Venice, Casanova, Gondolas
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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.)
I thought sharks in Venice were a certain abomination. Talk about crazy B movies! And then I saw penguins 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/)
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.
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).
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/
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:
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!
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.
“Where can I read about Casanova’s controversies?” my friend Matthew asked me last week as we prepared to attend a class at Stanford University called “Shady Characters.” Matthew had told me about it and invited me to attend, with the professor’s permission. The course is designed around historical characters who display the “shadow” side of our personalities, as per Carl Jung’s theory. In case you haven’t heard of Jung’s idea, here’s a definition I used with my own students to help them understand this concept:
The shadow is an archetype that consists of the sex and life instincts. The shadow exists as part of the unconscious mind and is composed of repressed ideas, weaknesses, desires, instincts, and shortcomings.
This archetype is often described as the darker side of the psyche, representing wildness, chaos, and the unknown. These latent dispositions are present in all of us, Jung believed, although people sometimes deny this element of their own psyche and instead project it onto others.
Jung suggested that the shadow can appear in dreams or visions and may take a variety of forms. It might appear as a snake, a monster, a demon, a dragon, or some other dark, wild, or exotic figure. (Definition courtesy of http://psychology.about.com/od/personalitydevelopment/tp/archetypes.htm)
Over dinner before class, Matthew and I talked about Casanova. I had to admit that I didn’t know where he could read about controversial topics surrounding Casanova. How could I have spent three years reading and writing about this man and not know all the gritty bits where academics question all his moves? I had spent a couple days pondering the idea, recalling how J. Rives Childs’ biography questioned the veracity of C’s memoirs (and Childs found the accurate dates and places wherever possible to match or “correct” Casanova’s account). There was some controversy about Casanova’s involvement with a woman and six of his friends during Carnevale; in fact, I have written a previous blog questioning the labeling of this event as a harmless prank or as a gang rape. Then a little internet sleuthing turned up an article titled “Queer Casanova”by Ted Emory, which I’ll read soon. But considering that Casanova can be labeled a “shady character” and might represent the darker side of the psyche, where were all the articles where academics analyze these aspects of the man?
I hoped that the Stanford class would give me the opportunity to hear more!
Professor Elliott showed up to class in costume–first in a bautta with the full volto mask, tricorn hat, and cloak. He skulked around and let us take his picture:
He skulked out and returned sans bautta, but with a glass of wine in hand and stood on a chair so we could admire his shoes:
The Professor then regaled us for two hours with the story of Casanova’s life, supplemented with artwork that depicted some of the bawdier scenes as well as portraits of some of C’s lovers. I thought my head would explode. I so rarely get to geek out about Casanova with anyone who will talk about him for more than five minutes. I kept nodding my head, “Yeah, right, I remember that part, Ooh, yeah, this is a good story” running through my head. I’m surprised I didn’t bite through my tongue in my effort to keep silent and not add details to every anecdote Dr. Elliott retold. (I didn’t want to be a boorish guest.) I did slip up at one point, when I couldn’t resist sharing details about Casanova’s casino, his pleasure den in Venice, and the remarkable decorations it had. After I described the octagonal walls, the mirrors, the pornographic Chines tiles, the professor broke in, “That’s enough for now. This is a G rated class.”
But what of the shadows?
My Casanova fire is reignited. I want to search for what others have written about the shadow side of Casanova. Or I want to explore this in writing myself. For example, how did Casanova’s life express the shadow side of his psyche? If the shadow also includes a positive aspect, what is C’s? What did he contribute to humanity? (The main obvious answer I know is his memoirs, which is the longest and most detailed book documenting eighteenth century European travel and culture.) But what else? Maybe his quasi sci-fi book the Icosameron? Has anyone analyzed his sexual predilections in context of his times, in relation to pedophilia or other so-called sexual deviance? What am I missing? I feel like either I’ve missed out on a whole body of Casanova literature, or else everyone is missing out on it because no one has written it.
Please help me out! If you know of some good articles I should read, send them my way. (I’ve already read the entire memoirs and about eight biographies, and I subscribed to l’Intermediaire des Casanovistes while it lasted, so please don’t bother telling me about those resources). Or maybe you want to enter into conversation on these topics and wish to write something yourself, or help me fashion a thesis? I’m interested!