Archive for Saint Barbara


Santa Barbara floats by again

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The course was inverted this year, as the tide was coming in (it’s always much better to start against the tide), so the race started in front of the Piazza San Marco, proceeded at a great rate toward Sant’ Elena, where the boats rounded the buoy and headed toward the finish at the Arsenal. The first two boats are already battling it out, while the team on the pink boat is probably discussing what to give their girlfriends or wives for Christmas. Not much else to talk about back there.

I’m sorry we can’t hear what opinions the teams on the first two boats are sharing with each other. Believe me, there can be as many insults yelled at your teammates as at your opponents, even if you’re in the lead.

As you know, every December 4 (for the past 16 years now) the gondoliers who are ex-sailors organize a regata in honor of the patron saint of the Navy: Barbara.

This year, seeing that the supply of willing gondoliers and/or ex-sailors is shrinking, each caorlina carried the usual one (1) student from the Morosini Naval School, four (4) gondoliers and one (1) fireman.  Barbara is also patron saint of firemen, as well as miners, artillerymen, and just about anybody who uses substances which explode.

Gondoliers also tend to explode when things don’t go right, as witnessed by the reaction of Franco Dei Rossi (nicknamed “Strigheta”) when his orange caorlina was cheated of its obviously well-deserved fourth place and consequent blue pennant.  He used Ugly Words to the race judge, which was unfortunate; it was also too bad that many people could understand — nay, shared — his sentiments, as most naked eyes had seen his boat cross the finish line fourth.

All would seem to be obvious from this vantage as the four boats we see here cross the line (orange in the background). Unfortunately, I didn’t include the yellow boat in this shot, and it was coming up fast on my left. The judge says it was faster than orange. I just don’t know anymore.

But righteous indignation and loud voices (though not Ugly Words) from somebody is almost always part of the tradition, along with rain (it was blazingly sunny the day before and the day after the regata — does Santa Barbara not like her regata?), cold, and a feast afterward featuring pasta and fagioli (beans) which, if it didn’t warm hearts which were still festering with rage, did a great job in warming our gizzards.

The first four finishers all clumped together, since they were so close in the home stretch anyway. Orange was still far out in the middle of the canal, though that doesn’t mean it wasn’t, in fact, ahead of the yellow boat.

But wait! The white boat suddenly seem to have only five rowers.  And why are they all looking over the side?

Sorry for the blur but I was rattled.

The big police boat, and the equally big fireman’s boat, began to zoom over to give a hand, creating, in the process, waves which could have caused more problems than the one they were coming to resolve.

But our trusty gondoliers were quicker than that. At least two of them were.  The other three seem pretty calm.  In fact, it isn’t at all unknown for gondoliers to fall in the drink.  Sorry if that destroys a myth for you.

While the drenched racer goes inside to get into some dry clothes, the judges (huddling under the ramp leading up and over the bridge of the Arsenal) return to the previous drama: Deciding the fate of the orange boat. After much trading of comments and peering at somebody’s cell-phone video, they decided that yellow finished before orange.

Characteristic gear for a person rowing on the right side of the boat, usually the rower in the bow. It protects his leg from rubbing against the cinturino, or wooden upper edge of the hull.

Or you can just deal with whatever happens, like the man who was rowing on the red boat. That’s red paint, not blood, but the pants are undeniably torn. I didn’t examine any closer, but he didn’t seem too concerned.

Lino with the nine cadets from the Francesco Morosini Naval School who raced, plus the extra stand-by emergency rower. The great thing about this race is that, no matter what, four of his students are going to take home a pennant.  And now, bring on the beans.






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Racing Saint Barbara

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Last Saturday I went to watch one of my favorite Venetian rowing races: The regata of Santa Barbara, an annual contest on six-oar caorlinas organized by the discharged sailors’ association in honor of Saint Barbara, patron saint of seamen and, by extension, of the Navy.

The only hint at 10:00 AM that something unusual might be imminent was the lone red buoy, fixed in front of the Arsenal to mark the finish line.

For every Regata Storica, there must be ten races held every month here (I’m making this number up — maybe it’s more), winter or summer, by rowing clubs, gondoliers, and assorted groups of every sort.  And don’t think that just because there isn’t any prize money that these races aren’t fought to the finish.

Technically, Saint Barbara’s day is December 4, but Saturday was more convenient for everybody and no doubt the good saint took it in stride. After all, her bones supposedly lay in a cupboard somewhere on Murano for about 400 years, so she’s fully aware of the prevailing attitude toward time here.

The crew of each boat was composed of four gondoliers who had done their (formerly compulsive) military service in the Navy, plus one boy from the Scuola Navale Militare F. Morosini, where Lino teaches rowing. For the first time in 15 years, there was also one fireman.

A statue of Saint Barbara is often found at the entrance to mines -- here in a lead mine at Pian dei Resinelli in Lombardy.

The firemen weren’t there to quell any spontaneous combustion; Saint Barbara is their patron saint too.  Generally speaking, she is assigned to watch over anyone who is dealing — intentionally or not — with things that go “boom.” If there are explosives, fire, or lightning involved, or the threat of sudden, violent, incendiary death, she is your go-to saint, and specifically protects sailors, firemen, artillerymen, miners, sappers, road-builders, geologists, mountaineers, petroleum workers, and the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps Aviation ordnancemen.  Also bell-ringers and architects — maybe there’s a link to high towers with no lightning rod.  This list is not exhaustive, by the way, I just decided to stop.

Trivia alert:  A powder-magazine or other storage area containing explosives is often referred to as the “santabarbara.”

It rained and fogged.  This is typical.  There have been times in the past 15 years when the sun beamed down on victors and vanquished alike but usually there’s water. Perhaps this is a helpful gesture from the saint, who abhors fire.

Getting the boats --not to mention the rowers -- ready, in the canal that leads to the Arsenal.

There were all the usual components:  Competitors who have known each other since before they were born, the benediction of the boats, the traditional pennants for the first four boats to cross the finish line, and other prizes offered by sponsors (Pasta Zara sent everyone home with a neat box containing two kilos of pasta), bottles of wine, even small trophies of Murano glass, presumably not in memory of Saint Barbara’s sojourn on the island.

There were assorted dignitaries, including an admiral, some of whom gave impromptu speeches into a microphone which could have used a dash of nitroglycerine to wake it up. Nobody listens anyway. The speeches were, also according to tradition, too long, too rambling, and often more than a little bit too self-congratulatory.  I will not name names but I know who they were.

The prizes were given, the photos were snapped, then everybody headed for the buffet.  As I have often mentioned, “Every psalm ends with the Gloria,” as they say here, and every event ends with food and drink.

And tradition requires — or maybe Saint Barbara requires, she being an extremely practical saint, it seems to me — that there should be pasta e fagioli. Not only at this race, but at 98 percent of amateur races here. Pasta and beans are hot, filling, delicious, hugely good for you and  can be made in massive batches reasonably far in advance.  Trivia alert:  Beans such as the borlotti used around here contain more protein than red meat, though I don’t think anybody cares.

So carry your bottle of Beano and dig in. Or plan to spend the rest of the day outdoors, in the fresh air.  For a gondolier, that’s obviously no problem. They often go back for seconds.

The boats head out onto the playing field, so to speak. These guys look like the ones to beat. Too bad they finished 8th -- next to last.

The boats line up to be blessed by Padre Manuel Paganuzzi, the chaplain at the Scuola Navale, and the rowers respond with the traditional salute, or "alzaremi." The man in the bow of the pink boat is cheating by not reversing his oar. Saint Barbara punished him: they finished dead last.

And they’re off! The starting line was down toward the Lido, even with the Giardini (Biennale) vaporetto stop, and they race to the Bacino of San Marco, go around one of the permanent buoys for ships and race down toward the Arsenal. Not very long, but there’s enough distance for strategy and maneuvering.

There are people ashore, like Lino, who can distinguish all the boat colors even in the fog. Then there are those like me.

Rounding the buoy — two of them, actually. On the left is the permanent black-and-grey float, plus an orange one as well, to prevent the rowers to cut cross-lots on the return and possibly run into boats that hadn’t yet rounded the buoy.

Thundering toward home. We can finally distinguish the outcome: Yellow, blue, white, and red will get the appropriate pennants.  The rest are battling it out  anyway.  Never give up the ship.

Crossing the finish line, each crew is expected to repeat the "alzaremi." As you can see, this tradition appears to be degenerating toward the "optional" category.


The judges take a minute to make sure they got the order of finish right.

Everybody immediately starts to remove all their stuff -- only the shell of the boat will go back to the city boathouse.

This young man – I’m assuming he practices yoga when he’s not rowing --is removing the platform on which he was standing. Each rower has one, but they belong to the boat. He's probably going to remove the wooden strips he had nailed to its underside.

The boats are stripped and all the speeches are finally over . On to the prize-giving, the perfect moment for the rain to start.

Third-year cadet Luca Merola displays his first-place red pennant, the perfect gift for today, his 18th birthday.

We eat! There’s enough pasta e fagioli to feed three battleships. The plastic bowls are also part of the tradition; weakened by the scalding heat of the contents and the weight of the jumbo portion, they sag dangerously and you burn your hands trying to hold them. It would depress me if this, for some reason, were not to happen.












I would be calling this the Ship of Fools if somebody else hadn't already come up with the phrase. In this minuscule motorboat we have: five of the six rowers of the red boat, who finished fourth (note rolled-up pennant), five oars, the paioli, or floorboards of the caorlina, a case of wine, and the corrugated fiberglass used to protect the boat from the rain. I'd say they're ready to head for the Bay of Biscay, if they don't encounter any waves. And if nobody breathes.

And the event ends as it began: fog, silence, and space. It's as if nothing had ever happened.

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September 11 x 10

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A courtyard on the island of Burano was renamed last year. Needs no translation.

It’s September 11 again.  Ten years have passed, which in a city this old is nothing.  Even so, I don’t understand how a mere decade could occupy so much space and bear so much weight.

Everyone here was stunned, heartwrung — everyone.  Five days after the towers fell, the last race of the season was held at Burano, and all the boats (27 of them) carried a black ribbon tied to their bow.  I remember that an immense thunderstorm bore down, and how those little strips of mourning thrashed in the tearing winds under a battered sky full of bruised clouds, black and purple and green. The races had to be suspended.  It was too perfect.  If I hadn’t been there, you’d have thought I made it up.

A ceremony was spontaneously organized, with speeches (short and sincere) by officials of every party. And more than one American came, as you can see.

There was a mass at the basilica of San Marco, with the chief of the New York Fire Department as a special guest.  The service was entirely in Italian, including the Gospel text:  Matthew 18: 21-25.

“Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, ‘Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?’  And Jesus answered, ‘I tell you, not seven times, but seventy times seven.'”

I sat there looking at his back and wondering if he understood it, and if so, what he could possibly be thinking.

A number of gondoliers came out to raise their oars in the traditional Venetian salute. It was mere coincidence (I think) that there was an Italian warship in the harbor.





At the mass they also read the Fireman’s Prayer (translated by me):

O Lord, who illumines the heavens and fills the abysses, make the flame of sacrifice burn in our hearts.

Strengthen the spirit of service which burns in us, make sure our eye, and secure our foothold, so that we may complete the rescue which we bring in Your name to our brothers in danger. 

When the siren screams in the streets of the city, hear the beating of our hearts which have been offered to renunciation. 

When, racing with eagles, we rise toward Thee, hold us up with Your wounded hand. 

When the irresistible fire breaks out, burn the evil which makes its nest in the homes of men, but not the life and the affections of Your children. 

Lord, we are the bearers of Your cross, and risk is our daily bread. 

A day without risk isn’t even lived, because for we believers death is life and light: in the terror of the collapse, in the roaring of the waters, in the inferno of the conflagrations. 

Our life is fire, our faith is in God. 

For Saint Barbara, martyr.  Amen.

At the regata at Burano last year, a visiting group of New York firemen on a caorlina participated in a small, friendly, and short race. Not bad, considering how little time they'd ever devoted to this activity.


There was clearly a link between the FDNY and Columbia University, but I didn't pursue the details.

















An article was published under the title “C”ntarea Americii” (“Ode To America”) in the Romanian newspaper Evenimentulzilei, that translates “The Daily Event” or “News of the Day” on September 11, 2006:

Why are Americans so united? They would not resemble one another even if you painted them all one color! They speak all the languages of the world and form an astonishing mixture of civilizations and religious beliefs. Still, the American tragedy turned three hundred million people into a hand put on the heart. 

Nobody rushed to accuse the White House, the army, and the secret s services that they are only a bunch of losers. Nobody rushed to empty their bank accounts. Nobody rushed out onto the streets nearby to gape about. The Americans volunteered to donate blood and to give a helping hand. 

After the first moments of panic, they raised their flag over the smoking ruins, putting on T-shirts, caps and ties in the colors of the national flag. They placed flags on buildings and cars as if in every place and on every car a government official or the president was passing. 

I watched the live broadcast and rerun after rerun for hours listening to the story of the guy who went down one hundred floors with a woman in a wheelchair without knowing who she was, or of the Californian hockey player, who gave his life fighting with the terrorists and prevented the plane from hitting a target that could have killed other hundreds or thousands of people. 

How on earth were they able to respond united as one human being? 

On every occasion, they started singing their traditional song: “God Bless America!” Imperceptibly, with every word and musical note, the memory of some turned into a modern myth of tragic heroes. And with every phone call, millions and millions of dollars were put in a collection aimed at rewarding not a man or a family, but a spirit, which no money can buy. 

What on earth can unite the Americans in such a way? Their land? Their galloping history? Their economic Power? Money? I tried for hours to find an answer, humming songs and murmuring phrases with the risk of sounding commonplace. 

I thought things over, but I reached only one conclusion… Only freedom can work such miracles. 

(signed) Cornel Nistorescu 

 “AND THE WAVE SINGS BECAUSE IT IS MOVING,” by Philip Larkin (September 14, 1946):

And the wave sings because it is moving;

Caught in its clear side, we also sing.


We are borne across graves, together, apart, together,

In the lifting wall imprisoned and protected….


Such are the sorrows that we search for meaning,

Such are the cries of the birds across the waters,

Such are the mists the sun attacks at morning,

Laments, tears, wreaths, rocks, all riden down

By the shout of the heart continually at work….


Death is a cloud alone in the sky with the sun.

Our hearts, turning like fish in the green wave,

Grow quiet in its shadow.  For in the word death

There is nothing to grasp; nothing to catch or claim;

Nothing to adapt the skill of the heart to, skill

In surviving….


And the waves sing because they are moving.

And the waves sing above a cemetery of waters.



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