The Real Venice: Songs of Protest and Five-Star Hotels, II, by Marco LoVerso

All of this industrialization and economic activity led to the need for housing for the workers and their families. Gualtiero Bertelli, another popular singer/songwriter recommended by our Venetian cousins, describes in a series of interviews the housing conditions of his youth. Bertelli was born in 1944 in the Campo di Marte area, just west of where the Hotel Cipriani is located. He tells us that in the early decades of the twentieth century, most of Campo di Marte was still agricultural land (remember the granaries that the Cipriani took over in its expansion), and the apartments that were built in the area, including his own grandfather’s home, were condominium units complete with kitchens, bedrooms, and separate bathrooms (as is the case with the apartments in the Condominio dei Lavoratori).  But in the 1930s, the Fascist regime dealt with the rising numbers of workers by putting up what were called case minime (minimal houses), which consisted of a kitchen and a single bedroom for everyone, but no separate bathroom. The only toilet facility was a cesso alla turca (Turkish-style toilet: i.e., a glorified hole in the floor) that was located in the sleeping quarters: hence the reference to “houses without bathrooms” in the D’Amico song.

In 1965 Bertelli also wrote a song on the subject entitled “A le case minime” (for the Venetian lyrics, see the online archive www.ildeposito.org). The song describes a scene in which one of the case minime has been left vacant, and a crowd of homeless poor, who have been living in attics or warehouses or under staircases, wait at 5 a.m. to get into this basic four-square-metre apartment. Finally, at 9 a.m. they rush in, but the song ends by saying that we all know that in two months the police will arrive to kick them out.

Bertelli grew up in an apartment that was a bit less basic than the case minime: his home did have a separate bathroom, although it had no shower. And his apartment wasn’t as crowded as most. He mentions one of his friends who saw nothing unusual in the fact that in his family “only” six persons slept in one room: he and his brother, his parents, and his grandparents. Some families had ten family members sleeping in the same room.  


Hilton Molino Stucky [Photo: Elena Nardo]

 

 

As a result of all the industrial activity, Giudecca’s population grew to 12,000 residents by 1960. Today it is half that number. The reason for this dramatic decline is reflected in the rise and fall of the Molino Stucky, the great flour mill that would eventually become the Hilton Molino Stucky. The first part of this history is outlined in Bertelli’s song “Stucky” (1975), which is available on YouTube. For the original Venetian lyrics see www.ildeposito.org. Below is my line-by-line English translation:

                                   
                                   “Stucky”

 

                                    Stucky is a big building

                                    at the end of the Giudecca

                                    with falling walls

                                    that seem like they won’t endure.

                                    Looking at it thus

                                    you are surprised

                                    that it could have been

                                    the bread for a family.

 

                                    It provided work                       

                                    for many, many people

                                    who wore themselves out;

                                    and nothing is left.

                                    A rage that closes

                                    your throat when you remember

                                    hopes and fears

                                    in those ugly times.

 

                                    When they built it                                               

                                    a dream, a hope;

                                    big boats that arrived

                                    with an abundance of grain.

                                    Work, much work.

                                    Salaries are secure.

                                    This mill grinds

                                    a flour that is gold.

 

                                    A gold not enjoyed

                                    inside these large rooms

                                    with the flour in the air

                                    that gets into your lungs.

                                    We became white

                                    whiter than the flour,

                                    when they said to us

                                    “The end is near.”

 

                                    You didn’t want to believe

                                    neither you nor all the others.

                                    You shut yourselves inside

                                    trusting in all the saints

                                    more than fifty days.

                                    I come in the morning and evening.

                                    I bring you a change of clothes

                                    and the air of your family.

 

                                    Then one day those big boats

                                    still and saddened

                                    were loaded again;

                                    returned on the water

                                    but on board there were

                                    no sacks of flour

                                    but all the workers

                                    each one with his family.

 

                                    And many, many people

                                    from the banks yelled to them

                                    “Courage, boys, be strong

                                    victory is yours.”

                                    More hope and afterwards

                                    one by one all

                                    found a job                       

                                    and this Stucky was closed.

           

                                    Now every day

                                    you go to Marghera.

                                    You’ve become accustomed

                                    but it was hard

                                    and hard for me too

                                    to see you less

                                    and to have you close by

                                    always more tired.


Bertelli focuses on the plight of the workers, but the first three stanzas acknowledge the positive: the development of the Molino Stucky as a great provider of bread and work. This is the story of Giovanni Stucky, a Swiss entrepreneur who learned the flour-mill business from his father and who moved to Italy and initially started a small mill in Treviso. Then, armed with the expertise he garnered from mills in Switzerland, France, Germany, and Hungary, he decided in 1880 to start a larger operation on Giudecca, where he saw the opportunity to take advantage of Venice’s lagoon to import grains from eastern Europe and Russia by ship and then transport the finished products through Venice’s newly developed port and rail facilities. At a time when many water-powered and wind-powered mills were still in operation, Stucky’s new plant was state of the art, making use of electricity and steam-powered machinery. It was able to reach high levels of automation and to grow in its productivity, leading to a need in 1894 to add new silos and to renovate the original complex. At the time of its final development in the mid-1890s, its massive neo-Gothic brick façade overlooking the Giudecca Canal, the Molino Stucky had become the largest flour mill in Europe, employing 1500 workers and operating round the clock. This was the source of the dreams and hope described in the third stanza of Bertelli’s song.  

The Molino Stucky was a major contributor to the economic growth and prosperity of Venice at the turn of the nineteenth century. And it made Giovanni Stucky the richest man in Venice. Such was his success that in July 1908 he purchased the Palazzo Grassi on the Grand Canal – one of Venice’s largest palazzi. When it was first built in the eighteenth century by the architect Giorgio Massari, it included a gigantic formal ballroom and more than one hundred rooms. After Giovanni Stucky bought it, he had it restored as much as possible to its eighteenth-century style and then moved in with his family. In July 1909, in celebration of the twenty-fifth anniversary of the founding of his highly successfully mill, Giovanni Stucky hosted a grand banquet at Palazzo Grassi for all of his worldwide agents and representatives. At the same time, he organized various festivities at the mill and another large banquet on the Lido for all of the mill workers.

This kind of generosity was typical of Giovanni Stucky and made him much loved in Venice.  He was seen not just as an entrepreneur who had brought prosperity to the region, but as a generous patriarch who treated his workers as family, even providing them with free flour and other assistance when they needed it. It thus came as a terrible shock when on the evening of 21 May 1910, six days shy of his sixty-seventh birthday, Giovanni Stucky was murdered at the entrance to the train station. The assassin was a mentally unstable thirty-five-year-old ex-employee, Giovanni Bruniera, who claimed to have been unjustly treated by Stucky; he also claimed to hear voices warning him that Stucky intended to kill him. Whatever the reason, Bruniera ambushed Stucky from behind and slit his throat with a straight-edged razor.

The reaction to this horrendous event testifies to Giovanni Stucky’s importance to the city of Venice. Moments after the murder, when Bruniera was captured, crowds gathered around him and threatened to kill him on the spot. The next day the newspaper La Gazzetta described Giovanni Stucky as the perfect example of the modern industrialist, open to the most generous ideas and working cooperatively with his workers, whom he treated not as dependents but as brothers in a magnificent enterprise.  The paper went on to describe Stucky’s goodness and his generosity to those who sought his assistance. More than a thousand telegrams of condolence arrived from citizens at all levels of society, including Pope Pius X and Council President Luigi Luzzatti. On the day of the funeral, the entire city shut down. Venetians stood on the streets, hung from balconies, and watched from the rooftops, and many followed the funeral cortege in boats.

Fortunately for the Molino Stucky, Giovanni’s son Giancarlo continued to lead the business in his father’s style. But as the last stanzas of Bertelli’s song indicate, the Molino Stucky, together with much of the economic activity on Guidecca, would eventually come to an end. After the First World War, industrial growth in the Venice area shifted to the mainland, where railroad service was more extensive, making it difficult for industries in the lagoon to compete. And following a period of labour conflict that saw the Molino Stucky occupied by its employees (as in stanza 5 of the song), the mill closed its doors for good in 1955, and its workers were forced to seek jobs in Marghera on the mainland (stanzas 6-8).

Bertelli wrote his protest song in 1975, twenty years after the closing of the Molino Stucky. It was to remain closed for another thirty-two years after 1975. Restoration work on the old factory was initiated in 1998 and was finally completed in 2007, when the mill was reborn as the Hilton Molino Stucky. So for a full half century the empty relic reigned over the Giudecca Canal, a sad reminder of a once glorious entrepreneurial success that brought work and prosperity to Venice for several decades.

The Hilton Molino Stucky and the Hotel Cipriani are symbolic of the ebbs and flows of economic forces in Venice. Since the 1950s, when the Hotel Cipriani opened and the Molino Stucky closed, more than two thirds of Venetians have been forced to leave their city to live and work on the mainland, where housing is cheaper and work opportunities greater. The permanent population of Venice is now down to about 58,000 (it was just under 175,000 in 1951). At the same time, more than 60,000 tourists visit Venice every day. The outflow of the natives has left a dwindling number of Venetian residents, who are now inundated by outside visitors, many of them arriving on giant cruise ships that endanger the health of the lagoon while at the same time contributing to the tourist economy. This is the new paradox: Venice needs the tourists to ensure its survival, but the huge numbers of these tourists threaten the city.

The history of the Hilton Molino Stucky and the Hotel Cipriani and the songs that have been inspired by this history point to the dynamic changes that have taken place on Giudecca and Venice over the last century. Both hotels sit on lands that were once centres of agricultural or industrial enterprises that employed thousands of workers. Most of those enterprises are now gone. But the hotels remain to welcome the thousands of visitors who represent the new economy. And songwriters like D’Amico and Bertelli continue to sing the songs of a challenged but vital culture. Tourists who really care to experience the living Venice should ask their gondoliers to forget “O sole mio” and “Torna a Surriento.” The real Venice is in songs like “Giudecca” and “Stucky.”
 

© 2014, Marco LoVerso


[Photo: Andreas Schwabe (Marketing CUCA)]

Marco LoVerso is Professor of English at Concordia University College of Alberta (CUCA), in Edmonton.

 
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