The Working World of Venice

December 5, 2006
Venice iStockphoto

This afternoon Venice smells like laundry. Not like noisome summer canals or damp plaster in a tilting palazzo; not like fish sizzling in a trattoria or sea mist and doom. I am in a working-class neighborhood known as Santa Elena, and Venice smells like the garlands of laundry strung across the street.

Of all the world’s cities, Venice most enjoys — or suffers — the cachet of being a place where fantasy looms larger than reality, where work runs a poor second to play. This is partly Venice’s own fault. During the days of her 18th-century decline, she worked hard at cultivating the playground image. The image stuck, and the tourists kept coming.

Venice also answers for her sheer gorgeousness: In a world where aesthetics and economy are driven by the cold Calvinist north, any place this delightful to the eye must have been built to be a fey little theme park. Venice’s great landmarks — St. Mark’s Basilica and its piazza, the Grand Canal with its palazzi and quayside cafés, the palace of the doges and the Bridge of Sighs — stand in the mind’s eye as the stuff of romance and the backdrops to a holiday.


The truth is that no city ever worked so diligently to such serious purpose, ever strove so mightily after the almighty ducat or did so much to set up shop for the rest of Western civilization in the bargain. If Venice is impossibly beautiful, it is because its builders saw no reason why beauty and work should be incompatible. The senators, artisans, and merchants of Venice had no trouble inventing commercial banking, while at the same time wringing a few extra decades of poetry from the vocabulary of late Gothic architecture.

But still the laundry had to be done, as it was being done this day in the secluded far eastern corner of the city, where I stood beneath this festoon of fresh linen. I had spent the past few days exploring outward from the Venetian epicenter of St. Mark’s, making it my business to look beyond the Rialto Bridge, beyond the great paintings of the Accademia galleries, beyond the apricot-tinted sunsets behind the church of Sta. Maria della Salute.

Without ignoring gondola rides and Titian-filled churches, I wanted to see past the treasure gloss of Venice and to sense its everyday pulse. I wanted some glimpse of life in a city that dates back 1,500 years, to the days when the first mainland refugees fled the barbarians’ sack of Rome’s Adriatic cities and settled on the marshy, unpromising islands of the Venetian lagoon.


I got my glimpse, and then some. I found what I was looking for on a narrow street, scant blocks from the fabulous Tintoretto ceilings of the Scuola di San Rocco, in the neighborhood of San Polo, where a metalsmith worked at his anvil in the back of a dusty shop while his wife tended a brazier of coals. I sensed workaday Venice as I looked through a shop window to watch an artisan with a single strong needle craft a mattress from yard goods and cotton batting.

I sensed it again on the soccer field at the naval academy, where the heirs of one of the world’s greatest maritime traditions butted and booted their ball around. And I watched as two young civil engineers set up their transit to survey for a new footbridge across a canal on the island of Giudecca.

At another canal in another quarter, where workers had drained the water away so they could shore up a Gothic foundation, I saw brown mud where, on any other day, there would have been shimmering reflections.


“Do you ever find anything interesting when you drain a canal?” I asked one of the workmen.

The man shrugged and gestured with his cigarette toward the mud. There was his answer: bricks, last week’s empty wine bottle, a couple of broken flowerpots.

I was disappointed. One of my favorite Venetian stories concerns the 18th-century magnifico who impressed his guests by having his golden tableware tossed out the window after each course of a banquet. Of course, he had servants down below, holding a net above the water. But it’s fun to imagine that a fork or two might have missed the net.


I went to that most modern and prosaic of institutions, the supermarket. Two or three exist even in Venice. In one, I discovered the just-home-from-work-gotta-throw-dinner-together versions of all the Venetian classics around which two-hour restaurant meals are built. Here was pasta e fagioli, the rich local soup of macaroni and beans, dried and bagged by Buitoni. A frozen, shrink-wrapped assemblage of squid and shellfish was called “misto per risotto.”

There was also a display of cat food large enough to fill the shelves of a giant American supermarket, its presence a reminder that Venice is a city of independent cats fed by everyone as a sort of community project. They aren’t strays; they know exactly where they are. They aren’t homeless; Venice is their home. They are the heirs of the comfortable kitty beneath the banquet table in Veronese’s “Feast in the House of Levi,” on exhibit in the Accademia, and none of them ever get run over by cars.

But streets that are safe for cats are losing their appeal for people who would dearly love to hop into their Alfa Romeos and drive to work. The maitre d’ at the rooftop restaurant of the Hotel Danieli lives in Padua, and it takes him two hours to get home. As I finished my grappa on a slow night, he had nothing but praise for proposals to ease travel in and out of the city.

“Someone wanted to build a new bridge into Venice, from the Lido di Iesolo in the north,” he said, “and a metro line — a subway under the Grand Canal from the train station to the Rialto and St. Mark’s. But the ecologists always say no. No one wants anything to be built in Venice.”

The upshot, according to the maitre d’, is that not only do many Venetians move to the mainland and commute to jobs in Venice; some stay in the city and commute to the mainland to work.

So, Venice makes it hard to live in Venice. Yet someone is buying the frozen risotto mix; someone ordered the handmade mattress; someone is hanging out the laundry. Someone employs the pressman wearing the traditional square cap made out of a newspaper page, whom I saw walking into a bar for lunch. And someone, other than a tourist, buys produce from the little fruit and vegetable barges that tie up along the sidewalks.

Someone, with a Mac or a PC tucked behind Renaissance walls, must have been happy to see the printout banner in the window of a computer store that heralded: “Finally Venice has a connection with the Internet.” La Serenissima, the Most Serene Republic, is on the information supercanal.

Of course, there are Venetian yuppies. There are so many Venetians walking around with cellular phones nowadays that if one asked another, “What news on the Rialto?” the answer would undoubtedly be, “Un momento — just let me check.”

Suits are everywhere in Venice – even the old pensioner, his dogelike profile turned toward the winter sun as he naps in the public gardens, is turned out better than an American banker. But you can always tell when there’s mercantile purpose in a Venetian’s stride.

What is in short supply, sadly, is a new generation of Venetians. Of Venice’s population of some 75,000 souls – down from nearly 150,000 about 50 years ago – fewer than 4,000 are children.

One afternoon I turned off the Fondamenta della Croce, between Palladio’s church of the Redentore and the eastern tip of the island of Giudecca. Before continuing on to the vaporetto stop at Le Zitelle for the short ride to the island and church of San Giorgio Maggiore, I ducked into the narrow lanes of the housing project that lies between two of Venice’s most exclusive institutions — the “Garden of Eden,” a walled private enclave planted by an Englishman with that paradisaical surname, and the plush Cipriani Hotel.

The pathway I followed led to a grassy courtyard, surrounded by two-story apartment blocks that could have stood anywhere between Minsk and Minneapolis. I felt like an intruder in someone’s yard. There was no one around except for a woman on a second-floor balcony; I tossed her a clothespin she had dropped.

But not long after I turned my back on the courtyard, I felt something small and hard hit the back of my neck. I heard giggling and turned. Half a dozen urchins, like the funny little snot-nose kids in Fellini’s Amarcord, were ducking under a portico.

The game began. Every time I turned my back, another pebble would hit me; when I spun around, they’d jabber and point at each other as if to say, “Not me, it was him.” Only 4,000 kids in Venice, and I had to run into this bunch.

They followed me out the alley before losing interest. Once I got inside the church of San Giorgio Maggiore, though, I didn’t feel so bad: There was Tintoretto’s “Martyrdom of St. Stephen,” showing the saint being pelted to death with stones.

Among the grown-up pursuits of Venice, perhaps none strike as familiar a chord with the outside world as those having to do with the lagoon city’s signature craft, the gondola. By no means are the gondoliers themselves anything less than authentic — the redoubtable Mario, who took me from the Grand Canal quay called the Riva degli Schiavoni and back via a labyrinthine route I could never hope to retrace, told me that his pedigree as a Venetian was untraceably long and that his father and grandfather had been gondoliers.

But the men who guide the long black boats are, finally, in the front line of the tourism industry. The men who build gondolas are a step closer to the old pulse of Venice.

The small canalside yards where gondolas are constructed are called squeri, and there are four of them in operation in Venice today. Equipped with a map and some vague directions from the gondoliers who congregate in back of St. Mark’s piazza, I finally found the squero of D. Manin on the Rio di San Trovaso.

The scene there was impossibly medieval. Wooden balconies, their railings crowded with geraniums, lined the two-story tile-roofed buildings around the little gondola yard. Two partly built gondolas lay half beneath a shed roof at the head of the sloping ways. One was overturned, its bottom being sanded and caulked with pitch. Even where I stood, across the canal, the pungent smell of pitch was in the air.

The squero I really wanted to visit was the one belonging to Tramontin and Sons, which Mario had told me made the best gondolas. He has a Tramontin, 16 years old, and when it has run out its useful life in perhaps 5 years, he will replace it with another, at a cost of about $22,000.

Tramontin’s establishment was in an even more remote part of the Dorsoduro neighborhood, at the intersection of two obscure canals. I was able to see the yard before I could figure out how to get to it; finally, I guessed that a gray steel door in a narrow alley was the only possible entrance. I rang a bell alongside the locked door, and in a moment I was buzzed in by Roberto Tramontin, whose great-grandfather Domenico had started the business.

A busy man, Roberto Tramontin, or else a man of few words. I asked if I could come in and look around; he said yes. When I thanked him, he responded with a brief, “Prego,” the all-purpose Italian word that includes “you’re welcome” among its meanings.

It was a privilege to be allowed so nonchalantly into one of the most rarefied manufacturing establishments on earth, and it was quite a surprise when Roberto soon disappeared and I was in the squero alone. It was like being left alone in an old small-town garage when the mechanic has gone out for a part, only this was a world of wood, not of metal.

There are eight different kinds of wood in a gondola – among them elm for the ribs, oak for the bottom, and walnut for the forcola, or oarlock. The seasoning stock was fragrant in racks beneath the rafters. A single gondola lay overturned, its bottom still only partly planked. Along one wall a long worktable held an array of hand tools that might have been laid down by men who had gone off to join the Fourth Crusade.

I was standing there staring at the tools and at an old photo of Domenico Tramontin, framed beneath two mock wooden ferri (the crested and serrated steel ornaments that grace gondolas’ prows) when an old man walked into the shed. He went over to the partly constructed boat and began hand-sawing planking very slowly and with methodical sureness.

Buon giorno,” he said, and that was all. I let myself out by the steel door.

In a water city, the water is the place to look to see the day’s work being done. Watching the traffic on the lagoon and on the larger canals is like watching the rest of the world with its wheels removed, sending up a wake. As I stood for a few minutes along the Fondamente Nuove, the broad quay on the north side of Venice, I saw a speeding ambulance, a shipment of oranges, a veterinarian’s boat (a cat emergency?), and a fire boat. A brown-and-white boat went by with “United Parcel Service” emblazoned on its side. Another boat was carrying a new dishwasher, and on the prow was the single word “Whirlpool.” And — startling yet perfectly logical — a hearse boat chugged past with a shiny mahogany coffin on deck. San Michele, the cemetery island of Venice, was only a few hundred yards away; behind me, along the Fondamente Nuove and its little side streets, the marble workers were busy cutting and polishing headstones and tombs.

One afternoon I set out across the water, to a corner of the lagoon between Venice proper and the long barrier beach called the Lido, to visit a little-known religious and intellectual outpost. Here, in this city of churches and of the original Jewish ghetto – where Hasidim still keep a strict Sabbath in the streets where Shylock walked – one of the busiest retreats of the godly is on the little cypress-studded island of San Lazzaro degli Armeni, home of the mother house of the Armenian Catholic Mechitarist fathers.

The Mechitarists have been here since 1717. Within these walls Byron once studied classical Armenian, and today 15 priests and as many seminarians edit and publish editions of old Armenian manuscripts (more than 4,000 books and documents, some dating back to the seventh century, fill the community’s library), along with modern works on Armenian culture.

A genial, dry-witted priest explained it all to me and to a small group of tourists I had come over with – that is, after he finished explaining where Armenia was.

“It’s in Armenia,” he answered drolly, after disabusing a geographical naif of the notion that it was in Israel. Fluent in Italian, English, German, and both the classical and vernacular versions of his native Armenian, he made it seem the most natural thing in the world for a tiny religious order with roots in the Caucasus to publish books in 32 languages on an island in the Venetian lagoon. The connection has a lot to do with the old saying that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend;” traditionally, Venetians and Armenians alike shared, along with a common Christianity, an antipathy toward the Turks.

To Turks and other enemies of the old Republic of Venice, one of the most feared sights on the high seas was a banner bearing the image of a lion holding a bound gospel — the lion of St. Mark, Venice’s age-old symbol.

The lion is emblazoned all over the city, but as I rode the vaporetto back from the Mechitarists’ island, I saw it at its most impressive: set in bronze on the superstructure of a giant freighter, the Fenicia, making its way down the Giudecca Canal. Painted on the stern was the ship’s port of registry, Venezia. Here was a vivid link with the lagoon city’s storied maritime past.

For centuries — almost since those first late-Roman refugees began to gather on this marshy little archipelago — Venice had understood that its destiny lay upon the water and its wealth lay in moving goods, at a considerable profit, from where they were made to where they were wanted. The Fenicia, no doubt, was delivering something other than spices and silks, and Venice is no longer master-merchant to the world. But that ship carried tradition and pride, and in its figurative wake all the commerce of the West had arisen.

On my last day in Venice I went out into the countryside without ever leaving the city limits. The island of San Erasmo is less than a half-hour’s vaporetto ride from the busy quay of Fondamente Nuove, but it might as well be a hundred miles away. The morning sounds I heard there were not the bells and bustle of St. Mark’s but the trill of songbirds, the crowing of a rooster, and the chugging of a tractor in a distant field. Another surprise, after a week during which I had seen nothing mounted on wheels other than baby strollers and handcarts, was that the people of San Erasmo had bicycles, motor scooters, and cars. Like a train station in an American suburb, the vaporetto landing was surrounded by vehicles left for the day by commuters.

San Erasmo is not merely a bedroom island. Venice’s vegetables have to be grown somewhere, and that somewhere may as well be nearby. San Erasmo is all farms and vineyards with a small village attached.

I walked down the narrow lane from the landing, past fields of salad greens, past the straight rows of pruned vines waiting for the warm spring sun to bring them into leaf. The soil was dark and rich. Houses were few and far apart, and people scarcer still.

Here and there someone was hoeing weeds; several times I was passed by women on bicycles, all of whom wished me good morning after looking a bit surprised that any outsider other than the mailman (who had been on my boat) would bother setting foot on San Erasmo. With their black bicycles and sturdy woolen coats, the women seemed like phantoms from Europe’s early postwar days as they cycled along the flat, tilled fields.

My hike around the island took two hours, and it was only at the end of that time that I came to the town center that served these farmers and their commuting kin. There was little more than a nursery school named after Pope John XXIII (the onetime patriarch of Venice), a small food market, and a new church with a Romanesque font inside for holy water.

Almost a millennium ago, when that font was freshly carved, the landholders of San Erasmo were no doubt busy at the same fields and vineyards through which I had just passed. And some of them, the young and more adventurous, probably crossed the lagoon, like today’s vaporetto commuters, to pitch in at the task of making Venice work.


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