The peripatetic M. Baranov (1864-1942) — pseudonym of the earliest known Forverts travel writer Moyshe Gormidor — was employed by the Forverts starting in 1905. Forward Founder Ab Cahan called him a born satirist and remarkably clear writer specializing in short robust sentences and an edgy sense of humor. A revolutionary from Zhitomir in the Ukraine, Baranov was forced into exile in Irkutsk, Siberia. After escaping, he stopped off in Geneva before sneaking back into Russia visiting Vilna, Minsk, St. Petersburg and more. Next up was Paris and then London where reportedly he learned English from textbooks loaned to him by Tchaikovsky. Argentina was also on his itinerary and he is among the pioneering reporters on Jewish gaucho culture. Here’s Baranov’s unique take on Venice, Italy — as geographically anarchic and chronically damp. Methodically envisioning the famed canals in their primal geologic state, replete with creeping shorelines and climate change, Venice’s citizens must suffer epic rheumatism and colds. Subverting the allure of romantic Venice, Baranov imagines their runny noses make handkerchiefs there as renowned as gondolas.
It’s a city composed of scores of little islands with canals forged by the historic Adriatic Sea. It likely happened this way: in those days, seawater was much higher. Back then, the site where Venice is currently located was sunken. In time, seawater declined as happens with all oceans, and as it receded incrementally, land was revealed. At first, from a few higher places smaller hills could be viewed, with the lower areas between hilltops remaining underwater. The current islands that form the basis for the city are the surviving dry areas. As for the rest of the water below them — those are the canals.
But maybe this is how it happened: the sea’s water levels were low and couldn’t reach the Italian demi-island where now one finds many isles and canals where once no such things existed. For long ago, only dry shorelines were visible. And then there came a day that the Adriatic Sea began to rise and began attacking the land and shoreline and ingesting them until they were completely absorbed within, flooding all the lower areas. Higher parts remained stranded amidst the water and became islands while the lower areas between them where the seawater flooded were the canals.
It could be that the Adriatic will in time begin to diminish, the ocean will recede from the western hills over towards the east, and all of Venice’s canal water will drop and in time completely peter out. And when the canals cease being canals, the islands will also stop being islands. Venice will be a dried-up city with streets instead of canals and cars instead of gondolas. These things have happened before on our planet earth. There are cities that once were laid out by the ocean, and are now found pushed back several miles from the shoreline. One of these is the defunct city of Pompeii. It seems that towns situated several miles distance from the sea, are now close neighbors to it. Earthquakes are the usual cause of such revolutions, so it’s lucky I stopped by Venice when I did!
And then there’s this version of events: the Adriatic rose higher and higher. Canal water in Venice similarly rose even higher. And then, one fine day, all those islands were flooded and — no more Venice. Not long ago, such a flood occurred and large parts of Venice’s islands were submerged for days. It would appear that such floods were a frequent occurrence. The sea is a traitorous neighbor — one can expect all manner of apocalyptic events.
Venice’s luck is she’s sheltered from the Adriatic by a long wide island so that when the sea is roiling it’ll take it out on that island first. Before her waves reach the canals they’re already sapped, weary, battered and unable to do much damage. This makes the area between the sea, the island, and Venice, a quiet harbor. Venetians never felt the need to pave their streets nor to create a commercial harbor—nature tended to that on their behalf.
That’s all well and good in summer, when the weather’s nice. But Venice in fall when it rains for days without end has got to be horrid with all that water surrounding them from below and then the water raining down on them from above. Venetians likely suffer from rheumatism and probably all come down with colds so they’re living with the moisture from above them as well as below and then the moisture from their runny noses too. Italians, you’ve got to pardon me but my heart goes out to you thinking of the idealized beauty of Italian women now faced with suffering stuffy noses. There must be a high demand for hankies in Venice. It just goes to show how nature is such an underminer—those stunning women struck with head colds! Imagine a gondolier with an inflamed nose trying to serenade you?
So how did Italians come to settle here in this extremely drippy place? What drove them to it when there are so many other empty, drier locales throughout Italy? Probably the same impulse that led them to construct towns and villages on such rocky heights. It must have been during the era when no Italian was confident about life nor livelihood unless they went out to the fringes above, or escaped to an island. Wars between towns and provinces both amongst Italians as well as other countries were a regular feature. The country was lousy with pillagers same as in New York today. Italians drew strength from those who lived near the Adriatic Sea, clinging to those islands so that eventually a city arose there that due to the harbor’s excellence, became a vast commercial center.
In the middle ages, Venice was acclaimed as King of the Adriatic. Not only was it a business leader, having Dalmatia on its eastern coast and all the port cities of the Mediterranean as well as the smaller islands of the Near East, Egypt and Syria, she was enriched through trade and was an imperialist political leader capturing foreign cities and countries and establishing colonies there. She was the owner of a fleet so strong, her neighbors trembled in fear. At a time when Italy was fragmented into many small states and republics, Venice was even then an independent republic like Florence. The government, naturally, was in the hands of wealthy merchants. The presidents of the republic — called ‘duces’ — ruled despotically, with iron fists. And like Florence, power was transferred through inheritance.
In the 18th century, when all of Lombardy fell to the Austrian Empire, Venice also lost its independence. In 1848 Lombardy, with the leadership of the King of Savoia revolted, but the uprising was brutally suppressed. Freedom came when Napoleon the Third defeated Austria forcing their armies to retreat. Later on, Venice was included in a unified Italy. Only a few monuments to Venice’s one-time breadth remain. Venice is no longer king of the Adriatic Sea. Trieste and Puma are bigger business ports.
But there’s only one Venice.