Lately I’ve been thinking about Venice. I visited it for the first time earlier this year, during a mini-tour of Italy. It was by far my favourite city out of the four I explored — the others being Trieste, Florence and Rome — because, well, it’s Venice. It’s a maddening labyrinth with a strange history and almost unreal nature — it’s a city that shouldn’t be possible yet is somehow there anyway. When you walk its streets, it’s like you’re walking through a mad dream. Perhaps that why it’s so popular. We have enough cities in the world, but how many dreams can we actually explore?
The whole time I was there, I kept wondering how Venice had even come about. A little Googling revealed that the city’s history is one of crazy ideas. A city founded by refugees who built it out of a swamp and transformed it into an influential city state thanks to a combination of shipping power and religious relics. The city continues to be a crazy idea today — imagine a city that sometimes still floods, and where parts of it are permanently flooded, like the Flooded Crypt of San Zaccaria. A modern city where automobiles largely don’t seem to exist. A city that depends on tourism for its economic success but where tourists are told to go home for fear they may destroy the whole place, as if reality may sink the fragile foundation of the dream city.
Is there a real Venice that exists under the tourist façade? Even that is uncertain. I mean, obviously there is a Venice that physically exists there. But what is it exactly? Which parts make up what we think of as Venice?
Is it the bridges crowded with tourists — the bridges that used to host bloody fistfight spectacles?
Is it the island of the dead?
The various abandoned and forgotten islands?
The picture here is my copy of Shawna Lemay’s Asking in the soil of the island of Torcello, an island home to an abandoned monastery turned tourist destination. An island that is on its way to being forgotten? Or transformed into some new form of Disneyesque attraction? I finished the book on my travels, and it’s one I’ll likely return to again, much like Lemay’s blog Calm Things. When I have time, I’ll also check out her book about Venice, Against Paradise.
I also read Sebastien de Castell’s Saint’s Blood during this trip, which turned out to be an appropriate choice. Right before I left, de Castell and I met up for lunch and he advised me to remember to experience the moment while in Italy. I think he’s right in saying too many of us spend too much time thinking about how to present the moment to others and not live it while it happens. I kept this thought in mind while travelling and it made a difference in the way I remember Venice. I think.
I can’t help but think of Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities when I think of Venice. The book is like the city itself, something magical and indescribable. You have to experience it to understand it and everyone’s understanding of it will be their own. (A glimpse of it from a distance.) The book is a mythical travelogue of sorts, with the explorer Marco Polo describing 55 incredible, impossible cities to Kublai Khan, such as Octavia:
Now I will tell how Octavia, the spider-web city, is made. There is a precipice between two steep mountains: the city is over the void, bound to the two crests with ropes and chains and catwalks. You walk on the little wooden ties, careful not to set your foot in the open spaces, or you cling to the hempen strands. Below there is nothing for hundreds and hundreds of feet: a few clouds glide past; farther down you can glimpse the chasm’s bed.
This is the foundation of the city: a net which serves as passage and as support. All the rest, instead of rising up, is hung below: rope ladders, hammocks, houses made like sacks, clothes hangers, terraces like gondolas, skins of water, gas jets, spits, baskets on strings, dumb-waiters, showers, trapezes and rings for children’s games, cable cars, chandeliers, pots with trailing plants.
Suspended over the abyss, the life of Octavia’s inhabitants is less uncertain than in other cities. They know the net will last only so long.
In trying to map out Venice in my mind, I came across this intriguing bit by Jeanette Winterson on Calvino’s book and Venice. Seems to fit here:
Venice is a city you must design and build for yourself. The tourist Venice is a chimera, the historical Venice is a museum. The living Venice is the one where every canal and palazzo and sun-shy square, with its iron well and unlisted church, has been privately mapped. No one can show you Venice. There is no such place. Out of the multiple Venice’s, none authentic, only you can find the one that has any value.
Venice’s extremes – its Disneyishness and its invisibility, are not unique, they are the lesser experience of many cities. In Venice the experience is concentrated. There is nowhere less rewarding, nowhere more maddening. The secret Venice guidebooks are useless. This is not New York or Rome. Venice can only be read as fiction. Visiting Venice is to become a fiction yourself – at least if you want to get any sense of it. The facts tell you nothing. This is a cusp city, working at the intersection of art and life – where the best fiction works too.
To return to Calvino, I think of Venice like I think of Calvino’s Tamara. “You leave Tamara without having discovered it.”
Finally the journey leads to the city of Tamara. You penetrate it along streets thick with signboards jutting from the walls. The eye does not see things but images of things that mean other things: pincers point out the tooth-drawer’s house; a tankard, the tavern; halberds, the barracks; scales, the grocer’s. Statues and shields depict lions, dolphins, towers, stars: a sign that something — who knows what? — has as its sign a lion or a dolphin or a tower or a star. Other signals warn of what is forbidden in a given place (to enter the alley with wagons, to urinate behind the kiosk, to fish with your pole from the bridge) and what is allowed (watering zebras, playing bowls, burning relatives’ corpses). From the doors of the temples the gods’ statues are seen, each portrayed with his attributes — the cornucopia, the hourglass, the medusa — so that the worshiper can recognize them and address his prayers correctly. If a building has no signboard or figure, its very form and the position it occupies in the city’s order suffice to indicate its function: the palace, the prison, the mint, the Pythagorean school, the brothel. The wares, too, which the vendors display on their stalls are valuable not in themselves but as signs of other things: the embroidered headband stands for elegance; the gilded palanquin, power; the volumes of Averroes, learning; the ankle bracelet, voluptuousness. Your gaze scans the streets as if they were written pages: the city says everything you must think, makes you repeat her discourse, and while you believe you are visiting Tamara you are only recording the names with which she defines herself and all her parts.
However the city may really be, beneath this thick coating of signs, whatever it may contain or conceal, you leave Tamara without having discovered it. Outside, the land stretches, empty, to the horizon; the sky opens, with speeding clouds. In the shape that chance and wind give the clouds, you are already intent on recognizing figures: a sailing ship, a hand, an elephant. . . .
Yes, I would like to visit Venice again, and experience once more that joyous act of discovery where we encounter not only a strange and foreign place but also experience our own mad, impossible imagination.