Bombs in Venice

The Albrizzi Palace, where, in the early 19th century, the Corfu-born Greek Isabella Teotochi Albrizzi – Ελισάβετ Θεοτόκη – maintained a famous literary salon, Venice’s most prestigious, visited by Goethe, Lord Byron and Madame de Staël, stands in an aristocratic spendid isolation in the heart of Venice, at the corner of the Rialto. On three sides it is surrounded by rivers, Rio San Cassan, Rio de la Misericordia and Rio San Aponal, and once, there was even a river on the fourth side, the Rio de le Carampane, until it was covered and converted into a street named Rio Terà de le Carampane, the Buried Carampane River, during the urban planning of 1864-1865. This is when the palace come into contact by land with another block of houses, which lay in similar splendid isolation, and with which for centuries it would not have wished the slightest relationship whatsoever: the Carampane, Venice’s red light district. This latter quarter was established by the Venetian Council in the early 14th century, with the aim of bringing the courtesans and their mainly foreign clients more under control. As the Council’s main worry was homosexuality, spread by Levantine merchants, to balance it, they permitted ladies to put their charms on public display on the Ponte delle Tete, the Bridge of Tits, which leads northwest from the quarter, and to offer body care services on the opposite Fondamenta de la Stua, the Quay of Baths.

After 1819, the isolation of the Albrizzi Palace was also compromised by another bridge, leading over the river parallel to the Ponte delle Tete, but at the the second floor level, to one of Venice’s largest walled private gardens, which came under the family’s ownership that year. Before it was a garden, there was a theater, the Teatro San Cassiano, Europe’s first opera house, opened in 1637, for whom its first director, Francesco Cavalli wrote most of his operas. The theater was closed in 1807 during the Napoleonic occupation, and demolished in 1812. Today only the name of the Calle de la Comedia, leading to it, and of the Corte del Teatro, opening before it, points to its previous function. In Venice, the memory of street names goes back many centuries.

Che città, che costumi, che gente sfacciata ed insolente! (What a city, what morals, what arrogant and insolent people!) Francesco Cavalli: L’Ormindo, atto 2, scena 1. Christina Pluhar, L’Arpeggiata, 2015

Above: The rear facade of the Albrizzi Palace (to the left) and the bridge leading over to the garden, seen from the Ponte delle Tete. Below: the facade (to the right) and the bridge, and a bit farther the Ponte delle Tete, seen from the opposite side. Photograph by Carlo Naya, ca. 1880

From the palace square, only one footpath has traditionally led out to the city, the Calle Tamossi, which goes south-east, through the Ponte Storto, the Crooked Bridge, to the church of San Aponal. As the Palazzo Salviati, opposite the Albrizzi Palace on the same square, is now an elementary school, Tamossi street and the bridge are flooded every morning and afternoon with children and their parents heading to school or home from it. And the Sotoportego del Tamossi, branching off from it, is occupied by higher class students, who try the first cigarettes of their lives under the dark arcades.

Tamossi street and Tamossi gateway seen from Ponte Storto

On the way home from school

Campiello Albrizzi, after school. To the right, the Albrizzi Palace

All these stories are recalled by no plaque. That would be so parvenu, only the Italians do that. The Venetian local patriot knows them, and the curious stranger collects them from the chronicles of the Venetian local patriots, as we do in our map of Venice. Nevertheless, on the wall of the Albrizzi Palace there is a plaque, which the students can see well while playing in the square or from the classroom window, and over the eight years of their studies it becomes an integral part of their world view. Of course, this was also placed here by the Italians. Its text was drafted by no less than Gabriele D’Annunzio, in 1916. Under a piece of iron fixed in a marble plate, the following text can be read:


This memorial plaque here, in this cozy nook of Venice can be even regarded an Austro-Hungarian memorial site. In fact, this piece of iron is a fragment of a bomb that was thrown at the city during the First World War. And the eternal enemy is us.

In the eyes of the Italian military leadership, Venice made the ideal logistics center in a future war because of its proximity to the terre irredente, the “unredeemed lands”, that is, the partly Italian-inhabited territories to be acquired from Austria; its good communications on land and sea; as well as the blind faith that no enemy would dare touch this historical city. From the late 19th century they provided the city with military reinforcements, surrounded it with fortresses, naval ports and airports, and established war factories in its suburbs. For example, in the Venetian Arsenale, the thousand-year-old center of shipbuilding, they would develop the MAS (motoscafo armato silurante, torpedo armed motorboat), which would cause great damage to the Austro-Hungarian fleet, by sinking, among others, the battleships Wien and Szent István.

Map of the terre irredente (South Tyrol, Trieste-Istria and Zara-Spalato) (1915)

Wreckage of the battleship Wien, sunk in the port of Trieste (salvage of 1925)

Torpedoing and sinking the battleship Szent István

The Central Powers intelligence, of course, was aware of these preparations. They also knew well what an advantage this military base was for the Italian army, hardly a hundred and fifty kilometers from the Isonzo front. And so, just a few hours after the Italian declaration of war, at 3:30 a.m. on May 24, 1915, the Austro-Hungarian Air Force began to bomb the Arsenale and the munition factories. The bombings were repeated at irregular, roughly monthly, intervals until 23 October 1918. A total of forty-two runs took place, and more than a thousand bombs were dropped on Venice, mainly on the factories, the railway station and the surrounding munition stores, but because of inaccurate aiming, several bombs went astray, and fell on monuments or residential houses. Over three years, bombs killed fifty-two and wounded eighty-four people.

Above: Air-raid shelters in the city of Venice. Below: The map of bomb hits between 1915 and 1918. The detailed list is included in Police Inspector Rambaldo Gaspari’s Elenco delle bombe gettate da velivoli nemici sulla città negli anni di guerra 1915-1918 (A list of the bombs dropped on the city by enemy planes in the war years of 1915-1918). The map shows that the hits were concentrated mainly around the Arsenale and the railway station. Only on 8-9 August 1915 did they bomb by mistake the area of Santa Maria Formosa at the bend of the Grand Canal instead of the port.

The city defended itself as they could. The altanas, the typical afternoon tea pavilions built on the top of the houses of Venice, became observation points, from which the Navy stared at the sky day and night, and in case of air raid some rudimentary air defense was carried out. Its hits were just as uncertain as those of the bombers. This heroic vigil would then become the source of several romantic remembrances in the 1920s.

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A memorial card about the Italian “bombing” of Vienna, where D’Annunzio just dropped leaflets on the city

Movable works of art were taken downstairs or to the basement. After the Caporetto breakthrough, when the front arrived so close to the city, that the Austro-Hungarian troops could have shot the city with artillery (although they did not), these items were transported farther away to Rome by railway. And the unmoveable artworks were covered in soft materials and surrounded by sand bags on the basis of Domenico Rupolo, called “the city’s new tailor”. As this “wrapping” occurred with the co-operation of the institute for the protection of monuments, many photos were made, some of which were even sold on postcards. In the photos exhibited in the Tre Oci Palace in Venice, the completely wrapped city is an impressive view, which by far exceeds Christo’s largest projects. However, the principle of Christo’s wrappings, revelation through concealment, here applies, too. The city, hidden behind screens, stands and sandbags, shows a completely new face which stresses those elements which it hides the most. It would be an interesting quiz in art history to ask which works of arts are hidden behind the sacks in each picture.

Piazza San Marco

Affliggetemi, guai dolenti (Strike on me, painful blows). Francesco Cavalli: L’Artemisia, atto 2. Hana Blažíková, L’Arpeggiata, 2015

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Palazzo Ducale, Scala dello Scrutinio

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Waiting for the train in the station of Venice, after the Caporetto breakthrough

The large-scale protective mission was largely successful. Among the monuments, only the church of Santa Maria degli Scalzi next to the railway station, and the church of Santa Maria Formosa were severely damaged: both vaults collapsed, the former with a fresco of Tiepolo. The bell tower of San Francesco della Vigna, next to the Arsenale, was also hit. Bomb splinters caused minor damage in the interior of San Giovanni e Paolo and on the facade of San Marco. And finally, in the last year of the war, on 27 February 1918, a bomb fell on one of the richest Venetian churches, Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari. Breaking through the ceiling, it fell directly in front of Tiziano’s Pesaro Altarpiece – and it did not explode. Still today it is exposed next to the altarpiece, as the second witness of the former Austro-Hungarian bombing of Venice.

Rialto, Fondamenta del Ferro. A bomb hitting Spiess Brewery

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The epilogue of the air raids. Salvaging the Austrian K. 228 plane, shot down by the Italian anti-aircraft forces, from the laguna next to Casino degli spiriti

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