I chew my lower lip while I wait to see my father’s gondola catch fire.
Beneath the boat, a pile of firewood is stacked so high that I find myself in the odd position of looking up at the underside of its black hull. A meticulous servant or day laborer has split the logs and arranged them into neat stacks, then pressed dried brush into the spaces between the wood, with the intention to start an impressive blaze. The gondola has been lashed to the largest logs of the pyre, yet it remains skewed at an angle. From my vantage point, I cannot help but admire the craft’s flowing lines, its elegant prow reaching toward the sky as if to defy this injustice.
My father had nothing to do with the crime committed in this boat, of course. I feel certain that none of the onlookers has any idea that my father, our Republic’s most renowned gondola maker, and I, a young man barely worthy of note, crafted this gondola with our own hands. Surely no one has noticed our catanella, the maple-leaf emblem we carve into the prow of each gondola that emerges from the Vianello workshop.
I stand in a crowd of bakers, clock makers, tailors, housewives, fishermen, and merchants, all hungry for a fiery spectacle. I cast my eyes to what must be hundreds of individuals gathered around me. No, not one of them is thinking of my proud father or myself, even though I helped my father craft this fine boat just two years ago in our family boatyard. The only man on people’s minds is the one who threw the rock that started this humiliating affair.
I hear murmuring behind me, then the crowd parts in unison. I scramble to the fringes just in time to feel the swish of a silk robe as a man strides purposefully by me, ignoring my presence as if I were a mere bird fluttering out of his path.
“The Councillor,” I hear someone whisper beside me. My heart begins to pound.
Beneath the clasp that holds his garment closed, the man’s chest protrudes. His brow pulsates at the temples, and flecks of gray dust his otherwise slick head of black hair that shows beneath his close-fitting cap. A perfectly straight nose and an even, thin-lipped mouth define a regal profile. Silently, the man circles the doomed boat, turning his piercing dark eyes into the depths of the pyre as if he can see through to the other side. He looks up at the great black craft, and everyone in the circle follows his gaze, shifting from foot to foot in anticipation.
The man in the silk robes completes his circumnavigation of the pyre. Finally, he addresses the crowd, which has grown silent over the course of the man’s dramatic entrance. A shadow darkens his face, and his mouth forms a scowl as the deep cadence of his voice reverberates through the air:
“The Lords of our Most Excellent Council have ruled in the case brought against Bonito Banfi, boatman of Cannaregio, so that justice may be served in a manner proper and fitting to any individual who would seek to disrupt the peace and stable government of our Most Serene Republic. Accounting for the harmful scourge that irreverent boatmen bring to the peace of Our Most Excellent State, Bonito Banfi has been sentenced to ten years of service on the convict galleys.”
By now all of us have heard the story of Bonito Banfi, the condemned gondolier whose boat—the same one that launched from our boatyard ramp two years ago—will burn on the pyre. The tale has spread across the Venetian Republic for nearly ten days. As with so many crimes in our city, this one began with a family quarrel so old that no one remembers how it had started. Banfi had been making his rounds of the ferry stations when he spied his archrival, another gondolier called Paolo Squeran. Squeran owed him money, Banfi said, to settle a gambling debt. The two men commenced a shouting match, their foul words echoing across the canal waters from one gondola to the other. The verbal insults escalated and began to draw crowds of onlookers to the edge of the quay.
Banfi didn’t know it, but the passenger riding behind the curtains of Squeran’s gondola happened to be the French ambassador, returning to the embassy after a meeting at the Great Council. Banfi lifted a large rock that he had been carrying in his gondola just in case he happened to cross paths with Squeran. Instead of hitting Banfi’s rival, however, the rock rang against the ambassador’s passenger compartment. The curtains parted and the enraged ambassador emerged from his peaceful retreat to hurl insults of his own, in French, at the offending gondolier. The ambassador then ordered Squeran to ferry him directly to the Council of Ten, where he lodged a formal complaint with the body of justice-makers.
Banfi’s sentence, so it has been recounted, is to serve for ten years on the convict galleys. Banfi’s ankles were shackled, and he has been escorted to the state shipyard, where he will be chained to a crew of prisoners forced to row one of Our Serene Republic’s sailing ships, part of a fleet that embarks each day for Crete, Corfu, Acre, and other port cities of our colonies in the eastern Mediterranean. To be sure, the convict galleys mean a sentence for Banfi that is worse than prison, perhaps even than death. A host of ills awaits him, seasickness and diarrhea the very least of his worries. All of us have heard the stories of dysentery that make you vomit blood, scurvy that causes pus-filled wounds to emerge across your thighs, and gangrene that turns your feet black. This is all on top of falling victim to whatever tribulations one’s fellow prisoners might inflict under cover of darkness.
A modest state pittance will be provided to feed and clothe Banfi’s wife and four small children, who watched tearfully as six of the state night-guards, the signori di notte, seized the gondola. Within hours, the boat was sentenced to this fiery doom. The intent, of course, is to set an example for the notoriously foul-mouthed gondoliers whom everyone in the crowd already considers the scourge of the city.
Before the pyre, I watch the man in the silk robes, himself surely one of The Ten who received the complaint lodged by the French ambassador. I see his lower lip twitch, an almost imperceptible, involuntary spasm that seems at odds with this otherwise well-composed official. It vanishes as quickly as it appears. He continues:
“Today, it is both my obligation and my privilege to oversee the public disgrace of this boat, as an example and a symbol for any boatman who would seek to act in any manner against Our Most Excellent Government. The greatest weight shall be placed against those who would seek to disrupt the peace of Our Most Serene Republic. So decreed on this four-hundred-fifty-first day of the reign of our Most Illustrious and Benevolent Prince Doge Nicolò da Ponte.”
He turns and nods to a servant hanging on the edge of the crowd. I draw my breath now and watch a lean, muscular African dressed in a pair of drab breeches and a short-waisted jacket step forward into the circle. The crowd presses back to make room for the Councillor, who stands to face the prow of the boat. The servant approaches the pyre with a lit torch, which he begins to swing, igniting the wood prepared beneath it.
Small flames dance inside the pile of brush and logs. Within moments, flames climb, rapidly reaching up to lick the bottom of the great black craft. With a crackle and a whoosh, the gondola is engulfed in a blaze. I suck in my breath, but soon smoke assails my nostrils and the heat tightens the skin on my face. As the wooden planks begin to crack and char, I recognize the same malaise I have experienced at public executions—an incongruous mix of fascination and revulsion that forces me to freeze in place, incapacitated.
My feet feel glued to the cobblestones, yet I need to avert my eyes. I look beyond the pyre where the gondola now stands ablaze and cast my attention past the square and into the Grand Canal. Cargo boats, private gondolas, and public ferries traffic the great basin that extends between the Piazza San Marco and the island of San Giorgio Maggiore. What must amount to more than five hundred gondolas bob in the vast expanse of glittering water, more than I have ever seen assembled there in all of my twenty-two years on this earth. The boatmen and their passengers are gathered there for just one reason: to watch this boat burn between the great columns of justice that mark the gateway to the city. I gaze skyward now at the tall, white columns, one topped with a shimmering, gilded, winged lion, the other with Saint Theodore treading on a crocodile. These two statues are the symbols of My Great Republic, My Most Serene, my home, the city of my birth, the only place I have ever known.
Of course, this gondola-burning isn’t the first public humiliation that I have witnessed on this very spot in my life, but I am certain that it will be the most memorable. Nearly every day, on the platform between the columns of justice in the piazzetta, the smaller square off our main Piazza San Marco, some poor wretch is clapped in the stocks for cursing in public, snitching an apple from a fruit-seller, staggering drunkenly into his parish church, or committing crimes much more serious.
A few times, I have seen rapists and thieves dangling by their necks from a rope suspended between the columns. Their bodies hang for days, sometimes weeks, to decompose before our eyes, their cheeks bloated and black, their eyes bulging as if they were watching the crowd below in a frozen expression of horror. A few of my braver childhood friends hurled rocks and sticks to make their doll-like bodies swing and spin, then ran off laughing as armed guards from the nearby Doge’s Palace chased them until they disappeared into the shadows of the arcades lining the square. I had never had the nerve to do it myself. My father would have seen me hanged, too.
When I was a very small boy I even saw someone—a man who had murdered eight people, they said—tied with ropes to four horses by his wrists and ankles between the columns. When slaves whipped the horses, they galloped into four different directions. The man’s body exploded, and as long as I live I will never forget the sound it made, something akin to a ripe melon bursting from the inside out. I watched, frozen, as a flock of shrieking seagulls descended to fight over a feast of entrails. At the sight of it, a woman standing beside me vomited on my shoes. All of it was meant to uphold the just and civilized society of Our Great Republic of Venice, so it was explained to me.
None of those public spectacles, however gruesome, compares with this one, at least for me. My father will not leave the boatyard today. He could not bring himself to watch one of his own creations so publicly disgraced. That is because this is not just any gondola. It is one of the most perfect boats we have ever made. Although I am proud of how I shaped the prow, I know I will keep my pride to myself, as my father will not permit me to show it.
The sound of crackling fire snatches me from my thoughts, and I turn my attention back to the burning boat. It has disintegrated even faster than I could have imagined. The flaming craft remains little more than a skeleton now, like the bones of an enormous fish. Curls of black smoke rise into the gray sky. My eyes follow the black embers upward, where they seemed to take flight, dancing crazily in the haze.
The spectacle nearly over, onlookers scatter away from the square to resume their lives as if nothing of significance has happened. Their voices echo through the narrow alleyways that snake away from the Piazza San Marco. Beyond, in the wide expanse of the Grand Canal, an eerie light makes shimmering patterns on the water, and the dark gondolas crowded there begin to disperse without a sound down the smaller rivulets and watery passages that pervade our great city.
I cannot seem to move myself from the spot where I have stood transfixed. The flames of the burning boat are dying now, but the embers glow, making wavering reflections in the water. Overhead, a bird coos. I watch it hop from its perch on the stones of a building facing the square and sail gracefully to a fluttering landing. Birds begin to gather and peck at detritus left behind by the crowd. Two gray birds squabble over a crumb lodged in the crack of a cobblestone. I take one last look at the pyre and then force myself to leave the square.
The harsh stench of burning lacquer lingers in the air long after the crowd has dispersed. The smell of scorched paint stings my nostrils, yet I feel incited to inhale this aroma. It is repugnant and yet at the same time strangely comforting. I sense that my clothes and even the dark locks of hair that fall across my cheeks are impregnated with the smell. I feel my head reel and my stomach turn. Of course. I don’t know why I did not recognize it before. It is my family’s secret recipe for boat varnish, a special lacquer we use to protect the boat keels from the lichen that collects on them in the canals. The origins of the recipe were lost even to our own boat-making ancestors, but we continue to mix it in the jars of my father’s workshop every day. The smell grips me, haunts me as I quicken my pace, eager to find my way through the narrow alleys leading back to my neighborhood in Cannaregio.
When at last I reach the fish market near home, I find that Signora Galli, the fishmonger’s wife, has already set aside something for me. I approach her stall as she plunges her arm into a bucket, scooping out a writhing handful of eels trawled from the sea this morning, and plunks them on the scale.
“Tell your sister to make everyone a nice risi e bisoto for the midday meal,” she says, wagging a pudgy finger at me. “Good for the baby.”
“Thank you,” I say.
It looks as if someone has dumped the entire contents of the Venetian lagoon onto a wooden table before me. From this bounty, the fishmonger’s wife selects a few small fish and presses them into my satchel.
“She’s a bit old to be birthing a baby, your mother,” Signora Galli continues. “But a woman must accept children from God no matter when they come.” She puts her hands on her hips and nods.
“Santo Stefano, let the poor boy go home,” says Signor Galli the fishmonger, slapping his wife’s backside affectionately with a rag as she accepts my coins. “He has no time for your opinions. The boy has a full day’s work ahead of him in his father’s boatyard.”
“Salve.” I salute the fishmonger and his wife.
It is true, I am eager to reach home now. We are waiting for the baby.