have been by land. In this case, Lino and Sergio had some help from Bruno, but Bruno was about the size of Willie Shoemaker, so I’m not sure how much he could carry per trip. Still, help is never to be sneered at.

Do not think that finding yourself impegola‘ once means it will never happen again, because  the trick is that these projects always start small (“four chairs”).  So one time the parish asked Sergio if he’d carry away “a few packages” of old newspapers to be recycled.  Yes, even in those long-ago days paper was usefully disposed of at a macero (a pulping mill) in Campo San Silvestro where a trendy little bar-cafe is now lounging around.  Boat needed, with Lino, though only for half of the project.

In this case the cargo — mountains of newspapers — was merely to be unloaded at Lino’s family’s waterside storeroom. Sergio figured out how to get them to the pulping place on his own. Maybe Lino told him that his boat couldn’t take it anymore.

By now I don’t have to say that the “few packages” turned out to be towers of stacked newspapers requiring many roundtrips.  But these things never happen on a boring Saturday afternoon when you literally have nothing to do.  In this case, it was the Saturday of the Redentore, which sort of a summertime version of Christmas Eve, if you want some comparison between the importance of what you’re doing and what the family expects you to be doing.

So instead of preparing his boat for the evening’s festivities (eating, drinking, hanging out with other boat-borne friends, watching fireworks), Lino was rowing his boat around half of Venice again and again to help out Sergio because Sergio said he’d help out the parish.  Why that particular day and not the following Monday?  Because otherwise it would have been convenient, and if you find yourself impegola‘ it’s precisely  because the activity involved cannot be postponed and it must be at the least convenient moment and because only you can accomplish it.

To be fair, Sergio’s Redentore was also twisted out of shape, because that’s the world that people with hearts of gold inhabit.  Beautiful, true, but  completely tacky with pitch.

A few steps from the Arsenal is the “First Sidestreet of the Pitch.” Must have smelled amazing. Everybody with headaches all day and insomnia by night.  Perhaps not much different from the people living next to the pulping mill.

Categories : Venetian-ness
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Signals of spring

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One of the many wonderful things about spring is that nobody can start it or stop it.  That’s why the earliest signs are always the most eloquent.  Here’s a glimpse of the past few days, in more or less chronological order:

The fish are returning to the lagoon from their winter spent wherever they go, and one of the first to arrive are the seppie, complete with ink. This was clearly not the destination this seppia had been imagining on his way up the Adriatic.

Another day, another victim. The seppie are coming into the lagoon to spawn. Just after the feast of the Redentore (third Sunday in July), which is the way the Venetians date the event, the eggs hatch, and everybody's out along the fondamente fishing for the baby seppie. Around about the Feast of the Dead ("i morti," Nov. 2), the "fraima" commences, which is the annual migration of the fish out of the lagoon and back to sea. However, a few seem to linger, because in late December there comes a day which is the first really cold day of the winter. I've experienced it several times, it seems to favor St. Stephen's Day, Dec. 26. When the cold hits, it's very likely that some seppie (squatting in somebody's summer home?) come to the surface. If you can stand the cold water, you can even catch them with your hands. They're kind of stunned by the cold.

Another day, another victim. More black drops from an indignant seppia.  The seppie are coming into the lagoon to spawn. Just after the feast of the Redentore (third Sunday in July) — feast days are still a standard measure of time here –the eggs hatch, and everybody’s out along the fondamente fishing for the baby seppie. Around about the Feast of the Dead (“i morti,” Nov. 2), the “fraima” commences, which is the annual migration of the fish out of the lagoon and back to sea. However, a few tend to linger, and in late December there comes the first really cold day of the winter. I’ve experienced it several times; the moment seems to favor St. Stephen’s Day, Dec. 26. When the cold hits, it’s very likely that some seppie who’ve stayed behind (squatting in somebody’s summer home?) drift to the surface. I think they’re stunned by the cold, but I don’t know that for a fact.  I do know that if you can stand the cold water, you can even catch them with your hands.  They move pretty slowly.

I grew up in Ithaca, New York, where it snows from October to April (more or less). At a certain imperceptible signal the city is swathed in forsythia, so of course I took it totally for granted. Now I watch this corner every spring for this burst of glory. It's not nostalgia, exactly. I'd love this even if I'd grown up in Rochester (lilacs).

I grew up in Ithaca, New York, where it snows from October to April (more or less). At a certain imperceptible signal the city is swathed in forsythia, and being young I took it totally for granted and didn’t firmly grasp how thrilling it was. Now that I live in a city not known for any particular flower, I watch this corner every spring for this burst of glory. It’s not nostalgia, exactly. I’d love this even if I’d grown up in Rochester (lilacs).

This plum tree -- specifically "baracocoli" -- is a little behind the blooming curve. Its cousin near the Giardini vaporetto stop is already finished with flowering.

This plum tree — specifically “baracocoli” — is a little behind the blooming curve. Its cousin near the Giardini vaporetto stop is already finished with flowering.

There’s an old saying — which probably means that only old people say it now: “Quando la rosa mete spin, xe bon el go’ e el passarin.” When the rose puts forth its thorns, the go’ and the passarin are good. The two lagoon fish — gobies and European flounder (Gobius ophiocephalus Pallas and Platichthys flesus) — are in season, or starting to be. This rosebush is already on  its way to producing amazing  flowers, and the fish are also going to be excellent.

Peach blossoms from Sicily. Not Venetian but I've only ever seen them here so I'm adding them to the local squadron of spring.

Peach blossoms from Sicily. Not Venetian but I’ve only ever seen them here so I’m adding them to the local squadron of spring.

Fish, check. Flowers, check. And of course the tourists also begin to hatch, bloom, whatever the right word might be. Winter was nice, but now they're baaaaaack.

Fish, check. Flowers, check. And of course the tourists also begin to hatch, bloom, reproduce, whatever the right word might be. Do they also come here to spawn?  Are these early visitors the ones responsible for the millions we see in the summer?

I know it's a free country, but I can never understand why they're HERE. There's virtually nothing in this neighborhood to lure a routist with its siren song. I realize that when the Biennale is open, they spill over into the rest of the world. But now? Are they lost?

I know it’s a free country, but I can never understand why they’re HERE. There’s virtually nothing in this neighborhood to lure a tourist with its siren song. When the Biennale is open, they inevitably spill over into the rest of the area. But now? Are they lost?

IMG_0776 blog spring

Easter is imminent, and as predictably as the seppie or the much-sung swallows of Capistrano, the window of Mascari becomes an orgy of chocolate eggs. You see this and you cannot deny that all is right, if not with the world, at least with this window.



Categories : Nature
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Redentore: the shore report

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A glimpse of the Bacino of San Marco at 7:00 PM, when the wind and waves made the prospect of staying out on a boat all night something less than appealing. But what are wind and waves when you’ve paid money to drink and dance to deafening house-techno-grunge music for hours?

After all the mutterings on and about the eve of the big feast day (the eve, as you know, being at least as big as the day itself), here is how it all came out.  I’ve waited a few days because I needed to let all the post-festa hot air, super-heated words, pumice dust, and floating cinders all burn out from the assorted arguments about what did and didn’t happen.

Here goes:


The wind dropped.  The rain did not fall.  There were something like 90,000 spectators/participants that evening, according to the Comune. (The firemen and the gondoliers at the Molo at Piazza San Marco estimated many fewer.)  Whatever the number, I guess that’s good — anyway, people didn’t stay home in front of the TV eating soggy pizza.

This inexplicable vessel was boarding passengers on the Lido, down toward the Alberoni. Whatever it’s usually used for, it didn’t seem to fit any of the categories that were made to worry about fines.

Also good, though not a Good Sign: We didn’t go out in a boat, a decision we spent all evening congratulating ourselves on having made.  We’d have been rammed to splinters, then sunk.  And anyway, it wouldn’t have been any fun to be in a small wooden boat in the midst of the masses of floating migrating mammoths.  We also discovered that being on shore meant you could see lots of other things going on, which was more diverting than settling for what you can see from a boat tied to a piling for hours on end.

People at Sant’ Elena have known for years that they’ve got the best seat in the house without leaving solid earth. Picnic tables, blankets, room for the dogs to run around — what’s missing but a few trillion waves?

Not so good:

We didn’t go out in a boat. Like almost everybody else who has hung on to the Old Way, who even accepted the gracious concession a few years ago of a tiny patch of water dedicated to boats with oars where we could feel safe, we finally faced  the fact that a motorless boat is a suicide boat.  I don’t believe anyone went out in a craft powered by fewer than 40 horses.

There were very few topomotori and pescherecci, as far as I could see and rumor can report.  The Gazzettino said that there were estimates of some 800 fewer boats than usual.  In fact, they were almost completely absent. That’s a lot of no-shows.This has been interpreted as precisely the result desired by….. I don’t know who.  “They.”  “They don’t want Venetians anymore.”  “They only want tourists who come and spend money.”

The waterfront which has customarily been left free for the pescherecci to tie up to was occupied by yachts.

In any case, the threats from the Capitaneria di Porto evidently had a powerful effect. Only 6-10 topomotori braved the hazardous waters of the Bacino supposed mined with fines.

One of the few hardy pescherecci, or fishing boats, that made the trek up to Venice for the fun. All the men on the bow are probably yelling “Land Ho!”

The Laguna Trasporti company decided to face the risk of fines straight on and sent three boats out into the fray. After dark, may I note.

This is a not-atypical boat heading for the Bacino of San Marco. It’s not how they look that’s so unnerving (a lie), it’s how they sound. Boats like this turned the entire lagoon into a pounding roar that was like standing inside a throbbing boil on your knee.

I add, for the record, that the newspaper states that the Comune had repeatedly denied that there were going to be massive document-checks — the mayor says it was a mysterious rumor accumulated via the internet that created all the tsuris. But the mayor also made clear that the Comune wasn’t in charge of the waters patrolled by the Capitaneria.  This is akin to saying “I didn’t forbid you to get married, but I’m not a Justice of the Peace.”  The mayor also denied that the threat of fines had any effect on the decision of people to come in topi or fishing boats.  Next he’ll be telling us that gravity isn’t really what keeps everything stuck to the surface of the earth.

The sub-mayor for Tourism cheerfully said the absence of boats was probably due to the discouraging weather forecast, and that the absence of the working boats (full of Venetian families, I note) made the departure of smaller boats safer.  My own experience of nearly 20 years out on the tumultuous waters of the Bacino after the last firework fades leads me to doubt this.  The most hazardous boats aren’t the topomotori, but the big shiny craft loaded with people from the hinterland. It was noted that most of these craft were visibly overloaded, but nobody in uniform pulled up to demand to see their license and registration and lifejackets and safety flares and on and on and on.

Here is a summary of the no-working-boats-or-you’ll-be-fined situation.  A mere 40 penalties were imposed, and that was for “viability violations,” which I take to mean parking in the middle of the road, so to speak.

The mayor said “The campaign spread (about the checking of working boats) turned out to be a boomerang.  I myself denied many times any intention to turn the screws on the boats during the festa, but they preferred not to listen and now everybody can see who was right and who was wrong.”

“We took the warning seriously,” said Giovanni Grandesso, representing the working boats that belong to the artisans’ association.  “The people were afraid.  But what we were supposed to do?  The vigili (local police) told us this in the presence of the sub-mayor for waterborne traffic.  If this is said in an official meeting and the sub-mayor keeps quiet, what were we supposed to do? They also said, ‘You know perfectly well you’re not allowed to carry people.’  And this made us think.  We then asked for a meeting with the office of the sub-mayor, but it was all too late.  All that was needed was to have clarified this at the beginning — it’s too easy to tell us now that we misunderstood.”

As you see, all the fireworks don’t explode in the sky.

And speaking of fireworks:

The fireworks: Quantity:  The show was curtailed from 45 minutes to 32.  (Lest we might be tempted to forget that “no ghe xe schei.”)

The fireworks: Quality:  What we saw was evidently culled from the “factory seconds,” “slightly defective,” “previously owned” barrel because they were possibly the most boring pyrotechnics I’ve ever seen.  I am a fireworks fanatic, so it actually takes very little to please me. But these were so generic, so predictable, so perfunctory that even ten minutes of stale rocketry seemed like 45. Lino and I (we discovered later) were both standing there thinking, “Can we go home now?”  Of course we could have gone home, but we each thought the other wanted to stay, so we said nothing in order to be good sports.  That shows how much difference it made for me to learn to speak Italian: None.  You might know 15,000 words and be able to conjugate every verb down to the remote past imperfect, but  in order to communicate you’ve got to actually say something.

Forget the fireworks: It was more fun watching the kids from Chioggia jump into the canal from the ponte dell’ Arsenale. You’d be amazed how much foam three people hitting the water together can make.

Terrifyingly Not Good:  While everybody was getting themselves worked into a lather about what could happen to somebody out there in a boat, nobody gave any thought to what could happen to somebody on a packed-solid vaporetto dock at 1:30 in the morning.

Because the dock was mobbed — and mobs tend to think in big simple terms like “Me! First! Now!” and not in terms like “Watch your step” or “After you, my dear Alphonse” — somebody almost got crushed between the arriving vaporetto and the dock.

As the vaporetto (also overloaded with people thinking in big simple terms) began to pull up to the dock to tie up and let people on and off, the heavy waves caused by the departing mammoths in the darkness made the equally heavy and bulky vehicle leap and plunge.  The mob on the dock began to push forward get nearer the edge to be ready to get on (“Me!  First!”).  The girl slipped and fell between the dock and the boat.

She managed to grab onto the edge, thanks to her backpack snagging on something on the way down, so she didn’t fall completely in the water.  It’s not clear how the vaporetto managed to avoid performing one of its famous plunges against her, the kind that even on a normal day make the dock shake and the metal of the boat’s hull reverberate.

Somehow she got dragged up and out before she was reduced to kindling.  The ambulance took her to the hospital, where the doctors stated that she’d been “miracled,” as the Italian verb so neatly puts it.  If the waves had been bigger she’d have had at least a shattered pelvis.

Solution: Station pontonieri on every dock all night.  These are the individuals at work on certain busy docks who keep the chain stretched that prevents the public from moving toward the boat till it’s stopped and the passengers have gotten off.  The fact that evidently human instinct doesn’t lead you naturally toward this behavior means that a person has to be paid to stand directly in your way with a chain.  But it works.

My conclusion, based on nothing remotely resembling scientific calculations, is that the truly Venetian festa has already begun to move ashore.  It’s a hell of a note, but it was more fun to be with the families and dogs on the street than out on the water surrounded by drunken disco dancing outlanders. The mayor would probably disagree.

Tables began to appear in all sorts of neighborhood nooks.

Even in via Garibaldi, there were as many impromptu parties as there were overflowing restaurants.

This happy group made seats out of anything solid — I’m pretty sure the pair in the middle are on a dismantled desk.

It’s like being in a boat, but without the hassle. I’m thinking we should try this next year.

Or you could do like the gang from Chioggia here — do the boat AND the table ashore. Next to the bridge from which you will soon be hurling yourself. They didn’t need no stinking fireworks.

The banquet set up outside the Navy non-commissioned officers’ club was impressive. Speaking of fines, I’d be doubting that they (or anybody else with a table and a chair) paid the required fee for occupying public space.




Categories : Venetian Events
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How to blight a festa

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The procession of the feast of the Redentore, depicted by Canaletto. Let us not forget, in all the turmoil about the party, that this is essentially a religious occasion. Or at least it was supposed to be.

As I’ve related probably all too well, summer is loaded with more festas than the average barge with paying festa-goers.  I have a reason for making that comparison, because once again we are now on the verge of the festa del Redentore, the “Notte Famossissima,” inspiration of song and story, one of the great parties of the world (though  in terms of sheer tonnage I wouldn’t compare it to, say, the Kumbh Mela, which technically isn’t a party.  But still).  In a word, it’s tonight.

What is inspiring lively conversation this year, however, is the drastic decision announced a mere two days ago by the Capitaneria di Porto, the branch of the navy which is responsible for certain tracts of the lagoon. The commanders have made it clear that this year they’re throwing the book at the festivizers, and are ready to fine and possibly confiscate the large barges known as “topomotori” which usually show up carrying ten times as many people as they’re allowed. Without any safety equipment of any kind.

The classic Venetian topomotore, in the rio di San Trovaso. If it can carry refrigerators or bricks, why not beer and sarde in saor? And, of course, the hordes to consume them?

Yes, illegally overloaded barges have become part of the tradition, because they are a wonderful size for carrying large tables groaning with food and drink surrounded by the aforementioned people, a few of them also groaning.  These working boats are typically certified to carry “cose” (things) but not “persone” (people).  I suppose a clever lawyer could try to make a case for the people qualifying as things, but I’ll stop here.

Technical note: Of course you’ve seen these barges plying the Venetian waters every day loaded with merchandise with people aboard to heft the cargo, but the legal limit is six.

These restrictions also apply to the big fishing boats that trundle up from Chioggia and Pellestrina — they hold more people (good!) but they are impossible to present as anything other than what they are.  (“Certainly, sir, all these women and children are professional fishermen too…..”).

What is really upsetting people isn’t primarily that that oppressed minority known as Venetian families is going to be prevented from enjoying a Venetian (debatable, by now) event.  The truly distressed people are the barge owners who are now accustomed to making money by renting their vessels for the evening.  The intake (in small, unmarked bills) to the party’s organizer could be 100 euros per person, with a payload of up to 40 people.  The barge owner could expect 300-400 euros just for letting his boat leave the dock.

A typical fishing boat from the area of Pellestrina and Chioggia, proudly vaunting its illegal clam-sifting attachment. These boats can hold astonishing numbers of people.

Some nervous organizers have already canceled their parties. Others are saying, “We’re going to chance it.  Out of thousands of boats, why should they pick me?” I like the way estimating odds works: Your chance of winning the lottery (in your own eyes) is from reasonable to even very high; your chance of being fined for carrying a clan, a tribe, an entire linguistic group, is almost nil. Such is the power of human desire.

What’s modestly upsetting me is that this drama was avoidable because, as the Capitaneria has pointed out,  the owners of these barges could have avoided all this unpleasantness by coming to the office in time to apply for official permission to “occasionally” carry more people than usual.  I didn’t know such an option existed because it doesn’t affect me, but it would seem that a person with a barge, especially one who was looking forward to a couple of hundred free euros, might have exerted himself to acquire a more extensive knowledge of the rules of the road.  And that forestalling this awkwardness in a timely manner could have been done without even breaking a sweat. But I forgot. Drama is so much more entertaining than just doing things the easy way.

As an interesting additional factor in the evening’s excitement (and in this case, totally unavoidable by anybody) is the weather.  They’re predicting wind, and also rain.  Perhaps even thunder and lightning.  Looking at the forecast, maybe people would have canceled anyway.  Or maybe the organizers and owners would have calculated the odds in their favor, as per usual.

I can hear it now: “With all these thousands of boats, why should it rain on me?”

We weren’t planning on being in a boat anyway, but on watching from the shoreline, like two years ago.  The only thing that could spoil my evening would be for the gelateria to run out of ice cream.




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Categories : Venetian Events
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