By the light of day, who could imagine a safer city than Venice? Aside from rowdy Carnival celebrations, all the Venetians I’ve seen out in the piazzas, walkways, or on the canals have been impressively well-behaved.
But my father tells me the city’s peaceful appearance comes at a high cost. Venice employs several police forces—the Signori di notte (night policemen), the sbirri (secret police) who throw their cloaks over suspects to muzzle them, and the Council of Ten (“black inquisitors”) who wear black mantles and hire secret agents all through the city.
My friend Valeria tells me about people who’ve been arrested here, just for criticizing the Venetian state. Before the prisoner’s friends have even heard about the arrest, the unfortunate person has been tried and condemned, then banished, imprisoned, or executed.
These stories would make me think twice before speaking rashly, let alone committing a crime! If all Venetians feel the same way, it’s no wonder this city stays safe.
As soon as newcomers arrive here, they notice an obvious difference from nearly anywhere else—instead of streets crowded with people, horses, and carriages, in Venice, boats of all sorts traverse canals.
But in the months since I moved to Venice, I’ve learned that what can’t be seen is just as important: Venice has a unique system that gives people their place in society, and determines what they can expect or hope for in life.
My first clue came when I realized no one here addresses anyone (except God) as “Signore (Lord).” Instead, they refer to even the highest city officials as clarissimo (brilliant) or magnifico (glorious) to show respect. How different from what I used to hear in Verona, where I didn’t have to see what people were wearing to know who was the master and who was the servant!
Why? My father tells me that unlike the nobility elsewhere, Venetian nobles don’t own grand estates or lord it over subjects. In this city, nobles’ names are written in the Book of Gold, but their only privilege is the right to govern Venice (because they inherit seats in the city’s Great Council).
The second strange thing I noticed in Venice: the only other class people speak of with respect are the cittadini (citizens). It’s not easy to join this group—families can only become cittadini after they’ve lived in this city for twenty-five years, and have made such a name for themselves by their wealth or service to Venice that a current cittadino nominates them to join this class. Then their names are written in the Book of Silver, and they can work for the city.
In other parts of Italy, craftsmen, shopkeepers, and guild members form the next social class, but in Venice, everyone who doesn’t qualify for the top two classes belongs to the popolo (people)—tradesmen, artisans, laborers, and the poor. Most of these people work for the nobles and cittadini, and have no power over life in Venice.
I wish my father and I could become cittadini, as other physicians’ families have. Papa says he can’t qualify, so I’d have to marry a cittadino to join that class. Venice is a beautiful city, but it may not be easy to have a good life here!
Images from New York Public Library Digital Collections, http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/collections/mid-manhattan-picture-collection#/?tab=navigation&roots=412:b6241bd0-c53f-012f-0cd8-58d385a7bc34
Winters in Venice can be extreme—exquisite and dangerous! In my brief excursions during this season, I’ve admired powdery snow dusting piazzas, gondolas, and bridges. Icicles hang from churches, and glassy sheets of ice form on the edges of canals.
Venice becomes mysterious when la nebbia (fog) descends in wintertime. A few weeks ago, the fog lasted several days, and I couldn’t even see across the canal. What a chance for criminals, when their misdeeds can’t be seen or heard!
Then there’s acqua alta (high water), the floods that happen in the winter when warm scirocco winds push tides and waves into the city, especially in low areas like Piazza San Marco. When the waters rise, I’m glad I live on my palazzo’s second storey.
Winter sickness frightens me here. With people living so close together on these islands, I’ve heard more coughing and sneezing than in Verona. My physician father tells me many people die of breathing problems here, but body lice bring an even more deadly disease in the winter—tifo (typhus). It progresses from fever and red spots to infected sores, delirium, stench, and an awful death. Tifo strikes especially the poor as they huddle together for warmth under infested blankets, and have no change of clothing. I wish I could help them, but Papa says it’s dangerous to go near.
As I glance out my frost-etched window, I pray that all Venice’s residents will survive to enjoy Carnival, Easter, and spring.
I’ve learned to relish each time my father asks, “Are you ready for an adventure, Lucia?”
He grinned as we walked out of church last Sunday, and my drowsiness vanished instantly. My sheltered life in Venice meant I rarely left our palazzo (and never by myself), so any opportunity to explore the city thrilled me.
When Papa told me he needed to buy supplies for his medical practice, I burst out, “But it’s Sunday! Shops are closed.”
“Not where we’re going.” He began to stroll in the opposite direction from our home, and we ventured along unfamiliar walkways and crossed bridges into the Cannaregio district. Finally, he pointed to a nearby building. “Notice anything unusual?”
I squinted at the inscription above the door. The strange characters weren’t letters, and I had no idea what they meant. Next to us in the crowded piazza, I heard people talking, but in languages I couldn’t understand. I turned to my father. “Are we still in Venice, or have we walked into another country?”
“In a way, we’re in both places. Welcome to the Jewish geto.” He smiled and glanced toward the building. “Jews keep coming here to escape persecution in their homelands, so they keep adding new floors to house them.”
So began my tour of the world’s oldest ghetto, the former foundry site set aside by Venice more than a half-century ago to protect Jews after the pope banished them from most of Europe. Before stepping into a pharmacy to make his purchases, Papa led me past spice, jewelry, and fabric shops, as well as banks, and showed me the four completed synagogues (for Germans, Italians, Levantines, and private families) and the one under construction for Spanish Jews.
He explained that the high walls surrounding the geto keep Jews in at nights, but also keep this community safe.
What luck for me that my father’s supply of medicines had run low! Our Sunday afternoon shopping expedition gave me a dose of the medicines I needed most—new sights, sounds, and knowledge.
In Italy, the three kings holiday (honoring the kings who visited Baby Jesus and gave him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh) is also a celebration of la befana (the good witch). This seems mysterious unless you know the connection.
When my mother bounced me on her knee, she told me about labefana, an old woman who flies on a broomstick on the night before Epiphany, bringing presents to children. As the story goes, the three kings asked the old woman where Jesus was born. She didn’t know, but sheltered them overnight. After they left, she flew off to find the baby Jesus, carrying gifts. She still flies around with gifts for children, filling their stockings with candy and gifts if they’ve been good, and coal if they haven’t. (What an encouragement to behave!) Before she leaves the house, she sweeps the floor.
In Venice, not only do people dress up as the la befana, but they row in the Regatta delle Befane (a race on the Grand Canal)—how brave or foolish in this cold time of year! I pity anyone who falls in or even gets splashed.
However this dual celebration came about, I’m enjoying it!
Giotto (1267-1337), Legend of St Francis, Institution of the Nativity, Assisi Basilica, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons
All of Italy loves Advent and Christmas. But as a newcomer to Venice, this city’s celebration amazed me.
Our most popular symbol of Christmas, the nativity scene, came from Saint Francis of Assisi. He asked that Presepe (the nativity scene) be set up in a church before he preached. Now every church I’ve seen in Venice features its own nativity scene.
On Vigilia (Christmas Eve), we had a meal of capitone (eel) and vegetables (We avoid meat to purify our bodies before Christmas). Later that evening, we traveled by gondola to attend midnight mass. The nativity scene in front of the church featured live sheep, a donkey, and a mother with her new baby, playing the roles of Mary and Jesus. I didn’t envy them, sitting out in the cold! Church bells rang out at midnight, so everyone in the city, even snug in their beds, must have heard that Christmas had arrived.
Just after Christmas, on December 26th, we celebrated the Feast of Santo Stefano (Christianity’s first martyr, stoned to death), and visited nativity scenes at many churches.
And now, today is a double holiday: New Year’s Eve and the Feast of San Silvestro. I won’t be out to see it, but I hear that fireworks will brighten Piazza San Marco at midnight to usher in the New Year.
“Santa Lucia, il giorno più corto che ci sia” (Saint Lucia, the shortest day there is).
How lucky I was to be born on the Feast of Santa Lucia (even if it’s the shortest day of the year)! From that happy coincidence came the given name I love and the saint’s heroic heritage, as well as evening candlelight processions, bonfires, and the traditional delicacies of roast goose, fried cheese, and biscotti shaped like eyes.
Santa Lucia is the patron saint of the eyes. Old stories say her eyes were gouged out before she died, but my father says that’s not true. People call out, “Oh, Santa Lucia!” when they find something right in front of their nose, after searching for it.
Santa Lucia grew up in Syracuse, Sicily, and as a young girl carried food to fellow Christians hiding in the dark catacombs to escape Emperor Diocletian’s persecution. She herself suffered persecution when her betrothed denounced her as a Christian after she chose consecration to God over marriage.
The only sad thing about my birthday: Santa Lucia was martyred on December 13. But her shining example lights up Venice’s winter darkness and inspires me to live with her faith and courage.
On December 8th of every year I lived in Verona, I went to Mass and ate a special dinner to celebrate the conception of Mary, the mother of Jesus.
But here in Venice, devotion to Jesus’ mother lasts all year long! When I go outside, I see shrines to Mary in the corners of walkways, with votive lamps the neighbors keep burning in her honor. In every house, I see her picture. Venice’s top artists, Titian and Tintoretto, both painted portraits of the angel announcing to Mary that she would be the mother of Jesus. (For some strange reason, the scenery in those paintings looks just like Venice!) And in “Mary’s church,” Santa Maria Gloriosa, eight altars are dedicated to her.
So I wasn’t surprised today was a grand holiday in Venice, with feasts, concerts, and extra masses. But when church bells rang for the prayer, “Hail Mary,” I was shocked to watch sophisticated Venetians in elegant dress fall to their knees to honor Jesus’ mother, wherever they happened to be. How Venice Loves Mary!
Ever since I arrived, I’ve been learning that Venice is full of surprises, but I expected they’d be related to the arts and letters, or trade. On a recent gondola tour, my father pointed out something I would never have dreamed I’d see: in this city built on a few islands, a huge area in the Castello district is surrounded by tall walls.
I imagined that artists might use this sheltered space to create vast canvases in complete privacy, but that wasn’t it at all. Papa tells me that it’s the Arsenale, the dockyard where ships are built and repaired. Even though it’s out of public view, Venice takes great pride in this complex. Rumor has it they can build a new merchant ship in one day! The Arsenale is so famous that Dante wrote about it in his Inferno (from his Divine Comedy).
Why is the Arsenale important to someone like me? My father tells me that the ships, rope, and weapons it produces account for a large part of this city’s wealth. Without the Arsenale, there wouldn’t be rich patrons to fund artists, writers, musicians, or great churches and palaces–or maybe even physicians like Papa. So Venice probably wouldn’t be my home, or the grand city it is today, if the Arsenale hadn’t been built.
Aldus in his printshop, by Francois Flameng (Public Domain), via Wikimedia Commons. http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AAldus_in_His_Printing_Establishment_at_Venice_Showing.jpg
With a coin in my palm and Papa as my guide, I discovered something wonderful about Venice—its printing presses (which are also bookshops)!
After visiting smaller presses, we arrived at the most famous bookshop in the city, with a Dolphin and Anchor symbol outside the door. Aldo Manuzio founded the press even before Papa was born, and now the founder’s scholarly grandson, Aldo Manuzio il Giovane, runs it.
Papa tells me that before the elder Aldus became a publisher, he was a scholar who studied and promoted Greek literature in Italy. He edited and commissioned editions of books in Greek, Latin, and our common tongue.
Now, whenever I see a book with the “Dolphin and Anchor” printing emblem, I’ll know it’s from this press—a symbol of the ancient proverb the elder Aldus took as his motto, “Festina lente” (hurry up slowly).
If only I could decide which book to buy with my coin!