Sunday, March 12, 2017

In Memoriam: Flavio Franceschet, Venice's Great Cultivator

Flavio Franceschet, in his customary straw hat, at a vendemmia lunch on San Michele in September 2013

Venice's rate of depopulation has gotten to the point that it's no exaggeration to say that the city really can't afford to lose a single resident, either through relocation or death. But the loss of certain residents such as Flavio Franceschet, who died at the beginning of last week and was laid to rest yesterday on the cemetery island of San Michele, tears a particularly large hole in the social and cultural fabric of the living city.

Trained as an architect, Flavio was a popular and influential teacher at la Scuola Media Statale Pier Fortunaro Calvi. But this was just one important role among the many he played in the life of the city. He was also instrumental, for example, in the transformation of a large unused greenhouse at the edge of the public gardens (originally constructed in 1894 as a tepidarium) into La Serra dei Giardini, a cultural and educational center whose exhibitions, programs, and nursery make it a valuable resource for both residents and visitors, and whose pleasant grounds and cafe offer an appealing respite from the stones of Venice.

Mourners fill the cloister of San Michele yesterday

He was also the founder and president of Laguna nel bicchiere, a non-profit association dedicated to the re-invigoration and cultivation of forgotten vineyards around the lagoon: such as the one within the old cloister walls of the cemetery island of San Michele. This is where I first met Flavio, during one unforgettable vendemmia (grape harvest) I wrote more than one post about in September of 2013.

A lot could be written about Laguna nel bicchiere, which at one and the same time was both all about the wine and about so much more than the wine. As was the case in every association or program or event that Flavio created or was involved in, there was both a profound commitment to tradition, to being deeply grounded in the oftentimes ancient culture of the thing, along with an equally profound commitment to the creation of something new and vibrant and now. In Laguna nel bicchiere the past was retrieved as something that could become a vital part of both the present and a future. For all his knowledge of the past, I never detected anything nostalgic about Flavio. He always seemed quite alive in the present, where he was busy cultivating not just grapes, olives, and gardens, but a well-grounded sense of community that seemed to offer the last best hope for a living future in Venice and its lagoon.
A handout from yesterday's service

I noticed this broader project of cultivation in everything he did; it informed the seasonal feste he created in Campo Bragora, as well as the educational program around the cultivation of the lagoon's olive groves that Laguna nel bicchiere developed along with Slow Food Venezia. A program which brought the city's school children to olive groves on the islands of San Servolo and Sant' Elena, and involved them in the year-long process that would eventually result in olive oil, whose sales proceeds would be donated to fund gardens in Africa.

In fact, Flavio had been at my son's elementary school last Monday to talk to students about the cultivation of olives, and was scheduled to meet them two days later in the olive grove of San Servolo.

But on Tuesday he suddenly fell and ill died in the offices of the Comune, where he'd gone to see about extending the agreement with the city whereby the vineyard and old cantina on San Michele would continue to be cultivated by Laguna nel bicciere for educational and community purposes. Which, alas, is not assured in a city where the interests of private outside developers usually trump those of resident citizens. Indeed, the predatory, commercially-minded atmosphere of City Hall was why some people at the funeral yesterday referred, not entirely in jest, to Flavio as a martyr on behalf of Venice's residents and culture.

But the mood was mostly celebratory yesterday, with live music and song, and speeches, and even some juggling. The turnout, not surprisingly, was large. So large, in fact, that before the 11 am start time ACTV (which runs the vaporetti) had to run a Corsa Bis--a special Linea-1-style vaporetto service from Fondamenta Nove to San Michele--just for the mourners. Just as it does for special events such as the Feste della Salute or Redentore, or a Venezia Lega Pro soccer game.

The cloister of San Michele, yesterday

One of Flavio's two adult sons recalled that his father used to tell him when he was a child that a setback or difficulty or source of frustration was like a gioco, a game, which it was our challenge to figure out. Life could also be like a battle, but the point was to keep finding a way forward, attentive to and alive in the world around us, with good cheer, and openness, and the pleasure that comes with working with others. 

Laguna nel bicchiere, along with other projects Flavio created, will continue without him. Though it won't be easy, as Flavio was--as many people remarked yesterday--un personaggio. What in English might be called a "character;" and so much himself, and singular, and knowledgeable, and insightful, and amiably persuasive, as to be irreplaceable. Among the things I admired most about Flavio was that he somehow managed to be a commanding presence without being in any way domineering. He wasn't showy or overbearing, dictatorial or egocentric. He was a reassuring and thoughtful presence, spirited, creative, and effortlessly committed, in whose company good things became possible. In the last couple of years I kept missing Laguna nel bicchiere activities I'd intended to go to, but I was always happy to run into Flavio in the street around town. The mere sight of him, a few words, would remind me of living Venice, and of those like him who willingly, fervently, bear so much of the burden of keeping it alive, and of imagining--and advocating for--its future. Yesterday at San Michele, in a celebration of his life, there was a widespread commitment to pick up where he left off.


A complete list of my blog posts on Laguna nel bicchiere and other activities created by Flavio gives a hint of his importance to the life of the city:

Laguna nel bicchiere:

Community festivals in Campo Bragora:

An empty bottle of Laguna nel bicchiere's "Barefoot Archangels" wine with memorial candles in the cantina of San Michele, yesterday


  1. So sorry for your loss this week...thank you for sharing a little about him.

    1. He was one of those Venetians about whom most visitors knew nothing, Helen, even if they happened, for example, upon the feste he organized in Campo Bragora--but he made the city a more livable and lively place

  2. Thank you for this loving tribute to a man who was obviously loved and admired by many Venetians. There have been many messages about him on Facebook.

    1. He was the kind of person who managed to make the place he lived better and more interesting and more fun--what place isn't happy to have those rare people with the ability to do that?