09 March 2009

“The Cure”

Behold the Testa d’Oro (golden head)! This serious character stares down on the entry to Rialto Bridge, San Marco side. Today there’s a junky souvenir shop below him. But if you look very closely, you can still see the etched traces of the 250-year-old sign: THERIACA ANDROMACHI. That shop’s original purpose was the production and sale of theriaca (or triaca), Venice’s mystery-shrouded, Orient-inspired, cure-all potion.

The recipe for this panacea originated in the apothecary of the secretive Greek Andromaco, and came to Venice by way of Arabs. It called for no less than sixty ingredients, a primary one being dried viper meat. They were pounded and mixed in heavy mortars, sometimes in full public view. (The stone pavement in front of a chemist's shop in Campo Santo Stefano, originally the site of a historic farmacia called “The Old Cedar,” still bears the round indentations of theriaca mortars.) There was even a special song to accompany the rhythmic blows of the makers’ pestles, and a special costume for the fellows who delivered the miracle drug around town.

Venetians relied on theriaca to relieve stomach and bowel ailments, toothache, headache, and fever, heal scorpion stings, dog and viper bites, and plague buboes, prevent contraction of the plague and other contagious diseases, ease the pain of childbirth, restore sight and improve hearing, and even drive out evil spirits. (Somebody get Merck headquarters on the phone!)

Pharmacy was, and still is, a very dignified profession in these parts. To understand how seriously Venice took the preparation of theriaca and other medicines, and how much the farmacista (pharmacist) was honored in the culture, think of this: farmacisti, even though of common birth, were permitted to cross social lines and even marry Venetian noblewomen. Not a bad career choice for a smart, ambitious fellow!

I’ve heard that Farmacia Ponci Santa Fosca (which is so beautifully preserved that it looks like a movie set) still has a few drams of theriaca on the premises. The pharmacist there could not be persuaded to show it to me, though. Indeed, I got the impression he hates it when people come in asking stupid questions.

06 March 2009

Reserve now, Ladies!

This Sunday is Il Giorno della Donna – “Woman’s Day.” The celebration of womanhood, the wearing of the mimosa… The whole town is already trimmed in bright yellow.

You local gals who haven’t yet made plans might want to get in on this action. Dinner and festivities in the “Chippendales” style: the waiters will be stripping. “Tutto da ridere…!” – “All for laughs,” we’re assured. Looks like a pretty good menu, too (except maybe that "chocolate mouse” dessert selection). And just 40 euros!

I find it interesting that the sponsors produced this poster all in Italian, except for the title of the main event – “Venetian Waiter Strip.” Are there no words in Italian for the age-old tradition of striptease? Is this a new idea here? Or does the bold use of English in this context make the event seem slightly more naughty, or perhaps a bit more hip?

Italians use the English word “sexy,” both in conversation and in print. I once asked my Venetian friend if his mother tongue lacks a corresponding word for “sexy.” He told me such a word does exist in Italian. “But,” he added, “it isn’t very sexy.”


04 March 2009

“Go” fishing

Tuesday mornings when I go over to the mercato in Lido, I sometimes run into this fellow, patiently dipping his line into a small, murky canal that looks very unlikely to yield any fish. We meet and greet as I come and go on my shopping expedition.

The first time we met, I was curious to know what he was angling for, and he told me: “Go.” We have a real language barrier. He only speaks what I believe to be pure Venetian dialect, because I can barely make any sense of it. Still, I have gathered that the little fish he catches – goby – are bony but very tasty when fried and served red-hot with just a sprinkling of salt and pepper. (I have since learned from other Venetians that they are also good cooked in risotto, to which they lend a yellow tint.)

By the time I finish up at the mercato and make my way back, the go fisherman has usually caught enough for a decent little lunch. He doesn’t mind showing me the reward for his morning’s efforts; I admire his catch with a big smile. And then we say, “Ciao!”

My question is this: who in the world do you suppose he thinks I am?

02 March 2009

Calle Stretta

Venetians often gave colorful and mysterious names to their streets. Those names endure today, on the painted street signs called ninzioleti, or "little sheets." I'm thinking now of Santa Croce's Fondamenta di Tette ("Canalside Way of Breasts"), San Marco's Calle dei Assassini ("Street of the Assassins"), Dorsoduro's Calle del Sangue ("Street of Blood"), and Castello's Calle delle Moschette ("Street of Little Flies," referring not to insects but to the beauty spot patches that were once designed and sold there).

But I believe sometimes they just plain ran out of ideas. For example, here is San Polo's Calle Stretta. Can you guess what that means?
Yup. "Tight Street."