FROM Chioggia southward, runs the stupendous sea-wall, built by order of the Venetian Republic, to prevent the encroachments of the sea. It is immediately inland of this massive embankment that the most productive eel-grounds are situated. We will describe one with which we are familiar, containing a surface area of 800 acres, lying to the eastward of Ariano, between the mouths of the Po, known respectively as la bocca di Levante and la bocca della Maestra. This lagoon is sheltered to the east-ward by the sea-wall, and upon the other sides by artificial embankments. Between the eastern border and the sea-line a communication is maintained by means of a wide deep pass, about a mile in length, with sluice-gates at either end.
When Christmas approaches and a dark winter’s night conjures up the spirit of the storm from out on the usually calm and playful Adriatic, then is the time when the eel-gardener and his men await the moment for gathering in their annual crops.
Imagine, if you can, reader, such a night. A stiff sea-breeze blowing (not as in England, a north-westerin the Adriatic and Mediterranean it is the south-easter which the mariner most dreads); a murky blackness, throwing even the inky morass into deeper gloom; a wild tempestuous sea foaming and moaning, and lashing in impotent fury the low line of the western coast. At high tide, in the darkness of the night, the flood-gates are opened, and in burst the saltwater waves. Gurgling and heaving, with tumultuous force, onward they flow; perceptibly loud is the noise of their coming, above the sound of the wind or the creaking of the willows. Onward, still onward, the briny water rushes to mingle with the aqua dolce of the inward lagoon.
Scarce has the salt stream made half its distance when the lagoon seems distinct with life; its waters seething and boiling, at first low and indistinct, then gradually more stirring and confused, until its surface disgorges myriads of the eely tribe, converging towards the point where the sea-water must meet them. With surprising quickness they roll onwards through the rapidly narrowing channel, the noise they make becoming absolutely appalling. Vast balls of intertwined millions choke the course of the stream, and rise high above the surface, as they struggle onward towards the inflowing tide, which, with marvellous instinct, they have scented long before it has made half the distance between them and the open sea. When the water has become thoroughly brackish, wire-work sluice-gates are drawn across the dyke, and the whole produce of the lagoon is concentrated within an area of half an acre of space. Then commences the take, as we may term it; day and night relays of men haul out of the water and assort the eels. A large proportion are immediately skinned for salting and pickling, others are shipped off alive in trading vessels (native and foreign) waiting to receive them, whilst the smaller ones and the breed eels are thrown back into the water.
The process of unravelling the knotted heaps requires great expertness and a sharp knife. While the writer was watching this singular and interesting scene, one of the fishermen, with that quickness of imaginative adaptation which distinguishes the Pescatore of the Adriatic, remarked to him: ” Mi pare che questo e un vero Nodo Gordianol” A Gordian knot indeed it seemed to be.
A propos to the subject: the Venetian fisherman is a rare specimen of his kind; after years spent on board his little fishing-smack, he will suddenly relinquish his sea-faring life and turn oyster-hawker (while oysters are in season), and venditore di sorbetto, or roba dolce, during the other months of the year. Such characters are known familiarly as ” Chioggiotti,” and wander from town to town, frequenting the trattoria and locanda, ever ready to bandy jokes or spin a yarn for the amusement of their avventori.
These Chioggiotti are the inhabitants of a thickly-populated group of islands, or rather sand-banks, lying southwest of Venice. Chioggia, from which they take their name, is the largest of these islands; it contains about 25,000 inhabitants, and lies adjacent to the mainland. The inhabitants are a people quite distinct from the Venetians, and we incline to regard them as descendants of the Pelasgian or Etrurian races who inhabited the neighbouring districts in pre-Roman days. In their physiognomy, in their costume, and in their general habits of life, they differ entirely from any other people of the Italian peninsula; the women are remarkable for their well-developed forms and commanding features, betokening robust and healthy physical organisation, and their costume is strikingly picturesque; whilst the men are sober, frugal, and industrious, occupying themselves in fishing and market-gardening. Each family estimates its wealth by the number of its fishing-smacks and the extent of the campi it has under potato, cauliflower, and asparagus culture.
The grand sight in Chioggia is its fish-market, a sight unique of its kind in Europe. From the time the sale of fish commences, the scene is one of the most animated imaginable, if we can call that animation the peculiar characteristic of which is silence. Each fishing smack as it arrives off the port transfers its cargo to a canoe-tender, which swiftly threads the watery pathway, and shoots alongside the riviera della Pescheria. The fish is carried from the boat by the facchini della Piazza, and assorted upon marble slabs the small fish in heaps, the large fish side by side; the auctioneer, having attached a number to each lot, and entered them in his book, is ready to receive the bids of the intending purchasers, who are willing to take them to the different inland markets. The whole proceeding now assumes an air of indescribable mystery to the uninitiated stranger: in the midst of a dream-like silence dealer after dealer steps up to the auctioneer, whispers in his ear the price he is willing to give for each lot as it is announced, and then retires. When all have apparently whispered their bid, and a last pantomimic appeal for yet another offer has been made, the name of the highest bidder and the price he has offered is noted in the book. As lot after lot is thus disposed of, the auctioneer scribbles a duplicate card, and throws it to a deputy, who announces the purchaser to whom it has been assigned.
Boat-load after boat-load arrives, and is disposed of by silent auction, without a word being spoken audibly by either auctioneer or bidder, and with a celerity perfectly surprising; thus fish to the value of thousands of florins are daily distributed amongst the Lombardo-Venetian markets, which are dependent upon this singular and isolated community for their supply of fish, oysters, and other frutto del mare, as well as for the first choice vegetables of the season. We have eaten many varieties of fish in Chioggia which are unknown west of the Straits of Gibraltar, and are probably even rarely met with except in the immediate vicinity of the Venetian lagoons.