Il Casanova Moderno
"Don't stay and torment yourself with melancholy thought. Come with me, we shall get into the gondola and go forth on the sea."
Those words from the old Venetian boat song or barcarolle helped me to throw doubt and caution to the wind and head to Venice for the summer. I had fallen head over heels in love with the city the previous year and yearned to return to her, this time with the intention of writing about her gondoliers. These men have been romanticized beyond reality by poets, travelers, and swooning women. I wanted to discover the real men oaring these unique, silent black
When I arrived in Venice, before I had even reached my apartment, I ran into Max, my gondolier friend from the year before. He introduced me to colleagues, such as Stefano and Paolo, who helped me immensely with my project. I quickly learned that formal interviews wouldn't work with these men; sometimes I learned about their profession or their boats, but more often I learned about their characters. I wrote about over 25 of Venice's gondoliers: their personalities and peculiarities, their virtues and vices, their features and foibles. Max was my introduction to their world.
He also turned out to be the epitome of the gondolier Casanova stereotype.
One sweltering day, I crossed the Grand Canal at Santa Maria del Giglio by traghetto, the larger ferry gondola, oared by Mimo and another gondolier. They had noticed the book I carried, El Gondolero y su Gondola by Eugenio Vittoria, given to me by Max that morning as I set out to visit the Accademia Museum. Max had gotten the book from the gondolier company he worked for, but he could only find the Spanish translation to give me. Luckily, I read enough Spanish to understand a good portion of it, but the book contained such interesting and valuable information that I wished I could buy an English translation for myself.
"Dice a Campagna," Mimo enunciated slowly in Spanish so I would be sure to understand, 'morti cani.' Es una palabra que todos los venezianos conozcan." I repeated the words to him a couple times to make sure I had it right, but I figured that if it was a word all Venetians knew, Max would be able to understand this message from Mimo. Campagna was Max's sopranome or gondolier nickname that meant "Country," signifying that he lived in Mestre on the mainland. I had met Max the previous year and had been charmed by his good looks and carefree manner.
Mimo and his colleague had thumbed through this book in the boat before they ferried me across. The sun was high overhead, so Mimo's little chestnut-colored mutt Kiko, who rode along in the traghetto, had crawled under the wooden seat to find some shade. In fact, due to the heat, Mimo wore only a white tanktop, an indiscretion he could be fined 300,000 lire for [about $200]. No matter the temperature, gondoliers were required to wear black slacks and shirts with sleeves, or any police officer had the right to fine them-- unless, of course, the offending gondolier was a personal friend of the officer. But Mimo's deep tan looked good against his white tanktop, and his stocky frame showed that he had taken good care of himself for his 45 years. He always wore his shaded glasses and usually had a curved brown pipe clamped between his teeth, even when he was rowing.
On the way back to my cooler apartment, I stopped by Santa Sofia to deliver Mimo's message. "Max," I said to him where he sat in the shade with Stefano, Diego, Giannino, Sleepy, Giorgio, and the usual crowd, "I met Mimo and he said to tell you 'morti cani.'" With this the men all howled with laughter and slapped their thighs or stood up to laugh harder. "But what does it mean?" I cried out.
"It is better you do not know," said Max. None of them would reveal the phrase's meaning to me, but I could guess that it must be pretty foul. "Next time you see Mimo," Max told me, "tell him that Campagna says, 'filio de mamatrolia,'" and with that all the men broke up again. Here, my small knowledge of Spanish and Latin allowed me to translate "filio" as "son," and from there I could safely assume the rest. I was being used as a messenger for profanity.
Max seemed to be well known and well liked by everyone. As he had the previous year, Max still sported a dark tan and ubiquitous sunglasses, which hid his startling green eyes. But this year he had begun wearing his black sideburns to a sharp point halfway across his cheek, apparently a newly popular style. When he took a break from work to have lunch or get a drink, Max said "Ciao" numerous times as he strutted in his jaunty way. He played soccer every Friday night with friends while juggling a girlfriend, a long-time lover, and any short-term relationships passing through town. Any gondolier I asked knew who Campagna was, despite the fact that he lived outside Venice. I had even seen him momentarily moor his gondola full of paying customers so he could make a phone call, probably arranging a tryst.
One evening as I sat outside the Nova Vita cafe on the Strada Nova, Max was passing by and stopped to help me drink my carafe of red wine. He was wearing a bright green shirt embroidered with the word "Rugby," which would have looked hideous on anyone without a tan as deep as his. As usual, his sunglasses were perched on top of his head. He told me how he had just bought these because his others had fallen into the canal that day. "If you look at the bottom of the canal, you see all the sunglasses of Massimo," he said with a laugh.
Max chatted a bit first with the barista Franco, a fan of Charles Bukowsky's writing, and then with the waiter Nicola. It was another rainy evening, so
Franco helped us move our things to a table under the awning. After working all day, Max was hungry and insisted that I join him for a snack. Soon Franco brought us sandwiches of red and yellow roasted peppers, slippery between toasted bread. Max knew I was living in Venice on a tight budget, and he seemed to want always to feed me, giving me bites of his panini and treating me to drinks any time I stopped by the Santa Sofia traghetto to say hello.
"What do you eat in your room?" he asked, knowing that I usually couldn't afford to eat out.
"Well, I eat bread and fruit and cheese," I said. "The signora across the hallway sometimes brings me coffee or breadsticks." I suppose I sounded pretty down and out.
"You eat just the bread?" asked Max, raising his eyebrows, "nothing on it?"
"I like Nutella," I replied, mentioning that chocolatey spread.
Max sat up quickly from his slouch, looking astonished. "Nooo," he cried, breaking into a smile. "I love the Nutella. Every day, I eat the big jar," he said, indicating its size with his large hands. "Sometimes I get the pimple."
Still animated, Max told me that his lover was returning from a trip to Rome. I had met her the previous year; Max must like long relationships, despite his many brief affairs, because he had kept this lover for some years and yet also had kept the same girlfriend for eight. Though his girlfriend knew this other woman, she never suspected that Max was unfaithful to her. Or she chose not to. Perhaps any woman who had snagged this handsome, charming man would be willing to look askance at his amorous adventures in order to keep him. Max put me in mind of Giacomo Casanova, the famed Venetian lover. Casanova somehow managed to convince countless women to surrender to him. He sincerely loved them, at least for the moment or a few days or weeks. And the women ate it up, one after another. Max shared that charm, that philosophy, and that luck.
"The man and the woman are different," he asserted. "Women love more with the heart, but men love more with the body." I conceded that this was true of many men, though not all, because I knew a few of the exceptions. Max thought I was probably deceived in this belief. "I don't like to make love only the one time and say goodbye," he continued. "For me, I like to have the relationship with the woman and be the friend, too." This statement contradicted what some of the other gondoliers had told me about Max entertaining a string of women as they vacationed briefly in Venice; I had heard that Max was used to spending only a couple of days with a woman and that he often tired of one if she stayed in the city longer. But I wanted to give my friend the benefit of the doubt.
However, I knew first hand that Max could be trusted. The previous summer when I had first met him, he had tried to add me to his list of conquests. But when I assured him that I was faithful to my boyfriend back home, Max stopped pressuring me and remained my friend. This year when I arrived in Venice, he joked, "Now I have two wives and three lovers," counting on his fingers. When I told him I still had my same boyfriend, Max said, "It's okay. I no want a lover."
Why should he? He already had enough women in his life. Perhaps Max's nickname should be changed from Campagna to Casanova. He was the famed lover's modern-day counterpart, delighting in amorous adventures, loving women for their charms, and sincerely enjoying the chase. Like the original Casanova stated about himself, Max sought, "pleasure in the company of women of whatever rank or condition Venice has to offer." Since he lived in Mestre on the mainland, Max was able to succeed in his adventures without getting caught by his girlfriend. In Venice, everyone knew everyone else, and they ran into each other on the street or gathered in the campo each evening to share the latest gossip.
When the rain slowed and the wine ran out, Max paid my bill and we walked back to Santa Sofia. There we stood to admire the lights reflected on the canal.
"Since it rained all evening, how will you explain to your girlfriend why you got home so late from work? I wouldn't want you to get in trouble because of me," I teased.
"It's no problem," he replied. "My girlfriend, she always wait for me and cook me the nice dinner." I felt a bit sorry for her, knowing the whole truth about Max. We parted and Max strode off down the Strada Nova with his cocky gait to retrieve his car at Piazzale Roma for the short drive home.
I found out much later that Max had married this girlfriend two months before my visit to Venice. In true Casanova fashion, he had spent the entire night before the wedding with another woman, one who was in the wedding party. The title of Casanova fit him, just like that bright rugby shirt, but so did the Venetian nickname for a teller of tales--Pinocchio.