I have been to Venice many times before, yet despite being suitably moved by the city’s stunning beauty, I never felt that I really ‘got’ it – until now. On previous trips, I have tended to feel a little claustrophobic, a bit like Dorothy Parker, who famously wired ‘streets full of water – can’t operate’. Yet since my recent trip there, that has changed, thanks to a couple of days spent in the company of the extraordinary farmer-philosopher Michele Savorgnano.
I was in Venice at the invitation of Johan Bettum of the Frankfurt Städelschule and the Goethe Institute to take part in an experimental fringe event called Conviviumepulum (living together) at the Venice Biennale. The idea was to pair up ten visitors like me with ten locals, for the purposes of shopping and cooking together in their home kitchens and then sharing our food at a public event in the beautiful Santa Maria della Misericordia. It was one of those events, in short, where one had absolutely no idea what to expect.
We met in the early morning at the Rialto Market and I was introduced to Michele, my partner for the event. As you can see from the picture above, Michele has the sort of striking appearance that immediately suggests a) someone who works out of doors and b) someone who knows his own mind. Knowing that Michele was a farmer in a city in which there is almost no open green space, I was wondering where his farm could possibly be when, as if in answer to my question, Michele pointed to a small motorboat moored on the quayside and invited me to step aboard. I felt a thrill of surprise – and then wondered why it hadn’t been obvious to me before that a Venetian urban farmer must clearly be in possession of a boat.
As we sped away from the quay and down the Grand Canal, I felt a thrilling freedom that I had never experienced in Venice before. Of course I have travelled in river taxis and so on, but this was totally different: Michele knows the city like the back of his hand (and, I soon discovered, most of the people living in it) and soon we were diving down narrow back canals and tying up at wooden jetties that, it turned out, were the back doors of the various shops, cafes and restaurants that Michele supplies all over the city.
After a brief stop at various stalls in the market to buy bread and cheese and another at a café for a small pick-me-up in the form of a glass of wine and some cicchetti (the small tasty snacks served by many Venetian cafes), we got back in the boat and headed out into the open sea past St Mark’s Square and around the tip of the island of Giudecca to its southern flank, where Michele’s farm occupies what was once the garden of an orphanage.
After alighting at the jetty and greeting the staff of what is now a nursing home, Michele led me to the half-hectare garden, where woven in between rows of grape vines he and some twelve volunteers grow more than 300 varieties of plants, including 15 different species of tomato, 12 of basil as well as fruit trees including plums, prunes and apricots. The mushrooms being harvested here are a welcome bonus! The garden is designed and managed according to the principles of permaculture, and Michele leaves the land untilled, relying on green fertilisers to build soil richness and breeding and selecting his own seeds.
A man of many parts, Michele studied oriental languages and worked for the city for a decade on various cultural projects before realising that his heart really belonged on the land. In 2009, he founded Spiazzi Verdi here, Venice’s first community garden, where experiments with permaculture were combined with classes and workshops addressing de-growth and alternative economies and lifestyles. For Michele, in short, the spirit of permaculture extends well beyond the garden; it is a philosophy of life. In 2013, he founded FUD (Fattoria Urbana Diffusa, or Diffuse Urban Farm); an organisation that combines the growing of food in and around Venice with permaculture training courses and public discussion about the future of the city. He is one of the leading voices in the city protesting about the vast cruise liners who steam down the Grand Canal, damaging buildings in their wake and spewing thousands of tourists at a time into the city. With his work, Michele hopes to show a different way for Venice to thrive.
After selecting about 30 different vegetables and herbs from the garden, we returned by boat to Michele’s house, where he cooked us a delightful pasta for lunch, before we got down to the serious business of cooking for the public evening meal, making dishes such as pesto with squash, served on nasturtium leaves. We then packed our food in the boat and travelled in the evening light to the church where the public meal was to take place – a convivial occasion in every sense, in which the twenty of us strangers and Venetians who had cooked and eaten together shared our experiences – and food – with invited guests and a public audience, discussing food’s role in shaping our lives. After the inevitable post-event visit to a canal-side bar, Michele finally drove me home again in his boat under a sky full of stars, ending an extraordinary day I shall never forget.
The next evening, I had arranged to meet Michele with some other friends in a local bar some distance from my hotel. It was only after we’d been there for a few minutes that I realised that this was the very bar in which Michele and I had stopped for our morning cichetti the day before; today I had arrived by foot at the public entrance; yesterday I had arrived at the back by boat. I realised for the first time the extent to which my view of Venice had shifted after my day spent with Michele. For the first time, I felt that I understood the city. Travelling the network of hidden canals that keep the city supplied with food and other goods had given me an insider’s view of the relationship at its heart: that with the sea. It was a great privilege to have seen Venice in that way, and I couldn’t have had a more inspiring guide.