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After three years in Florence, we returned to California shortly before the flood of November 1966. We watched our heroic friends in the news, cleaning oily mud from priceless paintings and manuscripts.
We flew out of Damascus just months before Syria first began to implode in March 2011 and cannot forget the backdrop for the human and historical disasters of the past seven years.
This spring we happened to spend some time in Genoa, not entirely by choice, but that’s another story. In fact, we had always wanted to explore this live, functioning port on the other side of the Italian boot from Venice, our alternate reality. Arriving and departing from Genoa Brignole by train, we never had reason to cross or even to view the deadly Morandi Bridge.
The tragedy of the bridge’s failure, the death and destruction, was immediately blamed on every political or institutional body extant in the past fifty years. The left chalked it up to the corrupt privatization of the Italian infrastructure. Before long the lion’s share of the blame settled on defective maintenance by Autostrade per L’Italia, a division of Atlantia SpA. Atlantia’s owners are the Benettons, whose dossier also includes the 2013 collapse of a Bangladeshi clothing factory that killed 1,134 workers. You may remember the Benettons from a cloying ad campaign touting the putative diversity of the “United Colors of Benetton”. (A rags-to-riches family from Treviso, they might have done better to invest in local prosecco vineyards.)
Autostrade per l’Italia’s license to manage the Italian freeway network may (or may not) be revoked. Atlantia has offered 500 million euros toward helping the victims as well as a quick reconstruction of the bridge. The Italian government is (or may be) debating nationalization of the whole highway infrastructure, which may (or may not) result in less corruption and safer roads and bridges.
“Genoa is fragile, but nobody cares,” said native son Renzo Piano in an interview discussing the collapse of the Morandi Bridge, in a rainstorm. “I do not know what happened, but I can say that I do not believe in the fatalism that considers nature, lightning and rain uncontrollable. Nobody can come and tell us that it was an accident.”
We stayed in the eastern part of Genoa, where the old city slopes down the hill to the port. The quarter is still called the Maddalena, after the winding street where women have been marketing themselves all day and all night for several centuries. Recent municipal efforts to restore the ancient neighborhood have apparently not affected the puttane.
As early as the 1300s, the Maddalena was the financial center of the city. Now the narrow streets near the harbor are home to various mild-mannered immigrant communities. We were often lost in the web of alleys, threading our way past dark-skinned people clustering at markets and sitting in rows in doorways, all much more interested in their own pursuits than in us. There seemed to be no mendicants, perhaps because of a large police and military presence, also mild-mannered, not to mention a 75-euro fine for begging. Last year a conservative anti-immigrant city administration was elected.
(Note: Beppe Grillo, the comedian who founded the populist Five-Star Movement, is from Genoa.) The new Italian government is headed by an uneasy coalition of the Five Stars and the neo-fascist League.
Five hundred years ago, there was no Italian state to be consumed by conflicting interests or rampant xenophobia. In the vicious battles among the merchant republics of the Renaissance, Genoa’s mercenary soldiers and ships for hire brought enormous wealth to their city. Genoa had at that time the greatest concentration of successful bankers on this planet. Their families built the outsize columned and marbled palaces along the Strada Nuova, the new street. They paid Rubens, Van Dyck and Caravaggio to paint portraits and decorate walls, and local artists imitated them quite successfully.
Of their famous shipyard (in no way a rival to the Venetian Arsenale) they have made an excellent naval museum, with myriad mythological and literary allusions to the sea, interactive historical maps, and the reconstruction of a full-size galley. In the entry is Renzo Piano’s blueprint for a new waterfront. Meanwhile, he left a large glass sphere and the Bigo panoramic lift, modeled on the old derricks for loading and unloading merchandise in the port.
Since the early 20th century, funiculars have run up and down the steep slopes of the city. Whether or not their cost is justified by commuting residents, tourists are happy to find pleasant restaurants at the top. However, panoramic views of the city have been cut in half by the construction of cheap public housing and a huge belt of highway above the waterfront. This is not unlike the situation in San Francisco, before they decided to demolish their Embarcadero freeway–rather than rebuild it after the Loma Prieta quake.
Of course blue jeans originated in Genoa, not San Francisco. Denim was a twill fabric of Nîmes (de Nîmes) manufacture that was used for sailors’ trousers in Genoa (Gênes in French). Levi Strauss only added the rivets.
In the Gold Rush years and after, San Francisco and the north-central coast were settled by Italian immigrants, the first wave largely Genoese fishermen and farmers.
My mother grew up in the fishing town of Santa Cruz, California and went to school with the Stagnaro boys whose fathers came from Riva Trigosa near Genoa. When my father went overseas during World War II, she returned to her home town with her small children. Another young “war widow “with a child lived across the street, and her Italian in-laws often invited us all to Sunday lunch at their farm in Soquel. Mrs. Conrado made delicious ravioli and memorable marinated artichoke hearts–although my mother had trouble downing the roasted uccelletti.
Many of the Italians who came to San Francisco left the city for the suburbs as soon as they could. Among those who stayed, some entered politics, others ran popular restaurants, and still others did both. But Little Italy in North Beach has been nearly absorbed by the growth of Chinatown, which now counts for more than 20 percent of the San Francisco population.
In 2014 Genoa’s immigrant population was 55,000 of almost 600,000. 18,000 came from Ecuador, the rest from Albania, Bangladesh, China, India, Morocco, Peru, Roumania, Russia, Senegal, Sri Lanka, and Ukraine. Most recent immigrants come from North African and sub-Saharan countries.
Given that the Genoese have the lowest birth rate in Italy and the oldest population in all Europe, the fast-growing immigrant presence will play an increasingly important role in the city’s future, for better or for worse, depending on one’s political views.
Immigrants, anyway, cannot be blamed for the failure of the Morandi Bridge.
What’s the old Chinese curse? May you live in interesting times!
Italian friends have been most sympathetic about our recent election. After all, they say, we survived Berlusconi. It’s not the end of the world.
They offer us political asylum, but then say that of course we are needed in our own country. Meanwhile, we are still here to see them through their coming referendum vote on the so-called “Italicum” reform of their electoral system.
The dynamic young Italian leader, Matteo Renzi, has pushed for a “Si” on the referendum, but is canny enough to have backed off as “No” rises in the polls
Renzi has been intrepid in many ways, not least in defending the rescue and accommodation of many thousands of profughi, refugees, arriving in Italy during the current migration crisis. Renzi points out that while Italy pays hundreds of millions of euros in this humanitarian mission, most other European governments have used their euros to build walls.
At a pizzeria on the Strada Nova the guy behind the counter couldn’t decide whether to use English or Italian. I suggested Cinese and we both laughed. I asked where he was born and he said Romania. He has been in Italy for fourteen years and lives in Mestre, twenty minutes away by bus on the mainland. We talked about the high rents and long commutes in Venice and California. He said he could give my husband and me one room and shared use of his Mestre apartment for 350 euros a month. I said that unfortunately we already had a rental contract through December. He said that he really wanted to learn more English so that he could get a better job, and I said that I could give him lessons if I was staying longer.
I only had a 50-euro bill to pay for my pizza. He smiled and ran off with it to get change. I wasn’t really worried when he didn’t reappear for ten minutes, but it did occur to me that 50 euros was probably more than a couple of days’ take-home pay. He said his name was Nikolai, Nicola in Italian, he added. I said mine was Frances, Francesca in Italian. See you tomorrow? he said.
A hundred yards on, I stopped to let a herd of school children go ahead of me across a narrow bridge. Meanwhile I went to a kiosk to get a paper with news about the latest earthquake in the Marche, and about the crises with the new refugees. The earthquake had definitely won that news cycle; there was not a word about the town in the Veneto that had barricaded its streets against the arrival of a dozen refugee women and children to be billeted in an empty hotel.
The vendor gave me two papers even after I had said, conversationally, that my husband usually bought the Gazzettino so I would only take La Repubblica. I said that I was sorry my Italian was so bad. He said, no, MY Italian is bad. I asked where he was born, and he said Bangladesh. He had only been in Italy for six months, he said in English. Before that, he had lived in London for six years, but it was too expensive. His brother, who had been in Italy for a long time, owned the kiosk. He lived with the brother nearby, and planned to go to school to learn Italian so that he could get a better job. My name is Francesca, said I. His is Nabis. See you tomorrow, I said. La Repubblica is running a series on changes in the Italian language, so I will be back. (I wish that Nicola’s pizza had been better.)
Of course it was only an idle thought that Nicola and Nabis could exchange language lessons. But maybe with ingenious use of cellphones and social media…some kind of networking?
I had been hoping to make myself useful in the refugee crisis, perhaps teaching or translating, during our Italian stay, but that too was an idle thought. The needy refugees were not in la Serenissima, but in Mestre and smaller inland towns, Veneto, where, unfortunately, the locals are not always welcoming. In Venice the neediest refugees only come for the day trade, foreigners passing from Rialto to San Marco from cruise ship to gondola, who might need an umbrella or a carnival mask, or will drop a euro into an outstretched hand.
Many constructive responses to the migrant crisis are to be found in the 2016 Architectural Biennale in Venice, too soon closing. And note that funds for housing the homeless were voted in by healthy margins–at least in California. As Italian friends tell us, we’ll get through this somehow.
Ritually in August, Europeans repair to their mountains or beaches while tourists throng their cities. But by early July, the 2015 Venice Biennale, already darkly apocalyptic, was also featuring the 110-degree afternoons of global warming. Completely flattened, we fled to the Dolomites, whose snowy peaks are still visible from Venice on very clear days.
The Dolomites are seen in the background of paintings by Venetian masters, and by northern painters whose horizons lacked mountains.
Titian, raised in the Dolomites, painted a portrait of Catarina Cornaro, queen of Cyprus (and, some say, of Armenia). Catarina was forced to abdicate and cede her country to the Republic of Venice. She was allowed to keep her title and given a castled court in Asolo, safely removed from the circles of power. Titian decks her out in the Turkish-style brocade coat which complimented the generous curves of so many Venetian ladies. Any soprano in Donizetti’s Caterina Cornaro would be likely to wear it, but since the opera was booed at its 1844 opening in Naples, it has seldom been staged.
A pair of smoky-skinned youths, toting racks of colored beads, took a table next to us in a café next to the bus stop in Corvara. Here we were, merely escaping a heat wave. How had they made their way so far up into these mountains? Had it occurred to them that a resort town might have less competition and wealthier customers than a crowded city? What to make of the lush green valleys and flowing waterfalls of this alpine paradise? Probably they were en route to Germany, more or less as the crow flies—or according to a Google map.
Germany we are told, expects to receive 800,000 refugees next year.
Meanwhile, the presidents of the Veneto and Lombardy had just ordered towns in their regions to stop accepting migrants altogether. Six thousand refugees had been rescued from the Mediterranean in the previous weekend, and many thousands more waited to embark from Libya and Turkey. Renzi and his government in Rome counseled Italians to be humane and accept the migrants across the board.
No way, said Luca Zaia, regional president of the Veneto.The situation “is like a bomb ready to go off.” Roberto Maroni, president of Lombardy and former leader of the conservative Lega Nord, threatened to cut the funding of any compassionate municipalities who encouraged refugees to settle.
One morning we took a local bus from Corvara that wound through the mountains toward a small town known as Ortisei in Italian, St. Ulrich in German, and Urtijei in Ladin, an ancient alpine survival of Latin, spoken by most of the townspeople. (Place signs are in all three languages.)
Climbing the steep main street of Ortisei, we came upon a very large heap of white plaster bananas, not far from a cannon made of wood. Public art, we noted shrewdly. The artists, we read on a placard, intended an ironic message about climate change with reference to the past winter in Ortisei, when the only snow available to skiers came from strategically placed “snow guns”
Woodworking was and remains the major art and craft in these forested mountains. But tourism became the mainstay of their economy in the last century, increasing after the famous Winter Olympics of 1956 took place in Cortina d’Ampezzo.
This year, the 56th Venice Biennale, the world’s most famous art event, manages to condemn not only climate change, capitalist exploitation of labor and industrial pollution, but global starvation, planetary degradation, and the arms trade—in just two gulps, one at the Arsenale site and the other at the Giardini.
Actually, the Golden Lion prize for the best national exhibit went to Armenia, outliers on the monastery island of San Lazzaro, marking the centennial of their genocide and diaspora. We happened to go to the island on a Sunday afternoon, and found ourselves caught in a line moving relentlessly into the church for the Orthodox mass, nearly two hours long.
It is sometimes said that art art can take you anywhere, and this year’s Biennale does compel you to visit unlikely places, from the assembly line of a cultivated pearl factory to gay brothels in Chile. Many of the heavily didactic exhibits are of videos and photos, with displays of significant documents, such as international agreements repeatedly dishonored, or newspaper clips with false information, or contracts you make with yourself.
The Australian Fiona Hall is more direct.
Her imaginative work fills the whole pavilion and includes a 3-D map of the southern Mediterranean scattered with tiny figures, indicating the migrants who drowned in one week between Africa and Italy.
Other artworks have related messages.
Although there is plenty of irony, subtlety and ambivalence are not qualities that many of these artists value. They are desperately concerned for the future of their own countries and the world at large. Still, their Biennale appearances are financed by capitalist networks that certainly include artists’ galleries, and most of the work, in case you were wondering, is for sale.
Alongside the galleries in the Dolomites that show woodworking artists, are regional museums focusing on alpinism (mountaineering) and local history, including that of the so-called White War.
At almost eleven thousand feet, Marmolada is one of the highest peaks in the Dolomites. During World War I, as one military front shifted into South Tyrol, Austrian troops tunneled into Marmolada’s northern glacier and the Italians into its rocky southern face. Somehow they made it possible–building roads, dormitories, and gun emplacements–f0r thousands of soldiers to exist, and to fight, in the brutal cold at altitudes where only mountaineers and shepherds had ever ventured.
A hundred years later, in our warming world, the icy slopes are melting to reveal grim relics—soldiers’ corpses and rusted armaments. Some 150,000 men died in the White War, only a third of them in battle, the majority from avalanches, frostbite, and other effects of the extreme cold. Likely, in warmer decades to come, spring skiers will continue to make grisly discoveries in the Dolomites.
Partly as a result of the White War, in 1919 South Tyrol was given to Italy, and those 150,000 Austrian and Italian soldiers died in a struggle over national/imperial hegemony that their sons and grandsons have mostly disavowed. In the mountains, what they worry about now is climate change, whether they will have snow for the ski crowds, or whether they will have to depend on the snow cannons. Down on the flatlands, they are worried about new waves of migrants, most of whom have paid their last thousand euros to find asylum or at least work and food in the West.
Few saw just how fragile and flammable the Middle East would prove, how quickly the drying up of the Sahara, the continuation of brutal governments, the series of drought years, and the internal wars would displace millions. The tens of thousands of refugees spilling into Germany, Italy, and France from the Middle East, Eastern Europe, and Africa are economic and sometimes political refugees. Their lives and their families’ lives are on the line when the cost of passage on a leaky raft or rusty ship. They’re fleeing, most often they know not where.
In America the flaming issue of next year’s presidential election has become immigration, from Mexico. In Hungary a far-right government constructs a fence to stop the influx of refugees arriving from Serbia, Macedonia, Greece. A Hungarian friend says that the brutally anti-migrant stance of his government is secretly admired by leaders of the European union. Whatever the case, Germany is in ever in a bind to show that its past inhumanity was an aberration. But Germany by itself cannot absorb these millions.
A year ago I tried to chart some of the tragedy of Syria since the civil war began. The latest chapters include demolition of another temple in Palmyra, and the changing route of Syrian refugees: they are now travelling north to the Arctic Circle and heading for the Norwegian border, to the little town of Kirkenes, 2500 miles from Damascus. Norway has nothing to prove about its humanitarian history, and welcomes them.
Given a bootless succession of balmy, deep blue evenings in drought-stricken California, we invited some friends for an al fresco dinner—two Italians, one Romanian, a Scot, a Moroccan, and three of their boys. The transcontinental jumble only occurred to me later, when I was lying awake, regretting my clumsy vinous Italian, and the surplus of food I usually prepare, especially when there are vegetarians.
S. and I were in the kitchen sorting the berries she had brought. She said that her husband had just returned from a long stay in Fez, where he had to look after his sick mother and two eccentric sisters. This reminded me of Abu Hani, our wise, kind driver in the months before Syria’s war; his wife and two unmarried daughters had seemed shielded and restricted in the Muslim manner. Since he had fled Safed in 1948 to settle in the Palestinian quarter of Damascus, now devastated, probably his family are now Syrian refugees. There must be a term for repeat (recidivist?) refugees, like the Armenians, just marking their first century of diaspora.
Nina Khatchadourian’s video, called, cunningly, “Armenities,” is a telling exploration of her parents’ layered languages learned in serial homelands. “Armenities” will be at the 2015 Venice Biennale—in the island monastery of San Lazzaro, where lepers were the original refugees.
The bay fog had blown in while R was grilling sausages, and suddenly it was cold and damp, drought or not–the downside of our famous marine climate. Everyone helped shift all the food into the kitchen, filled their plates and reconfigured at the dining table. Someone sought common ground, so to speak, talking sports with the three boys.
That’s when I turned to our Moroccan friend. F. speaks softly with a heavy French-Moroccan accent, but I think that he told me that his father left school at age seven to help support the family, and eventually became a successful merchant who sent nine children to college—the middle one, our friend, to Harvard. Writers admired by F. include Borges, Calvino, and Marquez; he is now writing stories himself, based on centuries-old tales that he had found in the souk in Fez. He has a shy flash of a smile, winsomely conspiratorial.
Early in this century, R and I flew to North Africa, after a conference in Florence, where R talked about the Laocoon (and I nursed a fractured wrist). We went to Morocco, which was for us entirely otherwhere. There was a bright, almost hallucinogenic light across the sandy plain, not unlike the light we have now in drought-parched California. Along the highway was a sparse strewing of people on foot and pieces of litter, mostly plastic. William Kentridge makes dark kinetic profiles of people who might have been moving along such a highway in South Africa.
In Rabat, after dining on a fine pastilla, with music, we wandered off in the moonlight toward a mysterious truncated tower sharing a site with hundreds of stubby marble columns. We didn’t find out what it was until the next day.
Hassan Tower, minaret and mosque, columns left unfinished in 1199.
Sad to say, returning to our hotel, we lost our way and were maliciously re-directed in loops through the city. Next morning, on the train to Fez we shared a compartment with a Moroccan lawyer who expressed confidence that the new boy monarch would be guided by his enlightened sister, within the limits of sharia law, of course.
When F. had mentioned the old story collections he had found in the souk, I had to tell him about our son’s graduate student, a Turkish Kurd, who was cashiered at the airport in Yerevan for stowing old books from the market in his baggage. Our son had bought his first business suit and travelled to Armenia to spring his student.
After more wine, and the stealthy withdrawal of the kids into the living room with their pads and phones, new topics arose at the table. Nothing heavy: for example, where had the motley couples first met? One pair in Grenoble; another in London; another in L.A.; and (much earlier), R and I in Vienna.
Vienna in 1958 was still what you may remember as the shadowy postwar background of “The Third Man”. I lived with the family of an impoverished old baron in a palace on a corner near the Opera. Each morning, the baron’s young frau measured out very carefully the butter and jam for our breakfast kaiser rolls. My roommate, who befriended her, said that the frau’s true love had been killed in the war. One day the baron called me quite literally on the carpet, in the dark, high-ceilinged hall, to scold me for blocking the street entrance late at night while necking with R.
Italy was also grimly postwar when we first saw it. On the other hand, our caro amico M. says that he doesn’t want to live in today’s Italy, which is not the country that he knew growing up. I lived in Florence during some of those years, but Italy seems to me still much like itself, each region colorful and/or and corrupt in its own way, Florence possibly less than most. (Matteo Renzi, the youngest prime minister ever, was mayor of Florence and advocates reforms that alienate both the left and the right.) As for me, I am now immersed, so to speak, in Venice, where corruption is endemic and close to entertaining.
What M. loves is California. After a detour of a few years on the East Coast, he returned to California just in time for the drought. While the rest of us were saving shower water to dribble on our flowerbeds, M. planted exotic succulents in large pots–also a very good plan since he needs to spend a great deal of time elsewhere, in St. Petersburg, Russia, and Reno, Nevada, for example.
M. had brought a big raspberry tart, which I put on the table, with S’s berries. Having just finished one of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, I wondered what S. thought of her. She didn’t know her work, which surprised me, although her own field is Middle Eastern culture. I thought that she had said earlier that she was from Rome, but when I brought out my copy of L’Amica Geniale, she pointed out, in the cover photograph of the bay of Naples, the very school she had attended as a girl.
Why isn’t S. considered a refugee, from Naples (or Rome)? Is M. a Tuscan exile? It’s all in the element of choice, I suppose, which usually comes with education and a dependable income.
The Armenian genocide was the first of the twentieth century. In 1915 Dr. Clarence Ussher, a medical missionary.working in the Van Province, bore witness to the massacres of the Ottoman Turks. Dr. Ussher was ancestor of a valued friend, the remarkable writer Nicholson Baker, a committed pacifist and author of the revisionist war history, Human Smoke.
An important center of Armenian culture is the Venetian island of San Lazzaro, which was resettled in 1717 by a dozen Armenian Catholic monks who arrived in Venice from Morea in the Peloponnesus, following the Ottoman invasion. They renovated the church of St. Lazarus and constructed gardens, a seminary, and other buildings. Napoleon left them alone after he conquered the Venetian Republic in 1797. Some say this was because of an important Armenian member of Napoleon’s staff.
Little-known fact: Lord Byron lived on San Lazzaro from late 1816 to early 1817. In short order, he seems to have learned enough Armenian to translate passages from classical Armenian into English, and even to co-author grammars of English and Armenian.
Aside from tending their huge library, the Armenian monks produce 5,000 jars of rose petal jam per annum, a number of them eaten by the monks themselves, and the others sold in the San Lazzaro gift shoppe.
In the world outside the island, the questions of Armenian genocide and property restitution continue fraught. Solutions have been suggested: Armenian churches and monasteries currently used as storage facilities by the armed forces could be handed back to the Armenians. Beyond that, collective compensation might be modeled on German compensation to Jews. Turkey could also take in Armenian refugees from Syria and Iraq, could offer Turkish citizenship to Armenians who want it, could remove the names of perpetrators of the genocide from Turkish streets signs and places.
Meanwhile, Kim Kardashian, famous for being famous, and by far the best known Armenian in the world, says, “I am saddened that still 100 years later not everyone has recognized that 1.5 million people were murdered. But proud of the fact that I see change and am happy many people have started to recognize this genocide!”
Here she is with her husband, rapper Kanye West, one of Time‘s 100 most influential men in the world.
In Syria as well, one of the main rebel groups is welcoming the attention from Kardashian.“We are glad Kim Kardashian is taking an interest in this issue, as we too are concerned about extremist groups’ persecution of minorities,” Khalid Saleh, a spokesman for the Syrian National Coalition, told The Daily Beast. “The Free Syrian Army has put out a statement committed to protecting of citizens of Armenian descent and to maintaining the integrity of their religious sites…”
Question: shouldn’t Kardashian be coordinating with Angelina Jolie, who has been earnestly trying to raise international consciousness about the Syrian crisis for several years?
Some doubt that Kardashian could find Armenia or Syria on a map, but this is petty carping. How often can beauty could speak to power and be heard? If only I had brought this question to the dinner table.
The siren sounded a bit before sunrise. . . a long, piercing alert, followed by a series of slowly articulated, musical ululations. Then the quiet slosh of the first vaporetto docking and departing as usual across the canal. I had been lying awake for a while, having seen the acqua alta warning the day before. Acqua alta, high water, refers to monster tides that cause flooding all around the northern Adriatic, but most famously in Venice. Between autumn and spring, the high tides can combine disastrously with the sirocco and the local “bora” winds and the oscillating waters of the long, narrow rectangle of the Adriatic Sea.
As the foundations of most Venetian buildings have been brining in the depths of the lagoon for centuries, the natives regularly take certain minimal precautionary measures. Passerelle planks are neatly stacked, ready to be laid out across flooded expanses in Piazza San Marco and other low-lying parts of the city. In our neighborhood, Cannaregio, ten metal supports for the passerelle were stolen, for what market it is hard to imagine. Tall rubber boots are ready by the door of our attic apartment, lent by our kind landlords, but they are too small for our big American feet.
The first real autumn rain brought only moderate acqua alta in Venice. But in Tuscany the deluge submerged Massa and Carrara, below those white-veined mountains where ancient Romans, Michelangelo Buonarroti, and rich Americans and Arabs, have found an unending supply of white marble to bedeck their temples and mosques, mansions and museums.
Quarry labor was always hard and poorly paid, fueling rebellions among the workers. By the end of the 19th century, Carrara was called the cradle of anarchism. These days the flooded residents seem to be demanding some responsible governmental action, no small order in 21st century Italy. A dear friend, an art historian who helped salvage Florentine art after the great flood of November 1966, observed sadly that Tuscans have never understood how to deal with water. The Venetians, too, were underwater in 1966; their efforts to curb the tides have a higher profile because Venice is more obviously fragile than stony Florence.
The huge MOSE project (MOdulo Sperimentale Elettromeccanico) is supposed to protect Venice and the lagoon against flooding. Note the acronym’s cunning allusion to the Hebrew patriarch who parted the Red Sea. MOSE consists of 78 mobile underwater barrier gates that rise during high tides to isolate the Venetian Lagoon from the Adriatic Sea. Approved by the Comitatone (Big Committee) in 2003 with a budget of some 7 billion euros, MOSE has so far successfully tested only four of the gates.
Meanwhile, in June 2014, the mayor of Venice and 35 other “public servants” were charged with misuse of billions of the MOSE funds. The arrest of the mayor of Venice was international news, and even amid the flamboyant excesses of Italian politics, the level of corruption is spectacular.
The scandal provided local color following the opening of the 2014 Biennale of architecture, which was set partly in the Arsenale, the former Venetian shipyards, first mentioned in 1104. “Arsenale” comes from the Arabic “darsena” or workshop, and there were naval arsenals already in the seventh and eighth centuries along coasts from North Africa to Arab Sicily and the southern Mediterranean. But for some four centuries, the fleets built in the Venetian Arsenale ruled the waves in war and commerce.
Venice hasn’t been actively at war for some three hundred years. The grand buildings of the Arsenale now house a splendid naval museum as well as splashy international expositions like the architecture Biennale, part of which occupies the Corderie, a vast columned hall built in the 16th century, where miles of ropes were made for the ships in production.
The Biennale exhibits were remarkably free of military or imperial connections, except of course for those involving the guilt, implicit or acknowledged, of modern colonial powers. Silvio Berlusconi’s melodramatic apology to Libya for decades of Italian abuse is memorialized next to videos showing footage of the most recent exploitation of Libyan oil.
On the Arsenale embankment is a recumbent classical column that is connected with the Biennale’s Albanian exhibit. A documentary by Albanian exile artist Adrian Paci shows the quarrying of the marble block in China, its loading onto a freighter, and to cut costs, three Chinese carvers working the marble en route on the high seas. Paci thus addresses what we might call the downside of global trade and labor.
During the Second World War, the shipyards in Richmond, California, were the most efficient and productive of any in the country. Huge buildings, on the same scale as the Venetian Arsenale, enclosed the assembly lines which had been pioneered by early Venetian shipbuilders. In Venice the workers, the arsenalotti, were respected and paid well. The Richmond shipyards employed tens of thousands of unskilled laborers fleeing the depressed South. Rosie the Riveter was a familiar icon of the spunky female worker.
The docks and warehouses now house restaurants & theaters and light industry. An Italian restaurant, Salute e Vita, in a Cape Cod Victorian said to have been the Richmond harbormaster’s house, is now owned by a beautiful woman born Ethiopia and raised in Rome in a family of restaurateurs.
Menbe now dispenses Thanksgiving charity to the hoi polloi of the real city of Richmond, many of whose grandparents came from the depressed South to work in the wartime shipyards.
Richmond now has the highest rates of unemployment and violent crime of any city in the Bay Area except Oakland. Property values were so low that developers could profitably produce a town-house development along the waterfront and even offer some public amenities, little beaches and a smart interactive memorial to Rosie the Riveter.
In Venice, every year after 1177, the doge sailed out into the lagoon on a seriously over-decorated ship called the Bucintoro, and tossed a ring into the waves to symbolize Venice’s wedding with the sea. After Napoleon had carried off the Lion and Horses of St. Mark and the choicest artworks in the city, the French set the last Bucintoro afire where all in the city could see it burn, on the island of San Giorgio Maggiore. And there the canny French sieved the ashes to save the gold.
Some years ago Colonel Giorgio Paterno proposed to recreate the festive Venetian Bucintoro that was destroyed in 1798. Colonel Paterno, the head of Fondazione Bucintoro, said in March 2008: “[We will] build it as fast as we can but we’re not in a hurry. It is intended that the project will make use of traditional shipbuilding techniques and original materials…and will reproduce the gold decorations.”
The foundation wrote to then-French-President Nicolas Sarkozy to ask for a financial contribution as a goodwill gesture in view of the Napoleonic vandalism. Just this year, no thanks to Sarkozy, the French pledged to contribute six hundred oak trees from the forests of Aquitaine surrounding the city of Bordeaux. Meanwhile, alas, as Paterno said, “Invaded by so many million tourists, the city risks losing its identity, losing its cultural connection with its own history.”
There is also the escalating risk that Venice will lose its historical and cultural identity not through tourism but under the invasive tides of the Adriatic. The earliest acqua alta, in 579, was reported two hundred years later by Paul the Deacon, a Benedictine monk-historian. The event, known onomatopoetically as the Rotta della Cucca, was a calamitous rupture of river banks in the Veneto. This collates with variously reported global climate changes in 536-538, confirmed by tree-ring chronology. The probable cause was a volcanic event that created a dust ring around the planet, darkening the sun and aborting harvests. The ensuing famines and civil unrest could explain many gloomy global developments, from the sudden decline of Teotihuacan to the Plague of Justinian, and the westward Mongol invasions. In fact, this catastrophe theory, advanced by journalist David Keys, was so expansively interesting that it was quickly discredited by qualified academics—but not before public television documentaries that you might have missed, as I did.
Catastrophe theories aside, it must be conceded that recent western technology, no matter how advanced in nuclear weaponry, domestic espionage, craft beer, and social networking, has not been able to resolve drought issues in Africa, Brazil, Ukraine, or California.
In October 2010, at the edge of the Assad reservoir in northern Syria, we shared a picnic—lots of mezze & pastries—provided by our genial driver. Abu Hani was a Palestinian refugee, a survivor, having lived alone for several years while teaching math in Saudi Arabian middle schools in order to finance his household in secular Damascus. His wife would not live in Saudi Arabia. We haven’t heard from Abu Hani for almost four years now.
This might be a place to share the information that in Saudi Arabia, our staunch ally in the noble fight against Islamic State barbarism, there were 79 public beheadings in 2013.
The Assad reservoir is near the town of Raqqa, now controlled by the Islamic State, which sometimes prefers to bill itself as the more historically resonant Islamic Caliphate. A recent account of the consumption habits of the Caliphate’s soldiers found western products such as Pringles, Snickers, and Red Bull absorbing much of their $3 daily food allowance. Not mentioned was their appreciation of American brands of machine guns and tanks that they have confiscated from various Syrian rebel groups, “vetted” or not.
Returning to Venice from Florence one day in November, I paged through an international paper. The top story was Obama in China. That night Italian TV showed Obama, lean and elegant in a mandarin jacket, coolly chewing a piece of gum as he strode across a stage to shake hands with President Xi.
Maybe it was later that same night that the Italian Marco Polo (played by the impressive Marco Paolini) appeared onscreen. In any case, all this tended to eclipse an interesting op-ed on the historic drought in Isfahan. The writer suggested that western help in dealing with the drought problem could improve relations with Iran, where, as (almost) everyone knows, Isfahan is located.
Isfahan, visited by Marco Polo in 1330, was a Persian capital known for its beautiful boulevards, covered bridges, palaces, mosques, and minarets. But, way of the world, in 1722 it was sacked by Afghan invaders and the capital was moved to Tehran. Today Isfahan still produces carpets and textiles, but also steel. It has a major oil refinery and “experimental” nuclear reactors, as well as the largest shopping-mall-with-a-museum in the world (not to mention a top-notch chamber of commerce). But cosmopolitan twenty-first-century Isfahan is now suffering from an 80-year drought.
When Venice was a major commercial center, expediting goods along the route to Isfahan and other Silk Road depots, the Dogana da Mar, the Customs House of Venice, controlled access to the Grand Canal and the San Marco docks.
In 2007 Japanese architect Tadao Ando began a wonderful renovation of the space for use as a museum. “This building has been floating on the water since the 15th century, and my intention is to see it float into the future; it is a very old building and it was very difficult to study its history so as to preserve its original structure and innovate toward the future.” Since the extant building was actually built in 1677, one doesn’t feel that Ando’s creativity has been much hampered by his study of its history.
Meanwhile, the modest hydrographic station on the Punta della Dogana (the Doge’s Nose) still sends information to the Centro della Marea (Tide Center), which warns the citizens of coming inundations. .
One morning after our return to Berkeley, I looked out the window. The California drought was breaking in a big way and our street had become a flowing canal. There was a flash flood warning online, but a silent one.
Aunt Kate, who will be 100 on November 22, 2017, used to be a gambler. Not regularly, but often enough so the casinos and hotels used to send her special offers and discount coupons. Her older sister, my late mother, disapproved mightily and used it as another excuse not to send Kate much money on her birthday or Christmas. I think the casinos were mostly in nearby Reno, not Las Vegas. Probably they don’t have casinos in Reno like Mandalay Bay, although lots of people there do pack guns.
One day, clearing an upstairs closet, I decided to cart off the lapsed laptops and tangles of old phones and chargers to a recycling yard. This led naturally enough to reconsidering the problem of Aunt Kate’s pistol, which I had stowed deep in that same closet.
Sometimes I forgot that the gun was still there, in its padded camouflage-print case, tucked inside a white bag decorated with a flag and the logo “Proud to be an American,” the whole stuffed inside a larger blue bag advertising a Berkeley oral surgery clinic. When I did remember, I just couldn’t decide how best to get rid of it.
Aunt Kate had been living alone in the Sierras for twenty years when I had to help her move to a nursing home. By then she knew most of the neighbors on her road; summer people with boats and gas barbecues, and many year-round, like her, sometimes sharing snowplows, woodpiles, and apple harvests.
That sounds pleasantly communal, but in my experience mountain people are more often than not a bit off-kilter. Kate’s nearest neighbor, who had bought land from her original parcel, also had a share in her well and the spring, and he did not like the feckless way she watered the plants on her property, or the spewing fountain she had installed amid her daffodils. He put up a no-trespassing sign that she could see from her kitchen window, and a barbed wire fence with fiercely yapping dogs behind it. What this had to do with drought or riparian rights was unclear, but it definitely wasn’t friendly. A paunchy guy in a baseball cap, he liked to patrol his property line in a sort of souped-up golf cart. Kate did threaten to take action if he should ever emerge from behind the fence. I don’t think that she would have shot him, but she did have a hot temper, and she owned that gun.
Kate’s revolver, called the Rough Rider, was produced by the Heritage Manufacturing Company, whose mellow catalog notes point out that “Old World gun maker Pietta of Italy starts certain parts for us.” Furthermore, “The very image conjured up is of the rugged men led by Theodore Roosevelt and is almost the spitting image of the Single Action Army [revolver] still being carried by some troops during the Spanish-American War.”
About that time, I happened to watch Ken Burns’ Roosevelt epic. FDR and Eleanor were major icons in my family, but not so Teddy and his strenuous ways and words. “Aggressive fighting for the right is the greatest sport in the world,” he said. The Spanish-American War of 1898, that “splendid little war,” only lasted ten weeks, but some have seen it as the end of the Spanish Empire and the beginning of the so-called American century. In any case, the image of Roosevelt charging up and down San Juan Hill on horseback (amid the foot soldiers) eventually got him to the White House.
Another such image comes to mind, of George W. Bush, in 2003, fully kitted out in a flight suit on the deck of an aircraft carrier flying the banner “Mission Accomplished,” and declaring the Iraq war over, a bit prematurely.
Barack Obama had too much dignity and good sense to have provided similar photo opportunities regarding the expanding U.S. military engagement in Syria and Iraq. (In fact it, in 2014 it didn’t even have a name yet, noted the Wall Street Journal. Does it now? The War Against Islamic State?)
Still, another kind of visual embarrassment attached to the bombing of a hitherto unknown terrorist menace in northwestern Syria. The defense department announced the assault, providing a colorful but vague map that was astutely deconstructed by Daniel Brownstein.
Looking at that map, you would never know that the cluster of eight bombings probably devastated the Ancient Villages of Northern Syria, coincidentally eight in number, UNESCO sites with well-preserved remains of Byzantine and Christian settlements from the first to the seventh centuries.
Built of stone instead of wood, the remnants of these villages make the tarted-up ghost towns of the American Wild West seem fairly pathetic. The Sierras are full of Gold Rush ghost towns, and my aunt Kate used to like to visit the one nearest her, of which little was left but an old hotel with a mahogany bar and a big mirror adorned with antlers and a couple of fancy old rifles.
One summer night, warm for the Bay Area, a visiting friend was asleep in the upstairs room with the crowded closet described earlier—but long before I deposited Aunt Kate’s revolver there.
Sometime after midnight I heard a crash of shattering glass, and guessed that it was the neighbors recycling after a party. A bit later I heard some loud talk in the guest room, and then a peremptory knocking on our bedroom door. A very slender, very dark young man entered and said, improbably, “This is a stick-up!”
There was enough light to see him gesturing with what looked like the barrel of a gun in the pocket of his windbreaker. “Get up,” he said. He marched the three of us downstairs and out the front door. “Get moving,” he said, “and don’t look back.” We walked slowly down the block, turned the corner without hearing a shot, and went immediately to wake a neighbor to call the police. (The first neighbor could not be roused, but that’s another story.)
The police arrived and cordoned off our block with yellow tape and a row of squad cars. We were deposited at the police station, where we sat barefoot in our nightclothes, waiting to be told what was going on. The intruder had decided to dig in. He threw various items out the upstairs window onto the street—bags holding kitchen knives and fridge photos—and announced his demands to the police below: to be given possession of our house and the Toyota in the driveway, and to be admitted to the University of California.
This was 1992, shortly after the Rodney King riots in Los Angeles, and the Berkeley police were being very, very careful. Eventually, towards dawn, the intruder opened our front door, walked to the driveway with the car keys in his hand, and was immediately arrested and subdued. Later it emerged that he had taken a bath, donned some of our clothes, and believed that he was therefore invisible.
He was unarmed, had only been faking a gun barrel with an empty prescription medicine vial. His father flew out from Baltimore, where the son had gone off his medication, to take him home. We were grateful that nobody had been hurt and the house was more or less intact.
That was a long time ago. I managed finally to turn in Aunt Kate’s pistol at the Berkeley police station near City Hall. The young officer asked if I was willing to have the pistol used in police cadet target-shooting classes. I guessed that hey would have bought another if I had said no.
Aunt Kate’s revolver was probably manufactured sometime between 1986 and 2010, a period when U.S. small-arms production included over 98 million pistols, revolvers, rifles, and shotguns—for domestic sale alone. Would this total include firearms promised and/or delivered by the U.S. to the “moderate” Syrian rebels, “vetted,” of course? Or perhaps they would have been incorporated in export figures. Possibly, arms shipments “secretly” authorized by Congress would not figure at all in production totals? What about drones? So many questions.
Some say that if the U.S. had armed the rebels in Deir ez-Zor, the town would not have fallen to ISIS. Some say that ISIS is using U.S. weaponry it has taken from rebels it has “pacified.” Whichever account is correct, the results are essentially the same.
We all know that statistics are fungible according to their source. But information from every source imaginable shows that the U.S. is far and away the largest producer of arms in the world. Domestically we have about nine guns for every ten citizens, a total of about 270 million. How many wars worldwide are being waged with U.S. weaponry (if not with U.S. boots on the ground)?
That folksy expression “boots on the ground” dates from General William Westmoreland and the United States’ misadventures in Vietnam, so painfully documented by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick.
On the other hand, military research has, rather famously, given the civilian world the Internet, and GPS. Current DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) projects include the mother of all recycling programs, re-use of retired satellite parts into new “on-orbit assets.” DARPA has in the past been known as ARPA, omitting the “Defense” for political expediency. One year its name was changed and changed back three times.
DARPA, through its MANTRA program (Materials with Novel Transport Properties) is also working on a portable desalinator that will allow troops in the field to transform salt water into fresh water.
A very small percenage of our planet’s water supply is drinkable freshwater, which can pose problems for a military which must deploy to the far corners of the earth when the president and/or Congress say so. These areas are often hot, sandy, and subject to drought. However, lack of fresh water in those far corners is in the long run more problematic for the local peoples than for U.S. troops, who eventually get to go home.
Might there be an algorithm connecting occasions for foreign military intervention with places where drought and poverty are endemic? Could DARPA (through MANTRA) produce larger, if somewhat more cumbersome desalinators, to make such sweeping improvements in a country’s standard of living that our troops—or any others—might not even be needed?
One of the earlier cases of military research directed to civilian uses must be Galileo’s early promotion of his telescope as a useful instrument for the notably martial Venetian Republic. The Venetian arsenal and naval museum testify further along these lines, and the richly detailed globes at the Correr Museum were very much imperial instruments as well. From the looks of their Syrian maps, the U.S. Defense Department couldn’t produce anything similar.
December 14, 2012: Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. Twenty-year-old Adam Lanza on a rampage through the school killed twenty children and six adults. Before heading for the school Adam Lanza killed his mother, a gun collector, in her bed.
For 15 -24 year olds, the ﬁrearm homicide rate in the United States more than 40 times higher than in other developed countries. How much is this due to the increased availability of guns across our fruited plains?
The US has the highest gun ownership rate in the world – an average of 88 per 100 people. Yemen, at Number Two, has 54.8 per 100 people. Arms possession doesn’t seem to have improved the national welfare in Yemen either.
The nation watched the funeral for the Newtown dead and grieved, as it will watch the funerals after the Las Vegas slaughter. After Newtown, President Obama wept and vowed reform. But within a few months, the Assault Weapons Ban bill and the amendment to expand background checks on gun purchases were both defeated in the Senate. It seems highly unlikely that the killings will cause President Trump to promise any gun reform, but he’s very sad about this manifestation of “pure evil” at Mandalay Bay, a casino with which he has no connection.
The Andrew Cuomo administration passed a strong gun control act a month after the Newtown tragedy. But soon thereafter, 52 of New York’s 62 counties passed official resolutions in direct opposition to control of assault weapons. Not only did the gun lobby defeat any gun law reforms, but they helped recall two Colorado lawmakers trying to firm up that state’s gun regulations. New laws now let people bring guns into bars, churches, and college campuses. Schools around the country have hired armed guards. There’s more security apparatus in public places, not just in airports but in shopping malls and football stadiums.
California’s senior senator Dianne Feinstein gave her all to get the Assault Weapons Ban passed in April 2014. When it failed, she said that it now fell to the states to take up the issue of gun reform. That month, another unbalanced youth killed six students and himself in Santa Barbara, California. This resulted in a successful campaign to strengthen California’s gun control laws, which have already been described as the strongest in the nation.
Aunt Kate’s Heritage little revolver probably came with a complementary one-year membership in the N.R.A. It’s a curious fact that the National Rifle Association was not founded to fight for so- called constitutional rights to own and use guns. The NRA was founded in 1871 by two Yankee Civil War veterans, including an ex-New York Times reporter, who felt that war dragged on because urban northerners could not shoot as well as rural southerners. Its original purview was “Firearms Safety Education, Marksmanship Training, Shooting for Recreation,” the motto displayed in its national headquarters.
The NRA actually went on to help to write many of the federal laws restricting gun use in the 20th century. In the 1920s and 1930s, the NRA’s leaders helped write and lobby for the first federal gun control laws—the very kinds of laws that the modern NRA now opposes.
Only after a leadership coup in 1977 did the NRA become a powerful political force operating on the premise that more guns are the answer to society’s worst violence. The NRA advocated arming commercial airline pilots after 9/11 and teachers after Sandy Hook, while opposing new restrictions on gun usage.
Why am I fixated on Aunt Kate’s little pistol? (22LR & 22Magnum cartridges, genuine cocobolo grip). My own spouse still has, salted away somewhere, a few of the antique rifles that he collected as a boy. Of all the guns in the world, Aunt Kate’s is the only one I have been able to take out of circulation.
(For more on the history of gun control, see Adam Winkler, Gunfight: the Battle over the Right to Bear Arms in America.)