Venice has many hidden treasures, and the best are kept by its people. It is the life and history of its inhabitants -present, past and future- that those who know how to look at Venice see in its lagoon. In search of this, I met Luigi Divari, watercolour artist and expert of traditional Venetian boats, fishing techniques and fish.
Luigi lives with his family in Sant' Elena, in a beautiful house with a living room facing the local sailing club. I have always loved his work and was curious to learn more. Here our short talk:
1. Were you born and raised in Venice?
Yes, I was born in Via Garibaldi, in the sestiere of Castello, 71 years ago.
2. What is your first memory of the sea?
Well, I don't know exactly, I suppose I was born with the sea in front of my eyes. Castello in those days was full of life and used to function as base for the fishermen from Chioggia. The wholesale market was still in Rialto, so the fishermen would settle in Rio de Sant' Anna and San Pietro, at the far end of Via Garibaldi, for periods of about 8/10 days. Their lifestyle attracted me, they literally lived in the boats and seemed different from us. It's because of them that I became passionate about boats and when I grew up I sailed the Mediterranean and the Atlantic. I also used to have a traditional boat called bragozzo, and another called topo, which I kept for almost 40 years.
3. Many of your watercolours depict traditional fishing techniques. Do you see many differences between the current and past fishing methods?
Fishing in the lagoon has undergone serious changes. Until the 80s there was greater harmony between man and nature and everything followed a more natural cycle. Today the pressure is too strong and fishing has become more intense, thus the impact is much stronger. Suffice to think of the introduction of the Japanese lures called Yo-Zuri, of the new fish traps and of the effect of intense motorisation.
4. How did you start to paint?
I started late, when I was around 50. I used to work at Assicurazioni Generali and wasn't exactly fond of my job. During the day I had to wear suit and tie, but as soon as I arrived home, I would put on sandals and shorts and go fishing, winter and summer. I lived like that for a very long time, then at one point, maybe because it was winter or maybe because I felt the need to be more at home, I decided to reduce my outings, at least in the colder months. Although I enjoyed my time home, I still needed to have the sea next to me, so I started to paint as an alternative to fishing. Consider that I am a self-taught painter, so it took me a lot of practice to improve, to understand which paper to use and when, the types of brushes, and so on. I paint merely out of passion and I had never really thought of exhibiting my work, but then some friends encouraged me and so another adventure started. So far I've had the pleasure to see my watercolours exposed in Venice and in other cities like Stralsund, Hamburg and Tokyo.
5. Why watercolour?
Because it's an immediate technique made up of only 4 ingredients: paper, brush, water and colour.
6. As for the fish, how do you work? Do you take a picture of the subject and use it as reference?
No, in most cases I source the subject myself! Because I deal with living subjects, I fish more of the same fish, so I can change them while I work in order to keep them alive, otherwise it would be hard to capture the proper colours and features. In the past I also took part in some expeditions of the CNR (Italian National Research Centre) and helped catalogue and record the different fish of the Adriatic. Sometimes I use as references the pictures from the encyclopaedias 'Grande Enciclopedia Illustrata dei Pesci' and 'Grande Enciclopedia Illustrata dei Crostacei, dei Molluschi e dei Ricci di Mare' by P. Manzoni and V. Tepedino.
7. And your books?
The desire to write came naturally. When you illustrate things, you want to describe them, so I soon started to add captions to my drawings. Again, my friends encouraged me to put down in writings my stories about traditional boats and fishing in the lagoon, so I did, then life did the rest. At the sailing club in front of my house I met a lady called Cristina, who opened a bookshop called Mare di Carta (meaning Paper Sea), specialised in all things nautical, so we became friends and together we published the book 'Il topo. Dei battelli chioggiotti detti anche toppi' , then for Il Leggio I published 'Barche del Golfo di Venezia' (boats of the Venice gulf), 'Belpesse. Pesci, pesca e cucina ittica nelle lagune venete' (Fish, fishing and fish cuisine in the Veneto lagoons) and 'A detta dei nostri pescatori. La pesca veneta del passato vista dai primi naturalisti' (According to our fishermen. Venetian fishing of the past seen by the early naturalists).
8. Of the many islands of the lagoon, do you have a favourite?
Maybe Cason Nansoni, an abandoned island in the extreme north lagoon.
9. Last question: moeche (soft-shelled crabs) with or without egg?
Without! Besides, crazy how much they cost nowadays, especially if we think that crab fishing is not a historical form of fishing and that until the late 18th century crabs were used as lures for sardines. In general, a lot of information we have is imprecise, like for our baccalà (stockfish), always related to Pietro Querini, while it was actually brought by a Flemish trader of herrings at the end of the 17th century.
I want to thank Luigi for sharing his time with me. When I left the house I felt enriched and aware that sharing memories and stories is like opening a treasure chest and discovering a world of traditions.
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