Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Venice (But Were Afraid to Ask)
Updated: Feb 3, 2022
By Ken Gord:
You don’t question the things you see every day in your home town or city, precisely because of the fact you see them every day. They’ve become “normal.” But let’s remember what Sherlock Holmes once famously told Dr. Watson:
“You see, but you do not observe.”
Here in Venice, after many weeks, I have become like Watson. I have seen the lions. I have seen the gondole. I have seen the “WC” signs. But I have not observed them.
Why don't they refrigerate their eggs?
In North America, we keep eggs in the fridge. Supermarkets store eggs in the fridge. Here in Venice, eggs sit on shelves, unrefrigerated.
So, who’s right?
According to the Egg Safety Center in the United States, the law says that producers must sanitize eggs before they reach the consumer as the best way to fight Salmonella contamination. The washing process removes contaminants but also removes the natural coating of the egg, the cuticle, leaving the shell porous and thus vulnerable to bacteria. In Europe,eggs do not require extensive washing, which leaves the cuticle intact, which makes them safe to be sold and stored at room temperature. Fascinating, right? Something I always wanted to know (but was afraid to ask)!
Another thing about eggs: In North American supermarkets, eggs occupy a football field of shelf space. Here in Venice, you have to send out a search party to find them—Oh, there they are! On the bottom shelf! Behind the pillar! (Literally) Why? Most North Americans eat eggs every morning for breakfast. Italians don’t. (They eat pastry.)
What's with all the winged lions?
Do you know which symbol represents the nation of Austria? If you answered “double-headed eagle,” give yourself a gold star. So, one day, the Austrian ambassador, remarking on the symbol of Venice and being slightly condescending toward his Venetian host, asked him, “In what part of the world can one find winged lions?” The Venetian replied with a smirk, “In the same country you find double-headed eagles.” But why are there so many winged lions in Venice? They’re everywhere, from large statues to little door-knockers.
Answer: Back in 1260, the winged lion began to represent St. Mark, the evangelist and patron saint of Venice. Then the lion became a political image to represent the power, majesty, and freedom of Venice. Sometimes the lion holds a book, sometimes a sword, depending on whether Venice was at peace or at war.
Did I make a mistake?
Ever go to a restaurant in a foreign place and laugh at the hilarious English translations on the menu, like “chest of chicken” or “broccoli salad with pee shoots"?
Why didn’t the owner get it checked by an English speaker before going to print?
Here’s the answer: Laziness! I know it’s hard to believe, but I made some mistakes in my first blog (shameless link to "Boats of Venice") and find myself guilty of the same crime as the restaurant owner. My friend and producer Andrea has not-so-kindly pointed out that the plural of palazzo isn’t palazzos, it’s palazzi. Ambulanzas, non. Ambulanze, si. It’s a tabacchi shop not a tabbachi. And more than one vaporetto aren’t vaporettas. They’re vaporetti. This kind of sloppiness will not happen again!
Will you ride with me in my gondola, sweet raviola?
First, let’s get in the mood. May I present The Volunteer Firemen from 1926 performing “In My Gondola” (For Dancing Fox Trot!). Warning—with lyrics such as “You can funiculi, and I’ll funicula” you will not easily get this tune out of your head! The lyrics don’t actually begin until the 1:12 minute mark, but they’re worth waiting for!
Just click here and press play. I’ll wait.
So, why are gondole (not gondolas, see, I’m learning!) always black? What’s the deal with the strange ornament on the front? And what about that thingamajig the oar rests on? The ferro, the prow emblem, represents the turns of the Grand Canal and the Rialto Bridge. The six fingers stand for the six districts of Venice, and the opposite one stands for Giudecca (the island next to Venice). The upper part symbolizes the Doge’s hat.
By the 16th century, so many different-colored gondole cluttered the canals that they began to look chaotic, and so in 1562 the city passed a law saying all gondole were to be painted black.
The forcola, or oarlock, provides a function unlike the circle-on-a-stick oarlock on row boats. The forcola craftsmen specially bend and notch it to offer different nooks in which to place the oar for different kinds of rowing. Dating from the 1600s, the Squero di San Trovaso remains the oldest and one of only two squeri, or boatyards, still operational in Venice. Back then, more than ten thousand gondole crowded the canals of Venice. Now, fewer than 400 remain, and only 10 new ones get built every year, at a cost of approximately 40,000 Euros each. Gondole require regular maintenance, which explains why the Squero di San Trova still operates. Sorry, the boatyard isn't open to the public, but you can still eyeball it from across a little canal. Fortunately for those of you not able to visit Venice in person, we plan to use it as a film location in our upcoming feature production of Ernest Hemingway’s ACROSS THE RIVER AND INTO THE TREES, because this place hasn’t changed at all since 1946, when our movie takes place. In fact, it hasn’t changed much over the past 200 years!
A side-note about gondoliers—you can trust them! Historically, because of their daily contact with the aristocracy, gondoliers became the link between the noble class and the common people. Because they couldn’t find hotel rooms, nobles would carry out their illicit affairs in gondole (in a small enclosed cabin in the middle of the boat called a felze). And so gondoliers became reliable secret-keepers.
Speaking of romance, let’s go back to 1954 with “Gondola Nera.” I’ll wait while you put it on the RCA phonograph by clicking here and pressing play.