The city appointed people to set a lantern in every capitello by night. There was a tradition of leaving flowers there too. To lend sanctity to business arrangements, contracts might be signed in front of them. And of course a Madonna might serve as a kind spiritual proto-security camera on the street: few would want to commit a crime in front of those steady eyes. Those were times when no one would have dreamed of stealing a holy image, but most often, these days, the Madonnas are behind bars, like solemn canaries in ornate cages.
Of course, over hundreds of years these Venetian Madonnas have seen it all, which may account for their expressions. Meanwhile, full of grace She obviously is, but is not the Virgin Mary one of the most put-upon women ever?
A couple of years ago, I started holding conversations (in my head) with some of these dimly-lit ladies-of-the-night as I walked around the city. Those conversations took a turn I had not expected. This is why: although each street-Madonna is as individual as Her artist could render Her, each personifies the same Mother of God. So I felt that the Madonnas from Castello to Santa Croce would in fact talk with the same voice and have the same preoccupations – including annoyance at noisy passers-by waking the Holy Infant when She’d just got Him down.
Children have always had the run of Venice. It’s safer than cities with carriages and now cars. In The Wishing Bones, I write of the ‘secret sacred ties’ between Venetians, binding all her citizens to one another with affection. The picture below right shows mother holding her child up to a painted Madonna at capitello near the entrance to the Doges Palace (courtesy of Wikimedia Commons). A slightly older Venetian child, on his or her daily journeys, would pass by dozens of Madonnas, and it seemed logical to me that their universal Mother would probably have a few things to say to them. I imagined that Our Lady would be keen on personal hygiene in a city that was obsessed with health matters (if Venice ever got the reputation of being a sick city, her international trade would have been in danger). So I thought She’d probably want Her supplicants to have clean hands. Running noses would be absolutely out.
The whole issue of mermaids and Madonnas is played out, in everyone’s favourite church of Santa Maria degli Miracoli. Inside, Tullio Lombardo’s friezes of beautiful young mermaids enclose an ancient miracle-working painting of a Madonna. In The Wishing Bones, the young Miracoli mermaids, clearly victimized by adolescent hormones, briefly flee their frieze to join the villains. (Then they’re very sorry).
By the twentieth century, the chapels were under a different threat – chemicals coming from the factory suburb of Marghera. A new generation of capitelli protectors, the Amici dei capitèi, was formed but later absorbed into one of the bigger organisations that protect sacred monuments, I.R.S.E.P.S.
It's not surprising that the gondoliers still have their own waterborne capitelli. These little green shrines are to be seen at the stazioni where the traghetto services run. Inside their mullioned windows you can make out tiny Madonnas. If Venice were living her best life right now, those Madonnas would be doing something to protect her from the cruise liners.
But this is real life, and fiction can only imagine away the brutal ugliness and danger of the cruise ships. That’s increasingly hard, with the news of the massive Viking Sigyn running down a smaller vessel on the Danube in Budapest two weeks ago; with the vast MSC Opera smashing, out of control, into a river-cruise boat and then into the Zattere in Venice on June 2nd; with the 30th anniversary of Marchioness disaster approaching in August; with the Thames now threatened with the arrival of Europe’s biggest party boat, the Ocean Diva, which is the length of a football pitch and hosts 1500 revellers. The great historic cities of Europe are succumbing to Dubai-ification.
Not just Venice but Barcelona, Amsterdam, Bergen and many others have succumbed to this brutal commodification by the mega-companies that run fleets of vast boats. The protest movements are energetic and creative, but what Venetians called 'interessi' are deeply entrenched. Too many people, it seems, have fingers in the pie: not just the cruise operators but also those institutions that licence piers and party boats; also, those companies that service and provide catering for them.
Too much greed leads to too many monsters cramming into the same far-too-finite waterways. The danger to life and the ruination of heritage views are all too visible; possibly worse are the invisible dangers of nitrogen oxide, sulphur and particulates, for marine fuel is many times more toxic that land diesel. These poisons make their ways into the lungs of the citizens and they also destroy public art. The statue at right, on the Gesuati church, is just a few hundred yards from where the MSC Opera struck the shore. In a city without cars, boat emissions are the only reason for the blackening and blunting of this saintly figure.
Writing about, and so living in the 18th century, I can blot the mega-ships off my horizons. However, into my next book, currently entitled The Palace that Ate Boys, has crept the notion of certain public offices in the city – those charged with protecting Venice – instead welcoming in a terrible blight in exchange for sackfuls of money …
Michelle Lovric's website
The Wishing Bones is published on July 25th in the UK.
Last week marked the second anniversary of the terror attack at London Bridge and the Borough Market. Five hundred people were locked in or out of their homes for days, as their streets became a crime scene. A year ago, at Southwark Cathedral, members of the community performed a play made up of excerpts of their longer testimonies. This year, the Cathedral has posted the text of Testimony online so everyone can read it.