Shakespeare’s Shylock declared that the cats of Venice were “both necessary and harmless.” Venetians believe that cats helped save the city from the devastating plague of 1348 by killing diseased rats. However, from time to time the municipality has tried to reduce the teeming feline population. Each time the citizenry has been up in arms in protest. In 1960 there were over 12,000 stray cats in Venice. The cat ladies, known as gattare, provided food and water to colonies located in almost every neighborhood in the city.
Largely due to the efforts of an organization, oddly named Dingo, the number has been reduced to 2,000 without killing a single healthy cat. Founded in 1965, Dingo was started by British-born Helena Sanders and Venetian Elena Scarpabolla as a cat and dog rescue society. (Dingo was the name of the first rescued dog.)
It took Dingo 20 years, but finally Venetian authorities gave them a designated space, a gattile or cattery, on the abandoned island of San Clemente, an ancient pilgrimage site that in the 19th century served as an insane asylum for women and was finally closed down after World War II. Imposing 19th-century buildings were still intact, as was an exquisite Baroque church, though it was stripped of its most precious art works by thieves when the island was uninhabited and unguarded. The cat sanctuary brought people to the island again.
But in 2005, Isola San Clemente was sold for redevelopment as a luxury hotel and resort. Almost 250 cats (stray dogs were not part of the mandate by this time) were transported to Malamocco, a fishing village on the long sandbar that is the Lido of Venice.
Dingo is now part of the Anglo Italian Society for the Protection of Animals, a British based charity which raises funds worldwide for animal welfare organizations in Italy. AISPA was started in 1952 and has branches all over Italy. AISPA is concerned the welfare of all kinds of animals, from cats and dogs to livestock and circus animals.
The gattile is housed in a small group of buildings in Malamocco. There are cat dormitories with individual cages, a surgery, and a series of outdoor enclosures where most of the cats hang out. There are also quarantine huts and a convalescence ward, for short- and long-term care of the injured and ailing residents. The farthest building houses the isolation ward for cats suffering from infectious illnesses like feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV) and panleukopenia (feline distemper) and a maternity ward for those about to give birth.
There is an ever expanding and contracting population of about 200 cats. Unwanted, sick or stray cats are brought to Dingo, either by Dingo volunteers or Venetian residents. Each new resident is given a medical exam and a determination is made whether they are lost, abandoned or feral. When its needs have been assessed, it joins the colony, some only for a short while. The gattile has an active adoption program and most of the captured feral cats are returned to their original colonies throughout Venice once they have been spayed or neutered. Unlike the U.S., where strays may be euthanized, Italy has laws to protect animals, wanted or unwanted. Most cities have TNR programs to trap, neuter and release feral cats. Venice was the first Italian city to pass an animal rights act, in 1987 (adopted nationally in 1991), and it guarantees stray cats an area to live in freedom.
On Robin Saikis’s website TheVeniceLido.com one can find this interesting snippet of history: “In Gaetano Zompini’s 1789 book about Venetian street traders we learn about knife-sharpeners, candle-sellers and wig-makers, but there is another intriguing trade, that of the castragatti, the cat-neuterers. The cat population of Venice had always been a problem but Venetians, as animal lovers, were always ready to try and compromise with their feline friends: cats kill rats, rats spread plague, so neutering the toms would have seemed a good way of keeping a useful ally under control.”
Dingo also maintains some kitty condos in various neighborhoods in Venice for the free feral colonies. Londoner Jeff Cotton keeps track of the colonies on his website FictionalCities.
“Pleasant manners,” writes Giovanni Della Casa, “are those which delight or at least do not annoy any of the senses, the desires, or the imagination of those with whom we live.”
In modern times when we are reminded that President Lyndon Johnson would hold meetings while sitting on the toilet; or there is a kerfuffle throughout the Twittersphere when Mayor de Blasio (correctly according to Italian Food Rules) ate pizza with a knife and fork; or tourists in Florence insist on greeting strangers with “Ciao!”; or foreign students think flip-flops and cut-off shorts are proper attire when touring a church, it is comforting to know that at least the Italians have Life Rules that govern almost every aspect of their daily existence. These rules were set almost five hundred years ago.
“Since it is the case that you are now just beginning that journey that I have for the most part as you see completed, that is, the one through mortal life, and loving you so very much as I do, I have proposed to myself—as one who has been many places—to show you those places in life where, walking through them, I fear you could easily either fall or take the wrong direction.”
So begins Galateo, Trattato de’ Costumi (Galateo: Treatise on the Rules of Polite Behavior) a short manuscript on good manners, written by the retired, but worldly (he was known to compose racy poetry), archbishop and diplomat Giovanni Della Casa (1503-1556). First published in 1558, two years after the author’s death, it sets forth the rules on how to comport oneself in polite society.
Della Casa was born in Borgo San Lorenzo, a small town north of Florence, to a noble Tornabuoni mother and a highly educated father. He lived in Florence and Rome at the same time as Michelangelo. He attended university in Bologna and after deciding on an ecclesiastical career, he rose quickly to the position of Archbishop of Benevento, a small city northeast of Naples. His lasting legacy, however, is Il Galateo.
Purportedly for the benefit of his nephew, Annibale Rucellai, a young Florentine with an important lineage and a promising future, the treatise, in the voice of a cranky yet genial old uncle, offers the distillation of what had been learned over a lifetime of study of Greek and Roman humanistic texts and public service as diplomat and papal nuncio. (Archbishop Della Casa was once charged with setting up the inquisition in Venice to root out heretics.)
The University of Chicago Press has recently published a new edition, translated by M.F. Rusnak. As Rusnak discusses in the long introduction to Galateo: Or, The Rules of Polite Behavior, far from being a book on table manners, the original Galateo was a “conduct manual, a viable tourist guide to acting Italian in Italy, and a learned analysis of literary language.”
As relevant today as it was in Renaissance Italy, Galateo deals with subjects as varied as dress codes, charming conversation and off-color jokes, eating habits and hairstyles, and includes citations to the works of Dante and Boccaccio. Less a treatise promoting courtly values or a manual of savoir faire, it is rather a meditation on conformity and the law, on perfection and rules, but also an exasperated reaction to the diverse ways in which people make fools of themselves in everyday social situations.
As such, it holds a distinguished place among Italy’s rich history of etiquette books. These range from Andreas Capellanus’s Art of Courtly Love, which describes how a medieval knight should behave to win the favor of his lady; to Baldassare Castiglione’s The Book of the Courtier, which recommends sprezzatura, the Renaissance equivalent of being nonchalant, and Machiavelli’s The Prince, devoted to realpolitik and therefore, stressing effective, rather than genial, behavior. In its time, Galateo circulated as widely as Machiavelli’s Prince and Castiglione’s Courtier.
Mirroring what Machiavelli did for promoting political behavior, and what Castiglione did for behavior at a noble court, Della Casa described the refined every-man caught in a world in which embarrassment and vulgarity prevailed. Galateo was written at a time when the medieval openness about bodily functions was being discouraged. Renaissance etiquette writers were all begging their readers to stop spitting and touching themselves in public.
Della Casa’s explanation for his rules of dress, table manners, gestures and speech is the need to avoid offending others. That is the basic bargain required to live in peaceful communities. Naturally, it never happens without a struggle. Not all Europeans agreed with Della Casa.
At the end of the 16th century, English readers assumed that Thomas Coryate , one of the earliest travel writers, was joking when he reported that Italians did not attack their food with hands and hunting knives as did normal people, even normal royalty. Those prissy Italians wielding forks arrived at the royal court in France in 1533 with the Italian Catherine de’ Medici when the pope arranged for her to marry the future King Henry II. A century later, Louis XIV was supposedly so annoyed to see a court lady use one that he had hair put in her soup.
In Richard II, Shakespeare, writing about forty years after Galateo was published, has the Duke of York complain to the dying John of Gaunt about “Report of fashions in proud Italy, / Whose manners still our tardy apish nation / Limps after in base imitation.” The French and the English disparaged Italian etiquette, only to lay claim in succeeding centuries to being the cultures of refinement, civility and propriety.
Galateo is divided into thirty chapters based around questions of etiquette. As with any modern manners book, it offers advice on proper dinner-table conversation and behavior. Have we not all been repulsed by people who, “oblivious as pigs with their snouts in the swill, never raise their faces nor their eyes, much less their hands, from the food? And they gulp down their grub with both their cheeks puffed out as if they were playing the trumpet or blowing on a fire, not eating but gobbling. Those who grease up their hands and arms to the elbows or dirty their napkins such that washcloths in the bathroom are neater.”
Throughout, Della Casa urges a reasonable conformity to the customs of the country in which one lives. (He would have encouraged Mayor de Blasio to eat pizza with his hands in NYC, but not in Florence.) Clothes, Galateo suggests, should fit well rather than be loud and trendy. He urged his nephew to follow the refined conservative fashions in Florence, but when in Naples to wear the more elaborate costumes popular there. “First of all, one must consider the country where one lives, for every custom is not good in every place. Perhaps what is customary for Neapolitans, whose city is rich in men of great lineage and barons of great prestige, would not do, for example, for the people of Lucca or Florentines who are for the most part merchants and simple gentlemen and have among them neither princes, nor counts, nor barons.”
He recommended that people speak clearly and plainly, after having “first formed in your mind what you have to say.” He argued for civility but warned against sycophancy: “Flatterers overtly show that they consider the man they are praising to be vain and arrogant, as well as so stupid, obtuse, and so beef-witted that it is easy to lure and entrap him.”
Della Casa’s message is: Don’t be disgusting. Pretty much everything that comes out of a bodily orifice met his definition of disgusting — so much so that the mere sight of someone washing his hands would upset people, as their minds would leap to the function that had necessitated that cleansing.
The counsel itself remains timeless: “Most of us hate unpleasant and bothersome people as much as evil ones, maybe even more.” In modern times, the object of Della Casa’s disparaging comments would be the woman on the bus putting on her makeup in a cloud of perfume, someone on the park bench clipping his fingernails, the teenager who insists on tapping his feet to the music leaking out of his earbuds one seat over in a plane, and those who chat or conduct business on their cell phones in a restaurant.
“You do not want, when you blow your nose, to then open the hanky and gaze at your snot as if pearls or rubies might have descended from your brains. This is a nauseating habit not likely to make anyone love you, but rather, if someone loved you, he or she would fall out of love right there,” wrote Della Casa to his nephew.
He was also irritated by people who interrupt constantly (they “surely make the other person eager to punch or smack them”), and people who describe their dreams in excruciating detail: “One should not annoy others with such stuff as dreams, especially since most dreams are by and large idiotic.”
“To offer your advice without being asked is nothing else but a way of saying that you are wiser than those you are giving advice to, and even a reproof for their ignorance and lack of knowledge.”
Americans would be surprised at Galateo’s advice on how to behave at a dinner party: “You must not do anything to proclaim how greatly you are enjoying the food and wine, for this habit is for tavern keepers.” And “[i]t is a barbarous habit to challenge someone to a drinking bout. This is not one of our Italian customs and so we give it a foreign name, that is, far brindisi.” [The Italian fare brindisi or brindare for “to toast” comes from German ich bring dir’s, “I bring yours.”]
Manners matter. As Della Casa writes, the annoyances of everyday life only seem trivial or of small moment. “Even light blows, if they are many, can kill.” In the end, regard for the feelings of others lies at the heart of any rational society. In Italy, an ill-bred bore is described as “one who has not read Il Galateo.” (Or acquired the latest smart phone app: Galateo a Tavola. )
To read Il Galateo is to have “a viable travel guide to acting Italian in Italy.” To follow its lessons is a big step toward being Italian.
Fifteen years ago, I tasted eel for the first time at Al Covo in Venice. Tasty eel, devoid of fat, is hard to find (or so I’ve been told) so it was good that my introduction was an eel prepared by Cesare Benelli. After two or three more meals at the up-market Al Covo over the years, I am happy to say that this past May they opened a more casual place around the corner — CoVino, a classic bacaro-style place with the same high Al Covo standard for both food and service.
Ristorante Al Covo opened its doors in 1987, fulfilling a dream shared by owners Cesare and his Texan wife Diane Rankin (Abilene or Lubbock, I believe). Through the years, Al Covo has been known for the research, conservation and promotion of the exceptional regional produce of the Venetian Lagoon and surrounding territory. It was and still is one of the best Slow Food restaurants of Venice.
Located just off the beaten tourist track, hidden in an alley off of the Riva degli Schiavoni near the historic Arsenale, the small 40-seat restaurant is divided into two comfortable rooms in a rustic-elegant atmosphere and, in summer, opens an outdoor terrace facing the ancient campiello in the tiny piazza.
At Al Covo don’t miss the pasta with squid in ink sauce, fritti misti, grilled scallops and razor clams. Cesare’s pistachio rigatoni with bottarga is talked about on at least two continents. In Spring or Fall, try the Venetian moeche (soft-shell crabs), simply dusted in flour and deep-fried or col pien, which is to dredge them in milk and egg yolk, then dust with flour and deep-fry, both served with bianco perlapolenta. Or choose to simply have the crabs grilled briefly on the griddle, served with lemon-extra virgin olive oil mashed potatoes, tiny cherry tomato confit and fresh seasonal lettuces.
CoVino, tiny with its 14 covers,tastefully designed in the dark-wood bacaro style, offers a traditional menu and terroir wines. For thirty-three euro, you will pick from the market fresh offerings three courses (a glass of wine, an appetizer or pasta, a main dish and desert or cheese). I give Diane full credit for the great dolce. Somehow Americans create the most scrumptious cakes. Another nice touch is the small pitcher of iced water with a lemon wedge and a sprig of mint and the small paper bag of mixed breads placed on each table.
Andrea will welcome you into CoVino. He comes from the Enoteca Mascareta family and thus, knows everything there is to know about wine pairing and the wines of the Veneto. Dimitri is cooking in full view of the tables. His roots are in the hills north of Venice and he carries on the Al Covo standard of quality ingredients and precise execution of each dish.
Start with the traditional Venetian-style (sweet and sour) fresh sardines and melanzane in saor or creamy borlotti bean, bell pepper and clam soup. Follow that with sear fresh tuna with melanzane, tomato, and a patè of pistachios and black olives or baccalà (salt cod) with melanzane, olives, tomato salsa, and rosemary. Do not miss Diane’s dark chocolate cake, but if you must go lighter, try the watermelon with anise liqueur.
Arrive early (12 noon) because there is usually only one seating at lunch, once the seats are taken, people tend to linger. At dinner there are two seatings at 7:15pm and 9:30pm. CoVino is closed on Wednesday and Thursday. No credit cards are accepted, so bring cash.
Address: Calle del Pestrin, 3829a-3829, (ask at Al Covo if you get lost)
Florentines always think that the river to watch after days of rain is the Arno. But this week with incredible downpours – known as bombe d’acqua (bombs of water) – a small creek, the Mugnone, threatened to overflow its banks in parts of the city.
The Arno also continues to rise. The Mugnone is a tributary to the Arno.
Residents located along the Mugnone were told to head to higher floors and parking garages warned car owners to move their vehicles to higher ground.
The over-taxed freshwater sewer system flooded streets and piazzas in parts of Florence. The storm has been nicknamed “Medusa.”
In Tuscany Massa Carrara, on the coast, took the brunt of the flooding with cars being swept off the streets and roads being destroyed.
The southern coast of Tuscany had a different kind of excitement when a rare tromba d’aria (trumpet of air), or water spout, touched down in the sea near Rosignano.
Venice is still under more and more meters of acqua alta (high water), which the Venetians are used to, but getting very tired of this winter. Fewer gag shots by tourists are turning up on the blogs.
But hope is in sight. It’s drier today in Tuscany and the forecast for the next week is, if not sunny, at least without the bombe d’aqua.
And my friend Giorgio (see post from two weeks ago) is heading for London, where they are used to rain. My cats, of course, will miss him.
But perhaps the Italians would like him to visit again only during a summer drought.
They say a combination of heavy rain, strong winds and warmer than usual temperatures have put Italy under water this week. But I know the truth. My friend – let’s call him Giorgio – arrived in Florence this week after causing that wet thing called Sandy a couple of weeks ago in his hometown of Washington, DC and his other place out in Virginia.
Now the Arno is getting to the highest level since the flood of 1966 (nobody knows where Giorgio was that November). Be warned! Giorgio plans to stay in Florence until December. He’s also scheduling a side trip to Rome for the Vermeers (luckily the Scuderie del Quirinale are on a hill).
Giorgio has lived many places. One of which was Florence, a decade ago, where his apartment was below the water table, cut into a hill in the Oltrarno. To add to the problem, his upstairs neighbor’s 100-year-old pipes broke and leaked through the bedroom ceiling.
Something similar happened in his apartment in London and although they blamed it on climate change, the rain in central England during the years of Giorgio’s sojourn there reached record levels. He sold up and moved. In Washington, he lives in a once-famous place with an H2O name. There, his plumber broke the pipe to his bathroom sink causing the building to have its water cut off for repairs. (I may not be remembering this accurately, but somebody, besides Giorgio, was very angry.)
When he left Florence for London, he kindly gave me his sisal area rug. Two months later, the workers repairing my roof failed to cover it properly on a weekend when it rained continuously. The livingroom ceiling (200-years-old, made of terracotta bricks, plaster and insulated with straw – thus, yellow- and siena-colored water poured through) caved in, ruining Grigorio’s carpet.
I have posited the theory that in a past life Grigorio got on the wrong side of Neptune and he has been paying for it since. Just two days before the recent rains brought the high water in Florence, the residential water was turned off (ostensibly for for street repairs) in a two block radius around the apartment building he is staying in near the Duomo Now the Arno, which still has a riverbed as shallow as it was in 1966, is rising.
In Venice, visitors expect to see water – but not this much of it. This past week tourists have been wading through waterlogged cafes and swimming across St. Mark’s Square after heavy rainfall caused some of the famous Italian city’s worst floods in years.
Authorities say 70 percent of Venice was underwater this week. Water levels rose as much as 5ft above average in the past few days, which makes it the city’s sixth-worst flood on record.
Even before the storm (and to be fair, before Giorgio arrived in Italy), Venetian waters have been higher than normal for more than two weeks now. The seasonal “acqua alta,” or high water, periodically occurs when high tides coincide with strong prevailing winds.
The same bad weather caused floods and mudslides across northern Italy, with some 200 people evacuated from parts of Tuscany, including the neighborhood below Orvieto and in the Maremma region.
Italy is the country that found the scientists guilty of manslaughter for failing to predict the earthquake in 2008 that leveled L’Aquila. Giorgio, or whatever his name really is, should be worried if the Arno continues to rise. (I should be worried because he is taking care of my cats.)