Grit and Grazia: A Story of Venice, Voga, and a Few Unwavering Women

A documentary project of Living Venice e VIVA

The Oblivious Barcaruòl

Posted on | November 10, 2008 | No Comments

Chance encounters are commonplace in Venice. People live, work, and commute cheek-by-jowl, the city’s close quarters ensuring constant social contact and a decided lack of privacy.

This summer, while investigating why a certain composer was imprisoned in a monastery on the Giudecca in 1591 (long story), I happened across a fascinating document. It is a fascicle (separate section of a larger publication) containing depositions from witnesses of and participants in a matinada (i.e. a serenade) that took place near the convent La Celestia. The magistrates were concerned about this musical boating party because serenading well-born nuns was not something they could overlook: not in the tense, reform-minded years after the Council of Trent. So, the matter of how and why the burchiello went festively close to La Celestia was a matter of some import, and the magistrates were determined to get to the bottom of it.

They questioned everyone: neighbors, housekeepers, the organizers (a nobleman and two merchant friends), several of the musicians, and, of course, the rowers: for this was a boat party. Just as the musicians’ testimony sheds light on how they plied their trade, so too do the barcaruoli give us a glimpse of theirs. Here, then, is a sneak peak at some of the passages about rowing.

On 5 February 1568 [modo veneto, i.e. 1569], the magistrates who oversaw the monasteries [the Provveditori sopra i Monasteri] asked barcaruol Piero Ravano whether he had recently rowed for a group that was playing music. He answered yes, and described the circumstances:

“A gentleman came, son of messer Jac.r Lion, about fifteen or twenty days ago, and asked me if I wanted to row a burchiello in popa or in prova. I said yes, and he replied to me ˜You will be paid excellently well: and said that I should go at the second hour of the evening [i.e., about 7 p.m.] to his house at S. Gregorio in the Rio di Saloni, that the burchiello would be there. And thus I went, and about fifteen or twenty instruments were brought into the burchiello.”

The interrogators continued the questioning:

INT: Who were those who came on board?

RESP: I knew no one besides that gentleman of Ca’ Lion [who hired him].

INT: Who rowed prova?

RESP: An Isepo who works at the traghetto at S. Gregorio.

INT: What happened after everyone was on board?

RESP: We went alongside the house of Cardinal Pisani, and they played music.

[V-As, PsM, b. 263, 10v]

When asked if there was anyone else in the rio with the burchiello, Piero described how they pulled over to allow a gondola to pass.”A gondola came who delivered on the right bank a gentleman with some of his women.”
INT: Do you know that gentleman?

RESP: No sir. And to make room for the gondola we pulled close to the other side of the canal, on the left [tirassimo da l’altra banda del rio, à  premando].

INT: Did anyone come out of the burchiello and go on top of the cabin [tiemo]?

RESP: Certainly not sir, [no one did] what you suggest, but they all stayed inside. And some played music, and some slept, since it was the eighth hour [i.e. about 1 a.m.].

[V-As, PsM, b. 263, 11v]

Piero, for his part, seems to have thought it was an accident.

INT: Might you know on whose account they played in that location?

RESP: I don’t know a single thing about on whose account it was done, nor do I know who asked that they play. I believe that they played [there] by chance, because we wanted to go in Rio di S. Martin, but we couldn’t because it was too shallow, so we had to to turn around.

INT: Did you see anyone at all on either bank?

RESP: No sir, except for those who were getting out of that gondola.

[INT:] Do you know the fruitseller at S. Gregorio who plays music?

RESP: Yes sir, I know him by sight.

[V-As, PsM, b. 263, 12r]

We’ll never be sure whether Piero knew about the revelers’ true intentions, but the testimony is full of references that still ring familiar today: Celestia, San Gregorio, Ca’ Lion, Cardinal Pisani, Rio di S Martino…that was too shallow to navigate. And at the end of this quote, we get a glimpse of a Venice that then, as now, is a small, dense city full of familiar faces, even if not all of them are known by name. A city marked by chance encounters in the calli, crossing the campi, and certainly, navigating the rii in barca.

And in my case? A chance encounter in negli archivi


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