Chioggia is a different story

Chioggia is a different story. Chioggia is the nineteenth century in its miserable aspect. I went there one day on a motorboat in a pearl-grey fog -- a sinister excursion past a chain of islands that encloses Venice like a cordon sanitaire: the island of the contagious-disease hospital, the island of the tuberculous hospital, the island of the female insane, the island of the male insane. (And it is along here, I have discovered, that Wotton's Orphans' Canal runs -- the executioner's oubliette.) These islands and the wretched lagoon towns strung out along the Lido and Pellestrina are haunted by legends of the remote past -- of the repulse of Pepin, of the repulse of the Hungarians -- and by stories of ghosts and miraculous visitations. Here were the original, imperiled settlements, before the move to Rialto in the ninth century and here begin the hammers and sickles of today.

Chioggia itself must have had a different look before they filled in the main canal, so that automobiles can drive down the broad grey main street. In the old photographs it is like a bigger Burano and it was famous for its rough humors, out of which Goldoni made Le Baruffe Chiozzotte. Now on a grey, foggy day, it is the picture of dereliction. The sails are beautiful, with their curious mystic designs, roses and crescents and cups, in yellow, orange, blue, and watermelon pink, but the town is flyspecked and mangy. The buildings are all peeling; the communal watertaps drip; the paintings are rotting in the gloomy churches. The cats are so thin that they look like a single bone with fur draped loosely around it. The inhabitants are no longer the weatherbeaten, bloused banditi that one sees in the old photographs but greyfaced city denizens, wearing cheap business clothes. The whole town is like a big, secretive nineteenth-century tenement or warehouse, on which hammers and sickles have been scrawled.

It was the scene of the great naval victory of the Venetians over the Genoese in the fourteenth century, when the Venetians, under their intrepid admiral, Vettor Pisani, released from jail for the emergency by popular demand, blockaded the blockaders within the port of Chioggia and waited anxiously for relief from the erratic captain, Carlo Zeno, coming from God knew where -- Crete or the Bosporus. This is the one heroic moment in Venetian history, a long tense moment in which calculation was forgotten and everything was left to fate. Here, uniquely for Venice, individual character marked an event: Carlo Zeno was a bankrupt gambler and troubadour who had been wandering over Europe as a soldier of fortune; Pisani was a choleric patriot, simple, impulsive, athletic, and quick with his fists. Each of these two patricians was reckless in his own way; each was a popular idol and suspect to the oligarchy. As usual, there was a peace party in Venice that favored compromise or surrender, and Pisani was allowed till January 1, 1380 to continue the counter-blockade; if Zeno did not arrive by then, Pisani agreed to give up his strategy, and starving Venice would submit to the hereditary enemy. This fairy-tale bargain had a fairy-tale ending. At dawn on January 1, after more than two months of suspense, five sails were sighted on the horizon, too far distant for the eye to make out whether they were friend or foe. Scouts were sent out in small boats and they watched while a flag was hoisted. The Lion of St. Mark unfurled. The impossible had happened; Carlo Zeno had got the message. Or, as the historian Hazlitt put it, losing his professional restraint: "IT WAS CARLO ZENO WHO HAD COME AT LAST; AND VENICE WAS INDEED SAVED."

The Chioggians themselves took no part in this valorous dream, their town having fallen to the Genoese, who with the help of the Carraresi of Padua sacked it cruelly. The decline of Chioggia dates from this episode. It made a brief sortie into history at the time of the Risorgimento when the Chioggian sailors helped Garibaldi, who was trying to reach Venice, escape from the Austrians into the Ravenna pine forest. The smell of the past is sour here in Chioggia, like rancid pee of the crouching lion on the pillar by the harbor, the lion the Venetians say is a cat.

But Chioggia is a long way from Torcello, which lies on the other side of Venice in the northern lagoons. Torcello is only a few minutes from Burano, however. One steps out of the gondola into the pioneer days of the lagoon. On this flat, treeless island, with its low, desultory vineyards and stretches of meadow grass, broken vertically only by the Cathedral and the tall isolated bell-tower, one is awesomely conscious of history, for the first time in the Venetian ambience. Indeed, there is nothing else here: only the Cathedral, with the little octagonal church of Santa Fosca close beside it, like a nursling, the bell-tower (closed), the provincial museum, a house or so, a Devil's Bridge with a legend attached to it, a few fishermen and museum custodians, and, of course, Harry's Bar. It is easy to imagine the first settlers arriving here on a little boat, led by their bishop with a cross. The little boat, the vast Cathedral -- this is the measure of their piety.

No comments: