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Venice: Serene, Sensual . . .Loving to Be Loved
by David Yeadon

"Every time I describe a city, I am saying something about Venice." Marco Polo

"When I went to Venice, my dream became my address." Marcel Proust

In Venice, like Proust, I become a dreamer in a dreamlike place. Even the jottings in my notebook are simperingly sensual:

" . . .soft early glimmerings mercurially luminescent across the Grand Canal like a Turner painting — pure fusions of light and undulating water. A single gondola emerges from mists with no passengers; the standing gondolier moves his upright oar in slow ellipses against the strange, bone-shaped rowlock. He is an elderly man dressed in traditional black and white, hatless in the silver haze; he has doubtless seen the beauty of this city for decades but still takes time to look around and let his high-prowed boat drift easily across the water to the landing by the Doge's Palace. He turns slowly to stare "seemingly enchanted" at the domed basilica and campanile of San Georgio Maggiore across the Basin of San Marco gleaming softly in a rising sun, and floating ethereally above the low mists as upon a cloud. He crosses himself . . . .

My scribbles fade out at this point. Sometimes Venice is beyond words. This "Queen of the Adriatic" or La Serenissima, (The Serene City) as Italians proudly call her, touches the spirit on so many levels that my pen ceases to write, my mind stops its constant yammering, and I find I'm just sitting and looking as the soul sponges up the images and the utter magic of everything . . . . How the muses of the great poets — particularly the English Romantics — have struggled for erudite adequacy here. Lord Byron gushed about Venice "horned on her hundred isles" (118 actually); Shelley saw her as "Ocean's nursling . . .bounded by vaporous air/a peopled labyrinth of walls/Amphitrite's destined halls," and Wordsworth celebrated her as "the eldest Child of Liberty, a maiden City, bright and free." What, I wondered to myself, could one more world-wanderer writer add to all the exuberant accolades and tumultuous praise heaped upon the world's most beautiful and evocative city? I mean — everyone who was and is anyone in the literati field has paid homage and crafted glowing homilies to the unique genius of Venice. Even the most jaded been-there, done-that traveler invariably has something praiseworthy to say about this diminutive enclave of islands, canals, campi (squares) lagoons and glorious architecture — domed, spired and campaniled — and bathed in a light so liquid it brings tears to the eyes.

I have been here only twice and yet, in some strange way, I've never really left. Venice can do that to you. Nowhere else resembles her despite the frivolous claims of other canal-laced cities around the world indulgently labeling themselves as the "Venice of the Orient . . .Tropics . . .North," . . .whatever.

Nothing matches that first rolling ride on a vaporetto (water-bus) or motascafi (water-taxi) up the Grand Canal on a shimmering morning when the ornate facades of the palaces and churches glow in the dreamy air. Nothing compares with sipping (very expensive!) aperitifs in Piazza San Marco — surely the world's most perfect urban space — where ascending swirls of pigeons curlicue against a brilliant evening sky over the domes of the basilica and you loll back in your chair watching the world wander by as Pavarotti swoons through sweet arias of love and gentle lust and the setting sun bathes the ornated columned facades in pure gold. Nothing in the city quite matches the vast Basilica of San Marco, the Gothic elegance of the Doge's Palace, Bellini's magnificent artworks in the churches of Giovannie Paolo, San Zaccaria and the Basilica dei Frari in San Polo, also home to Donatello's sculpture of St. John and Titian's "Assumption." Tiepolo's frescoes still gleam at the waterfront Church of the Pietà, across the Ponte dell' Accademia is the Galleria dell' Accademia's world-class collection of the best in Venetian painting, and over 50 of Tintoretto's masterpieces soothe the spirit at the Scuola Grande di San Rocco at the end of the Frari. And nothing can touch the palate and the senses quite like the decadent little proscuitto-laced hors d'oeuvres and chilled champagne decorously served on the terrace of the Gritti Palace hotel, that lovely old aristocratic haven on the Grand Canal, or dinner at Danieli near the Doge's Palace with vistas across the San Marco Canal, thronged with gondolas and vaporetto ferries silhouetted against the pearly white magnificence of Palladio's Church of Santa Maria della Salute on Dorsoduro.

Of course in company with Oscar Wilde, who compared a gondola ride in Venice to "a coffin moving through a sewer," there are inevitably those critics who carp constantly about the city's shortcomings — its perpetually sinking and occasionally stinking decay; the floods that have people walking on raised plank paths across the noble piazzas; the outrageous charges of the gondoliers, water-taxis, and rip-off trinket merchants; the stagnant mold-colored waters of the back canals; the constant night-long rats vs cats conflicts; the graffiti-smeared, broken-marble walls, and the sheer frenzied touristic hullabaloo of summer when even the delightful little lagoon islet-communities of Murano (famous for its glassblowing craftsmen), Torcello, Chioggia and dainty Burano, haven of fishermen and lace-makers, become unpleasantly thronged.

But I forgive such maunginess, magnanimously. Venice after all is a working city, not a film set, and one quickly learns to accept and eventually ignore such minor downsides in a generosity of spirit engendered by the sheer throbbing duendé of it all. I even relish its hidden backstreets with their peeling pastel, sienna, and bronze-yellow stucco walls, broken shutters, flowerpot-laden window sills, laundry lines, screaming kids, street vendors, bawling matrons, and aroma-mélanges of bubbling red sauce, baking bread, and burning meat. I love getting lost across Lilliputian bridges over veiny canals into mazes and miasmas of shadowy alleys, discovering hidden campi and dark musty churches, and then suddenly finding myself again on some such thoroughfare as Merceria, Frezzeria, Calle Fabbri, Ruga del Ravano, or close to the teeming Rialto Market or the Bridge of Sighs, where I rejoin the serpenting throngs of goggle-eyed, awestruck wanderers easing at passeggiata — pace down the humid, hullaballooed main streets.

You know you'll never become totally lost here. Venice, while seemingly infinite in its variety and intensity of experiences, is a place of hard island-edges — a place you can stroll across in an hour. You'll find no simpering suburbs here, no mundane, neon-decked junk-food strips, no billboarded brouhahas, no no-go ghettoes, no glitter-and-glass poste-moderne architectural extravaganzas and air conditioned malls with interminable parking lots. It's all pure unabashed urbanity — dense, packed, human-scaled, intimate and teeming with surprises. It's a city where tradition, culture and history come gloriously alive.

And what an intriguing history this little city has. Unbeholden to no Roman parentage, a place with no ancient monuments and time-burdened sentiments to enthrone, the potentials of these oozy marshlands and mosquito-plagued islets of the Veneto were barely recognized until its hesitant beginnings in 697 A.D. and early medieval times when its true seaborne trading days began in earnest. Cocooned in its languorous lagoon, Venice's isolation, coupled with an antipapist citizenry (the city even once received an official edict of excommunication!), ensured an iconoclastic fervor of individualistic internationalism. Despite the laborious need to build every structure on scores, sometimes thousands, of wooden piles, by the 14th century Venice had become the most powerful and affluent of Italy's numerous little republics, dominating all the Adriatic Sea and Eastern trade routes. The architectural exuberance of this outward-looking and beloved bastion of Christendom against the tide of Turkish expansion, gleefully encompassed the styles of Byzantium, Arabia, and Gothic Europe and rejoiced in color, carved ornamentation and lacy-frill exoticas. It became renowned for its vibrant surface glitter where even the stern classical orders of the Renaissance became grist for the city's gilded fabric.

With her native architect Palladio at the helm in the late 1500's, Venice sailed her own course of eclectic and radiant richness and lightheadedness, buoyed by the fame of her great school of Venetian artists — Titian, Tintoretto, Bellini, Veronese and Giogione da Castelfranco and later, Ricci, Tiepolo, and the incomparable Canaletto. The city's grand villas, palaces and churches, while paying lip-service to antiquity, rejoiced in a mélange of styles and influences as its mercantile power, prosperity and cultural prestige constantly expanded. Ever-arrogant and upstart, she even claimed an "older-than-Roman" heritage, declaring herself as "The New Troy" with links to the Trojan hero Antenor, "The New Jerusalem" by virtue of St. Mark's supposed visit here and the subsequent removal of his bones to Venice, and even "The New Constantinople" with her great basilica patterned and pieced together with portions of Constantinople's Aspostoleion.

Venice's use of borrowed pasts, led to her continual self-reinvention and celebration of an opportunistic culture equally at home on land and sea as emblemized by her winged (a visual metaphor for sails) lion which still stands today, sphinx-like on its column by the Doge's Palace piazzetta, facing proudly seaward.

Pride and pageantry are as endemic to Venice as pillars and pomp were to ancient Rome. She was always addicted to public theater even after her slow decline from the 17th century. Her artists rejoiced in the physical richness of her creation, her shimmering watery realm, the gentle velvety tone of her light, and the great annual feasts and parades best captured by Canaletto's painting of the Doge leaving St. Marks square aboard his golden ship on Ascension Day to reenact the city's vital marriage of land and sea.

Today, in addition to the ferocious rowing competitions of May's Vogalonga and the gondola-graced cavalcade of September's Regatta Storica, the annual festival that captures more than any other the sumptuously wild abandon of Venice is the pre-Lenten mardi-gras madness of "Carnevale." With a mood described so delightfully by Shakespeare "In Venice they do let heaven see the pranks/they dare not show their husbands . . .," this two-month long Falstaffian bacchanal of the 1700's is now a raucous 10-day celebration attracting countless thousands from across Europe. In this "great masquerade of madness", Venice reveals the surreal mystery, joy and energy that lies deep within her heart — a heart that Byron labeled appropriately "the masque of Italy." Hundreds of celebrants, bedecked in extravagant and expensive costumes and porcelain maschere (masks), reflecting the richest periods of Venetian history from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment, prance and parade around Piazza San Marco and nearby streets, joined by harlequins, charlatans and buxom servant wenches straight out of Goldoni's famous comedies. "It is impossible to recount the universal madness of the place during this time of outrageous license," wrote John Evelyn in 1818, and his words are just as apt today.

Venice loves crowds. In this 3 square-mile, auto-free, promenading city, over 10 million visitors flock annually, drawn by its dreamy allure, its diamond-dense intensity and water-embraced wonder. Intimate and artistic in every sense, yet strangely fragile (with constant fears of sinking and inundation), she seems both wildly vital and evocatively vulnerable. She stirs both universal delight and sympathy, like an angelic nymph touched by fevers. The great floods of November 1966, which swamped the city, engendered immediate international efforts to repair the ancient buildings and artworks and to tame the constant tidal threats of the lagoon with a projected floodgate project nicknamed Operation Moses!

"Problems? Venice is all problems!", a morose Salvatore Domenici muttered to me at his stall near the Rialto Bridge piled high with newspapers, lottery tickets, magazines and candy. "Ever since Napoleon stole the city in 1797 we've had problems. Today is terrible!" He rolled his eyes in perfect operatic fashion and fluttered his hands like a diva. "Pollution, the noises and smells of Mestre (the hard-nosed, hard-faced, alter-ego city of Venice across the Ponte della Liberta), housing costs, crazy students, crazy prices, residents leaving every year, the politicians laugh! And . . ." he added sotto vocce in case he might threaten potential customers ". . . tourists, tourists, tourists . . .it's like Disneyworld!"

"So it's pretty bad, eh?"

Salvatore paused. A half smile cracked open his dour face and he gave another grand operatic gesture — the great Italian shrug, "Well — it's Venice. So what can one expect? She'll never change . . . . " And pride shone in his old yolky eyes as he turned to sell yet one more copy of the morning's Il Gazzetino (containing all the gory details of one more local political scam and a score of strident letters to the editor from disgruntled citizens!).

No, I thought, its not Disneyworld. In Disneyworld they control the crowds better and everything's pink-perky clean. Here is tourism in high gear, overheated almost to the point of self-immolation. Like so many regions and cities of global-attraction, tourism in Venice occasionally seems to be ringing its own death knell as sonorously as the great campanile bell of San Marco; here we are transient voyeurs in our own demise. But here at least we can escape easily and wander as Goethe did in 1786, "in and out of the labyrinth." We can leave the thronged main attractions and thoroughfares behind and lose ourselves for as long as we wish in those spaghettied alleys and tiny piazzas hardly visited by outsiders — the Dorsoduro, (where gondolas are made and repaired on Rio di San Trovaso), parts of Cannaregio, Guidecca, San Polo Castello, and Campo Santa Margherita. Just wander and you'll find your own secret places . . . .

After a few days here, once the overwhelming spirit of the city has been tamed in my mind to a more manageable series of hourly frissons, I happily return to note-scribblings and sketching and a calmer serendipity. Sitting at dawn once again by the Grand Canal, I'm listening to the water of the lagoon lapping, slapping and sucking on the old stones of the piazzeta by the soaring campanile. And I see Venice for what she truly is — a crucial touchstone of the urban fantastic — of architecture, of art, of civic grace, and the most ardently creative aspirations of man. If Venice didn't exist then somehow, somewhere, we'd have to invent her. As it is, she's been a fortuitous part of our world for centuries, an enduring, gracious and Queenly presence, offering herself gladly and indulgently, loving to be loved . . .


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