Some time during the night before May 1st, a gruesome crime was committed in Venice: Sior Antonio Rioba was decapitated and his head was taken away.
Now there’s just a scar in the stone where the statue’s jutting iron nose and his glaring eyes used to be.
The original Sior (or Signor) Rioba is thought to have been a twelfth-century spice merchant from Morea in southern Greece. His iron nose was added in the nineteenth century. In the Campo dei Mori he is flanked by two other statues, usually described as his brothers Sandi and Afani. They were fortunately left untouched by the vandals.
Sior Rioba’s robustly ugly statue has been loved by the Venetians for centuries. The people of this town have often woken to find an accusatory handbill, warning the innocent of some new outrage, fixed to his broad chest. Few acts of hypocrisy have passed under the shadow of that great nose undetected. Still fewer instances of maladministration escaped those eyes. Even today, touching the statue is said to bring good luck.
The people who mutilated Sior Rioba pulled off something that hundreds of years, Austrian bombs, catastrophic tides and pollution have failed to achieve. They have destroyed something irreplaceable in this city. Has something happened to the world’s sensibility, when there now exists in it someone who thinks that decapitating Sior Rioba is something worth doing, simply because it can be done? Who can commit a hateful act not just against a work of art but against a beloved symbol of a city?
Our new mayor Giorgio Orsoni has expressed his shock, adding, ‘Last night’s act of vandalism forces us to confront the fragility of our artistic patrimony, constantly exposed to ignorance and lack of culture, and so difficult to protect.’
He’s right – Venice opens her streets, gratis, to 21 million visitors a year. How can we police the ignorant, greedy and violent among them? What’s to stop them decapitating other statues in the dead of night? I was about to list more grievous bodily harms that could be done to Venice, but I don’t want to give anyone ideas. And do we want to turn Venice into a sinister city of swivelling security cameras?
Venice is grieving. Someone has already launched a Facebook site, Cercasi Rioba disperatamente - Desperately Seeking Rioba. The newspapers speculate on motives. A string of comments on the Gazzettino’s website suggest that this theft must have been commissioned. Others lay dark curses on the head of the thieves.
Yes, a thousand misfortunes on their heads! The thieves have mutilated not just art but history. Not just history, but social history. They have humiliated a being of worth in Venice.
They have also hurt someone whom I love. I’ve known Sior Rioba for years and visited him many times. He's a character in my novel, The Undrowned Child. In 1899, Sior Rioba comes testily to life, endowed with a brazen vocabulary to match his metallic nose. He wages a war of abusive words on both on the ghost of Venice’s worst traitor, Bajamonte Tiepolo, and a mayor (nothing like Giorgio Orsoni), whose vanity and cupidity lead him into an unconscious association with the forces of evil.
The redoubtable Rioba belongs to the cast of characters living in my mind. His voice is one of those I hear in my head when I’m writing. I’ve reached up to stroke that black nose. I’ve stared into those stone eyes, looking for answers. So the news of his mutilation hits very hard.
I’ll be joining those who shall no doubt go to lay flowers at Sior Rioba’s feet.
But I’ll be grieving for Venice too. We’ve lost more than a statue’s head this weekend.
Michelle Lovric’s website
Desperately Seeking Rioba website