Sunday, January 19, 2020

Burning the Good Witch & Climate Change in Venice

Epiphany Eve in the Veneto - Photo: Cat Buaer
(Venice, Italy) First, I want to thank those of you who have been long-time readers of Venetian Cat - The Venice Blog. Many of you have been loyal subscribers for more than a decade, through triumphs and tribulations, and I greatly appreciate it -- especially those of you who took the time to write with New Year's greetings. (For those who prefer not to leave a public comment, I can always be reached at venetiancat@gmail.com, and you can follow me on Twitter and Facebook.)

I started this particular blog in January 2008, twelve years ago, and have written 665 posts about the life, art, history and culture of Venice. My blog evolved from one I had on the now-defunct MySpace, and before that, on my now-defunct Author's Guild site before much of the world even knew what a blog was. Some of you have even followed me from the old America Online travel boards, back when I first arrived in Venice in 1998, nearly 22 years ago.

Venice has been through many changes since that time, many of them not positive. One of the most serious is how climate change is progressively affecting the city -- the November 12th flood was a shock to the system -- in addition to rampant over-tourism, monster cruise ships, short-term apartment rentals, new hotels, lack of affordable housing and outside interference on social media.  

MOSES, the underwater barrier that was supposed to protect the city from acqua alta, was wracked by corruption, money laundering and kickbacks, and is now set to function by the end of 2021 after years of delays. The first real test of MOSES was this past Monday night. The results were "OK," and it seems that the barrier can be raised in emergency situations. Let's hope it's not soon put to the test.

Sunset in Venice - Photo: Cat Bauer
When I first moved to Venice from Hollywood in 1998, an American living in the city was still something of a novelty. Before moving to the highly-visible apartment on the Grand Canal at Rialto (which is now a short-term tourist rental), I first lived down in Castello, a zone thick with Venetians and mom & pop shops -- cheese, bread, wine, vegetables, meat, fish -- everything was nearby and came with a conversation -- not easy, because I didn't speak a word of Italian, let alone Venetian. But somehow we communicated. Back then, there were about 80,000 Venetians who lived in the historic center, as opposed to less than 55,000 today. There were tourists, but not 30 million of them, and they stayed in hotels, not short-term tourist rentals, a 21st Century plague that is killing Venetian life. It was an utterly different, magical world.

Back then, there were exotic new traditions to discover, and one of the most marvelous was the Venetian celebration of Christmas, which began on December 24th, Christmas Eve, and continued through January 6th, the Epiphany, the day the three Magi visited the Christ child. Unlike Christmas in the States, the festival season actually felt tied to the birth of the Christ child, and connected to Mother Nature. It was a combination of the Christian world and the pagan world rolled into one great festival, culminating in the burning of a good witch called La Befana -- an element of the tradition that occurs on the mainland of the Veneto, not in Venice. (Venice has evolved its own quirky Befana tradition, which includes a short regata of Venetian male rowers dressed in drag as female witches, which I have written about many times before.)

La Befana in the Veneto - Photo: Cat Bauer
Even though the holidays have passed, I have still been thinking about La Befana, and how she came to be. La Befana behaves a lot like Santa Claus, filling children's stockings with sweets if they are good, and coal if they are naughty -- except she looks like a Halloween witch, and flies on a broom. One legend says the three Magi stopped by her house asking for directions to bring gifts to the infant Christ, and asked her to join them, but La Befana was so busy cleaning, that she refused. After she realized what an opportunity she had missed, she jumped on her broom and went house to house leaving gifts for children, searching for the Christ child.

Back on the Eve of Epiphany on January 5, 1999, 21 years ago, my Venetian friends brought me to the Veneto countryside, where they burnt La Befana in a bonfire -- something that is missing in Venice. The whole community joined together, sang songs, drank hot mulled wine and ate pinsa, which is sort of like a fruitcake, but moist and delicious, and is reportedly La Befana's favorite food. The visitation of the three Magi was reenacted with live human beings, and there was a real-live witch that handed out stockings. It was an anticipated event for all the families, and kept the focus of the holiday season on the birth of Jesus Christ all the way through to the day of Epiphany on January 6th.

This year, I again had the opportunity to join the Epiphany celebrations on the mainland, where the bonfire is still in full swing. I think this element of the festival is critical because it symbolizes the ending of the old year, and the ringing in of the new. It is tied to nature because the new year will be good or bad depending on which direction the ashes of the fire blow. I am happy to report that this year is predicted to be a good one.

But it still doesn't answer the question: why a craggy, hooked-nose old witch? Even though she is physically "bruta" or "ugly," the children see her as "bella" or "beautiful." There are many theories, none of them definitive. I think La Befana is a unique amalgamation of all of them. But what fascinates me the most is that in the United States, we don't have her at all:

From Wikipedia:

A theory connects the tradition of exchanging gifts to an ancient Roman festivity in honour of Ianus and Strenia (in Italian a Christmas gift used to be called strenna), celebrated at the beginning of the year, when Romans used to give each other presents. ...

...The tradition of Befana appears to incorporate other pre-Christian popular elements as well, adapted to Christian culture and related to the celebration of the New Year. Historian Carlo Ginzburg relates her to Nicnevin. The old lady character should then represent the "old year" just passed, ready to be burned in order to give place to the new one.
In many European countries the tradition still exists of burning a puppet of an old lady at the beginning of the New Year, called Giubiana in Northern Italy, with clear Celtic origins....

...Befana also maintains many similarities with Perchta and her Pre-Christian Alpine traditions.

Christ Pantocrator in the Basilica of San Marco, Venice - Photo: Cat Bauer
Something important to remember is that Venice did not evolve like the rest of Italy, which was inhabited by many different peoples over the centuries, who were eventually conquered by pagan Rome. Back then, Venice was just a bunch of mud flats and salt marshes inhabited by fisherman until refugees fleeing Germanic and Hun invasions settled in the lagoon.

According to tradition, Venice was born in 421 A.D., four hundred years after the birth of Jesus Christ, but shortly after Christianity became the State Church of the Roman Empire in 380 A.D. -- Emperor Constantine in Constantinople himself converted in 312 A.D. Venetians were Christians linked to the Eastern Roman Empire from the start, not the Western Roman Empire, which finally collapsed in 476 A.D. The image of Christ that is in the Basilica of San Marco is that of the Christ Pantocrator, an image that is an Eastern Catholic conception.

Over the centuries, on those mud flats and salt marshes, Venetians created the most beautiful, impossible city made by man, a city that today is tragically at the center of the international news after the November 12th flood -- an event that was the scream of Mother Nature herself. With the invasion of mindless tourists and foreign investment into Venice, this mystical, magical element of Christianity is being suffocated, which is as critical to the foundation of Venice as the stones, marble and piles used to physically build the city. Venice's unique expression of Catholicism is an invisible, crucial fabric that was woven into the construction of her churches and palaces, in the bells that chime throughout the city, the images, the festivals, in the calli and campi. It is embedded into the very soul of Venice itself.

 

Last Sunday, on January 12th, exactly two months after the November 12th flood, Venice was featured on 60 Minutes, the esteemed, long-running television program that airs in the United States. For those of you who have never seen it, the show is a news magazine and Sunday-evening fixture that debuted way back in 1968. Here is an excerpt. To watch the entire clip, go to 60 Minutes.

In the episode, Luigi Brugnaro, the mayor of Venice, said the November flood was due to climate change, and that he would like to make Venice a "world laboratory." As always, there are people on social media who complain about this, saying it is not only climate change to blame for acqua alta. Of course it's not, but if the mayor announces publicly that he wants to combat climate change on one of the most important television programs in the United States of America, then let's hold him to it! I think it is an excellent idea, and have said the same thing for years, as have many others. In fact, there are several organizations already in existence in the city; you can get a PhD in the Science & Management of Climate Change at Ca' Foscari, Venice's university. Venice desperately needs another industry besides tourism.

LET'S SAVE VENICE TO SAVE THE WORLD

From 60 Minutes:

To give Venice a future, its mayor wants to turn the city into a world laboratory to combat climate change.
Mayor Luigi Brugnaro (Translation): Why don't we do it here? Let's do it here, let's study it here. Let's study the water, let's study the pollution, the rising waters, the temperature. It could be an example of great mobilization at a world level.
John Dickerson: Is the message to the rest of the world, if you don't save Venice, it will happen to you next?
Mayor Luigi Brugnaro (Translation): I don't want to worry anybody, but I think that I'd like a different message. Let's save Venice to save the world.

Are those just empty words, or is Luigi Brugnaro serious about rallying behind such a plan? Making Venice a world laboratory is not an impossible dream. Venice is the perfect city to become a showcase for the best of mankind, self-sufficient and thriving on its own natural resources, with alternative energy, electric/solar transportation, healthy salt marshes, housing for residents, fresh, local food, world-class craftsmanship & artisans, and sustainable tourism. What exists instead is a system based on greed, corruption, overtourism, depopulation, more hotels, AirBnBs, cruise ships, etc. -- in short, the worst of mankind, a disease that is afflicting the entire planet.

Naughty or Nice? Photo: iItaly.org
Yes, Venice can be a World Laboratory, but we need the help of the entire world to accomplish such a feat. If we don't act immediately, there will be no Venice to save. It is a New Year and a New Decade, and time to make radical changes. Right now, if La Befana left Venice a Christmas stocking, it would be filled with coal, not sweets. You don't have to burn the good witch to see which way the wind blows.

Ciao from Venezia,
Cat Bauer
Venetian Cat - The Venice Blog

1 comment:

  1. Yes, Venice can be a World Laboratory, but we need the help of the entire world to accomplish such a feat. If we don't act immediately, there will be no Venice to save. It is a New Year and a New Decade, and time to make radical changes. Right now, if La Befana left Venice a Christmas stocking, it would be filled with coal, not sweets. You don't have to burn the good witch to see which way the wind blows.

    ReplyDelete