Saturday 25 July 2020

XI - Fourth night movement: finale

Even without letting oneself go in romantic dreams, a tour in a gondola on a moonlit summer night in the Pool of San Marco, or in the deep shadows of the internal canals, is always profoundly moving.

On the eve of my departure from Venice, I did not have time to take one final walk.  Instead, I packed, left the hotel and boarded a motor launch which took me first into the depths of the city, into that other maze, then out above the Fondamente Nuove into the wider waters.  As dusk fell, the air grew chill.

Night is a good time to leave Venice.  By day, there is no way to extract yourself painlessly from the scenes around you: as you are forced to move away from the city, the eyes linger now on this detail, now on another, until each in turn is torn from sight.  The descent of darkness casts a deadening pall over the buildings and canals and campi; like a half-anaesthetised patient, your gaze passes over the shadowy forms without feeling the full anguish of imminent loss.  More importantly, as night falls, Venice itself disappears, to be replaced by another, more ghostly vision.

As proof of the disjunction between these two cities, even that passport to the Venice of light and colour, Lorenzetti, lies useless in your hands after twilight.  The world he describes is a world of distinct images; the paths he maps out for you are signalled by visual clues.  Venice by night does not recognise either the images or Lorenzetti’s definitive capture of them.  By night you can walk down the most familiar of alleys, cross the best-loved of campi, linger on the most memorable of bridges, and they will all be strangers to you.

Venice by night is a deeply claustrophobic city.  The lanes are dimly-lit, the campi are invisible without lights to show their extent, and canals are simply seamless rolls of the blackest cloth, pierced occasionally by the reflected moon.  In the darkness and the silence, the coffin-shaped gondolas seem to come into their own.  By day they look skulking and incongruous amidst the snub-nosed barges, the roaring motor launches and the brisk vaporetti; by night they are the undisputed aristocrats of the waters.

To be lost by day in Venice is richly rewarding: you discover unsuspected by-ways, secret corners.  Ultimately you will find a busy street, or at least a signpost to the Piazza San Marco.  After dark, no street is busy, and the signposts seem to be invisible.  To be lost in Venice by night brings out all the irrational fears in you, makes you too aware that this is an impossible city, great palaces and cathedrals built on rotting wooden stakes driven into the mud of a rising lagoon.

If you must leave Venice - and you must or you will be poisoned by its richness - leave it by night.  Then you are losing the dubious half-sister of the Venice you know; the other, daylight Venice remains intact, waiting for you.  Its uniqueness makes it paradoxically easier to leave than cities of lesser attractions: the least acquaintance engenders the certain knowledge that you will always return.

So in leaving this Venice of the night, I was not sad.  As the motor launch pulled away north, into the darkness, I gazed back.  The lights of that crazy, magical world gradually disappeared; it was as if the money were running out in a thousand coin-operated lighting systems all over the city.

Walks with Lorenzetti

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