Wednesday 10 July 2013

A new mascot for an ancient city? - Michelle Lovric

Dolce and Gabbana held a Venetian costume ball at the Pisani Moretta palace last week – Dolce came as Arlecchino and Gabbana as a bullfighter  (not a figure I recall from the Commedia dell’Arte, strangely) – but the biggest celebrity in Venice at the moment is a supposed Mediterranean monk seal who has been baptized "Pryntyl".

He or she was first spotted near the church of San Geremia, where the remains of Saint Lucy rest, and has also been seen at Malamocco on the Lido. A windsurfer at Bibione reported a close encounter on July 7th  with a creature who was last seen swimming in the direction of Venice. Its shape, size and colouring were those of a young adult male monk seal.

A video on YouTube shows a glimpse of a brown creature, who is definitely not a fish, disappearing underwater near Rialto.

Life imitates ‘art’ yet again. In my second children’s novel, The Mourning Emporium, monk seals are washed up in Venice after a great ice storm.
A mother seal helps my heroine, Teo, to escape from an iceberg on which she has been marooned. The seal meets a terrible fate at the hands of the villainous Miss Uish.

When researching The Mourning Emporium, I looked for a species of seal that might conceivably make its way to Venice as a result of a great turbulence in the Adriatic. And Mediterranean monk seals seemed to be the best candidates. They were common enough to be hunted during the Roman Empire and Middle Ages. Fishermen regarded them as rivals, and suspected them of destroying their nets.

There are historical accounts of the seals gathering to mate and give birth on open beaches, but increasingly they have taken to underwater caves for breeding. There they are vulnerable to storm surges and can be washed miles away from their homes. Today Monachus monachus, a pinniped of the Phocidae family, is an endangered species. Only 500 are thought to remain, with a few colonies on the coast of Croatia.

How did "Pryntyl" arrive in Venice? There have been no recent turbulences in the Adriatic. Experts are theorizing that this seal inadvertently ended up in the city when chasing some prey, and then became lost in the labyrinth of Venice’s historic waterways.

Comments on the website of the Gazzettino newspaper have been skeptical, with some readers dismissing the filmed creature as a nutria (coypu) or a dead cat. Others have suspected a clever digital faking. You can judge for yourself towards the end of this short video, filmed in early July. To me, the diving beast looks much too large to be a coypu, and it’s definitely vigorous. The copypu is a herbivore, and would find slim pickings in Venice. So I vote for Mediterranean monk seal, being the more credulous because desirous. I would love to see it for myself.

Coypu or seal, I like to think that the creature’s appearance is an encouraging sign of the relative health of the water in Venice these days. In the last ten years, egrets have become a common sight, gobbling little fish they catch while hunting from jetties at high tide. Large flocks of cormorants come to dry their wings on the paline. They too seem to find good eating in Venetian waters.

The monk seal feeds on fish, squid and eels. Squid are certainly more obvious on the canals than they used to be. The poor creatures are the prey of swooping seagulls. When locked in mortal combat with one of the yellow beaked “Magoghe”, the squid release their ink. Underwater, this would serve to blind a predator temporarily, but unfortunately the discharge of fluid lightens the squid so that the seagulls can more easily carry them off.

A gondolier friend has told me about a seagull dropping a slippery squid from a great height directly upon the head of one of his clients enjoying a romantic voyage down the Grand Canal.

How clean is Venice’s water now? I remember the historic year that Italy won the World Cup for some ball game or other, and the night air was filled with the sound of thuds and splashes. This was the soundtrack of Venetians jumping into the Grand Canal from the Academia Bridge and at Rialto, where they swam from the market to the other side and back. They had sworn that they would do this if Italy won.

I asked a Venetian friend if it was safe to immerse their bodies in the water of the Grand Canal, and he assured me that for natives of the city the water is completely healthy.

‘But you,’ he said, ‘as a foreigner, would dissolve on impact.’

In fact, it is also illegal to swim in the historical canals now. But in the nineteenth century, when my current adult novel is set, women would throw their children into the canals, attached to a piece of rope, so that they would learn to swim. There are archival photographs of this activity.

Personally, I hope that the monk seal stays in Venice. The amphibious city needs a healthy, lively mascot. The winged lion has served since 878, but we’re unlikely to see a real one flying around town.

PS. Blogger did not desire that I should add any pictures today, so please supply them from your imaginations, as well as the italics for book titles and foreign words. Thank you!


adele said...

What a wonderful post! the thought of someone dissolving in the water....

Sue Purkiss said...

It must be extraordinary to have two lives - one immersed in London and one in Venice. I do love these glimpses into life in Venice!