Tuesday, August 8, 2017

An Outsiders' Guide to Secret Venice, Part 1: The Cannaregio Gondola Factory

The Cannaregio Gondola Factory (aka the Associazione Remiere di Punta di San Giobbe)

There are countless "insider's" guides to Venice available, with new ones appearing regularly, but sometimes the perspectives on the city I find most interesting come from those who appear to have little if any familiarity with it.

In fact, seemingly unencumbered by any knowledge of Venice whatsoever, the minds of the best of what might be called Outsider Guides to the City are free to drift up to dizzying altitudes, where oxygen is scarce and falsehoods abundant.

I suppose there's an invigorating sense of freedom to be found in not knowing the first thing about the subject on which you're pontificating. And if stated with enough force--or vulgarity, or shamelessness, in the case of major politicians in the US and UK--these utterly false assertions can end up being more compelling to a surprising number of people than statements of easily verified or even readily observable fact.

The other day, while riding in an Alilaguna water bus from the airport into Venice, I heard a particularly inspired one of these Outsider Guides announce the following to his wife and teen-aged daughter: "Hey, hey, look there," he said, pointing out the window to a building on the western end of Fondamenta Nove, "there's a factory where they make gondolas! Wow, look at 'em! They've made a bunch of green ones that they've got stacked up in the yard."

Now, you don't have to be a native Venetian to know that gondolas aren't green, or that their shape bears little resemblance to the shape of the much smaller boats to which he pointed. And, more simply, there was even a large sign posted in the center of the facade stating (in Italian) exactly what the building was.

But his wife and daughter nodded and looked suitably edified and I--as this particular lie was not uttered in the service of more tax cuts for the rich and poverty, gratuitous hardship, and early death for everyone else--was thoroughly entertained, even charmed.

I would have thought that the fact that what this Outsider Guide was pointing to was actually a traditional Venetian-style rowing club association (remiere) would have been exotic enough to satisfy most visitors from afar. But I admired the leap his imagination had made, and I wished I could tag along with him for the rest of the morning to see what other misbegotten nonsense the sights of the city in combination with his ignorance might inspire him to spout.

But we were on the Alilaguna boat from the airport with family arriving from out of town and, instead, I turned my attention elsewhere.

It occurs to me now that there might be some value--if only of the entertainment sort--in compiling an Outsiders' Guide to Venice, and I wish I remembered more of the falsehoods I've overheard in my 6 1/2 years of living here: such as the three tourists on a vaporetto one time who speculated that the church of San Giorgio Maggiore was a hotel (and not even in the French sense of hôtel, or city hall).

After all, one way to make a famous city so heavily visited (and over-visited), and so much remarked upon as Venice, into one's "very own" is simply to get as many things wrong about it as you possibly can.

For the old Mary McCarthy and Henry James observation that "nothing original can be said about Venice" doesn't quite apply to those whose remarks upon Palladio's famous church across the Bacino di San Marco are based upon their mistaken belief that it's a hotel--or that, say, the Palazzo Ducale is a basketball arena.*

In this spirit, in parts 2 and 3 of this post I'll finally share a couple of (alternative) facts about the city that you won't read in even the most authoritative guidebook or hear from the most knowledgeable personal tour guide. "Facts" that my son and I happened upon while still getting acquainted with the city and which I hope will merit a place in any Outsiders' Guide to Venice: secrets of this famous city that are so secret I think it's safe to say that we two are the only ones who know anything about them. 


"An Outsider's Guide to Secret Venice Part 2: The Regional Weather Control Center" can be found here

"An Outsider's Guide to Secret Venice, Part 3: The Emergency Lagoon Drainage System" is here

* As, incredibly enough, the Scuola Grande della Misericordia actually was for a time: http://video.gazzetta.it/venezia-leggenda-misericordia-chiesa-palasport/0d649bfe-d3ca-11e5-979f-8bca2ccabd66


  1. Tanks for the nice picture of my former remiera where I was first instructed to the art of voga. It's good to see them still standing and keeping traditions alive.

    Let me suggest as subject for one of the follow-ups about little-know facts and places in Venice the Isola di San Servolo. The Chinese connections may surprise many.


    1. Yes, Edoardo, your old association of remiere is still going strong.

      I'm sure there are a lot of things to be written about San Servolo, but I think I'll leave that others.

  2. The best one I heard was on a No.1 vaporetto where a (loud) 'gentleman' pointed out to his companions that the vaporetto stops at Rialto covered with "Diesel" advertising signs (promoting jeans etc), were actually re-fuelling stops...... He went on to explain at some length how he'd seen them being used........

    1. That's marvelous, Mary, I love it!

      If you're going to get things wrong about Venice it seems best to err at the far-reaches of mind-boggling absurdity and at full volume.

      Imagine going around the city with that guy for a couple of hours.

  3. My favorite, though not an assertion but a question: Guy in a ten gallon hat asking his wife where the David was....I didn't wait to hear the answer.

  4. Not so much an idiotic statement more an urban myth regarding the wonderful clock tower of the Piazza, is that the makers of the clock mechanism, which incidentally was made at Reggio Emilia by Paolo Rainieri and his son Carlo, were both blinded on the orders of the Maggior Consiglio of Venice so that they could not create a similar wonder elsewhere. Thankfully this is complete nonsense.

    1. they got it mixed up with San Basilio cathedral in Moscow...the architect was blinded after completing the masterpiece...

    2. It does make for quite a dramatic story, though, Stephen, even if, as Mary Jane helpfully suggests, it was borrowed from another place entirely! Alas, the Serenissima was, in other instances, quite capable of some extreme and inhumane punishments.