18th Century Venice: the Coal Guys

Another decidedly tarot-like image from Gaetano Zompini. The coal carriers, carbonai or carboneri, unloaded coal from the barges that docked at the Riva del Carbon on the Grand Canal. They delivered it around the city in large baskets known as corbe. In the rhyme they describe themselves as “privileged”. This was because in order to be a coal carrier you had to have a special license from the Signoria and only a set number of these licenses were issued. Coal carriers were also exempt from military service, since they played a vital role in Venice’s defence and economy by supplying fuel to the Arsenal and the Mint. They were obliged to perform these services unpaid, according to the terms of their license, somewhat dampening the “privilege”. The coal carriers came to the rescue in an unusual and macabre way during the terrible floods of November 1550. The Venetian actor Andrea Calmo, whose letters give fascinating glimpses of local life at that time, describes what it took to dry out the tombs and the corpses inside them. “The dead in our churches have been so effectively soaked that it has taken 6000 wagons of wood and 3000 baskets of coal to dry them out. This had to be done to keep them shut up in their sarcophagi and still their sepulchral groans…”

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