What “Saving Venice” means became a problem for me Friday morning, November 17, a cold gray day. With the wind blowing hard down the Grand Canal from the harbor off Salute, a disorderly, cheerful, hoarsevoiced tangle of men, all squat and square in the Venetian style, wearing duffle coats and turtleneck sweaters, gathered under a red flag. A young fellow with a bullhorn gave the cue, and they responded: “Padroni…baroni…fuori i coglioni!” which might be loosely translated,
The bosses, the owners, whatever you call ‘em
The best thing to do is just to de-ball ‘em
These were the port workers of Mestre, Marghera, and Venice, assembled by their trade unions and the political parties which represent those unions. They were protesting against the special law for the protection of Venice, recently passed by the Senate in Rome and just then coming up for consideration by the House; their point was that it was a measure devised by the bosses, for the benefit of the bosses, and against the interests of the working man. Working men they most certainly and obviously were.
All Venetian parades are a trifle comic, since the streets are more than six feet wide only from time to time, and so twisty that you can rarely see more than a few yards ahead. Still, as the crowd headed from Accademia across the Canal and up to Ca’ Giustinian, they made a show of it, with whistles, rattles, and the bullhorn to hold them together. In the end, there were several thousand of them, good humored but with an air of truculence, pushing their way from several different directions into the auditorium.
Their numbers were as much a surprise as their attitude. The special law would authorize the spending of millions of dollars, much of it raised abroad by international committees of culturally minded philanthropists, to redeem Venice from the ravages of time. Before passing it, the Senate had talked about the law interminably; other sections of Italy, I supposed, might be reluctant to spend millions on a single city, but the Venetians themselves would surely be eager for whatever salvation large quantities of money could buy. Yet here they were, protesting in large numbers against being saved. Their protests seem to have had some effect, for in the months since November 17, the special law has moved backward rather than forward through the thick jungle of the legislature.
Venetian hostility to a law aimed at preserving Venetian culture may have struck me as particularly odd since I had just been reading in Machiavelli and Ariosto bitter complaints against the way foreign barbarians were destroying Italian civilization. This parade looked like a gang of native Italian barbarians protesting the efforts of civilized foreigners to preserve something of their cultural heritage.
Venice lost much of her sea empire in the early sixteenth century, and most of her land empire, a little at a time, over the next two centuries. Napoleon wiped her out as an independent state …