Updated: Feb 3, 2022
By Ken Gord:
I’ve been in Venice for more that two months now. Since May 4 the city opened up a lot more; we can now go to a café or restaurant to get take out coffee and food, and we’re allowed to walk anywhere in the city—as long as we wear masks. The vaporetti now carry upwards of 20 passengers. Kids are playing in the campi again.
A campo is a neighborhood square where locals dine, go to church, socialize, and generally hang out. Campo translates as "field," which is strange because the squares are concrete and stone and built-up without a speck of green. But way back when, these open areas actually were fields where locals grew vegetables and were anchored by a church and a freshwater well.
There are only two actual official "squares" in Venice—Piazza San Marco and Piazzale Roma at the entrance of the city and one of only two places accessible to automobiles.
Since the lifting of restrictions, I’ve taken to smoking my Toscanos at the Campo Santo Stefano, where I can enjoy people-watching instead of boat-watching. Speaking of boats, the Grand Canal is much busier since residents are allowed to take their personal craft out now without being busted.
There’s a large statue in Campo Santo Stefano that the locals call the Cagalibri, literally translated as "the man shitting books." The artist, Francesco Barzaghi, began working on a block of Carrara marble in 1882 to commemorate Niccolò Tommaseo, a linguist and writer. He noticed stability issues and decided to carve a pile of books on which the statue could lean for balance. Those books seems to be coming right out from under Tommaseo’s long coat, hence the irreverent nickname. I’m a fountain of useful information!
Also, as the restrictions have lifted, my daily constitutionals have taken me farther afield. One day I ended up on Via Garibaldi, a bustling thoroughfare I thought was incredibly wide for this city, and which I subsequently discovered is actually a filled-in canal as well as the widest street in all of Venice.
At 1643 Via Garibaldi, I came upon a plaque commemorating Zuan Chabotto, otherwise known as John Cabot. The Venetian explorer borrowed 16 Euros from Italian bankers and sailed west with the blessings of English king Henry VII. Cabot reached the shores of Newfoundland (at the very northeastern corner of North America and since 1949 the 10th province in Canada) on June 24, 1497, which ultimately led to English colonization and more cod than Canadians can eat.
Why am I telling you all this? Because I saw laundry airing in public on the side streets off Via Garibaldi. On Facebook over the past month, I’ve posted quite a few pictures, some of them stunning (he said, humbly): the Rialto bridge at sunset, canals, rows of berthed gondole, etc., but none got as much reaction as a picture I took of hanging laundry. A FB friend (and Highlander fan), Colleen Best, wrote something on my post: “Nothing brings a neighborhood together more than when everyone sees that you care enough to wash your undergarments and don't care who sees them.” For reasons only a psychiatrist might understand, that really struck home with me.
How many of us would dare dry our undergarments on a front lawn or from an apartment balcony? Don’t know about you, but I’m too reserved to let it all hang out like that.
I saw a balcony on Via Garibaldi with three hanging masks. I think that’s a sign of the times—we use masks to cover our faces and protect ourselves and others and then leave them hanging out to dry. Is that not ironic? Mildly?
So, on the one hand, the residents of this lively neighborhood in the Sestiere area of the Castello district are letting down their façades and showing us with their laundry, what’s really underneath. And on the other hand, there is a major renovation happening in town where the façade is actually the real thing but in disguise, so as to hide the actual façade. That sounds confusing, so let me explain. The Istituto Provinciale Per L’Infanzia Santa Maria Della Pietà dates back to 1346, when Franciscan friar Petruccio d’Assisi decided to do something about the widespread phenomenon concerning the treatment of illegitimate children, who were often left to die from starvation or hastily drowned in the canals. Not having independent economic resources, the friar traveled the Venetian streets, begging with the cry of “pietà, pietà” ("mercy, mercy"). When you look at this building from the street, it’s perfect, but upon closer examination, you can see that the façade is actually a canvas painting which masks (hah—couldn’t resist) the work being done behind it.
Here’s something fascinating: Via Garibaldi is close to the Arsenale, which was responsible for Venice’s superior naval power. Dating back to 1104, the Arsenale was one of the earliest large-scale industrial enterprises in history and, at the peak of its efficiency in the early 16th century, employed 16,000 people who were able to produce one ship a day (which other countries took months to accomplish)! It did this by inventing the assembly line. The galleys moved along the long canal during construction, allowing them to be brought to the materials and workers instead of the other way around. The frame was assembled at the front end of the Arsenale and as it moved down the canal all the parts and armaments and ropes and provisions, etc. were added from the adjacent buildings and windows. By the time it emerged at the back of the canal at the end of the day you had a fully equipped ship, ready to go to sea. See? I told you it was fascinating. This assembly approach didn’t take off in the rest of the world until the early 20th century when Henry Ford instituted the modern assembly line for his Model T.
The Florentine poet Dante Alighieri was so impressed by his visit to the Arsenale in 1321 that he wrote the twenty-first canto of Inferno, the first part of his epic poem, Divine Comedy, to explain the punishment reserved for swindlers—immersion in boiling pitch.
A bust of Dante is on the front of the Arsenale's main gate, the Porta Magna, which was built in 1460.
As in the Arsenal of the Venetians Boils in winter the tenacious pitch To smear their unsound vessels over again For sail they cannot; and instead thereof One makes his vessel new, and one recaulks The ribs of that which many a voyage has made One hammers at the prow, one at the stern This one makes oars and that one cordage twists Another mends the mainsail and the mizzen. . .
Anyway, back to façades, there are some interesting, if not bizarre, sights to be seen behind the mostly barred windows of Venetian ground-level flats and businesses. Okay, maybe not as interesting as in Amsterdam, but still . . .
On the streets of Venice, everyone wears a mask. Which makes me wonder: what’s going to happen during Carnival? Will people be wearing masks over their masks?
What’s the most popular Venetian Carnival mask? Answer: the beaked monstrosity doctors wore during the Black Death. Yes, plague doctors wore a mask with a long, scary, bird-like beak to protect them from being infected by the "bad air." So, soon we can expect to see Venetians wearing masks from a 1650’s pandemic over their 2020’s pandemic masks. Again, is this not ironic? Or is it just me?
That’s it for now. Time to put on my mask, go to Campo Santo Stefano where the man poops books, and smoke a Toscano.
Ken Gord has been producing international film and television for over forty years. Among his features are CRIMINAL LAW, starring Gary Oldman, and STUCK, starring Stephen Rea. He has produced over twenty television movies, mini-series, and series, including the syndicated cult hit HIGHLANDER: THE SERIES.