7 April 2009

Venezia (Venice)

La Serenissima

Everyone knows Venice, one way or another.  When one of my daughters was ten, and had not been there, she told me “It’s a very nice place, and I want to go there,” and she based this conception on pictures from books and TV.  Later we did go there, and she had a wonderful time.  We rented a one-room apartment in a residential district and lived like old-time Venetians.

I must have first heard of La Serenissima many years before I first went there.  Perhaps studying “Othello” at school?  Or in geography lessons?  Of course this is the same with many places.  We know the names Oklahoma, or Siberia, or Tokyo, without going there, but with Venice there is a particular fascination and a great deal of visual and imaginative evidence to hand.  Some will remember the film “Don’t Look Now” for example, with its creepy images of dark canals and sottoportici.  Others will have the wistful palette of Visconti in mind having seen “Death in Venice.”  Others will have the speedboat glitz of James Bond in their stock of images.  Television travel programmes, images in magazines, posters in travel agents, garish ashtrays, and shiny plastic gondolas - all contribute to our knowledge of this unique city on the water. 

As a teenager I spent one summer as a guide in a Scottish castle and daily gazed at two enormous Canaletto paintings, marvelling at the delicate pink of the Doge’s palace above the glittering water of the Grand Canal.  And then the remarkable thing was that when I did finally see that view in three dimensions with my own eyes, it was almost exactly as painted, and this is one if the continuing attractions of the place.  It is not that old, compared with many another European city, but it is, in many ways, unchanged by history, or at least, less changed than most of the places we see. 

In 1892, Henry James wrote that, “Venetian life, in the large old sense, has long since come to an end, and the essential present character of the most melancholy of cities resides simply in its being the most beautiful of tombs.”  The sense of what he says is true.  The population has changed, and certainly diminished, and there is no longer the bustle and business and pride that occupied the Venetian Republic before Wordsworth recorded its extinction:         
(Once did She hold the gorgeous east in fee;
And was the safeguard of the west:).
But then, to go back only a little in history, there was nothing there but reeds and rivulets, such as you see when your plane banks over the northern end of the lagoon.  Attila the Hun, in A.D. 453 set the ball rolling by invading the neighbourhood and causing people to seek refuge on the damp and muddy islets. Life in Venice has wavered and flourished and receded, a little like the tides, over the centuries, but still goes on.

I was recently amazed when, waiting for a certain assignation I had made in a quiet street in the Sestriere San Polo, the seemingly deserted calle I stood in kept being disturbed by signs of life.  People, with shopping bags and brief cases, appeared and disappeared, letting themselves into otherwise hidden doorways.  It took me a while to realise that, in fact, people were going home.  They had done whatever they did during the day, whether it was working in a shop or hotel or office, or managing the home for the numerous school children that also appear and disappear at certain times, and they were going back to their family residences to prepare the evening meal.  After all, when you think about it, how else would all the food shops and market stalls survive?  And there are many of them.  Venice may be dying.  But she sure ain’t dead yet!

How long this will persist, however, is not easy to foretell.  The phrase “Venice in peril” was responsible for television documentaries and news items many years ago.  It no longer seems to be newsworthy, as if the lion has cried “wolf” too often.  There is no doubt that she is sinking.  In one hundred years Venice has ceded twenty-three centimetres to the sea; in the last seven years, she has lost four.  In 1996 there were one hundred and one instances of “alta maree;” in 2002 the sea rose one hundred and eleven times over eighty centimetres.  In 2002 the first aqua alta was in February; in 2003 there had already been three by January 4th, when at 09.35 the water rose one metre and eight centimetres.  As recently as November 2012 70% of Venice was inundated with high winds from the south and heavy rains whipping the sea level up to one and a half metres above the norm.  The phenomenon is complex and is generally attributed to low atmospheric pressure and sirocco winds from the south, but the greenhouse effect and the melting of the ice caps seem to be behind the inexorable increase in occasions when the Vigili have to direct pedestrian traffic on the passerelle to avoid intasamenti where the tourists are photographing San Marco under water.

As an extraordinary and highly successful example of human ingenuity and artistry, which, like all things, may not survive for ever, it is, worth first hand experience.  The worldwide trade in images of San Marco, or the Rialto, cannot substitute walking on the stones themselves.  No amount of reading, whether it is Ruskin or the Rough Guide, can replace the exhilaration to be had in situ.  A vaporetto trip down the Grand Canal must be one of the world’s finest bus rides, and it is one that bears repeating in different lights and seasons.  In the depths of winter, at night, it has an unusual attraction, perhaps because of its unphotographable darkness.  With snowflakes smudging your vision, the glimpses of illuminated ceilings, darkly glowing chandeliers, bevelled mirrors that reflect smoky portraits, and the floodlit architecture of the fa├žades, swirl past over the inky viscid waters.  Around you stand silent, swathed Venetians; ahead of you looms the Rialto, festooned with a thousand Christmas lights; in the empty Fish Market stands a forlorn Christmas tree.  It is a world apart from the warm brightness of summer nights, or the spooky levity of Carnevale, and far more difficult than the misty colours of the autumn, but it is a memorable part of the cycle, and one that cannot but entertain.

There are so many sights in Venice that repeated visits may never suffice.  Art works abound and astound; architecture and nature work together to continually stimulate the visual imagination.  There are guidebooks aplenty to help you choose, and your own taste will help you select, as you will not manage everything.  Baedeker, in 1912, recommended five (very full) days for sightseeing.  Who knows?  If you are a retired film star who can stay indefinitely at the Daniele, then take your time.  Breakfast in Florian’s, lunch at Quadri’s and dinner at Harry’s Bar.  Maybe a picture or two in between.  If you are a lesser mortal, may I suggest a wander to the Scuola di San Giorgio degli Schiavoni to see Vittore Carpaccio’s early sixteenth century cycle of paintings.  And spend some time working out exactly how St George managed to spear the dragon so deftly on the left of his horse’s head.  Brilliant stuff!

To complicate matters, the attraction of Venice is not limited to the major sights either.  Although many tour operators ship their charges out to Murano to see glass making and buy souvenirs (glass furnaces were banned in the centre at the end of the thirteenth century following some disastrous fires) not many make it out to the splendid isolation of Torcello, with 11th and 12th century bizantine mosaics in the Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta.  Fewer still change boats at Burano, leaving the pastel shades of the fishermen’s houses (and the elegance of the Trattoria da Romana), to venture out to the island of San Francesco del Deserto where Saint Francis himself founded a convent on his return from the fifth crusade in 1220.

And, when all else is seen to, in Venice, as everywhere, the weary visitor needs nourishment.  Not surprisingly, there is no end of places to choose from, and many are regularly recommended by guidebooks.  In the early sixties, James Morris declared he soon became tired of Venetian food, and, perhaps, if you had to reside there for a year to write a book, you also might tire of the diet, but these days a casual visitor will find the many osterie, bacari and trattorie, charming and stimulating.  Seek out Osteria Do Mori, near the Rialto, if you just want un ombra (a drink) and some cicheti (snacks).  For something more substantial, head for Ca d’Oro alla Vedova, Cannaregio 3912, where copper pans and lanterns hang from the ceiling, and ceramic jugs and glassware nicely decorate the shelves.  It’s a busy, popular place, but as authentic as they come.  I have taken my daughters, and other friends, there.  They were not disappointed. 

Venice is not a republic any more.  It has been overrun by Austrians and French.  It has, perhaps, seen its glory days.  La Fenice has burned down and arisen from the ashes.  Peggy Guggenheim is no more.  Hemingway no longer downs Bellinis at Harry’s Bar.  Titian and Giorgione have hung up their brushes and Tourism overrides almost all else.  But it is still La Serenissima, and it is easy to throw off the crowds and pace the alleys without oppression.  On one of my first visits I walked for hours along dark lanes, over tiny bridges, through narrow covered ways, and alongside quiet canals.  I twisted and turned and thought I must have reached the outer limits of the city, far from the throngs in Piazza S Marco.  Then I spotted a light over a door, and a modest sign for a trattoria.  This seemed heaven-sent.  I was tired, hungry, in need of company and comfort.  I entered a discreetly lit restaurant with worn carpets on the floor and old fashioned furniture.  I was served politely, a delicious meal, with light Soave from the Veneto.  I saw no menu, but trusted the welcoming host.  It was heaven.  And when I was full and warm and happy and the bill was settled, I got up to leave.  Instead of returning the way I had entered, I took what appeared to be the main entrance, and found myself right by the Rialto market, and that I had just dined at the Antica Trattoria, Poste Vecie, reputedly the oldest restaurant in Venice.  It was a startling moment.  One that taught me not to take anything in Venice for granted.  There is more to this city than plastic gondolas, or pigeons in the Piazza S Marco.  And I, for one, will keep going back until the waters have covered us all.

Once did she hold the gorgeous east in fee;
And was the safeguard of the west: the worth
Of Venice did not fall below her birth,
Venice, the eldest Child of Liberty.
She was a maiden City, bright and free;
No guile seduced, no force could violate;
And, when she took unto herself a Mate,
She must espouse the everlasting Sea.
And what if she had seen those glories fade,
Those titles vanish, and that strength decay;
Yet shall some tribute of regret be paid
When her long life hath reached its final day:
Men are we, and must grieve when even the Shade
Of that which once was great, is passed away

William Wordsworth

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