Originally hailing from Puglia, Gaetano Manfredonia found himself in Venice through a serendipitous turn of events when his father secretly enrolled him in a competitive examination for a forensic doctor position in the enchanting lagoon city – a place simultaneously foreign and familiar to him. Here, he discovered an entire microcosm teeming with captivating individuals, warmth, and a culturally rich environment that welcomed him. Amidst intriguing encounters, a vibrant cultural life, and an insatiable curiosity for this mysterious and captivating city, Gaetano created a home for himself in the quaint Sestiere Dorsoduro. In this interview for “Gli incurabili,” he delves into his most extraordinary experiences, his deep connection with Venice, and his unwavering belief in irony as the most powerful against dullness.
INTERVIEW BY VALERIA NECCHIO / PORTRAITS BY VALERIA NECCHIO
VN: “Incurabili” is the word I used to describe all those people who come to Venice, discover a special connection with the city, and develop a strong bond to the point of never wanting to leave. Do you see yourself in this metaphor?
GM: You hit the nail on the head; I am definitely incurable. Is it possible to cure oneself of this feeling? I don’t think so.
VN: What brought you to Venice initially, and what do you think made you stay?
GM: I have to go back in time a bit. I grew up in Puglia, but every year my parents organised a trip to Padua – my mother was devoted to Saint Anthony – and we always ended up taking a trip to Venice. Imagine the eyes of a child arriving in the city on a train floating on water: I still retain the surreal, dreamlike memory of a city that seemed to float.
Then, during my medical school years in Modena, I often came to Venice with friends during Carnival. I remember reliving that sensation of a suspended city. At that time, I hadn’t yet matured the certainty that it was my city, but I felt fascinated by it, always leaving with a certain melancholy.
VN: And then?
GM: After completing my specialisation, I returned to Puglia and worked at a research institute. But I was restless, something was missing. So, without telling me, my father enrolled me in a forensic medicine competition in Venice—when the participation letter arrived at home, he pretended not to know. I took the exam, won it, took a six-month leave from work in Puglia, and went to Venice.
I went alone and spent the first few months in Venice staying in a hotel near the station and eating every day at a trattoria in Strada Nuova. This, on the other hand, allowed me to connect with a Venetian world that I would describe as familiar. In the trattoria, there was an elderly lady with her daughter and granddaughter, and they performed these very Goldonian things where I was the handsome doctor, and they gave me the best table, lots of attention, asked me what I wanted to eat the next day – risi e bisi, risotto di go, all the traditional recipes. In the evenings, occasionally, the lady’s son would take me around to taverns – we would go to Codroma to play dominoes, cards, have a glass of wine, smoke.
Meanwhile, my parents often came to visit me to help me find a house. It wasn’t easy, but in the end, thanks also to the help of the lady from the trattoria, I found a house in a neighborhood that satisfied everyone (I won’t tell you the debates at the dinner table in the evenings!). This coincided with the end of the six-month leave. I had to choose what to do.
VN: Whether to stay or return.
GM: Exactly. I wasn’t yet sure of my choice. I decided to take another leave, this time from work in Venice, to return to Puglia for six months. Once there, I immediately realised that something was missing, I always had my thoughts on Venice. So, convinced by a series of “signs” that I considered important, I returned.
VN: How were those early years?
GM: A few months after my return, a boy, Marco, who was a gondolier with a crooked nose because he had hit a briccola (a wooden pole) in his boat, came to my clinic. With a maneuver, I straightened his nose, and he was so impressed – as if I had performed a miracle! – that he promised to be at my service forever. “You’re family to me,” he said. Marco had a station at the Danieli: when he finished work, I would go to him, get on the gondola, and together we would tour Venice at night. I, who was hungry for the history of Venice and studied it in books, often found myself debunking his myths and embellished stories or sharing some anecdotes he didn’t know. It was a beautiful exchange. Sometimes, in our wanderings, we would stop to buy a bottle of wine and spend our evenings sipping and chatting, exploring the city from the water.
In the meantime, I had also started working as a medical examiner. I did house calls because it allowed me to deepen my knowledge of the city and its districts. I learned about alleys, small squares, magnificent palaces, and tiny houses. I visited everyone, from the wealthiest to the humblest. I entered the homes of Venetians tiptoeing, and there I saw real, domestic life.
A few years later, the news came out in the Gazzettino that the first Sommelier course was starting in Venice. I enrolled. There, I met the best of historic Venetian catering, people who wanted to upgrade their establishments and were curious to know more about the world of wine: Cesare del Covo, Gigi del Mascaron, Gianni dell’Aciugheta… the only one who had nothing to do with it was me! However, I brought a scientific approach, sparking heated debates between the rational faction and the romantic one. Often, the debates continued in this or that place, and that’s how we all became friends.
In short, little by little, I gained a branched knowledge of the city. And as I branched into the city, the city branched into me.
VN: Is there an episode from those years that has particularly stayed with you? An epiphany?
GM: Once, in September, there was a Juliette Greco concert in the cloister of San Giorgio. I went with a friend, Jole. Returning – it was past midnight – we found ourselves in an empty St. Mark’s Square. We wanted to have a drink, so we bought a bottle of wine and sat at the tables of one of the square’s bars to chat. It got very late, and the first street cleaners were already arriving in the square. Jole signalled to one of them to come and have a drink, he accepted, thanked us, and said, “It’s the first time I enjoy this square, that I can look up… I always look down!” With him that night, we talked about many things; it was enlightening. At dawn, we decided to call Marco, the gondolier. He came to pick us up and took us home. We cruised the Grand Canal at sunrise, in the gondola. That night was my epiphany.
In reality, my love for Venice has been a growing one. Venice is my soul’s place, where my soul lives.
VN: What was the encounter that most marked your path as an Incurable?
GM: There have been several people who have marked me and shaped my Venetian life. One of them is Vera Schulte, a German lady about ten years older than me. I met her one evening while dining alone in a restaurant I frequented often; she was with a group of friends, and we started talking. There I discovered that she was the president of Asolomusica, a significant musical event. Thanks to her, I became very close to music, started going to La Fenice, and with her, I met the widow of Maestro Malipiero, Giulietta, an incredible woman.
Giulietta lived near the Guggenheim, in the Maestro’s house. She was alone, and we often went to visit her; I brought the wine, we started chatting, and the evenings flew by. Giulietta always had extraordinary anecdotes, like the time she accompanied Eleonora Duse to buy fabric under the Clock Tower in St. Mark’s Square, but in the end, they didn’t buy anything because she couldn’t find the fabric in the color of “Nile at sunset” she was looking for! I can still hear her laughter as she tells it.
All these encounters – Marco, Vera, Giulietta – have given me shape. It’s as if Venice sent them to me (taking them away too soon, unfortunately) to make me the custodian of these stories.
VN: And so we have arrived in the present.
GM: Right. Now, I live near the Toletta, with my wife, children, and cats. When I bought a house there, I planted a mimosa tree that everyone now admires and that marks the arrival of spring. From my house – the Columns of Hercules for many of us – to the Madonna della Salute, all the friends I made subsequently live there. With some of them, we created the San Vio Group, with which we started writing comedies, staging sharp performances – real acts of denunciation against the administration – and many other initiatives, fundraising, small events.
VN: And these are all private initiatives, carried out by people with a particular sensitivity. So, I wonder, what does it take to bring all this to a higher, public level?
GM: Courage. The problem is not the people; the problem is mismanagement. The uniqueness of this city needs the uniqueness of those who represent it, people who truly live and understand it. And by this, I don’t just mean intellectuals but everyone who, outside of clientelistic logics, expresses an authentic feeling towards it.
I believe it is important to recognise ourselves, to nurture this community. We have played defensively so far, each retreating into their love for the city, perhaps accumulating a sense of anger, which is more a sense of loneliness, frustration, helplessness. Now, anger must turn into potential energy and then kinetic. It must produce positive things for the city and be useful to those who love it and want to live in it. We must take Venice out of intensive care. Let it recover and come out to live, to breathe. We must say enough to this perpetual state of emergency. There is no need to shout, no need for proclamations. What is needed is firmness. We must become a rubber wall. And disarm them with sarcasm, with the power of ideas.
VN: The hope is that this dialogue, this chorus of voices, attracts similar voices, new residents. Moving to Venice is a step that intimidates for many reasons: knowing that it’s not all a disaster is encouraging.
GM: The habit of discouragement is inherent in human nature, and Venice inspires this resigned attitude a lot. In reality, looking closely, you realise that many complain just for the sake of it, but deep down, they are happy with things staying the same. They live letting time pass, letting themselves be lived.
I remember this beautiful interview with Edoardo De Crescenzo, the philosopher, who said that time is emotion and is experienced in the moment you live it. Therefore, we should learn not only to understand how much time we will live but how we will live the time we have. If the time we live has vertical peaks dictated by emotion, I will dilate it compared to letting it flow without emotion, in a flat, horizontal way. Many Venetians, however, do not live a life with peaks, a life of emotions; they live in a Gattopardian way: everything changes so that nothing changes.
VN: Instead, it is necessary to change direction. Fortunately, it is slowly taking shape. New scenarios are emerging, in various aspects.
GM: I am happy about this. Venice has recently lacked interlocutors. In reality, from my point of view, the crux of the matter is that this city has not had competent administration for a long time, one that understands it, that acts in the interests of the city as civis, or those who live in it, and above all, that has a forward-looking project. For several years, Venice has been administered not by those projected towards a common future, but by those who use the past to create a future for the benefit of a few. Knowing that there are young energies, people who decide to come and live here and not live like in the elephant graveyard, is truly beautiful.”