Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Learning to Love Venice

Santa Maria della Salute
"It is a great pleasure to write the word; but I am not sure there is not a certain impudence in pretending to add anything to it. Venice has been painted and described many thousands of times, and of all the cities of the world is the easiest to visit without going there. Open the first book and you will find a rhapsody about it; step into the first picture-dealer's and you will find three or four high-coloured "views" of it. There is notoriously nothing more to be said on the subject. Every one has been there, and every one has brought back a collection of photographs. There is as little mystery about the Grand Canal as about our local thoroughfare, and the name of St. Mark is as familiar as the postman's ring. It is not forbidden, however, to speak of familiar things, and I hold that for the true Venice-lover Venice is always in order. There is nothing new to be said about her certainly, but the old is better than any novelty. It would be a sad day indeed when there should be something new to say. I write these lines with the full consciousness of having no information whatever to offer. I do not pretend to enlighten the reader; I pretend only to give a fillip to his memory; and I hold any writer sufficiently justified who is himself in love with his theme." --Henry James, Italian Hours
Inside the Doge's Palace

It's fair to say that I knew next to nothing about Venice before this year. Somehow, the centuries that La Serenissima ruled the Mediterranean were skipped over in my Western Civilization course (perhaps not "Western" enough?). I didn't know of its artistic heritage. I had a vague sense of its importance in the Grand Tour and a suspicion of some nineteeenth-century fighting with Austria. Of course I knew of the canals and gondolas, but I didn't even know that Venice was a grouping of islands. 

My experience was, then, the exact opposite of Henry James'. When I read the above opening paragraph to Italian Hours, I felt out of the loop. This feeling persisted in my other readings about Venice, especially the prose of the Ruskins. I decided that my goal in Venice would be to discover why people love it so. 

I didn't succeed. Love isn't something rational that you can set out an argument for. Love creeps in on you, unawares. I arrived at Venice skeptical of its charms and seeing exactly what I had been prepared to see. I was unimpressed and distant. But leaving Venice was hard, and even though I'm back home, part of my spirit is still there. How did this happen? 

Maybe it's all the water. Water is an incredible force, and Venice has managed to accommodate the demands of the sea. The gentle rocking of the boats, necessary for getting around town, also has a lulling effect on the psyche. 
The Grand Canal
Maybe it's the clarity of the light. In summer, Venice has 5 or 6 days a month of precipitation. I arrived on one of the overcast days; once the sky cleared, the spell began. 

The Grand Canal, early morning.
Zoom in to see the art on the side of the building.
Maybe it's ancient architecture. There's an amazing wonder to standing exactly where someone 500 or 1000 years ago stood, and seeing essentially the same buildings. And I love the pointed arches of the Byzantine Gothic. 
Inside La Salute Church

The Doge's Palace

Maybe it's that there's art everywhere. Even on the outside of buildings, where the elements gradually destroy everything. And yet no place better exemplifies the saying, Ars longa, vita brevis
Detail outside the Basilica
Inside the Basilica. Isn't that amazing?
Part of the altar inside the Basilica
I don't think it's that I conceive of Venice as being in the past, as a museum. Reading Donna Leon's excellent mysteries, set in the present and concerned with permanent residents, deepened my affection for the city. 
Accademia Bridge and traffic on the Grand Canal

The chemistry of this love is complex. All I really know is that I would like to go back, and this time bring my husband. Because Venice is a city of love. 

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