Venice has 'captured' the heart, mind and imagination of so many writers, poets, artists and historians. Venice is one of my favourite subjects in art, literature and history, and I am always eager to learn more and look more at this unique and special place. This Venice blog is my way of collecting the wealth of images, poems, prose and impressions of Venice.

Saturday, 1 February 2014

What I'm reading - The Other Venice

I'm not a book worm, I'm a book gobbler.  I gobble books almost whole, and usually with such voraciousness that I race through them once, digest, reflect and then I have to re-read them to fully appreciate the plot, or information or style of writing.  

Before Christmas 2013, I went on a book bender and went nutty buying Venice related books including this one pictured - The Other Venice, written in 2004 as L'autre Venise and first published in English in 2007. 

Reading The Other Venice at my local cafe

The author is Predrag Matvejevic, who, according to the book cover, taught in Paris and Rome and was born to a Russian father and Croatian mother.  

This is a book like no other that I've read about Venice.  I'll read virtually anything and everything about Venice, and often Henry James' words about Venice ring in my ears as my read: 

"...There is notoriously nothing more to be said on the subject.  Every one has been there, and every one has brought back a collection of photographs..." (you can read a fuller quote from Henry James' Italian Hours here).

Predrag Matvejevic's first paragraph of The Other Venice echoes this sentiment.  He writes: "what can one add to the history of this city that history itself does not know?".

Matvejevic writes about Venice as no other author I've encountered has done - he writes lyrically, lovingly and compellingly about the smallest details of Venice: about its rust ("the rust of Venice is sumptuous, the patina like gilding'), its bridges, its islands, its obscure wall sculptures.  He writes about the couch grass growing between the walls and stones of the city, and hunts through the streets of Venice for vegetation which he also discovers in the paintings inside galleries and churches around the city.

He also devotes a whole chapter to the bread of Venice, and it is this chapter above all else that stays with me.

For me, the heady, delicious smell of bread baking is always one of my fondest memories of Venice.  

When I first went to Venice, that smell was everywhere and so were bread shops.  But it's disappearing.  

I think the Rizzo Pane shop near Campo Santo Stefano is still there, as is the Rizzo Pane near Campo San Barnaba.  But the small shops where I used to buy my morning roll on my way from Campo Santa Margherita to the Guggenheim have long ago disappeared, and with them has gone that heady early morning smell of Venice. 

Matvejevic describes how bread ovens were lined with brick, stones or ceramic tiles and heated with oak and chestnut, with the dry cane so ready available in the lagoon, used as kindling.   

He also writes about the many Venetian names for 'baker':  "pistore", "fornero", "panettiere", "panicuocoliand the number of streets named "Calle del Forno" or "Calle del Pistor" which record their former ubiquitous presence in the city.  

In her beautifully illustrated book, Venice & Food, artist and writer Sally Spector explains how there were two distinct trades of bread making in Venice- the forneri or panacuocoli who prepared and baked bread but could not sell it to the public, and the pistori who both baked and sold their own bread as well as the bread of the forneri.  

In Australia, one is accustomed to buying pre-packaged bread from the supermarket.  It lasts quite well for days, and the range is limited.  I discovered in Venice that you buy bread when you intend to eat it - there are no preservatives, and it's hard and stale within a few hours.  

I was also blessed by the patience of the many shopkeepers who helped me to learn how to order the breads I wanted - the first few times that I was faced with rows of unlabeled baskets and shelves filled with different kinds of bread, I was completely at a loss to know what or how to order.  

Matvejevic lists the varieties available, and I will copy them here, and provide a brief description, for the sheer pleasure of writing their names and remembering their shapes, tastes and smells:

ciabatta - 'slipper' - a modern bread created in the Veneto in the 1980s, with a very crusty exterior and chewy interior (it was inspired by the popularity of French style baguettes)

ciopa - another bread from the Veneto, shaped with 4-6 bumpy tips or knots

bovolo - shaped like a snail, with a moderately crusty exterior and soft fluffy white interior

montasu - a soft white bread, with a shiny top from being glazed with egg wash

rosetta - shaped like a flower, with 'petals' surrounding a circle, with quite a crusty exterior and soft interior

pane biscotto - the famous durable, hard bread used for rations for sailors (the island of Sant'Elena near the Arsenale used to have 34 ovens owned by the State specifically for baking bread for its fleet - I've never actually seen this type of bread for sale in Venice bakeries)

zaleto - a yellow bread (more like a biscuit) which is yellow from corn flour.

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