Gondolas, bricole, nizioleti, altane...Venice is full of strange little words that describe things that are peculiar to the city and its buildings and geography.
Place names in Venice are written on small white signs on the corners of buildings. These signs are called ‘nizioleti’ and they often have their own little stories attached to them that the ordinary tourist would be ignorant of. Here are a few of them:
Sotoportego del Casin dei Nobili – (Dorsoduro district) There was once a games and enterainment house here where nobles went and courtesans acted as prostitutes.
Ponte delle Maravegie – (Dorsoduro) Legend has it that here on the bridge lived a family of seven beautiful sisters.
Riva dei Sette Martiri – (Castello district). In 1944 the Germans shot seven men taken from the prison, Santa Maria Maggiore.
The Gondola is the symbol of Venice. It provided transport in a time when there were many more canals and fewer bridges. They are elegant, black in colour because of a law passed in 1633, silent and once upon a time had cabins ‘felze. They are 11 metres long and slight asymmetric with a flat bottom so that a gondolier can row on only one side with one oar and can also navigate very shallow canals. The oar rests on a wooden form called a ‘forcola’ which can be taken down after use. The dolphin, a metal decoration on the prow helps balance the boat and represents the six districts in Venice including Giudecca Island and also the hat of the doge. The metal decoration on the stern is called the ‘risso’(a Venetian word which means ‘riccio’ in Italian – curl in English). The gondola is made up of 280 wooden plank coming from different sources and can take up to a year to build.
In 1881 the first vaporetto called the "Regina Margherita" came into use in Venice in occasiono f the "Congresso di Geografia" (Geography Congress). To the present day the public transport service is made up of vaporettos (water buses) that carry passengers throughout Venice and to surrounding islands. They are very similar to the first models which were run on steam. Residents use these water buses but often walking is quicker. Tourists are advised to take a vaporetto ride along the Grand Canal which gives a perfect view of all the most beautiful palaces.
Bricole and Paline
These are wooden poles found throught the lagoon. They are neatly placed into the subsoil of the lagoon and stick out of the water to guide boats showing navigable routes and shallow water. They were first instituted in 1439 and up until today nothing has changed apart from a reflector strip and a light for night navigation. Some paline can be found on internal canals outside homes and were once decorated with the symbols or coats of arms of the families and used as a mooring post.
Once it was difficult and even risky walking at night in Venice. Oil lamps were introduced around the city and the government created a new profession called a ‘codega’ who, with burning lamps (they used animal fat) accompanied people through the streets. In 1732 Venice was illuminated with 835 lamps called ‘ferai’. Electricity arrived in 1887.
They were used to ring out the time, call the faithful to mass and were also used as lighthouses to guide boats and ships. St Mark’s bell tower was covered in metal reflective sheets. Men were also posted to the bell towers as fire look outs. They were called ‘guardie del fogo.
There are around 7000 chimneys in Venice but in the 1500s there were 10,357. Many roofs back then were made from straw making fires a common problem. For this reason chimneys were designed with a backwards shaped flue and a cone shaped trunk which obstructed and allowed sparks to cool down. Many chimneys were decorated and painted.
Altane or roof top terrances
They are little roof top terraces on wooden posts. The idea almost certainly came from the orient. It sprang from the reality of living in tight, often dark and damp streets and were used to get a breath of fresh air and to hang washing. Young Venetians used to lighten their hair colour under the sun in the altane. They used a hat for protection but pulled their hair out of a central hole.
Masks have a very long tradition in Venice (since 1200) and were made out of paper machè, flour glue, gauze and colours. From the second half of the 18th century there were 12 mask shops, not a lot when one thinks of how many people used them. In 1600 the government prohibited the use of masks for every day use allowing them only during carnival, religious buildings and other pre established occasions. Even prostitutes or casino regulars weren’t able to wear masks.
The ‘bauta’ was the only mask allowed to be worn at other times. It was a white, unisex mask that was very popular among the upper classes along with the cloak and the black tricorn hat. It was also obligatory during certain official ceremonies to maintain anonymity. Other typical masks were the ‘moreta’, the mysterious silent servant, a women’s masks which was buttoned over the mouth. The ‘gnaga’ had the face of a cat and was a sort of dress up used amongst young Venetians that imitated women in a grotesque and vulgar way. The ‘zanni’ was a farmer, outsider in the city, in search of work and willing to do anything. This is where the charter of the harlequin comes from dressed in a shirt and wide pants, with a purse a bat and floppy hat. The leather mask had various protruberances and probably originally had a devil’s horn. Pantalone is the most famous Venetian mask worn and characterised an old wealthy and greedy man. Fracanapa was the anti-Pantalone on the part of the lower classes and reflected the tastes and characteristics of those on the mainland. Colombina is the cunning little servant from the ‘commedia dell’arte.’
The courtesan has characterised many centuries of Venetian folklore. In the 16th century Venice was a wealthy, tolerant and often subversive city. During censors of those years, courtesans registered a presence of more than 10,000. From the 1300s the government created a real red light district near Rialto. It was the only one in which courtesans could live and practise prostitution. Sometimes they would stand at open windows topless.
Famous for this free strip show was the Ponte delle Tette (the Bridge of Tits) on Rio Terà delle Carampane ( Carampane is synonymous in Venetian with the word for an old prostitute). The habit of breast showing was condoned by the government who was trying to combat homosexuality which had become popular in the 1500s.
Every week in that period the court of deputies met to decide the punishments for sodomy. Many were hung between the two columns in St Mark’s square and burnt. Prostitutes were forced to follow very strict rules of behaviour. They could not eat at the ‘osterie’ restaurants or move freely around Venice apart from on Saturdays. Breaking these rules meant a fine or a whipping.
The courtesans were often influential and charismatic people thanks to being used to socialising with the upper classes. The most famous of these was without a doubt Veronica Franco, born into an upper class family and noted for her charm and sonnets. In 1574 she received Enrico di Valois into her salon. He was Caterina De’ Medici’s son and about to become King of France. Veronica Franco left us with a poetic description of their meeting.