A Slapped Wrist

During our wanderings through the Venetian labyrinth of alleyways, bridges and canals on the south side of the city, we happen upon a box office selling seats for a show called Venezia. Our tickets also buy us a viewing of a documentary video in the theatre, before the live show which tells the story of Venice, taking events from its colourful history.  Both are informative and the show Venezia combines energetic live performances from a cast of 5 players with filmed sequences.  The show is informal but skillfully executed with on-stage costume changes and a fluency and humour that hold the attention throughout.

While there are no historical records that deal directly with the obscure origins of Venice, a mix of tradition and available evidence suggests that the original population of Venice consisted of refugees from Roman cities and from the undefended countryside, who were fleeing successive waves of Germanic invasions and Huns.  Some late Roman sources reveal the existence of fishermen on the islands in the original marshy lagoons.

The buildings of Venice are constructed on closely spaced wood piles. Under water, wood does not decay and the piles penetrate a softer layer of sand and mud until they reach the much harder layer of compressed clay. Wood for piles was cut in the most western part of today’s Slovenia, resulting in the barren land in a region today called Kras, and in some  regions of Croatia.  Most of these piles are still intact after centuries of submersion.

The foundations of the city rest on the piles, and buildings of brick or stone sit above these footings. The buildings are often threatened by flood tides pushing in from the Adriatic between autumn and early spring.

During the 20th century, when many wells were sunk into the periphery of the lagoon to draw water for local industry, Venice began to subside. This sinking process has slowed markedly since wells were banned in the 1960s. However, the city is still threatened by more frequent low-level floods  that creep to a height of several centimetres over its quays  following certain tides.  Indeed, on our last evening in Venice, as we crossed St Mark’s Square to take a vaporetto back to Verity, we were amused to see young Japanese tourists cavorting  in about 15cm of water which was lapping across the square.

Some recent studies have suggested that the city is no longer sinking, but this is not yet certain.   There is a project underway to evaluate the performance of inflatable gates; the idea is to lay a series of 79 inflatable pontoons across the sea bed at the three entrances to the lagoon. When tides are predicted to rise above 110 centimetres, the pontoons will be filled with air and block the incoming water from the Adriatic Sea. This engineering work is due to be completed by 2011.

But a University of Chicago physics graduate has suggested that the best way to protect Venice is to physically lift the City to a greater height above sea level, by pumping water into the soil underneath the city. In this way, some hope, it could rise above sea levels, protecting it for hundreds of years, and eventually the inflatable pontoon project may not be necessary.  It’s a question of balancing the effects of altering tidal patterns in the lagoon and damaging some wildlife with the uplift solution, against the inflatable pontoon approach which, by its very nature, is a temporary solution which would not be expected to protect Venice for more than 100 years.

I find it incredible that countless art treasures have been constructed, or are housed in buildings, in a city that is supported by a submerged forest of tree trunks.    You can be only too aware as you travel the Grand Canal in a vaporetto that the houses on the waterfront virtually have their feet in the water.  Architectural marvels such as the Basilica of San Marco, the Rialto Bridge and the Campanile in Piazza San Marco required hundreds of thousands of the wooden piles to sustain them.

During our visit we have focused most of our sight-seeing in the southern part of the city.  When I leaf through one of the guide books on Verity I am intrigued to find that there is an area in the north known as the Ghetto.  It was an area in which Jews were compelled to live under the Venetian Republic.  What I find most fascinating is that the etymology of the word ‘ghetto’ is Italian.  It is derived from the word ghet, meaning slag, because the island on which the Jewish confinement took place was also where a foundry was situated.  I stumble on this interesting aspect of Venetian history during supper-time on the boat.  Nick has taken another turn at the stove, so it’s omelette time!  Because Nick is particular, the omelettes come from the pan to plate and must be eaten right away.  This makes for a more informal meal-time and as I’m served first, and even though I eat slowly, I finish first too.

As the meal progresses Nick and Mike discuss the finer points of Verity’s plumbing, and I continue to flick through the guide book.  But what I have read about the Ghetto is so interesting to me I ask the others if they knew about it.  I think we are all stunned when one of our number turns to me and says “Jan, I’m interested to know if you think it is acceptable to read a book at the table whilst the rest of us are eating?”  After a floundered reply that I did not think I could contribute much to a discussion on pipework, I sit humbled until I’m allowed to get down from the table.

However you can always turn a situation round and in the quiet of my cabin I hit upon the idea of having an omelette session when we entertain friends to supper after our return.  When we get back to the UK Nick and I have a day to regroup then two of our cherished grandchildren come to stay for a week.  During this time I have rashly arranged for William, Diana, Charles and Susie to come for kitchen table supper one evening.  It’s got to be easy so here it goes.  We start with a simple risotto topped with a trio of tiger prawns, Nick then makes omelettes with fillings to order from a range he prepared earlier, and he’s even bought two cheap pans so he can serve a duo at a time.  With the omelettes there are green and mixed bean salads.  (You can now get frozen Soya beans as well as Broad ones to add to the dried pulses to make the bean salad really green!)  Some cheese follows, then a glass of Beaumes de Venise, with biscotti to dunk, wraps it up.  ‘Simples!’…………….

…………..fortunately, with the recent election a hot topic, there is so much hearty and polarised debate between Nick and Charles, with the rest of us chipping in when we can, there’s no room for sensibilities.  And when they come to leave, Diana is moved to say that she has seen a tectonic shift in William’s views.  It’s a great evening.


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