Monday, March 7, 2016

Italy | Venice | Enrico Dandalo #3

To the west Campo Santa Maria del Giglio opens unto a smaller square known as Campiello Feltrina. From here Calle Zaguri crosses a canal known Rio de S. M. Zobenigo.  The bridge over the canal, the Ponte de la Feltrina, is one of 435 bridges in Venice (including the island of Guidecca, south of the six districts name earlier) that cross the city’s 182 named canals. It is also considered to be of the more picturesque. I know this because I hear a tour group leader pointing it out to her ten or so charges. On the other side of the bridge is a Chinese tour group of some fifteen people led by a women carrying a long stick topped by a yellow flag that she frantically waves to assemble her wandering troops. Young Chinese women on the bridge itself pose in varying degrees of allure for photos while others jockey for positions from which to take selfies. Attracted to this site by the tourists are four beggars, two on each end of the bridge. Two are decrepit old men, obviously locals, with crutches, perhaps props, and two are black men in their twenties dressed in the gangsta style favored by American rappers. I ask one where he is from and he answers, “Nigeria.” Several people are taking his photo. In Venice he is just part of the scenery.

The mob thins out as I move along Calle Zaguri to Campo San Maurizio. The church on the northern side has been deconsecrated and now serves as a museum dedicated to the music of Baroque Venice. I have on my Kindle three novels, Whispers of VivaldiThe Iron Tongue of Midnight, and Cruel Music, all by Beverle Graves Myers, that I have been dipping as a relief from the sometimes impenetrable  profundities of Ruskin’s The Stones of Venice. The novels are part of a series starring Tito Amato, a castrato singer in one of Venice’s main opera houses during the flowering of Baroque music. Castratos are, of course, men who have been castrated as boys in order to preserve their pure soprano voices. Castrato singers were all the rage in eighteenth century Venice and the most successful could demand enormous fees for appearing in an opera (Ruskin, thankfully, did not comment on this phenomenon). In addition to singing in operas, Tito Amato is also an amateur detective who gets called upon to solve the various crimes which are forever plaguing those somehow connected with the world of opera. His investigations take him into all levels of Venetian society, from the most uppity of the upper crust to the lowest beggars, and thus offer an entertaining and often amusing view of Venice in the eighteen century. I am very tempted to wander into the Baroque music museum to see what more I can learn about this tantalizingly intriguing era but Enrico Dandolo calls. 

Exiting Campo San Maurizio I follow Calle del Spezier to Campo San Stefano. The street itself is named after the many pharmacies (spezieri) found here. Most are now gone, giving way to stores focused on the tourist trade. Campo San Stefano is the largest in the San Marco district, big enough to have hosted bull fights in the eighteenth century. Its southern end extends to the Accademia Bridge over the Grand Canal, beyond which is the district of Dorsoduro. At its northern end is the Church of San Stefano, an austere old Gothic pile dedicated to Saint Stephen, the first Christian martyr (I had earlier visited the Church Of St. Stephanos In Iran). “An interesting building of central Gothic, the best ecclesiastical example of it in Venice,” according to John Ruskin, the grand old pile stands as a silent rebuke to the rococo extravagances of the churches of San Moise and Santa Maria del Giglio. It has played a storied role in the history of Venice, although not always a salubrious one. In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries the church had to be reconsecrated six times because of the blood spilled on its floor from various acts of violence.
 Campo San Stefano, with the church of San Stefano on the right (click on photos for enlargements)
Church of San Stefano. It warmed the cockles of John Ruskin’s heart.
From the front of the San Stefano church Calle Frati leads to yet another square, Campo Sant Angelo. Looking back from here, we get the best view of the famous campanile, or bell tower, of Church of San Stefano. It was first erected in 1544, but in 1585 it was struck by lightening and collapsed. The lightening was so intense it melted the bells in the tower. The rebuilt version was two hundred feet high, with bells imported from England. After an earthquake in 1902 the campanile listed six feet off center, giving the Leaning Tower of Pisa stiff competition as Italy’s most famous leaning tower.  If and when it does fall over into the crowded environs of the Church of San Stefano the results are not going to be pretty. 
Campo Sant Angelo, with leaning Campanile of the Church of San Stefano beyond
Yet another street called Calle del Spezier (there are several in Venice) exits the northern corner of the square, and after changing names twice leads directly to Camp Manin. I cannot however resist the urge to make a slight detour to Rio Terra dei Assassini. A rio terra is a filled-in canal which serves as a street. Assassini is of course the Italian for assassins. In centuries past this area of narrow streets and dark allies was notorious for its criminal element, and one ventured here at one’s own risk. The dangers of traipsing around in Venice after dark were noted by many travelers, including the irrepressible English gadabout Thomas Coryat (1577–1617), whose wanderings, mostly on foot, took him through much of Europe, and on to Turkey, Persia, and India.  He has been widely credited with popularizing the use of the table fork in England (he was nicknamed Furcifer, Latin for “fork-bearer”), a habit which he may have picked up in Venice, and with introducing the word umbrella into the English language. He was most famous, however, for the wildly popular accounts of his travels, including the touchingly entitled Coryat’s Crudities: Hastily gobled up in five Moneths travells in France, Savoy, Italy, Rhetia commonly called the Orisons country, Helvetia alias Switzerland, some parts of high Germany and the Nether lands; Newly digested in the hungry aire of Odcombe in the County of Somerset, and now dispersed to the nourishment of the travelling Members of this Kingdome, published in London in 1611.  In Crudities he tells us that:
There are certaine desperate and resolute villaines in Deiperate Venice, called Braves, who at some unlawfull times do commit great villainy. They wander abroad very late in the night to and fro for their prey, like hungry Lyons, being armed with a privy coate of maile, a gauntlet upon their right hand, and a little sharpe dagger called a stiletto. They lurke commonly by the water side, and if at their time of the night, which is betwixt eleven of the clocke and two, they happen to meete any man that is worth the rifling, they will presently stabbe him, take away all about him that is of any worth, and when they have throughly pulled his plumes, they will throw him into one of the channels: but they buy this booty very deare if they are after apprehended. For they are presently executed. 
 These cut-throats had been plaguing Venice since at the very least the twelfth century, when Doge Domenico Michiel (1118– 30)  had to enact special laws to deal with the criminal elements that haunted certain areas of Venice. The Rio Terra degli Assassini and nearby alleys were especially fertile hunting grounds for thieves and cut-throats because wealthy Venetians used them to sneak in the back way to the  brothels on nearby Calle della Mandola. Eventually the authorities dealt with the crime problem by illuminating Rio Terra degli Assassini with cesendeli, or small lanterns, making it one of the first streets in Venice with street lighting. The problem persisted into the eighteenth century, however when Venetian chronicler G. B. Gallicciolli noted:
It had become common to wear false beards in the style of the Greeks, with the consequence that great evil was done by night, and especially in cramped passageways, like . . . the Ponte degli Assassini. Many were found murdered and no one knew who was responsible, because no one could recognize the malefactors. So throughout the territories of Venice these beards were banned by day and night, on pain of the gallows. (quoted in Ian  Littlewood’s Venice: A Literary Companion).
From this we know that by the eighteen century the bridge (ponte) and presumably the street associated with it were named after assassini—assassins. The street and bridge, however, could not have had this name back in the twelve century, when Doge Domenico Michiel addressed the problem of violence in Venice, for the simple reason that the word did not then exist in Italian or any other European language. The word assassini (singular assassino) is derived from the Arabic word hashishi, which means a user of hashish, the drug extracted from marijuana. It was used in a derogatory sense to describe low-life drug addicts, the way we nowadays might call someone a pothead or doper. In the Mideast during the twelfth century the word was used by mainstream Muslims to denigrate members of the Ismailis, a sect which had broken off from the main body of Shiite Muslims. Because of their unorthodox teachings the Ismailis were considered heretical by Sunni and mainstream Shiite Muslims alike. The Ismailis, based in Persia and Syria (I have visited Alamut, their headquarters in Persia), were notorious for murdering the leaders of their religious and political opponents. This was done by carefully trained men who often managed to insinuate themselves into the lives of their victims. They were usually killed on the spot by bodyguards or others after murdering their victims, making them martyrs for the Ismaili cause.  Sunni Muslims and other of their victims became convinced that the men who carried out the murders used hashish as a stimulant and were thus hashishi. Most modern scholars dismiss this idea, but the name stuck, and Ismailis in general became known as hashishi. 

One of Venice’s most famous sons, Marco Polo, brought back to the Occident one of the first accounts of the Ismailis, although by his time the sect had in large part been destroyed or driven underground by the Mongols under Khülegü Khan, grandson of Chingis Khan, who had captured their headquarters of Alamut in 1256. The peripatetic Polo apparently did not call them hashishi in his famous book, but the word was broadcast by other Occidental travelers and writers and soon seeped into European languages. The corrupted forms of the word—assassino in Italian and assassin in English—were eventually used to describe anyone who carried out murder for political purposes or, more generally, a professional killer. It is probably in this latter sense that the word was used to name Rio Terra degli Assassini, although most of the murders that took place here were probably linked to robbery. If we could find out when the street was named we would know that by then this foreign word had became permanently embedded in the Italian language. Unfortunately I have not been able to discover any further history of the street and so this questions must remain unanswered.  
Street sign for Rio Terra degli Assassini. All the literature uses the word delgi, but the sign uses dei. Perhaps some Italian language maven could point out the reason for this discrepancy?
Now the street is perhaps most famous for the Osteria ai Assassini, or Restaurant of the Assassins, which despite its rather intimidating name gets very decent reviews on internet tourist sites. The restaurant has not yet opened for the day, however, and I am the only tourist on the street. Is it just my imagination, or do several of the men who pass me in the street, obviously locals, look suspiciously furtive? Deciding not to linger on Rio Terra degli Assassini, I find my way back to Calle del Spezier, which soon turns to Calle della Mandola, now appearing to be devoid of whorehouses, although there are some skanky-looking women in the street. Calle della Mandola soon becomes Calle Cortesia, which then crosses a lovely little bridge into Campo Manin, graced by a statue of Venetian patriot Daniele Manin (1804–1857), who led the resistance against the ultimately successful Austrian invasion of Venice in the late 1840s. 
 Bridge over the Rio de San Luca
Campo Manin
The residences of the Dandolo family are just north of here, near the Church of St. Luca. Exiting the the square at its northern corner, I walk a couple hundred feet, turn left into Campiello  di San Luca, then continue on to the canal. There, fronting the canal is the Church of St. Luca, the parish church of the Dandolo family. It was in this neighborhood, a thousand feet or so from the Rialto, the ancient center of Venice, that the man who instigated the sack of Constantinople in 1204 was born. 
Campiello  di San Luca
 Church of San Luca (Saint Luke)
Plaque on the front of the Church of San Luca

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