Tuesday, August 17, 2010


Grand Canal, 1996

Is there a place as otherworldly as Venice? I suppose there might be. But for sheer decadence wrapped in the history of the ages, for me there’s only Venice. (Okay, maybe there’s New Orleans, too.)

If you go to Venice by train, you leave the industrial mainland behind and glide smoothly over the Lagoon as if on a magic carpet. (In the 3rd class rail car, it’s more like magic Ford Pinto with bad shocks.) Outside your window you might see fishermen, oarsmen, gondolas or just the vast Lagoon blending seamlessly into the sky. You arrive at the enormous Mussolini-era Stazione di Venezia Santa Lucia, a place that despite its mellifluous name is brutally stark. From there you step out onto a broad piazza overlooking the upper reach of the Grand Canal. This is where the magic starts to work on you.

I don’t want to cheapen the experience, but for some people I’ve watched, stepping out into that piazza is like stepping into Disneyworld, except that Venice is not some artificial contrivance of entertainment architecture. It’s the real thing, even more so because it’s not uniformly neat, clean, cutely painted and as meticulously maintained as a Disney creation would be. The canals don’t stink like they used to. But there’s still a pervasive dampness and underlying note of decay that tells your mind that interesting things can happen here but that one of them probably shouldn’t be an impromptu dip in one of the canals.

Venice Backwater, 1996

Before we went to Venice for the first time, I did a lot of reading. But I probably got more from watching David Lean’s soppy love letter of movie, Summertime , than I got from anything I read. It’s said to be the first major motion picture shot entirely on location, in this case Venice. The story’s a cliché: Katherine Hepburn plays a lonely single woman from Ohio who in the course of shaking off the vulgar manners of her fellow American travelers in Venice, finds, loses and then ultimately finds love again.

The real star of the movie, though, is Venice, which didn’t look very different when we first visited in 1996 than it did in 1955 when Summertime was made. Where small workboats once plied the broad Giudecca Canal giant cruise ships now glide into port each morning, towering over the low city. But the basic elements of the built up environment of Venice are largely unchanged and, befitting a place of such tradition, unchanging.

Maybe this is a bad analogy. But if Belgium’s Bruges is like Charleston, South Carolina, all gussied up for visitors like a theme park, Venice is like Savannah, Georgia, her social royalty still safely ensconced in their grand palazzos, but with a decidedly more raffish demimonde edge.

Calle del Fabbri, 1996

The earliest settlers are thought to have retreated to the mud flats of the Venetian lagoon over 1,500 years ago. So there’s a lot to be said for the City’s staying power. Still, because of the increasingly frequent and higher flooding, the acqua alta, there’s an ever-present sense of fragility and foreboding. A new series of barriers under construction may prevent the worst of some future flooding. But the ancient piles and foundations upon which the lagoon’s mudflats were gathered into a city are rotting and depletion of the fresh water table under the lagoon is causing Venice to gradually sink.

There’s an old joke among fishermen everywhere that “you should have been here yesterday.” But nowhere is that more true as a metaphor for a place than in Venice. I’ll confess that the first time we went to Venice we arrived by cruise ship. But it was a small ship as cruise ships go and our impact on Venice was minimal. Today it’s nothing to find two or three “mega” ships in port at the same time, each carrying 3,000 – 5,000 passengers. Add in all the daytrippers from the mainland and you have a shoulder-to-shoulder scrum of tourists hustling to keep with their tour guides and score a good deal on a piece of Venetian glass.

The funny thing about the crowds in Venice, though, is that they rarely extend more than a few blocks from Piazza San Marco. You can walk two or three minutes and find yourself in a maze of alleys so narrow and disorienting that it’s possible to go for a while without seeing another living soul.

I’m fortunate to have been to Venice twice, once in July and once in May. I’d like to go again, but this time in the winter. I find the masks of Carnival to be a little creepy. So maybe it’ll have to be in December or some other time when reasonable people know better than to go to a cold, damp place that floods at the drop of a hat.

By the time I get around to visiting Venice in the winter there’ll probably be a crowd. And when I check into my hotel there’ll probably be a departing visitor who’ll tell me, “You really should have been here yesterday.”

Calle del Basego, 1996

1 comment:

  1. Great post! I must have been fortunate--I never saw any cruise ships while I was there. Just vaporettos and gondolas. It did seem incongruous to me, though, that every one of the gondoliers had cell phones attached to their ears. Can't get away from 'em, I guess.

    I could watch Kate Hepburn and "Summertime" a million times, just to see Venice again. I remember once reading that she said-- after she fell into that water, she had problems with one of her ears for the rest of her life. These photos of Venice are so beautiful.