Third time in Venice, we flew in to Marco Polo, arriving by train at the Stazione Santa Lucia late in the evening. We took the Vaporetto down the Grand Canal, sailing beneath Ponte Degli Scalzi to ride the few stops till our pontoon. Darkness fell and a nimbus rose from the water as we approached our rendezvous.
It was one of those meetings which should happen at least once in a person’s life, one which you have seen many times in the movies. Sometimes I dream of Veronica at the Vaporetta stop. As the cool cloak of the canal shaped itself, tangible and ostensible, the Vaporetto stuttered to a halt. there she was, alone amongst the crowd waiting on the pontoon. At last, I was in a movie, about to step into that scene, like Bogey and Bacall, when monochrome celluloid blossomed to a full spectrum. She was perfect; calf length Macintosh a quiet half white, dark felt fedora aslant. I just knew her eyes would glisten softly, the colour of deep water in moonlight.
Well, it was all of sixty five years ago
when the world was the street where she lived
and a young man sailed on a ship in the sea
with a picture of Veronica.
Veronica by Elvis Costello
Veronica is our host for the air b’n’b we have booked. She welcomes us warmly and guides us through the labyrinth to the house where we’ll be staying. Once we’re settled she gives us a brief tour of the quarter, recommending the right places for us to eat and drink. Then she smiles and glides off to her own home on some other island.
We are staying in the Sestiere Santa Croce San Polo, near the fishmarkets whose faint hum guides us home of a night. Nearby is Rialto Bridge. We had our two charges, and a list of things to do. Much of this involved pointing and staring, and Venice offers plenty opportunity for that. We had also earmarked a visit to the Biennale.
The Venice Biennale was established in 1895 as a major exhibition of contemporary art. It is based in a park, the Giardini, established by Napoleon on drained land east of the Arsenale. The exhibition centre is augmented by thirty national pavilions operated by that country’s foreign ministry to showcase their art and culture. An exhibition focussing on architecture is held on alternate, even years. In 2006, the exhibition explored the theme of Cities, Architecture and Society. For myself and O this was right up our alley. We are both lost in our search for the ultimate city.
Our brains were as full of cities as they were likely to be. One particular visual endures. Topping a rise in the motorway, the entire panorama of a teeming city and its towers shifts across the skyline. Whether Caraacas or Bogota I can’t be sure. I felt dizzy contemplating it. O was utterly absorbed. He would, a few years later visit that city himself.
We stopped for lunch along the quayside in sunshine. Riva degli Schiavoni is a hectic waterfront promenade lined with market stalls. The Grand Canal merges with the lagoon, transitioning towards the open sea. There’s an overwhelming sense of movement, the centuries colliding to make a tableau of the city’s maritime history. On that day, the sky a duck egg blue and suspended in a chill miasma, everything was timeless and possible.
Across the waters, a masterpiece of baroque extravagance, the Church of Santa Maria della Salute was built in thanksgiving for deliverance from the plague of 1630. Further on, Andrea Palladio’s San Giorgio Maggiore floats on its own island.The neo-Classical complex of church and monastery was completed at the end of the sixteenth century, with the soaring campanile added in the late eighteenth.
The view has inspired numerous artists, amongst them Giovanni Antonio Canal. The name is too appropriate to be true: Canaletto, the artist who does exactly what it says on the tin. Born in Venice in 1697, his father, also a painter, was indeed a Signor Canal. His son’s monicker denotes junior. In his early paintings he worked to a finish outdoors while his contemporaries retreated to the studio. Hence, he anticipates Impressionism, and the tendency of modern art to capture the moment in all its blurred intensity. This evolution fits with our technological advance. Camera, cinema and video are caught in the moment. Even modern writing mimics the automatic pulse. We see things differently now than before, but this has developed over time. In Canaletto’s day, the Camera Obscure was available for artists to copy the scene before them. Canaletto is reckoned to have used it. Scholars of his work disagree. His uncanny accuracy can be put down to the simple fact that he was just damned good!
There are other islands too, and it was time to visit them. Whistling past the graveyard of San Michele, we take the Vaporetto from Fundamente Nove to Murano and Burano. Murano is a small clump of islands with its own canal system, a miniature of Venice itself. Renowned for its glassblowers, we took a factory tour and wondered at the ridiculous, seemingly casual skill of the glassblower within such an extreme environment. We still have our gorgeous glass horse, hot off the pipes. Outside, Murano is blissfully calm, a long way from the hubbub of Venice across the lagoon. Burano has Its own unique, crazy atmosphere. Life goes placidly on beneath fantastic leaning towers. We dallied and dined in the picturesque main square, eating Lasagne which was memorably good. The houses are painted individually in bright colours, forming a patchwork canvas to seduce the artist within us all.
Over a few days, myself and M became fond of Veronica’s coffee maker. The Moka Pot is an Italian style icon, new to us at the time, it was developed by Alonso Bialetti in 1933. A study in Futurismo elan, with facetted aluminium and bakelite handles, it made brewing coffee at home accessible to ordinary folk. During a moment when my concentration wandered, the bakelite began to melt picturesquely over the ring. Two remedies suggested themselves: to disguise ourselves with Venetian masks and escape, or to purchase a new one. The neighbourhood seemed full of souvenir shops, but but we quickly found a shop selling coffee makers, identical to the one I had just melted, if a tiny bit bigger.
There were shops with masks and full regalia too. So that option remained. I almost took it. Browsing in a particularly exquisite shop, I found myself draped in full regalia, though I hadn’t asked to be. Apparently they do that if you stay motionless too long; a dream come true for a lifelong poseur. Davin was pleased to follow suit, and made for a more dashing model.
Such paraphernalia is handed down from the once notorious Venice Carnival. The Carnival is a thousand year old tradition. A pre-Lenten celebration, (the word Carnival derives from the Lenten fast, literally meaning ‘goodbye to meat’) it gave citizens licence to transgress the strictures of society for ten days leading up to Shrove Tuesday. Elaborate disguises were worn so that men, and women, could behave outrageously while preserving anonymity. This spirit of subversion allowed the playing of practical jokes and endless possibilities for intrigue.
The Carnival came to represent the excesses of decadent Venetian society. From 1453 when Constantinople fell to the Turks, Venice continued to rule the Mediterranean waves but by the eighteenth century the city’s renown was less to do with mercantile power than gambling, partying and vice. Taken by Napoleon in 1795, Venice was annexed to Austria whose autocratic rule saw the Carnival outlawed. If meant to curb Venetian expression, it backfired. The more sober population were to the fore in the Risorgimento, the push for a united independent Italy, achieved in 1870. A century later, in 1979, the Carnival was revived and has become a hugely important event on the cultural calendar.
My own personal pilgrimage was made on a grey, drizzly morning, taking the Vaporetto to Ponte dell’Accademia. Nearby the Galleria Dell’Accademia has a great collection of Art: Veronese, Tintoretto, Tiepolo, Titian. But one morning of wonders at a time. I kept to the Dorsodura side to visit the Guggenheim Museum of Modern Art, lodged in the Palazzo Venier dei Leoni, the Unfinished Palace
Peggy Guggenheim moved to Europe in the 1930s. In Paris she befriended Samuel Beckett who urged her to support Modern Art, as it was a living thing. She set out to buy a painting a day from such artists as Ernst, Dali, Magritte, Duchamp and others, outstanding works of surrealism, cubism, futurism and some abstract stuff. She fled France after the Nazi occupation, escaping with her future husband Max Ernst.
Ernst is a particular favourite of mine. The Guggenheim has two of his masterpieces: the Robing of the Bride and the Antipope. Both are perplexing, employing the automatic technique of pressing paint onto the canvas, decalcomania, to evolve a scenario that’s apparently realistic but incongruously fantastical. Magritte’s Empire of Light also features. These are paintings I could stand in front of for days.
Coming up for air, I pose by the waterside for a while, with blended injections of lagoon air and aromatic infusions from exotic places, Morocco or Virginia perhaps. Behind me on the patio the disconcerting statue by Marino, Angel of the Citadel, brings a whole new meaning to the term saddle pommel. Before me, a haunting tableau in the making emerges from the canal mists. I thought it was the smoke or the music going round in my head, but I took a photograph and it doesn’t lie.
Here they come, and the fire on their wings doesn’t burn,
here they come and they know everything we must learn.
Here they come, and the stars in their eyes seem to glow,
here they come and the fear in our hearts starts to go.
Here They Come by Ten Years After.