Tuesday 21 July 2020


For the love of my city I have gathered these pages

As I stepped out of the Santa Lucia station and saw Venice for the first time, it was like recalling a memory I had never had.  In the early morning sunlight, under the clear cold sky, the green dome of San Simeone Piccolo stood out amidst all the browns, reds and yellows of the tiled roofs, and the Grand Canal’s broad band of water bent glassily away into the distance. The more I looked, the more I seemed to recognise - so deeply have the images and elements of Venice been woven into the fabric of our civilisation.  A world without Venice, like a world without Shakespeare, is unthinkable.

As a result, it is hard to see the city for itself rather than as an assemblage of set pieces.  Initially, Venice deconstructs into your previous knowledge of it.  Fuller understanding and appreciation come only as your experience of the city re-enacts its complex history of accretion and connection.

This is not easy.  At every turn, the mesmerising allure of the city’s beauty compels you to stop and stare.  But to stare is to remain a captive of the arresting image, and of your preconceptions which conditioned it. To gain a deeper knowledge you must move on: you must walk.  Walking builds the two dimensional views into the three-dimensional city.

Providentially, Venice is a city built for walkers: within its compact confines, people set the scale for everything.  Confirming this, you find that there are no broad highways in Venice; whatever the name - whether called ramo, ruga or salizzada - they are all narrow streets and dark alleys. Though straight, they are short and doglegged, so where you are going, or where you have come from, always remain hidden.  In Venice, even the shortest journey is an adventure; perhaps it is no coincidence that the greatest explorer of all, Marco Polo, was a son of this city.

Without motorised vehicles on its streets, an eighteenth century air prevails, almost as if the Venetians had tried to stop the clock of history during the endless carnival of their last giddy heyday.  Then, as now, the city existed for its tourism.  Today, without that age’s carts or wagons, Venice is a place of eerie near-silence,  The loudest noises are human: the porters’ occasional warning cries, the crowd’s muffled hubbub, the constant dull ringing of heels on the paving stones.

This is one Venice, a labyrinth of backstreets.  But there is another, the Venice of the waterways. 

Water is the defining element of the city: imagine Venice with its canals filled in.  Throughout its history, the city has been wedded to the seas by more than just the symbolic marriage ceremony which was carried out annually by the Doge.  A millennium and a half ago, the water which washed around the mud flats in the lagoon was a defence against the hordes of invaders on the mainland, and the initial impetus for the birth of the city.  Surrounded by the element, Venice bred sailors and navigators, who soon formed the backbone of a formidable navy.  With that in time came power, then empire, then wealth.  The glory which we gaze on in Venice rose from the city’s watery origins.

Its form was shaped by water too.  Pressure of space on the hundred or so islands which make up Venice dictated that buildings were high and contiguous, and reached to the water’s edge; gardens were soon an unconscionable luxury.  Today, excluding the public parks to the east, the number of trees in Venice is so small they could easily be counted.  The numerous campi, once true fields surrounded by houses, are all now paved over.  With time water has added further marks of its dominion.  Over centuries, the action of air and moisture has smoothed sculpture and stained stone, until the entire fabric of the city has become an enormous canvas on which water has laid down its masterpiece.

The intricate grid of canals provide Venice with its other streets, broader and better suited for transport than the earthbound ones.  Motor launches excepted, they are even more silent.  Ranging from the rii, the narrowest streams hidden away between high palaces, through the workaday channels along which the barges filled with fruit or refuse or furniture pass, up to the greatest of them all, the Grand Canal, which slices the city in two like a twisting dragon, the canals form one great network, over which is superimposed another - that of the streets and alleys - with hump-backed bridges marking like knots where the two threads cross for a moment before passing on their different ways.  Combined, they spread an intricate cat’s cradle of paths across the city, binding it together so successfully that in the place of an archipelago you see only an island.

In this city without direction or differentiation, there are two landmarks which are signposted everywhere: the Rialto bridge, and Piazza San Marco. They are the twin poles of the city.  The one represents commerce, the other the state - San Marco was originally simply the chapel to the adjoining Palazzo Ducale.  Wherever you walk, you will come across the characteristic yellow signs indicating the way to them.  Often it requires an act of faith to follow.  They are widely spaced; the alleyways down which they lead you are small and lonely; there are no shops, just high walls with closed doors and shuttered windows; there are no fellow travellers.  Persist, though, and eventually you reach a larger street. Follow it, and the growing crowd, and suddenly, you have reached the Rialto.

Like the city, the Rialto bridge is hard to see for what it is.  The subject of countless paintings in the past, and co-opted endlessly today as a easy emblem - of romance, of Italy, and of Venice itself - the image is so overlaid with associations that the physical reality disconcerts.  For what was the only bridge across the Grand Canal for centuries, the grimy stone structure with its decaying lockup shops - looking like a row of suburban railway arches thrust up and bent in the air - is bathetic.

Shabby rather than splendid, it is, above all, functional, allowing three streams of traffic to pass, and was once able to cope with even the tallest ships’ masts at high tide.  This clash between expectation and experience is representative of all Venice: what for us are key and symbolic images imbued with dense historical references are for the Venetians just scenery.

If the encounter with the Rialto bridge is fraught with cultural baggage, how much more so is the first sight of the Piazza San Marco.  In part the impact is so powerful because in an anomalous city the Piazza is itself an anomaly.  Even its name is unique: every other open space in Venice except the nearby Piazzetta is called a campo.

As you enter the Piazza San Marco through one of the galleries which flank it on three sides, the sudden sense of space and of sky is a shock.  Elsewhere in Venice you are conscious of the omnipresent walls which shadow and rear up around you.  Their constant embrace adds to the sense of the city’s intimacy, which, like all unremitting intimacies, can border on the oppressive.  Here, in the Piazza, it is as if Venice had peeled itself back, as if the buildings had suddenly fled, leaving you alone in this huge, yawning space.

The architecture conspires in this effect.  Although on one level an act of typical imperialist barbarousness, the destruction of the church of San Geminiani at the west end of the Piazza - ordered by Napoleon to allow the design of the loggie to be continued all the way round - showed an acute sense of architectural dynamics.  The apparent uniformity of the converging loggie makes them into a kind of visual vice, squeezing you down to the eastern end to confront the ultimate goal of the tourist: San Marco and its majestic campanile.

The perspective of the loggie, abetted by the linear design of the paving, throws the eye onto the ornate richness of the cathedral’s facade.  The horizontality of the Piazza, itself breathtaking enough in this city of undulating pathways, is then negated by the huge vertical stump of the campanile.

To the south of the cathedral, part of the Palazzo Ducale can be seen, the gentle flush of its pink facade peering round the base of the campanile. The visitor’s gaze and footsteps are alike drawn to it.  As you approach, the Piazzetta appears, a miniature version of the Piazza, and with it the basin of San Marco.  Beyond, lies the unreal vision of San Giorgio Maggiore, a church on the waters.  As you walk past the two columns of San Todaro and the lion of St. Mark, up to the water’s edge where the rows of gondolas are tethered to a forest of bleached poles, the water slapping their black sides, once more you are assailed by doubts about the possibility of relating this unique and well-known scene to your ordinary steps which brought you there.

The Piazza San Marco, the Piazzetta and the Riva degli Schiavoni are the most famous images in this city of famous images; but the miracle of Venice is not just that such scenes exist, but that any random path will map out a trail rich in historical associations and architectural and artistic treasures.  No other city offers this protean ability to compose itself for each visitor.

To experience the city is to wander through it, taking in every house and alley.  When we remember other cities, we remember the highlights.  Venice is all highlights.  To recall Venice faithfully is to recall our paths through it.  For the perfect tourist, memories of Venice would become co-extensive with memory.

No wonder then that the city can itself seem like memory.  Its many wandering paths which connect every campo, calle and canal are like the hidden paths within our minds which link together all our knowledge and experiences, forging what we call our life.  Venice has its secret corners which we find, then lose however much we search, only to chance upon them again some day when they strike with a combination of familiarity and freshness, just as a long-submerged image will surface with a vividness which astounds us.  It has those perfectly composed vistas, tantalisingly visible across a maze of canals and bridges, but without any obvious path to them.  They hover like names on the tip of our tongue, or like anchorless memories, evoked by a smell or a taste, frustratingly present but ungraspable.

On my first trip to Venice, I was converting the famous images I had inherited into personal memories.  In the process, I discovered countless other sights that would be uniquely mine, because they were determined and created by my experience in walking round the city.  When I returned, it would necessarily be a different Venice I saw, one which now carried the overlay of my previous visits.  The unchanging views of the city would act as fixed points between which I could start to thread a complex web of knowledge and memory.

The pattern of that tapestry would be profoundly affected by one further element, a book about the city, which itself was the product of a dense interplay of knowledge and experience.  That book was Giulio Lorenzetti’s Venice and its Lagoons.  As I read it for the first time, it was like stepping out into another new but familiar Venice.

Walks with Lorenzetti

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