A new television series on Venice will be presented by Francesco da Mosta, an architect and historian whose
family connections with the city go back to the fifth century, as he explains to Morgan Falconer|
On 4 November 1966, Venice experienced its worst floods in a thousand years. Torrential rains and extremely strong winds prevented the morning tide from leaving the lagoon, and when the afternoon came, another tide washed in regardless, causing the city to be flooded to a depth of nearly two metres above its normal level. The ground floor of every house in Venice was filled with water.
Francesco da Mosto was five when that happened, but he still remembers how strange it was. A boat came in the front door to take his father to work.
“We were just stuck in this situation with the water for a whole day,” he says. “The town was in big trouble, but I never felt afraid. I suppose it’s just because I was so young.”
Francesco da Mosto is a charming, energetic, effusive Venetian who has spent his whole life in the city. His illustrious family has been entangled with its history since possibly as early as the fifth century. Originally, they were wine-makers (the name da Mosto comes from the word mosto meaning grape must - the juice from crushed grapes). Later, they became traders, explorers and politicians. Now, they have a television presenter in the family: Francesco, a film-maker and architect by trade, presents a four-part series about Venice, to be screened on BBC2, starting on 16 October.
To find out how Francesco feels about becoming Britain’s favourite Venetian celebrity, I meet him at the Italian Cultural Institute in London, to sip espresso and talk about the old Republic or, as the Venetians call it, “Serenissima”.
In the series, Francesco takes us on a tour all the way from the city’s crude origins on the lagoon in the fifth century right up to today’s busy tourist destination that plays host to an estimated 15 million visitors every year. It is a perspective that looks at Venice’s history, but also dares to speculate on its future and to wonder what can be done to solve the city’s present problems - and it certainly does have problems. It is fitting that one of his earliest memories is of the flood, since he has grown up in the age of “Venice in peril”, of the sinking city and the rising pollution.
Historically, Venice has been the gateway to the East, its wealth based on its trade in spices with the Ottoman Empire. Perhaps that creates its own alluring sense of the exotic but, as every new arrival knows, the city itself is an astonishing place - a labyrinth of tiny streets and criss-crossing waterways, one that can bring you from a crowded piazza to a deserted alley in a moment. It is a city that can disorientate you in a flash. Surely, I ask, that sense of mystery is something that natives such as Francesco don’t share with us visitors?
“I would like to have the emotion of a person who arrives for the first time,” he says, “but, at the same time, I can say that I still like to lose myself. I can still walk down roads I don’t know and find myself in a new square I have never seen before - it’s difficult to know every place in your town. Then, occasionally, you find a little stone that gives you an idea of the history that has passed by. The mystery is always there.”
One native misdemeanour Francesco indulges in while showing us around the city is taking a dip in the Grand Canal. It is not allowed today, though in past times it was something of a sport.
“I was showing how Lord Byron used to swim out to find the girls in the evening!” he tells me. ‘Byron also used to race from the Lido to the end of the Grand Canal - that’s more than seven kilometres. There are different versions of the story - Byron says he won, but other people say he stopped because he was tired. I just jumped in to demonstrate!”
The stones and gargoyles that tell the city’s history must also often speak of the da Mosto family, for they have been very prominent. In the 14th century, six of them were behind the rise of the Doge Falier, a thoroughly corrupt leader who was eventually executed. In the 15th century, they produced Alvise da Mosto, the courageous explorer who discovered the Cape Verde Islands off the West Coast of Africa. It sounds romantic, but Francesco sees his adventures in a less noble light.
“My family were nobles and merchants - something which was common in Venice but not accepted in other parts of Europe. I suppose Alvise da Mosto is the best example. But he set off because his father was in a bad situation with the police. He had to find another way to make money, so he went to Africa - and he did not find as much gold as people think.”
The story behind the sad loss of the family’s historic home, the Cadamosto on the Grand Canal, is also one of ordinary human frailty.
“It went out of the family in the beginning of the 17th century. It’s a funny story, actually. There was a woman in the family who married four times, and she was one of the richest people in Venice, because each husband died. She accumulated so much money and had no son. But she had a fight with the other da Mostos and so she left everything to a nephew of her second husband, who went on to become Doge.”
Amusing though it is in hindsight, Francesco still thinks it a shame that the house went and of all the buildings in Venice he would like to see restored, the Cadamosto is first on his list. It currently sits empty, the high waters of the canal lapping into its basement, eroding it further every day.
The family have certainly fallen from the high position it once inhabited, but the tales Francesco tells make you wonder whether he can still pull strings. Brought up as a Catholic, he took his First Holy Communion in the crypt of St Marks. A few years later, he received the sacrament of Confirmation from the future “John Paul I”.
“Yes, it was Papa Lucini, and he became Giovanni Paulo I. He was so funny, and he was telling jokes with the children. He was a wonderful person. I don’t go to church very often any more, but I must say he will always stay in my heart. His smile opened every door.”
A man with such friends is worth getting to know.
• Francesco’s Venice starts at 9pm on 16 October. The book to accompany the series is published by BBC Worldwide, priced £25.
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