|Sandro, seated, and Nicola Grossi, rowing, at work on the Grand Canal|
If you've taken a gondola ride in Venice
in the last few years it's quite possible that one of the city's most
knowledgeable guides to its
streets and canals may have been
dozing, unbeknownst to you, beneath your brocaded seat. And if he
happened to pass by you later in the day as you puzzled over a map of
this famously maze-like city, you'd certainly never think to ask him for
help. For one thing, he's easy to miss, as he stands about knee-high to
the average adult and weighs hardly more than 10 pounds. And for
another, he's a black mixed-breed dog named Sandro.
would you ever think if you saw him on a vaporetto
that he could advise
you as to exactly which stop you should get off at in order to reach a
particular destination. But if you were fluent in the language of dogs
he most certainly could, as he is known among Venetians for taking
around town by himself.
Sandro belongs to a
Venetian gondolier, Nicola Grossi, and accompanies him to work near the
Rialto. But loyal as Sandro is, he was never much inclined to spend his
entire day in a gondola. And Nicola, well aware of Sandro's excellent
sense of direction, says he "never felt any need to insist he stay near
me all the time. He's always been a free spirit."
Then Nicola recounts a telephone call he received years ago from the commandante
of a vaporetto
. "Excuse me," the commandante
said, "but I have a dog here on board with me. I found your number on his collar. Did you lose him?"
"No, not at all," Nicola told him. "He's not lost. He knows where he's going."
Unconvinced, the commandante
continued, "Well, he got on board at the Ca' Rezzonico stop."
"Okay, that's fine," Nicola replied. "Really, you don't need to worry about him. Where are you now?"
"We're at the Accademia. We're heading toward San Marco."
"Great. He's sure to get off at the next stop, Santa Maria del Giglio."
And when the vaporetto
arrived at Santa Maria del Giglio, the commandante
, who'd stayed on the line, said, "Ah, yes, yes, you're right, he's getting off now."
Nicola explains to me, "You see, he was going to Campo Santo Stefano, where my mother lived at that time."
short time later, Nicola's mother called him. "Sandro just showed up,"
she said. "Since it's noon, should I give him something to eat?"
"I told her, yes, of course," Nicola says. "Then, when he was done eating he went to
the door of her apartment to show he was ready to leave. She let him
out and he returned to the Rialto, to my gondola. I was at home for my
own lunch. My colleagues called to tell me he'd just shown up there and
asked what they should do with him. I told them to just let him be. And a
little while after that he arrived home."
|Sandro and Nicola during a break on the Grand Canal|
Nicola's and Sandro's life together goes
back more than a decade. Nicola adopted Sandro when he was three years
old from a friend who knew very little about animals and paid minimal
attention to him. Having spent his first years with neither a pack nor a
master, Sandro was a rather odd dog, distrustful and unfriendly. But
Nicola immediately saw how smart he was, and that he could take him out
on Lido without a collar or leash, as Sandro was aware of everything
around him and kept well clear of traffic.
lived and worked on Lido at that time and rode his bike to his job in a
store or to do the shopping. Sandro always followed behind him. At a
certain point he began to accompany Nicola to his job, then head off on
his own adventures.
"Lido isn't a small island," Nicola
says, "it's 15 kilometers long. But Sandro learned his way all around
it. He always had a great sense of orientation. He'd spend the day
and then, without fail, five or ten minutes before I was due to get
off, he'd show up outside the store where I worked and wait for me."
Nicola changed jobs and moved to Venice proper Sandro quickly began to
learn his way around the whole of the historic city. First on foot,
then, after riding with Nicola in his small motor boat and gondola, from
the water. "In this way," Nicola says, "he came to have a complete
vision of the city."
Some time later Sandro's internal
map of the world was expanded to include the island of the Giudecca,
after Nicola's mother moved there. "I'd go to visit her," Nicola says,
"and he'd come along. Sometimes I'd take my own boat, sometimes I'd take
, and we'd walk all around the island. Then he began to
make these trips himself while I was working, always getting off the vaporetto
Redentore stop, as it's closest to her house. I had two jobs then, and
if he got bored he'd take off."
"I used to start work
very early in the morning in those days. After we arrived at the gondola
together Sandro would set off on his own and in a little while I'd
start to get calls from all the people I knew around town. Someone would
call and say, I just saw your dog in Campo Santo Stefano. After a half
hour, somebody else would call to tell me she just saw him in San Polo.
An hour after that, another friend would call to say he saw him on
Giudecca. Sandro took the vaporetto and went to one of the various
places he knew, my mother's, my brother's, my sister's. I'm the youngest
of eight kids, so he had a lot of options. When I finished work I'd
find him waiting for me where we began the day, or already at home. He'd
sit beneath our apartment and bark."
other times that Nicola would set out in the gondola with clients,
thinking that Sandro was asleep in his comfortable den beneath the main
passenger seat or the gondolier's box. Sandro, however, would have
actually gotten off the boat before Nicola departed. If Sandro then
returned to the mooring while Nicola was still out he would set off
along the route that he knew Nicola made in his gondola.
it's important to know that each gondola in Venice that departs from a
particular gondola station--for example, one of those near the Rialto or
San Marco--follows a set route. Nicola has always rotated from one day
to the next between various stations, which meant that Sandro, as well
as his master, had to learn various routes. And learn them not only by
water, as Nicola did, but also--and this is far more difficult--how to
negotiate the same route on foot via the city's convoluted tangle of
But this is exactly what Sandro did learn, and
for each different gondola station. For at some point as Nicola rowed
his clients along one or the other of his routes, he would find Sandro
waiting for him on a fondamenta
(canal side), ready to rejoin him on the gondola.
|Nicola tests whether a small video camera might comfortably be attached to Sandro's collar to film one of his walks|
"I've never worried about him when he
takes off," Nicola says. "He never roams for too long, and he can always
find his way back home. There's been only one exception, when was gone
for two days. But that was because he was in love. He'd fallen for a
little dog who lived on Lido and for two days he sat in front of her
door. He just couldn't tear himself away. The owners of the house
noticed him sitting out there and called me. By the time I arrived to
get him in Lido he'd given up and left, and I found him waiting for me
Nicola chuckles at the memory of this and
says with obvious admiration, "It was a great love affair, though we
might say it was never concluded, as he never had any contact with her.
But he courted his girl, his beloved, for two days non-stop outside her
As Sandro approaches his 14th birthday on
January 8, Nicola says he's not the fearless explorer, nor passionate
suitor, he once was. He's started to get cataracts, and he's become
Nicola's shadow as he never was before, seeming a little anxious if
Nicola is not in sight. He's not so keen to roam on his own these days.
But if he and Nicola are separated he will wait at some point where he
knows Nicola is likely to pass by, and if he gets bored of waiting
there, will simply return straight home. "He can always find his way
home. And, fortunately, his sense of smell is still excellent. He
depends upon it now more than ever."
"He had to have
surgery on a little problem a while back," Nicola says, "and he has
various little issues, but, fortunately, I know him well enough now that
I can keep things under control. I massage him and I can feel what's
Sandro now spends more time with Nicola
in the gondola than he ever did before. I imagine him there tucked away
beneath the seat, "an incomparable cosmographer", as was said of the
famous 15th-century Venetian mapmaker Fra Mauro, who spent his own later
years tucked away in the Camaldolese monastery of San Michele (on what
is now the cemetery island). And it's not impossible to imagine those
experiences Sandro may carry with him still of the ancient city's
waterways, its towering edifices, its countless scents of both sea and
land, the infinite textures of its paving stones, its shadowy crevices,
its marble and moss and mold. Of the city's pigeons and rats and
psychotic gulls. Of the torrents of feet, rushing and eddying, and of
the rubber-wheeled delivery carts that splash suddenly through them, or
the clattering suitcases impeding the flow. Of the roar of a vaporetto
reversing its engines into the floating fermata
(stop), then the great
dangerous thump likely to jolt a small dog into the water. Of all his
old regular rounds, his favorite haunts--reliable places to get a full
meal, others for a quick scrap or two.
And always, happily, at the end of the day, Nicola's wife Carlotta and young son Zaccaria at the home they all share.
gently through side canals, the plash of the oar to one side, the
soothing gurgle of the gondola's flat bottom moving through the water
just below, Nicola navigating just overhead, warm and secure on his
blankets, Sandro dreams his own canine Book of the Marvels of the World
***For a short video of Sandro and Nicola, click on this link to the following post: http://veneziablog.blogspot.it/2016/01/a-dog-about-town-short-video-on-venices.html