The Devil Had Him by the Hair

Who did the devil have by the hair? And what did he have planned?

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The Palazzo Contarini delle Figure where Casanova visited a hairdresser who saved him from committing murder.

Check out this post on Dianne Hales’ blog site Becoming Italian Word by Word. Dianne is the author of La Bella Lingua and Mona Lisa: A Life Discovered. On her blog she shares insights into the Italian language, which she fell in love with years ago and continues her affair with it to this day. Dianne invited me and my translator, Tiziana Businaro, to share some insights into Casanova’s life by looking more closely at the Italian language.

Becoming Italian blog, featuring Casanova

Thank you, Dianne, for sharing your space with us! I hope my readers will find more fun posts on her site. Her recent posts include why the Ferrari is an Italian stallion and how Romeo and Juliet became Italy’s most famous lovers. Check it out and improve your language skills while having fun!

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Venice, My Muse: An Interview with Vonda Wells

I met Vonda Wells when she ordered a copy of my book Free Gondola Ride. She was then formulating her tour company, A Beautiful Woman in Venice, and gave me the idea to write a book about these remarkable Venetian women. Since then, we’ve become friends and met up in New York and Venice. Vonda also owns and operates her business A Time for Karma and goes to Venice every chance she gets. She is a diehard Venetophile, as you’ll learn in this interview with her.

How has Venice seduced you? 

My life changed forever the first time I went to Venice. For me that pivotal moment came when it was time to leave and my reaction was visceral! It was as though someone was tearing away a part of me, my heart was breaking and I couldn’t stop crying. I use the word “addiction” more than seduction regarding Venice as I must continue to return year after year!

What do you never fail to do in Venice?  

At the beginning of every trip I go “say hello” to St. Mark’s Square, then at the end of every trip I return to sadly say goodbye.

Saying hello to St. Mark’s Square with one of her tour groups

What is your Venice soundtrack? 

It is without a doubt “Venice Proud and Pretty” by George Fenton from the Dangerous Beauty soundtrack. I know the movie is not the most accurate, nor was it filmed in Venice but this is the song that plays in my head the moment when I first see Venice again. (Click the link to listen now and have a soundtrack while you read!)

Venice Proud and Pretty

One of the period-accurate gondolas from Dangerous Beauty.

Walk or take a boat?  

I have to decide?  Both!  While most of my exploring Venice is by foot, there are some things that can only be seen by boat. The ideal situation which I have never enjoyed is to know a Venetian with a boat so that you can see all those places that the tourists never get to see.

Spritz or Bellini? 

I’m a Bellini girl.  I love the fresh peach with the prosecco. It is sweet and just enough alcohol to make you happy. The spritz is so beautiful and very Venetian but I never liked the taste of the Aperol.

Not everyone likes spritz!

What do you do when you’re alone in Venice? 

Venice is my favorite place to be alone! I enjoy doing everything there alone, as well as with friends, but I especially enjoy walking around at night or even in the earliest part of the morning before the sun comes up. Venice is so different by night than by day. It is far less crowded and very peaceful. Sometimes I get up early and to out to photograph the city as it wakes for the day. It is so lovely when it is quiet before the crowds arrive.

Vonda, when she’s not alone in Venice, leads tours for other women.

If you could have dinner with any Venetian, living or dead, who would it be and why? What would dinner be? 

There are so many historic Venetians that I would love to have a conversation with!  So many remarkable women and also men that it is hard to pick one!  However, and I know it is cliche, but I would love to have dinner with Giocomo I once stayed at the Ca’ Bragadin Hotel which is located in a palazzo where Casanova lived a lot of the time. I was alone and was so hoping for a rendezvous with his ghost, but alas, I had no such visit. I would love to know his true appeal. I’m sure there would be a lot of witty conversation, he was educated and had many life experiences to discuss. But I am curious what so many women found irresistible about him. Was it his appearance? The way he carried himself?  Was it the way he treated women? His imagination or his stories? Or was it that a woman could sense his appreciation or admiration in general of women? I would like to know what this man possessed that set him apart from other men. I don’t think I would care what was on the menu but I would like our dinner to be in one of the small private casini that he loved to utilize for his romantic dinners.

Ca’Bragadin from the canal side.

What would you do with $30,000 U.S. to spend in Venice? 

If I had that much money to spend on a trip to Venice, I would fly First Class, and I would stay for an extended amount of time, do I dare to say…months?? I would make sure to book an apartment with a canal view, maybe even the Grand Canal.

Would you rather be a courtesan or a noblewoman? Make your case.  

I think I would prefer the life of a courtesan. The noblewoman had limited life choices and she most likely would be married to a man she did not desire. The courtesan had options such as education and financial independence, while still having to sleep with sometimes less desirable men.  Since that is the common denominator for both of these women I think the other advantages would make life more bearable than the virtual imprisonment of the noblewoman. The courtesan could also maintain relationships with a man she did in fact desire where the noblewoman could not. I speak in general terms as I’m sure there were some noblewomen who had nice relationships with their husbands and also many courtesans who had horrible existences.

A depiction of Veronica Franco from Dangerous Beauty, which makes the courtesan’s life look pretty good.

How can readers learn more about you and your creative pursuits? 

It was during one of my trips to Venice that I got an idea for a book on the many historic Venetian women who did something positive to make a difference. I remain passionate about my idea, but since I am not a writer, I was happy to find and collaborate with Kathleen Gonzalez who has done an amazing job with A Beautiful Woman in Venice, the book. My part of the project is the to take women to Venice to visit sites related to these women and to discuss their accomplishments. All information on myself and my tours can be found at abeautifulwomaninvenice.com.

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And a final note:

To encourage more engagement with readers, I’m also offering a raffle! If you “like” this post on WordPress or Facebook and also leave a comment, your name will be entered into a raffle to win a copy of my book A Beautiful Woman in Venice. Deadline: September 30 at midnight Pacific time.

 

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Prepared to Hate

I was prepared to hate it. Crass commercialism. The death of a historical building.

And instead I found a better outlook, and I don’t just mean the spectacular view of the Grand Canal and Venice’s rooftops. I adjusted my own outlook to appreciate the renovation of the Fondaco dei Tedeschi.

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The view to the right…

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…and the view to the left.

After taking the escalator or elevator up to the top floor, you pass through this glass sun room, which is currently home to an artistic light exhibit. This room also allows light into the courtyard below while protecting it and the shops from rain and weather. Guards and guides wearing white shirts and ties direct you to the viewing platform outside. What are they afraid of?

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It’s a pretty spectacular view, right in the heart of the city. And it’s free and welcoming. I remember many years that I came to this building to buy stamps or mail packages–for the first twenty years I came to Venice, this was the main post office. I loved visiting the post office because the building was so grand, with its ascending floors and curved porticos and wellhead in the center courtyard. Too grand for just a post office, really. I always felt like I was sneaking into a place I didn’t quite belong, furtively peeking around as I stood in line, trying to remember the awkward Italian word for stamps. Yet I was appalled when I heard that the building was bought by Benetton and would be turned into either a hotel or shops. Venice needs more shops? Preposterous. But look at it–who wouldn’t want to have a coffee and a pastry here and ogle some lovely shoes?

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The view looking up…

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…and the view looking down.

The goods being sold are high-end, personally not my cup of tea, but certainly high quality and a nice variety. My Venetian friends said that the development company made a point of hiring local Venetians for the restoration work as well as for the shop clerks. Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas preserved much of the original Renaissance style and flair. And here was the best part: certain shop space is set aside for handmade Venetian crafts, such as jewelry, paper, leather goods, and other homegrown artisan work.

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So I was all set to rail against the new Fondaco, but instead it sort of won me over. My two friends who showed it to me said they went through the same curious transition, so at least I know I’m not alone.

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Yes, I’ll admit I couldn’t help smiling.

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Join Me in Little Italy!

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Put October 1 on your calendar for the Little Italy Street Festival! Admission is free, and all proceeds help fund the Little Italy Museum and other local projects. Live music all day, wine tasting and food vendors, plus lots of hand made crafts. I’ll be there from 4:00 to 8:00 with my books and handmade bookmarks featuring Murano glass beads. Looking forward to seeing you there!

Little Italy Festa

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Handmade bookmarks featuring Murano glass beads–and of course I’ll have my books for sale!

My local Little Italy is at the corner of Hwy. 87 and Julian Street. Look for Harry’s Hi Life, which was the original Italian Hotel where many arriving immigrants stayed until they founding housing.

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Meeting Albert

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On this site….

Do you remember seeing this before? In February 2017 I wrote about this plaque on the Calle Scaleter #2235, outside the shop of Monica Daniele. When he visited Venice, Casanovist Marco Leeflang investigated and met Monica, a maker of hats and traditional cloaks or tabarre. I was astonished by this plaque because I know Venice has not been keen to post markers at Casanova sites around the city. (Some friends of mine designed a medallion that they tried to have displayed, without luck.) Marco had a lovely visit with Monica and learned that her husband, Albert Gardin, is a staunch Venetophile and Casanovist, though unfortunately Albert was not there for that meeting.

Marco and his wife, with Monica Daniele in the middle.

I had hoped to meet Monica and Albert while in Venice this summer, and I carried this photo of Marco with Monica as a sort of calling card. Marco also asked me to see if Albert knew anything about a Czech TV documentary being made about the bones of Casanova. On the day I found the shop, Monica was away, and instead I spent an hour with the indomitable Albert Gardin.

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I got the story of the plaque: Albert and Monica put it up because they believe the shop was the site where Casanova asked for help finding a doctor to attend to Senator Bragadin on the fateful night that the senator had a stroke after leaving a ball at the nearby Palazzo Soranzo. In Volume 2, Casanova wrote, “I disembark. It was at the bridge by the Calle Bernardo…. I run to the coffeehouse, someone shows me where a surgeon lives.” If you look closely at the signage above the hat shop, it reads “Torrefazione Razionale del Caffe,” which basically means it was a coffee roasting shop.

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This is the “del caffe” part.

Albert says that when Monica took over the shop years ago, the local old-timers said it had been a coffeeshop for ages. Albert adds, “It smelled like coffee in here for many years.” In Casanova’s day, a canal ran in front of the Palazzo Soranzo, (though this was later filled in to become a rio terá), and then it took a turn and went under the Ponte Bernardo, just a few feet from the shop. Bragadin’s gondola would have passed nearby, and it’s conceivable that Casanova could have jumped out to race to this late night caffe to find help. There doesn’t seem to be any written evidence or documentation to prove this location, but the story sounds plausible. Anyone want to go search the archives?

A photo of Albert, taken from his Facebook page

Albert Gardin is an enthusiastic Casanovist. When he learned a bit about how I had written about Casanova, he immediately pulled out Casanova’s translation of Homer’s Iliad into Veneziano dialect and also a volume in Toscano, both new editions that Albert edited. Albert flipped to a page that showed Casanova’s handwriting, then flipped ahead to show how that handwriting had changed over time. Albert then handed me the book. “You hold this and look at the words,” he said, as he launched into reciting the first three stanzas from memory, in a deep, sonorous, lilting voice.

Samples of C’s handwriting

Albert could recite whole chunks of this from memory.

In case you want to hear this too, I found this video on YouTube of Albert reading from this translation at an event commemorating Casanova’s birthdate in 2011: Albert reads Homer in Veneziano

I felt a little like I did as a child, the first time I would visit a friend at his house–you know, the kid brings out all his favorite toys to show you, bustling with enthusiasm, wanting you to like what he likes. Albert was like that, as he told me about the time some of Fellini’s Casanova actors came into the hat shop. He rummaged in a box and pulled out a postcard for me showing Donald Sutherland as Casanova.

The Fellini postcard that Albert published

We talked more about Casanova’s life and works, at which time Albert pulled out a book of C’s essays on Voltaire. I’ll admit I’ve read about these essays, but I haven’t read the essays themselves, so Albert pressed the book into my hands and said, “For you. You keep it.”

One of many gifts from Albert.

Next he rummaged in the card box again and pulled out a portrait of himself as the next Doge. He and colleagues had started a campaign for Venice to separate from Italy, with Albert as Doge #121.

The postcard portrait of the next doge

Albert dressed to be the next doge.

The movement for a separate Veneto

Every doge has a commemorative coin.

In fact, the movement is still going on. Check out Albert’s Facebook page (search his name, and where I pulled some of these photos) or google “Albert Gardin Doge” to get more of the story. Here’s a recent article from Il Gazzettino with more details: Il Gazzettino article

Albert is quite emphatic about his beliefs. I got caught up in his enthusiasm as we conversed, and he opened up so many new topics to me. Next, we talked about his dear friend, Mario Stefani, a prolific poet who committed suicide in 2001. Albert made me repeat Stefani’s name a number of times until I got it right–the accent falls on the first syllable. Albert rummaged once again until he found a book of Stefani’s poems, and he treated me to another reading. A bust of Stefani sat on the nearby table, nearly obscured by hats and books. Albert used the word “chaotic” to describe the scene. I gestured at the chaos and said, “This is not proper,” so Albert removed the Iliad from Stefani’s head, cleared the hats to the side, and moved the sculpture to the front. Then he got the idea to pose with it.

And eventually, of course, we got around to talking about John Berendt’s book City of Falling Angels, a 2005 nonfiction bestseller where Berendt basically uncovers dirt on many people living in Venice. Including Albert Gardin. I saw a copy of the book sitting on another table amidst more hats. Tipped off by Marco, I had re-read Chapter 13, “The Man Who Loved Others,” before my trip, knowing I might be meeting Albert and his wife Monica; though I had thoroughly enjoyed the book when I first read it, this time I had a much more disquieting feeling, seeing Berendt’s “characters” as real people shaped into a story line. Berendt writes about Mario Stefani’s suicide and Albert’s role in the ensuing police investigation. Berendt’s portrait of Albert is not always flattering.

“So how did you feel about this chapter?” I asked him softly, hoping that our hour-long friendship was ready for this question.

“Very angry,” he said. He pointed to Berendt’s photo on the book’s back cover and asked me, “Look at this man. What difference do you see between us?”

How was I to answer that? I had met Albert only an hour before, and I certainly didn’t know John Berendt. But I responded that Albert is very warm and kind; “gentile” was the word I used. Albert replied, “Lui é gentile,” meaning “he is kind.”

A bit ruffled, I added, “I think you have a good heart.” This was a tough conversation for me, considering that my Italian is far from perfect and I was on a sensitive subject. Albert said that he himself is a man of the people, while Berendt is perhaps more of a dilettante, a bourgeois.

I asked Albert’s permission to write this blog post and to share the photos I took. “Yes, as long as you write something nice,” he said with a smile and a twinkle in his eye. “And you must promise to send me the photos.” I did so, though I’m sad to say that he hasn’t responded. Albert asked if he could keep the photo of Marco Leeflang with Monica Daniele, and then I remembered that I had Marco’s question for Albert. “So, do you know about this Czech TV show about Casanova’s bones?” I asked. “I heard that maybe Venice is asking for the bones to be moved from the castle grounds at Dux back to Venice.”

“But no one knows where these bones are,” he said. “We do not know which is the correct body of Casanova, so how can it be moved?”

Albert and I, surrounded by hats and cloaks and books. He holds C’s translation in his hand.

When preparing this post, I found a Facebook page under the name “Giacomo Casanova” that has a post featuring Marco’s letter to Monica, as well as announcements about Albert’s work. I’m guessing that Albert might own that page. Check it out. Monica’s hat shop is almost right across from the well-known restaurant Da Fiore, and in Walk #1 of Seductive Venice, so it’s easy to find and worth checking out as well. I’d love to meet Monica next time, but I’ll certainly treasure my encounter with Albert Gardin.

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Gondola Stuff: Ae Do gondoete

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From my collection of gondola stuff: a small wine pitcher, apparently from a restaurant called Ae Do Gondoete (a name in Venetian that means “at the two little gondolas”). Does anyone know if this restaurant is still around? Or where it used to be? I searched and found Alle Due Gondolette, a trattoria in Cannaregio on Fondamenta de le Capuzine, but I’m not sure if that’s the same place with its name in Italian rather than Venetian. If you’re hungry in Venice, go by and ask them!

Logo from Alle Due Gondolette

I found this pitcher in a tiny, cluttered antique store near Campo SS. Apostoli, though sadly, the shop is now closed. I’m too afraid to actually use it, though. What do you think–do I need to serve my wine from this beautiful little gem? That painting of the gondola is delicious!

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A Title in Question

The gondoliera in Venice

“First Female Gondolier in Venice”

Who holds that title? Why is this question important (or not?) What does it signify? Why are we asking?

The question became pertinent again this summer when RadioLab aired its story “The Gondolier” about Alex Hai, the first woman to hold the title. Here’s the link:

The Gondolier podcast

I don’t want to ruin their storytelling by giving away the arc of it, which is handled masterfully. However, many of you already know a lot about Venice and know about female gondoliers there, specifically Alex Hai and Giorgia Boscola. These women broke the 900 year long tradition of this male-only profession. Spoiler alert: Alex Hai, the first woman to be granted this title, is transgender, has had sex confirmation surgery, and now identifies as a man. The podcast tells this story but doesn’t address the next installment: What about Giorgia Boscola, who was also later hailed as the first female gondolier?

Though Alex first worked as a substitute at the San Moise traghetto and was accepted as one of the crew there, he also faced much prejudice across the city for being a non-Venetian and for being an un-feminine woman. Alex attempted the gondolier license but did not pass the three-part test–which may have been due to prejudice and unfair obstacles put in his way. He never did become fully licensed according to traditional Venetian guidelines, though he certainly rows a gondola and works for a private hotel now. (This summer I spotted him rowing by in his distinctive uniform styled after Venetian Count Girolamo Marcello’s gondoliers; he’s pictured at the top of this post and below in photos from his website.)

Alex Hai’s website

In contrast, Giorgia Boscola earned the traditional gondolier license in 2010. Probably because she’s a native Venetian whose male relatives had been gondoliers before her, she didn’t face the same level of prejudice or obstruction that Alex did. She works out of the San Tomá traghetto station. For some background on Giorgia Boscola, here is a Daily Mail article, followed by a couple photos of her:

Daily Mail: Giorgia Boscola

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Photo of Alex Hai from his current website

I met Alex in 1997 when I got to know about 40 gondoliers during my process of writing Free Gondola Ride, an informal look at gondoliers’ lives and the stereotypes that surround them. At the time, Alex was working at the San Moise traghetto as a substitute and helper and identifying among the gondoliers as a woman. Here’s an excerpt from my book, in the chapter “Invitations and Scoldings,” when I met gondoliers named Andrea and Mimo, who are mentioned in this excerpt. Some of the comments I report here are quite disturbing, indicative of more common attitudes in the 1990s; I know that some of these people have definitely changed their viewpoints (and some of the players I have lost touch with). I hope you’ll read through to the end of this excerpt to see how the conversations and understandings developed.

From Free Gondola Ride:

… Andrea took this question fully in stride. “Yes. I come from a long line of gondoliers. My father was a gondolier and my grandfather, and my grand-grandfather,” he said, holding his hand ever higher in the air to imitate each generation. As we talked, I glanced furtively at the gondolier sitting just to my right—a woman. She wore the standard black slacks and white boatman’s shirt, and her sandy brown hair was cut short over her ears. Lino had pointed her out to me earlier when we were floating down the Grand Canal, saying that she had more male hormones than female. (I met this kind of prejudice against her nearly every time I mentioned her name to other gondoliers.) She was still just a substitute and traghetto worker, not a full-fledged gondolier. I was keenly interested to find out more about her, especially since Stefano had told me that there were no female gondoliers.

The woman gondolier looked over at us at this point. “What are you writing?” she asked me in laconic but perfect English. I explained my project briefly, pointing out that no one had written a book about the gondoliers before. I added (smugly, I must admit) that I had typed up about a hundred pages in my six weeks in Venice. “That is not so much,” she said. I wondered how many books she had written. “And what have you found?” she asked next.

I summarized by saying, “I have written some history of the gondoliers and the gondola, and I have talked to many gondoliers about their lives.” But she impatiently cut me off.

“No, what is your point?” she pressed me. “What is your theme?”

I was a bit taken aback by her forwardness. So far, everyone had simply been encouraging and willing to talk openly about his life. No one had questioned me so pointedly about my project. Wasn’t it enough to interview these guys and write a book that no one had written yet? I stammered, “I want to show that gondoliers are more than just a stereotype, that they are human, too, and come in many types, just like all people, even though people have this idea of them as casanovas.” I trailed off as I noticed a smirk on her face. I decided to try a different tack, thinking that if I could get her to talk about herself, she might feel that she could set me on the right path. “I think you are the first woman gondolier, right?” I asked.

She glanced at me sidelong with disdain. “It is too soon to talk about that,” she nearly spat out, and swung herself out of her chair and over to the traghetto to help ferry customers. For the first time in my many encounters with gondoliers, I had somehow offended one.

After checking with my usual informants, I later learned more about this interesting pioneer. Her name was Alexandra (“If she is a woman,” said Stefano). She was still only an apprentice because she hadn’t passed the rowing tests. Rico told me that she was not very good at rowing, but I suspected sexism as the real culprit. These men didn’t want to allow a woman into their hallowed ranks. In fact, she later brought a legal suit against the fraglia, which dragged out inconclusively in court for a few years.

However, my conversations were all doomed to be cut short: Mimo had spotted me. He bee-lined for me, took my arm in his big, rough hand, and led me away for a drink at the corner bar. Chicco trotted along with us. I still felt a bit disconcerted about my conversation with Alexandra, but with Mimo before me, I had another issue to resolve.

Customers arrived and our conversation ended. Andrea called over his shoulder that he could take me dancing if I wanted, but I declined. Venice’s discos are pathetic, and though I didn’t know his intentions, I also didn’t like the possibility of fending off more advances. I went on my way, not thinking of my conversation with the men, but instead troubled by Alexandra’s disdain and her questions.

A realization was settling over me like a blanket. See, the truth was, she had found me out. What was my point? Why was I here? My initial plan—to interview gondoliers in a journalistic style—had obviously degenerated into a farce. My encounters with them were too often about being hit on. I had given Alexandra an answer, but did I really believe in it any more? Or had the romance of gondoliers, of Venice—romance I sorely needed and missed in my life, I was now admitting to myself—superseded all else? I had surrendered to the gondoliers’ interview terms; what else was I surrendering?

Or maybe, I mused, a book had never been written about the gondoliers because it was impossible to fully divorce their story from the narrator’s. The more time I spent with them, the more I was drawn into their life, into Venice. I had succumbed to this romance. It had changed my story entirely.

***

So back to the question of who is the first female gondolier. The Guardian recently posted this story, which sums up the story trajectory and the title issue and points out that there is also a female sandolo rower. Of the many articles I perused as I crafted this post, this one seemed to be the most informed and unbiased.

The Guardian: “Patriarchy on the Canal”

We can also look at Wikipedia’s description: “Alex Hai (born 1967 in Hamburg)[1] is a transgender man of German and Algerian descent who is regarded as the first assigned-female-at-birth and first openly transgender person to be a gondolier in Venice.” So this grants a new title to Alex. I found it interesting that the RadioLab piece never mentions Giorgia Boscola and only identifies Alex Hai as the first female gondolier.

The idea of identifying the first female gondolier buys into the gender binary way of looking at the issue. As our understanding of gender and sexuality develops and deepens, perhaps it is becoming less important to make the distinction about the first female anything. And yet in A Beautiful Woman in Venice I wrote about the first woman in the world to earn a university degree: Elena Cornaro Piscopia, who was Venetian. Or the first Italian woman to write a novel–Giustiniana Wynne. It’s important to recognize women who break down barriers and who pave the way for equity and inclusion.

What do you all think? I’ll go back to my original questions: Who holds that title? Why is this question important (or not?) What does it signify? Why are we asking?

I’m open to learning new perspectives. 🙂

A Glamour article I kept from years ago, when Alex was hailed as the first female gondolier.

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