St. Martin, born in AD 316, was a kind and humble member of the Roman guard who became a Christian saint. He built monasteries at Ligugè and Mamontier, and served as the bishop of Tours (he is buried in the cathedral there).
So goes the legend, on a dismal 11th of November Martin was riding his horse in the rain and cold when he met an old man struggling against the elements. Martin used his sword to cut his cloak in half, and he gave half to the old man. Shorty afterwards, the clouds parted and the sun came up, warming the day. That night Jesus came to him in a dream and thanked him for his kindness. Since then, warm days in November have been referred to as the summer of St. Martin.
In remembrance of St. Martin, the Venetians hold a feast day on 11th November. In olden days the feast involved a procession that wound up at the Church of St. Martin in the Castello district. But today all that remains of that procession is the children’s part. Children run through the streets of the city, bashing on pots and pans with wooden spoons and singing. Basically, the cacophony involves a threat to continue unless onlookers cough up a reward, like coins or sweets. The ethos is similar to that of the ‘trick or treat’ at Halloween. It’s a very noisy, jubilant event – just what the city needs given that 11th November is, of course, also Remembrance Day when people come together to remember sadly those who fell in the First World War.
There are also decorations in honour of the saint, and cakes depicting him on horseback. Bakery windows are crammed full of delicious looking offerings (take a look at this picture), or you can make your own at home (see this wonderful recipe to try the cake yourself: http://www.veniceconnected.com/content/desserts). I can just imagine my characters in my new novel The Echoes of Love, Paolo and Venetia, partaking of a cake or two!
Interestingly, the Venetians have a custom that you don’t open new wine until St. Martin’s Day. So no doubt it is not only the children who very much enjoy this feast day…
St. Martin is not only remembered in Venice, however – he’s an important and noted saint across Europe, and St. Martin’s Day carries weight outside the Italian city. For example:
- Most of Western Europe, from the late 4th century until the Middle Ages, would fast from the day after St. Martin’s Day for 40 days – the Quadragesima Sancti Martini (the forty days of St. Martin) – in spiritual preparation for Christmas. You can imagine, then, how much those fasters feasted on the saint’s day itself!
- Children in the Netherlands, and areas of Germany and Austria still participate in paper lantern processions.
- In Portugal, the saint’s day is celebrated across the country by families coming together to eat roasted chestnuts and drink wine.
Other interesting St. Martin facts:
- St. Martin-in-the-Fields at Trafalgar Square, London, and St. Martin’s Cathedral in Ypres are dedicated to him, as is St. Martin’s Church in Kaiserslautern, Germany.
- St. Martin is the patron saint of many places, including Buenos Aires and France.
- He was influential in spreading wine-making though parts of France.
- Martin Luther was named after St. Martin.
To find out more about the saint, take a look at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Martin_of_Tours.
In my new novel The Echoes of Love, my heroine, Venetia, is an architect by trade who specialises in the restoration of historical mosaics. My choice of profession for my protagonist was quite deliberate. First, I wanted Venetia to be intelligent, creative, hardworking and determined, as of course all students of architecture must be in order to achieve their degree. In addition, I wanted Venetia to be tied closely to her home, Venice, in which architecture and the preservation of beautiful historical artistry is so important.
When I first visited Venice, nothing could have prevented me from falling in love with the city for its scenery, its people and its culture. As Fran Lebowitz wrote: If you read a lot, nothing is as great as you’ve imagined. Venice is – Venice is better.
Venice has long served as inspiration for writers; Lord Byron, for example, called it ‘The greenest island of my imagination’. But the inspiration is unusual in that it does not originate purely from looking, but from truly engaging. Think of those great Romantic poets like Wordsworth who wrote nature poetry, or of Leconte de Lisle, one of my favourite French poets, who described creatures in the wild. They saw, they were inspired and they wrote. But Venice – Venice is a city that demands you experience, you understand, you learn. You go on a gondola. You take a tour of a beautiful old church. You go to museums and art galleries. You attend a concert.
Too many people think of Venice simply as a tourist destination (and a busy one at that), a place to go for a weekend away. But that’s simply not doing this city justice. There is a good reason why so much art and literature and music and theatre and architecture and innovation originated in Venice, and a good reason why so many creatives, in recent years and back through history, have come to the city to stay and to study. Venice opens the mind. No wonder Robert Browning described Italy in general as ‘his university’.
One UK university has taken Browning’s quote so much to heart that it now has a permanent Italian base in the Palazzo Pesaro Papafava. A history professor at the University of Warwick first brought a group of students to spend a term in Venice back in 1967. The venture was so successful that today Warwick offers ‘the Venice term’ to students of Renaissance Studies. The university has produced a collection of essays celebrating Warwick in Venice, offering some fascinating insights into the city’s culture, with some content of special interest to writers. The book is available free as an ebook here: http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/knowledge/culture/goliardia/uw_venicebook_11.pdf. Well worth a read!
What does the word ‘Casanova’ mean to you? Most probably, you recognise it as an established term in the English language to mean lover, usually promiscuous and unscrupulous, and you have some idea that the term derives from the name of a man. A character in a book of old, perhaps?
In fact, Casanova was no character, but a writer: the book for which he is remembered is Storia della mia vita, an autobiography: the writer is his character. The book is rich in detail of the social life of Europeans in the eighteenth century, and as such is widely appreciated by historians. But it is another element that most lodged itself in the collective consciousness: Casanova’s frank accounts of his seduction of women, often elaborate, usually leading to complications.
Giacomo Casanova was born in 1725 inVeniceto actor parents, at a time whenVenicewas ‘the pleasure capital ofEurope’. He grew up in the flamboyant art scene, shaped by the Carnival and the many gambling houses and courtesans. But despite his growing love for gambling, Casanova was no dropout – between the ages of 12 and 17 he attended theUniversityofPadau, and he graduated with a degree in law. For some time he ran his own practice, but the further he climbed in society, under the wing of his patron, the more society itself became the object of his interest – and especially the pretty, flirtatious women batting their eyes at the tall, attractive, well-turned-out young man. Soon enough, he was a ‘professional gambler’ and a notorious ladies’ man, which would lead him on a bed-hopping path aroundEurope. He ended his days inBohemia, and spent his final years lonely and gloomy, penning his memoirs.
The autobiography, which uncut totalled 12 volumes, begins:
I begin by declaring to my reader that, by everything good or bad that I have done throughout my life, I am sure that I have earned merit or incurred guilt, and that hence I must consider myself a free agent. … Despite an excellent moral foundation, the inevitable fruit of the divine principles which were rooted in my heart, I was all my life the victim of my senses; I have delighted in going astray and I have constantly lived in error, with no other consolation than that of knowing I have erred. … My follies are the follies of youth. You will see that I laugh at them, and if you are kind you will laugh at them with me.
Whether readers since have laughed at him, or with him, or simply been appalled by his scrapes, Giacomo Casanova has become one of the most famous Venetians who ever lived, and he is inextricably linked to the romance of his home city. I thought of him often as I wrote my own love story set in Venice. But as for my hero, Paolo – there is no Casanova in him.