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Where have I gone?

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This is the one thing in my trip that I really wanted to see:  “The Hole” at Gorgazzo. So far, the deepest any cave diver has reached is 695 feet (212 meters).  Below that, there may be the Hall of the Mountain King. Nobody knows.

For the chronically curious, here is a rendering of the path of the abyss as far divers have gone. I’m guessing that there may be so many similar subterranean chasms everywhere on Earth that the planet is probably one big wiffle ball.

The silence from my end has been too long and also not explained.  I can’t do anything about the length (except to break the silence now and stop the clock), but I can explain.

I’ve been in a car — how un-Venetian — with some friends for a week, stravaging around northern Italy from Milan to Pordenone and down to Venice.  They were here from Virginia to watch their son play some soccer matches against their Italian counterparts.

This trip gave me a chance to visit, if only briefly, plenty of places I’d never been, several I’d never even heard of, only one of which I’d ever really wanted to see (see photo above), and also the chance to stand interminably in the rain on the muddy sidelines of even muddier soccer fields.

The Veneto has just been through the rainiest March in 20 years — three times more water fell everywhere than is usual.  The vintners can’t prune their vineyards, the artichokes are a month behind, and the boys who ran and slid around drenched by the frigid deluge can tell you that they discovered a degree of wetness which nobody, not even skindivers, has ever experienced.

As for our itinerary, “We past through some of the damdes plases ever saw by mortel eyes,” as a Confederate soldier put it in a letter home.  At the top of the list is the Hotel Antares in Villafranca di Verona.  If you’ve ever wondered where the occupants of UFO’s go when their intergalactic aircraft run out of fuel, I can give you the address.

Now that I’m back and most of the laundry has been done, I confess that I feel very little urge to write anything about Venice at the moment.  Catching up with the news here over the past few days has subjected me to a downpour, so to speak, of non-news even more monotonous than the record rain (see above).

What’s been happening in the most-beautiful-city-in-the-world is what has always happened, and what, apparently, ever will happen. By now it appears that there’s hardly any point in mentioning current events, because the same stories will keep turning up every week till Jesus comes back.

The procession of news by now is so repetitive, and so demoralizing, that the 1.20 euros we spend for the daily Gazzettino have become a sort of charity contribution to keep it in business.  The national chronicle is stuck in an endless loop of the same names and the same chicanery, and the local reports form one interminable droning chorus about as interesting as singing “Ninety-nine bottles of beer on the wall.”

Classic themes: The constant deterioration of the city — palaces, churches, and bridges are falling to pieces, sometimes near or even on the heads of passersby, and the snaggly paving stones are so untrustworthy in some places that they trip as many people as they can each day and then snicker because they know they’re not going to be punished. There is the phenomenal inefficiency of the public health service.  The occasional little old person found dead in his/her home after days/weeks/months. The closing of generations-old stores that can’t pay the insane rent increase, which has typically been raised in order to install yet another glass/mask/pizza-by-the-slice business.  These shops sell glass and masks as being made in Venice, which in a sense they are;  not by Venetians, though, but by swelling numbers of Chinese immigrants who toil in sweatshops and live in little mainland hellholes.

If you tire of those stories, you can always read about the spectacular mismanagement, in myriad and ever-more-imaginative forms, of the public transport system. It’s amazing how many ways the ACTV finds to throw away money it insists it doesn’t have. And tomorrow there will be yet another transit strike: no buses, no vaporettos, a 24-hour dislocation of life which will produce no results. So there will have to be another one.

Speaking of money, it continues to gush, like water from a busted pipe, out of the Venice Casino, which once was one of the top three contributors to the entire city budget. Then there are the pitiful protests, as tiring and pointless as the wailing of a baby with colic, against the big cruise ships — “pitiful” not because I agree or don’t, but because cruise ships are now such a crucial part of the municipal economy that driving them away would kick the last leg out from under the tottering financial stool of the city’s economy. And “pitiful” because all the schemes which have been proposed to solve this so-called problem will create real, tangible, measurable problems for all eternity.

To sum up, the news from here is a ceaseless litany of the same issues, the same excuses, the same inertia, the same blithe, extravagant, “who, me?” waste of everything including now even my patience and my curiosity.

Oh: And the “Boy with the Frog,” claimed to be scheduled for removal on March 18? It’s still standing there. I let myself get excited by what sounded like a real decision, and now I’m embarrassed. I evidently had more hope than good sense, even after all this time.

If I were a reporter for the Gazzettino, I’d write my stories sitting at home in my underwear listening to old Janis Joplin tracks. I’m not saying anybody actually does that.  But they could.

The only interesting thing I’ve heard in a week was about the ten-year-old boy who snuck out of his house in the middle of the night in his pajamas to go smash the window of a toy store with a brick in order to get his hands on the thing he wanted that his parents had refused to buy for him.  That was different!  But it wasn’t in Venice — it was in Vicenza.

This face isn’t from Venice, but it could be. In fact, it should be.

On a side street in Polcenigo, there is someone better than Geppetto: It’s Franco, who not only can repair all sorts of things, but makes enough money from it to be able to afford this nice little shop.  People probably come from all over the EU.

Here’s something even more astonishing: The city of Pordenone had a mayor who was also a saint: Blessed Daniele D’Ungrispach. That was back in 1384 and 1404, but still — it was possible for at least one person in human history to pull it off.

One elegant pastry shop in Pordenone had some remarkable Easter cakes. I like the chick and the broken eggshell, but it’s the basketweave icing that really fascinates me. It’s not that somebody COULD do it, it’s that they had the PATIENCE to do it. But then again, I didn’t check the price.  It was probably worth the effort.

The rain, the cold, and all the flimflammery in the world are powerless to slow, stop, detour, or otherwise ruin the astonishing beauty of spring.  This is a great thing and I need to remember it.


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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.






Categories : Boatworld, Venetian-ness
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Patriarchal postscript

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Zwingle’s Eighth Law states “The bigger your memorial, the less people remember who you were.”  A wander around Westminster Abbey shines a blinding light on that truth.  A black marble slab for Charles Dickens, a white marble meringue for James Cornewall.










In case anyone was wondering if there might be any memorials to the three patriarchs of Venice who became pope, the answer is yes.  But you might not notice them, and if you did, you might not quite grasp who they were. Especially if the inscription is in Latin (grrr).

Trivia alert: Venetians refer to popes, especially the three that touched Venice, by their civilian last names, not their formal papal names.  Also, the word for “pope” in Italian is papa (PAH-pah.) The nickname for your daddy is the same word, pronounced pah-PAH. If you mix them up, people will think the pope is your father.

Pope Pius X, “Papa Sarto,” was deeply moved on leaving Venice to go to Rome for the conclave of cardinals meeting to elect the successor to Pope Leo XIII. The throng which came to see him off at the station was exhibiting what we’d call intense separation anxiety.  He reassured them by promising that he would return, whether alive or dead. Yes, he said those words. He was elected pope, and though he lived another 11 years, he never made it back. He died in 1914.

In 1959, Pope John XXIII (just coming up in our chronicle) — who knew of this unfulfilled promise — arranged for Sarto’s casket to be disinterred, organized a special train which left, in those days, from a station within the Vatican, and sent him back to Venice.  The body lay in state in the basilica of San Marco for a month, then was returned by special train to the Vatican. Promise kept.

Footnote: Lino remembers the day the train arrived, not because he was present, but because all the employees of the Aeronavali, which maintained and repaired airplanes at Nicelli airport on the Lido, were taken in a bus to see where the new Marco Polo airport was going to be built on the mainland. The sacred and the profane just keep on running into each other.

Of the three papal memorials here, that of Saint Pius X is the most impressive by weight, but the least impressive by location: at the head of the Ponte della Liberta’ by Piazzale Roma, next to the Agip gas station.  Lino says it’s because he’s there to guard the gate to the city.  There may well be more to it than that, but I haven’t taken the time to root it out.  That could be a project for my old age.

This is a crucial node in your arrival by car. If you want to park, you're now looking for the garage. If you're taking a ship, or the ferry to the Lido, you'll be taking the off-ramp at the bottom of the picture. If you're at the gas station, you'll be staring at the price on the pump with something like terror. If it's night, the light over the monument will never stand out in the intermittent illumination from the street lamps. Speaking of illumination, sorry I took this in the morning -- I didn't realize I'd be facing due east.


The inscription reads: "He returned (reference to his vow) with the halo of the saints. Alleluia!" And beneath the bust, "O holy father, bless Venice." I'd like to know if anyone ever puts money in the slot. It may be the most challenging place for a hundred miles to make a contribution. More people stop at memorials on mountaintops than stop at this one. The dates flanking his head (April 2, 1959 - May 10, 1959) refer to the period of his return visit. He was canonized in 1954, so his sainthood was official.

Pope John XXIII, Papa Roncalli, or “The Good Pope,” was known as a saint by anyone who ever met him, at least here in Venice.  The beatification details that made it official were just extra.

Lino had two encounters with him.  One was by surprise, crossing the patriarch’s path as he left the basilica of the Salute.  Lino was strolling with his girlfriend, and Roncalli stopped to say hello.  “Are you two engaged?” he asked in a friendly, if generic, way.  “Yes, Your Eminence” — Lino repeats this in a tiny abashed voice.  “Love each other,” he said, patting each of them on the cheek. Evidently his charisma marked this little event in a powerful way, because on paper it looks like nothing.

The second encounter was at the airport, where Lino worked as an airplane mechanic.  Patriarch Roncalli came to celebrate mass there for the workers, and he was lacking an altarboy to assist him.  Lino volunteered.

My favorite bit of Roncalli lore is the nickname the gondoliers gave him: “Nane Schedina,”  or Jack the Lottery Ticket.  When he chose the name John XXIII, to the wags at the Molo stazio the Roman numerals looked like the pattern of the numbers on a lottery ticket.

If you needed any further evidence of his qualities as a patriarch/pope/human being, the nickname says it all.  Gondoliers bestow them spontaneously, and only when they really want to.  In fact, if there is any category which comes equipped with a built-in automatic crap detector, as Hemingway put it, it would be the gondoliers. The fact that Roncalli would sometimes walk over to the Molo to say hello, and even sometimes take them up on their offer of going to get a glass of wine at the nearby bar, obviously had something to do with their feeling for him.  He’d play cards with the staff in the evening, too.  Not with the majordomo, with the cook and the cleaning ladies.

He’s the only patriarch of the three that has two memorials.  That doesn’t earn him any bonus points, I merely mention it.

This bust of Pope John XXIII faces the side entrance to the basilica of San Marco. It looks well-lit from this angle, but if you see it straight on it's always in a sort of muddy little area of wall that makes it hard to distinguish. Not to mention makes it almost impossible to read the fulsome Latin inscription over it. I think that's pretty funny, considering how he moved the liturgy from Latin to the vernacular so it could be understood by everybody. I'd be willing to bet that this inscription really annoys him. If saints can get annoyed.


I was thinking of getting a translation of the encomium above him, but I resisted, on principle. Anyway, the inscription doesn't add anything you can't get just by looking at his face.

Pope John Paul I, “Papa Luciani,” was smaller and, it turns out, more frail than his two patriarchal predecessors.  But Venetians loved him, and not just because he came from the mountains just up the road.  In his mere 33 days on the throne of St. Peter he earned the sobriquet “The Smiling Pope.” Venetians already knew that.

So far, no bust of him has been made, or if so, placed anywhere a human can see it.  But he is remains an extremely tough act to follow, as his successors have amply demonstrated.

The patriarch's palace faces the Piazzetta dei Leoncini, joined to the basilica of San Marco. The two memorial plaques are between the two windows on the right and left of the entrance.


"In this patriarchal seat Cardinal Albino Luciani lived at the head of his flock in goodness and hard-working humility from 1970 to 1978 when elected Pope John Paul I for thirty-three days as father and universal master opened the way to a new hope."


"In this patriarchal seat in the spirit of the mission of Venice illustrated by Saints Lorenzo Giustiniani and Pius X Cardinal Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli shepherd and beloved father from 1953 to 1958 in fruitful thoughtfulness prepared the ecumenical vastness and innovatory ferment of his glorious pontificate."


Mons. Francesco Moraglia's coat of arms, now in place over the entrance to the patriarch's palace. Its symbolism, from top to bottom, is: The patriarchal hat, the lion of San Marco, a star representing the Virgin Mary, its eight points denoting the eight Beatitudes, a battlement (a pun on his name -- "muraglia" means wall), and the sea with an anchor, freely borrowed/interpreted from the crest of Pius X. The motto reads "With Mary mother of Jesus," a phrase which among other things, was used by Pope John XXIII on presenting to the Curia the Apostolic Constitution. Tempting fate?


To descend, as I enjoy doing, from the sublime to the quotidian, on Tuesday morning a barge was called to the service entrance of the basilica to take away a rack of vestments. I don't know if they were used at the big investiture ceremony two days earlier, or are being sent to the drycleaner to be ready for Palm Sunday and/or Easter. But off they go.

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The calafati party down

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I’m guessing you haven’t been giving much thought to ship caulking lately. Probably about as much thought as you haven’t given to San Foca — a point you share with most Earth-dwellers.  I can help you with this.

San Foca is the patron saint of caulkers, hence he is also the patron of The Societa’ di Mutuo Soccorso fra Carpentieri e Calafati:  The Society of Mutual Aid between Carpenters and Caulkers.

I can’t say there’s much work for either of these categories here anymore — certainly not as much as there was when the Venetian Republic was in full cry. But these craftsmen were always near the top of the food chain, considering that Venetian power was essentially naval.  A statement to this effect was recorded in the Venetian Senate, for what reason I know not, on July 13, 1487 (translated by me):  “… carpenters and caulkers, have been at all times the most appreciated and accepted on the galleys and other of our ships because in every need of any sort these men are the most adapted and necessary of any other kind of man.”  Considering the wear and tear a Venetian ship was likely to undergo in its life, especially after cannon began to be used, your caulker would have been up there with the navigator and the cook as far as the well-being and probable safe return of the crew were concerned.

Glimpse of a battle under the ramparts of Zara (now Zadar) Croatia, from the facade of the church of Santa Maria del Giglio. Just to give an idea of how useful it was to have a carpenter and/or caulker aboard.

The Society's standard, brought out for the occasion.

If you’re still not convinced that caulking is such a big deal, consider how much, as the song goes, you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.  An example: On the night before a certain battle, which I’m not going to pause to look up just now, the Venetian admiral was pondering the odds for winning the imminent battle with the unpleasantly superior Turkish fleet.  Hope for the best?  Or just send a batch of men at night to swim under the Turkish ships and rip out the caulking sealing the planks of their hulls?  Dawn broke to what must have been a quiet but busy sound from the Turkish bilges, something like blub-blub-blub….

Back to the mutual aid society. March 5 is San Foca’s feast day, so he was celebrated at a special mass in honor of him as well as the departed members of the sodality.  And then, naturally, there was a party. You’ve heard it before: “All the psalms end with the ‘Gloria.'”

The church was full, something you don't see every day.

Seeing that I am a newly fledged (or whatever the ship-caulking counterpart might be) member of the SMSCC, Lino and I went to join in.

The ceremony was in the church of San Martino, which is right under the haunch of the Arsenal, and which is full of assorted tokens of carpentering and caulking.  There was nothing especially noteworthy about the mass, except for the unusually large number of people attending.  And the party followed tradition in its simplest and clearest outlines:  People!  Noise!  A small, hot room crammed with loud, hungry humans and vats of Venetian food!

I don’t know if San Foca had a favorite dish, but I’m always going to associate him with tripe soup. An ancient and honorable comestible which deserves a wider audience and which I’d bet money you would like as long as you didn’t know what it was.

And I think next year we should all plan to hold the party in Calafat, Romania. It was founded by caulkers from Genoa, but I suppose we could overlook that for the sake of harmony.  I’m going to get to work on the convoy’s banners: “Calafat or Bust.”

The priest blesses the gift packets containing a candle, an image of San Foca, and a small bread roll. The painting over the altar depicts the Holy Family with San Marco and San Foca.


My gift packet. The image of San Foca is from the basilica of San Marco. I suppose he is depicted hefting a rudder rather than a bag of dumb irons and a couple of mallets because, as patron saint of seafarers in general, it was thought best not to show favoritism to any particular craft.

Symbols of caulkers' tools in the main aisle of the church of San Martino.

We eat! Of COURSE we can all fit into the tiny room of the parish hall. Where's the food?

Keep that tripe soup coming.


Just the thing on a cold winter night. Be lavish with the grated parmesan, even if it isn't pasta.


















The soup keeps you going till they bring out the bigoli in salsa. Or you can just keep snacking on peanuts, pickles, beans, salame sandwiches...


If you go away hungry, it's your own fault.

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