Friday 24 July 2020

VIII - Third night movement: capriccio

A long, closely packed, dark train of boats and gondolas with tiny trembling lights like fireflies, follow behind and as this luminous, magical train passes, the Grand Canal comes to life as if by enchantment, pulses briefly with life and then returns once more to its usual silence and shadow.

On my last night in Venice I decided for no reason to move outside my usual realm - and the heart of Lorenzetti’s - towards the railway station.  As I passed the Campo dei Santi Apostoli I felt that I was crossing the frontier into another world, a different Venice.  The shops became noticeably tawdrier, the streets less attractive, the canals more functional, the further I went.  The essential unity of Venice masks its diverse districts.

The transformation of the city was an apt preparation for the sight of the Ferrovie dello Stato terminus.  It sat on the side of the canal, a huge, unadorned, squat slab of light like a slot punched through the darkness. Shockingly in this cramped and confined city, a clear space stood squandered in front.  Of all the Venetian scenes preserved by Canaletto, this area had changed the most in the intervening two centuries.  In place of the church and dyeing works he recorded at this spot, the brashly modern station looked as though some alien spacecraft had landed.  And it had: this was not just a railhead, but a beachhead for the mainland, for the outside world, for the mundane and quotidian.

As I stood with my back to the silent, eerily illuminated station, I gazed across at the church of San Simeone Piccolo, its green dome dimly visible against the sky.  It had been my first sight of Venice.  Tugged perhaps by those memories I crossed once more the bridge by the church of the Scalzi, and stepped again into the narrow back alleyways.

In many respects they were unrepresentative.  The way was poorly signposted, as if trying to put off the fainthearted; the streets were narrow.  There were no churches, no picturesque campi, not even any canals. You wondered if this were really Venice.  Finally a square, Campo San Giacomo dell’Orio; this too deceived the newcomer: it had trees.

I drew closer to the Rialto bridge, the goal of this route.  And yet even near this crossing point, there were no people evident.  Venice had become a ghost city.  I stood amidst the empty market place, surrounded by arcades and columns.  I moved to the bridge, observed the graffiti there, the attempts at immortality, names, dates - some stretching back to the turn of the century.  I stood and watched the quiet river traffic pass beneath me.

I decided to take the vaporetto back to the Molo.  A No. 1 soon appeared and was moored with a swirl of ropes to the swaying Rialto pontoon station; I boarded it.  This was how the Grand Canal should be seen.  I had the boat practically to myself, the water too.  Gazing out, I could watch the great palazzi float by, the two majestic panoramas unfolding each side of me.

By day, like the aristocrats they were, the facades were silent and impassive, an inscrutable wall of architecture.  At night they were more human and vulnerable.  In all I saw perhaps 20 lit windows, tiny spots of yellow light in the otherwise dark surface.  Behind those windows were people.  Who were they?  And why was nothing happening behind the hundreds of other windows?  What histories lay there?  Unmoved by these scenes, the vaporetto chugged steadily on through the cold winter air, leaving behind the palaces, and the windows, and the lights.

Walks with Lorenzetti

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