Wednesday, October 24, 2012

A Furious Instance of Acqua Alta

Tilting toward a bridge      photo: Larry Castek
Before anyone gets too worried by the title of this post, I should admit up front that acqua alta, for all the attention it receives, typically presents no danger to visitors.

Though, as I mentioned in a post some time ago, a fair number of visitors seem to expect something rather dramatic. Not long after the deadly tsunami in Japan, a Japanese visitor to my friend's lace shop asked about aqua alta itself as if it too were prone to crash upon the city with furious destructive force.

In fact, there's usually nothing furious about acqua alta.

The same, however, can't be said about all gondolieri--as an incident that my wife Jen witnessed last week on the season's first day of acqua alta attests.

She was walking on Fondamenta dell'Osmarin, headed in the direction of the leaning tower of San Giorgio dei Greci, when she heard, first, a loud awful scraping sound, then, an explosion of Italian curses.

She turned to find that a gondola with a load of five passengers and a young gondoliere in his twenties had gotten stuck beneath a bridge.

You see, the acqua alta had greatly reduced the clearance beneath the city's bridges and the only way a gondola--with its elevated silver ferro upfront and its elegant risso in back--could pass beneath some of them was at a tilt of 45-degrees.

Apparently, this particular gondola fell a few degrees short of the mark.

Its gleaming ferro was stuck fast against the brick underside of the bridge and its pilot was apoplectic. So much so that the only language he could muster at first was Italian. Which was certainly fortunate, as his passengers appeared to speak only English and were spared full comprehension of the curses and insults he directed toward them--though not, alas, their volume or force.

Among the kinder things he repeated was, "Cicciona! Muovati!" Now, while ciccia--as I wrote about in a post last year ( a term of endearment, roughly equivalent to "dumpling," cicciona basically means "fatso". "Move it, fatso!" is what he was saying, singling out one unfortunate woman with his extended arm as the cause of all his misery.

For the only way to get the gondola to the proper tilt to pass underneath a bridge during acqua alta is for all of its passengers to be properly arranged along one side (as in the photo at top). Perhaps the woman in question shifted her position at the last moment. Or perhaps the blame really lay with the gondoliere himself, for underestimating the limited clearance, and for not properly arranging his passengers as they approached the bridge.

Wherever the blame lay, the end result was one extremely unpleasant gondola ride for everyone involved. As well as an extended bit of spontaneous canal-based theater for the ever-growing crowd that paused upon the fondamenta to watch. At a certain point the young gondoliere gathered the tatters of his wits and English language skills about him, addressed his passengers in a more productive (if hardly more polite) manner, and after much scraping and struggling, eventually shoved his gondola free of the bridge.

The gondola's ferro was badly scraped up, its risso splintered.

The youthfulness of the gondoliere, as well as something about the nature of his reaction, made Jen think that the gondola did not even belong to him.

We can't be sure about that, but it's not hard to imagine the indignant account he gave of this disaster to his fellow gondolieri (those damn tourists!), nor is it hard to imagine the mockery he must still be receiving from his colleagues a week later.

Nor is it hard to imagine his unfortunate passengers' account of their harrowing ride. Did they pay full price? Did they file a complaint?

In any case, I present the anecdote as a warning of one particular acqua-alta-related hazard, and with the suggestion that if you're intent on taking a relaxing ride in a Venetian gondola it's probably best to avoid doing so when the water is at its height. There's nothing romantic about being herded to one side or the other of a gondola like so much high-paying ballast.


  1. This happened to some friends I was with in September last year. I seem to remember it was Ponte Paglia on the Molo but I think that would be too high to cause problems. Their gondolier was older and more experienced. Much hilarity and great dinner party story.

    1. Did you actually get stuck, Andrew, or did you just have to all gather on one side to get the gondola safely beneath the bridge?

    2. I wasn't accompanying them on the gondola but I understand they were shuffled about but still scraped the bridge. There were one or two in the party who could be considered ciccia if not cicciona!

    3. Well, if they were laughing about it and recounting it with pleasure, Andrew, it sounds like they were lucky to have a much better & kinder gondolier than the unfortunate group Jen saw. And I suppose ciccie and cicci, as well as ciccione and ciccioni are simply an occupational hazard, which gondoliers learn to adapt to. Their boats are certainly large enough to accomodate people of all sizes.

  2. So it's back to San Trovaso for that unfortunate vessel!

    Just yesterday I've seen a most idiotic depiction of the flooded Venice. Somehow there is a tsunami and it rises from Castello to flood San Marco, not from Il Bacino where it's origin would have been also fantastic but just a bit less so.

    1. Yes, Sasha, I was wondering what the turn-around time would be on an emergency repair of that sort.

      As for that image: I guess that when the monster waves come from the Adriatic they'll sweep right over Castello as if it weren't there.

  3. I would bet that the bridge was the Ponte del Diavolo. I saw a similar incident there in October 2010. But the gondola did not get stuck.

    1. I asked Jen and it seems you're right, Bert. Seems that when it comes to gondolas at least, that bridge is very aptly named.

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