Puzzling #4


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“Monstrosity” in the Ghetto


May 26, 1575: In the Ghetto of Venice was born “two twins joined together where the umbilicus should be, and they lie with their heads at each other’s feet. They have all the proper parts: four legs, four arms, etc., except the privates, and instead of the place whence excrements should issue they have a common hole in their belly which has the form of an umbilicus and serves for excretion.”


I came across this story when reading The Ghetto of Venice by Riccardo Calimani (p. 88-89). The above quote isn’t actually Calimani’s description; it comes from Giovanni Gregorio Cremonese, who wrote an inflammatory piece of propaganda predicting dire consequences due to this birth. He titled it Discourse on the Birth of a Monstrosity to a Jewess in Venice. Of course the birth elicited much interest by Jews and Christians alike. This was a period not far out of the Middle Ages, for heaven’s sake. Calimani points out that not only doctors but also astrologers, fortune tellers, and religious leaders took a keen interest, “a perfect example of the way in which science religion, and myth intermingled at that time,” he writes.

Unfortunately, much of this attention was negative. Cremonese, who wrote the treatise about the “monstrosity,” foretold a grave future for the Venetian Jews. “If these twins live,” he wrote, “it will mean the multiplication of infamous vices, and if they die, vengeance on these scoundrels.” Apparently an early conspiracy theorist, Cremonese thought the birth was due to the Jews’ faith. He believed that the Jews had misinterpreted the prophet Daniel about the coming of a Messiah, and that’s why “these monstrosities came to you.” Referring to the birth, he wrote, “From these accidents we may conjecture infidel conspiracies … or crimes being plotted, the abduction of maidens or the taking of some grand personage into slavery or to death.” Not sure why a birth foretells kidnapping, but there you go. Conspiracy theorists haven’t changed much in hundreds of years and are able to connect things in creative ways.


I can’t help but wonder about the parents of these twins. Did the mother and father see a “monstrosity” that might bring them harm? Rabbi Leone Modena, who lived in the late 1500s to early 1600s wrote that “When one Jew is guilty, all are blamed” (qtd. in Lynn Westwater, The Disquieting Voice 208 n96). Certainly the parents weren’t “guilty” of anything, but that’s not how others saw it. Or did the mother and father just see their newborns, their hopes for an heir, their cooing and playful and needy babies? Were their hearts filled with love, or was that edged out by fear?

Because the babies had no genitals, the parents had been unable to have them circumcised according to Jewish law, and that had brought on another portentous prediction that more trouble was coming for the Jews in the Ghetto. The conjoined twins died, as Calimani writes, “to the probable relief of all, Jews and Christians alike, who longed for a return to normality.”

(Both photos are by me. If you wish to read more, Calimani goes into a bit more detail in his book, The Ghetto of Venice, p. 88-89. I also came across this article on JSTOR by Albert Sapadin: http://www.jstor.org/stable/27943368. The drawing of the conjoined twins is from this site: http://10e.devbio.com/article.php?id=113, which discusses a history of such twins, though it doesn’t mention the Venetian ones, perhaps because they didn’t live past infancy.)



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Gondola Mambo

I thought sharks in Venice were a certain abomination. Talk about crazy B movies! And then I saw penguins in Venice!

Sharks in Venice

Sharks in Venice

The Penguins of Madagascar are certainly world travelers. From the Antarctic, they make a  brief sojourn in a Madagascar circus and quite soon find themselves in Fort Knox and then Venice, before heading to Shanghai and New York (among other locals and lots of ocean in between).


If you want a minute and fifteen seconds of “what the…?” kind of fun, watch this clip where they do the “gondola mambo:”


If it makes no sense to see this out of context of the movie, don’t worry–it doesn’t make any sense in the context of the movie, either.

(Movie still courtesy of http://www.thestar.com.my/Lifestyle/Entertainment/Movies/Reviews/2014/11/29/Penguins-Of-Madagascar/)
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A (Venetian) Affair to Remember

Since this is a blog about Venice, I won’t be talking about the 1957 film An Affair to Remember starring Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr. No, I wanted to mention the recent production in Venice of A Venetian Affair, the book by Andrea di Robilant, set to music by Johann Adolf Hasse and performed by the Venice Music Project. It ran for four days in October at San Giovanni Evangelista. A Venetian Affair tells the story of the star-crossed love affair between Andrea Memmo and Giustiniana Wynne, of different social classes so that they would not be allowed to marry. Di Robilant put their story together after his father found love letters in the family’s palace attic–for di Robilant is a descendent of the Memmo clan.

Andrea di Robilant, backed by love letters

Andrea di Robilant, backed by love letters

I’m sorry to have missed the show–I’m a big fan of di Robilant’s work, and I’ve done extensive reading about Giustiniana Wynne. (There’s a whole chapter on her fascinating life in by book A Beautiful Woman in Venice.)  Andrea di Robilant himself read from the letters as part of the performance. He’s a lovely person and was generous in his knowledge when I was researching Wynne. He even treated me to coffee a couple summers ago, probably wanting to see who was this person who kept emailing him with questions.

Liz, the blogger behind DreamDiscoverItalia, posted a detailed description of the show here, a great summary with lots of pics:


Then I heard from my friend Adriano, a Roman and a casanovist, who came up to Venice to see the show. He attended with Nancy Isenberg, a professor in Rome and a premier scholar of Giustiniana Wynne’s life (and also someone very generous with her research to a writer like me). They then attended the after-party with Andrea di Robilant and his wife. It was held at a palazzo and hosted by Princess Caroline Murat, a concert pianist who performed for her guests. Soprano Liesl Odenweller, who had sung Giustiniana’s letters earlier that evening, entertained the partygoers with “La Biondina in Gondoleta,” a song about Marina Querini Benzon. (She’s the one I blogged about previously, who kept steaming polenta in her bosom–see the March 1, 2015 post).

Liesl Odenweller performs

Liesl Odenweller performs

The photos here are by Adriano, with his permission, though I’m not including the ones from the private party. Ah, maybe some day someone will invite me to a palazzo for a party! I’m also hoping that the show A Venetian Affair will be playing closer to home; I’ve heard that it will tour a few US cities, though no dates have been announced yet. Follow it here: http://www.venicemusicproject.it/en/venetian-affair/

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Puzzling #3


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I’ve been reading a lot lately about Venice’s ghetto, and I thought I’d share some interesting details. One item I came across is the strazzaria. This refers to second-hand clothing, and also the shop where it was sold. The Venetian government severely limited what jobs the Jews could have; they were allowed to be money lenders, insurers, doctors, and merchants of some items (though they couldn’t produce them).  You’ll sometimes see the word strazzaria as a street name, indicating that a pawnshop was there.

Here’s a picture I took in the Museo Ebraico in Venice, showing where the pawnshops were located in the eighteenth century:

IMG_7763 IMG_7764

Some strazzaria owners tried to circumvent the severe restrictions. From the book The Ghetto of Venice by Riccardo Calimani, I found this:

“Galliccioli writes: ‘And yet the Jews sometimes ingeniously succeeded in eluding that law too [the law forbidding them to sell new items]. For while actually selling new suits and garments of their own making, in some invisible place they made a tiny spot or other flaw and, having charged the customer for a new garment, they pocketed the money and then told him that in a certain place there was a spot, and in this way they pretended to be able to say that the garment was used if any complaint reached the Magistrates'” (27). Calimani points out that this was a survival tactic in a city that charged its Jewish population an enormous tax for the privilege of living there, plus made them pay for the Christian guards that locked them in at night.

Giacomo Casanova also mentions the Jewish pawnshops in his memoirs, though his experience comes from two hundred years later. Casanova had fallen in love with Caterina Capretta, a young daughter of a merchant who, when he discovered his daughter was being wooed by Casanova, packed her off to a convent on Murano. Unfortunately, the girl was already pregnant with Casanova’s child. The two lovers had found a go-between named Laura who could deliver messages to Caterina in the convent.

One day, Laura rushed to Casanova with the message that Caterina was hemorrhaging due to a miscarriage. Terrified, Casanova rushed to the ghetto to purchase linens to send to Caterina to staunch the blood flow. He wrote in his memoir, “I am scarcely dressed before I have another oar put to my gondola, and I go with Laura to the Ghetto, where I buy a Jew’s whole stock of sheets and more than two hundred napkins, and after putting them in a bag I go to Murano with her” (Vol. 4, p. 5). Laura later described the scene to Casanova and snuck out the bloodied linens. “When I saw the linen which she took out from under her skirt I very nearly dropped dead,” he declared. “It was sheer butchery.” Happily, Caterina survived, and amazingly she kept the secret of her “illness” from ruining her reputation. Casanova was so grateful that he gifted the linens, which were worth a small fortune, to Laura, who faithfully continued to serve Casanova.

Casanova resorted to the pawnshops later in life. He would sometimes pawn his clothing and books to obtain ready cash. In once instance, while he was out of town, his girlfriend Francesca Buschini couldn’t pay the rent and sold some of Casanova’s things at a pawnshop in the ghetto. She wrote to him, “Without you, my dear friend, we would never have known how to pay it” (quoted in Guy Endore’s biography Casanova, p. 312). Casanova never forgave her. His beloved books! His gun! His satin suit and velvet pants! Even the bed sheets!

The Museo Ebraico

The Museo Ebraico

Addendum: One of my readers emailed to say that he couldn’t find any listing in Venice for a street named Strazzaria. Giuseppe Tassini mentions it in Curiosita Veneziane, and Paolo Giordani, who uses Tassini as a prime source for his guidebook Venice, expands on the entry. The street Cale del Strazzariol is behind the church of San Zulian, not too far from Piazza San Marco. Giordani writes, “The guild of the strazzeri (rag merchants) was established in 1419 and then re-organized in 1584, because of the intrusion of outsiders. …This kind of trading could only be carried out by ‘master’ merchants with an official license attesting that they had paid the appropriate duties. …members of the guild gathered in the church of San Zulian at the altar of San Giacomo” (179-180). There were separate laws regulating Jewish merchants overall, though I’m guessing there was some overlap in the laws regulating the used clothing merchants.

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Shady Casanova

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