Canalsick in Venice
On gorging on La Serenissima in pre-pandemic times
My first visit to Venice was part of a 3-week trip to Italy that I took with my new boyfriend.
Before arriving for the first time, I was pretty sure I knew what I was buying into. Canals and balconies, Shylock on the Rialto, romance, and damp. Venice was a renaissance movie set. I’d seen the pictures, I knew what it looked like, and I supposed it was one of those places you had to see at least once in real life. But I was sure that once would be enough. Everybody loves Venice. Venice is beautiful. See Venice. Ride in a gondola. Tick.
I was far more excited about Florence. I was a Forster fangirl once. I wanted ‘a room with a view’ and to have a Baedeker and to get lost without it. I was an impressionable teen when Helena Bonham Carter fainted from beauty outside Santa Croce. I wanted to picnic on the hills of Fiesole and do something to scandalise the etiquette of the day. (I did, but privately, hidden from the city.)
I was thirsty for the rest of Tuscany too, with its olive groves and vigneti and ribbons of cypress trees on the undulating horizon. I anticipated the medieval skyscrapers of San Gimignano, the magical walled hilltop city, and the Campo of Siena, the name itself evoking something of stepping into a golden-stone-coloured otherworld.
I was dying to see Verona, and walk around imagining Montagues and Capulets facing off across the piazze, wondering which wall Romeo might have scaled. Shakespeare himself probably never visited, but I wanted to layer his fiction on the stone pavimenti. The balcony, I knew, would be a postmodern construct of life-as-art. I’d read about the graffiti and the love notes, that someone else had once layered their idea of the fiction on to the built city, had said ‘This could have been it.’ If anything, perhaps, I wanted to experience the idea of a city with a story imposed upon it. And Verona had the opera too, in the wide-open Roman arena — where I would have my first (and still only) experience of real opera — where better? (The spectacle of The Barber of Seville was only bettered by the rainstorm that broke behind the backdrop of the stage, filling the sky and dwarfing the colourful set, sending us to the refuge of the Irish pub as soon as we had heard Figaro’s Aria).
Even Padua appealed more. Shylock may have been the merchant of Venice, but his torturer, Portia’s imaginary lawyer, travelled from Padua. I liked the idea of Portia as the feminist hero, to some, of the play; that she had to clear up the mess the boys had made. (Mind you, now I like her less, what with her letting the boys off the hook of their exploitation.) For another thing, we were the type of travellers for whom a visit to the Scrovegni Chapel to see the origin story of renaissance art was essential. Not some mere Grand Canal gawkers.
Venice? Sure, let’s see Venice. Everyone goes to Venice.
If I stand on the bridge between Fondamenta Venier and Fondamenta Bragadin, I can look ahead to where the Rio di San Vio meets the Giudecca Canal.
I cross a bridge and stop on the canal’s line of symmetry. The notebook rests comfortably on the wall as I stake my claim to the vantage point.
At the end of the small calle I just left behind, tiny triangular petals of lilac litter the ground under a cascade of wisteria. Beside them, a group of Venetians have paused for a quick greeting. A woman in a high-vis jacket pushes a large metal cart in front of her. An elderly woman in dark clothes and dark glasses is pushed in a wheelchair by a younger woman wearing boxfresh white trainers and with hair neatly braided. The older woman calls out to ‘Tony! Tony!’ Tony is middle-aged and carries well-worn confidence, and holds what could well be a perma-cigarette between his fingers.
They chat briefly but two of them have to get back to work. The younger woman pushes the older away, even as she’s still talking, until she’s prompted by her seated companion with a ‘Ciao, Daniella!’
Occasional tourists pass on the ground, one sleek water taxi passes under me with a family holding cameras aloft, but otherwise, at this time in the morning, it’s a street for living in. A man in bright green t-shirt and darker green gilet pulls a laden cart behind him. The rhythmic dips in his paces show me it’s an onerous task, despite the wheels. He stops at a door which must surely be the back of a restaurant, and unloads, with the help of an unseen person within, the boxes of food and cartons of milk and juice. He’s followed by a man hefting large rolls of paper towel on his shoulder. The invisible kitchen is recovering from the night before, preparing for the day ahead.
The high-vis jacket woman is joined by a colleague with another metal cage on a cart. They wash out the insides of the waste collection carts — with ‘Keep Venice Clean’ on the side, I see what they are now — and roll them through a doorway to another hidden Venetian space.
The deep opaque green below runs towards the Giudecca Canal, flowing from gentle ripples to choppier, bouncing waters. Two long barges pass beneath. The first is rusty and green, an industrial vessel, although it glides neatly under the medieval bridges and between the chic domestic speedboats that line the canal. Its centre is a wide grey compactor, containing cardboard and paper waiting to be recycled. It’s followed by a rusty red barge, this one loaded with crates of beer bottles and soft drinks. The drayman on the water.
Two more yellow jackets arrive to deposit their emptied carts. There are four of them now, chatting on the fondamenta, their morning’s work ended, the city decluttered. Decompressing, they talk for a few more moments, then go their separate ways, dispersing down the calli.
Shit gets done in Venice like anywhere else. People are busy. Stuff is messy. Machines compact garbage. There is traffic, and physical labour. Where we see serenity, they just get on with it. Oh, the serenity of collecting garbage with a cart instead of a truck.
Oh, the serenity of delivering beer from a barge.
Oh, the serenity, when you’re driving the cherry picker or the crane or the cement mixer on canals, held aloft by the solidity of the water, floating instead of being weighted down.
They would laugh at me. They would scoff at our romanticism.
But still, their souls must be different from ours. Working in the quiet, held up by the Adriatic waters, getting it done, but without the frantic friction of tyres on tarmac.
In 2007, my boyfriend was out to impress. He arranged for the water taxi to take us the long way round the Grand Canal from the station, before it dropped us at the private jetty of our former palazzo hotel. I was in the postcard; I was on the movie set. (Reader, I married him.)
Still, that moment is not the vivid memory I hold of Venice.
It’s the very experience of being in the city, enclosed by lagoon, driven by canal, that makes it special, rather than any one feature of it. What you see in Venice, in terms of sights and buildings, you can see elsewhere. The Rialto is not unlike the Ponte Vecchio over the Arno in Florence. The remarkable art of the renaissance is spread across Italy, and other parts of Europe, its story told not just in Venice. The scale of the Basilica San Marco is matched in Paris, Rome, Barcelona, Saragoza, Istanbul…
But that moment of standing in an empty campo, in a finite, finished city, and washed with light reflected from the shallow Adriatic waters — that moment where you suddenly realise there are no roads, no rumbling weighed-down vehicles — that moment when you hear the silence — is unique to Venice.
And the great paradox of modern Venice is that it is so very easy to have that moment. Don’t tell anyone, but it can take as few as 20 paces away from the crowded corridors between Rialto and San Marco and the Accademia to have that moment. Why do the thousands upon thousands of daily visitors not wonder where they can find that Venice? I don’t know, but let’s not shout about it too loudly. Let them shuttle back to their floating hotels in time for sunset and leave it for the rest of us.
Sometimes it rains, and the people all scuttle to their hotel, or back to the ports, and you get to enjoy the light all to yourself. You can stand on the Ponte dell’Accademia and just be there, without having to fight through a forest of selfie sticks just to get to the other side. The view from there out towards the tip of Dorsoduro is the most iconic Venice panorama. Ironically, those are not the most famous buildings, not by name anyway: the Dogana de Mar, the former customs house, now an art space hosting modern art exhibitions, and the Santa Maria della Salute, with its imposing dome, its unusual octagonal interior, and its dramatic origin story of celebrating Venice’s deliverance from the wave of plague that hit in 1630. I doubt that many people who’ve taken those selfies have ventured out there to investigate the buildings themselves, although many will have got as far as the Guggenheim, for the famously serene home of the collection of modern art by Peggy Guggenheim — one of history’s more stylish expats.
Crossing the Ponte dell’Accademia has become something of my own during my last two trips to Venice — something that belongs to me. It’s been the way ‘home’ — to our writing retreat accommodation at the Centro Culturale Don Orione Artigianelli. Crossing the bridge from the sestiere San Marco, I would turn left and take Rio Terrà Foscarini (instead of turning right and entering the Accademia). Then, while the rest of the crowds turned left onto Calle Nuova Sant’Agnese to find the Guggenheim, I would continue ahead. A few tourists might be doing the same, but with the purpose of heading straight for the Giudecca Canal ahead, rejoining more crowds on the Zattere Ai Gesuati. But in this short section of the street, once a canal, now filled-in, I could feel like a local. It’s as simple as not turning left. There are a couple of hotels and restaurants down here, but otherwise the street branches off into the unassuming Camp Sant’Agnese. There’s an accordion player, perhaps the rudest busker in Italy. But he’s our neighbour; he’s always there. There’s an elegant wispy lady who walks her dog here every morning. The takeaway home-made pasta place across the road has a steady clientele, of visitors rather than locals, but visitors who are here long enough to know that not every meal has to be a canalside dish of squid-ink spaghetti and Aperol spritz, or else who have stuff to do once they’ve eaten: students, interns, writers and artists.
Spending that much time in Venice is like a binge. You gorge on a sugar-spun fantasy of art, architecture, coloured houses and coloured glass.
In some ways, it’s that easy to feel at home in Venice. Most of the 60,000–70,000 daily visitors are day-trippers: some because they are staying in cheaper accommodation on the mainland, but mostly nowadays because they are cruise ship passengers, ticking off a list of must-sees in the space of a few hours.
Even those staying on the Venetian islands themselves are there for just a few days. If you’re ‘doing’ Europe or Italy, then 3–4 days is enough to see the main sights, enough time and money to spend on one place.
So to be spending a full week in Venice, and to stay in the same place where I’ve previously spent a full week, enough to get to know the neighbours, at least by sight, and to be there to do something, to learn, to work, to write, to create…well, part of me feels I can claim Venice to myself. I would cross the bridge, tut at the preoccupied tourists, complete the routine by shouting ‘Allo!’ back to the accordionist so that he’d leave me alone, and be home. That week is long enough that yes, a corner of Venice — Dorsoduro — becomes home.
In 2007 MT would say, ‘Let’s go home,’ and I would think he wanted to end the holiday, until I realised, and would correct him, ‘Oh, you mean go back to the hotel.’ Even then, home was one place for me, maybe two. And even then, for him, home was people, the place of his heart. Today, my heart has many homes, in many places and in many people. In Dorsoduro, home is a set of faces, and voices, that feel like family, and a place where I feel lifted up, held aloft, just as the water holds up the city’s activity and keeps it moving. It is a place to belong.
But if I went back next week?
Please, no…I just couldn’t. I’m not ready for the cultural sugar rush. Spending that much time in Venice is like a binge. You gorge on a sugar-spun fantasy of renaissance art, architecture, coloured houses and coloured glass; baroque music, the wonder of a floating city, the sense of history on every corner, in every calle. The light in Venice is like a freshening shower at first. It comes up from the lagoon itself, a reflection that can exist nowhere else. But in the narrowest of calli the light can only just reach in. You walk in and out of the reflected water, and the city becomes a living chiaroscuro. Its contrasts can exist nowhere else, and no wonder the city’s greatest artist is a master of those contrasts.
The contrast between enriching, lifted light, and the secretive shadows where inky water quietly laps beneath your feet in the middle of the night.
The chiaroscuro of noise, diverging away from frenetic crowds to whispering, watery, empty corners.
The intensity and fragility of the art and the history and the beauty, being held up by devastating waters that reflect the beauty while seeping into its cracks.
In and out of the light. Up and down on the water. Up and over the bridges. Weaving amongst the people. Wanting to own the beauty but knowing that you have to leave it there.
The neighbour who walks her dog, that lady of the calli who watches her little companion do what he needs to every morning, barely aware of the wall of strangers that passes behind her, along the Giudecca Canal, the floating monolithic hotel full of visitors about to descend on her home.
The high maintenance princess that is La Serenissima…even as I breathe deep the calm of the canals, I’m acutely aware of the work, the never-ending work, and cost and sacrifice of keeping the water out of the walls, the Sisyphean battle to keep Venice dry. I could never live here and become the steward who has to shoulder that burden. It’s enough to induce motion sickness; it leaves me dazed and drained.
On Easter Sunday morning, I went to the Accademia. To be there without any crowds was too good an opportunity to pass up. Most people were at church, if only, for some, to see what Venice looks like when it celebrates Pasqua. But a few were like me, visiting a temple to the resurrection of Western culture.
Except the irony is that one would perhaps never have existed without the other. There’s a reason renaissance art is dominated by Christian subjects. Whenever I visit Italian churches, as an atheist, I can’t escape the ever-present fact: this art we elevate, this art that is called the Renaissance because it represented the rebirth of all that is considered beautiful and talented and enlightened in Western culture following the dark ages — it exists because of the church. It was funded by Christians who wanted to show off how their wealth could help them worship, help them get to heaven. Our enlightened art, enabled by a set of superstitions.
Bellini: Check it! I’ve done a whole series of the Virgin Mary and Baby Jesus! This should help me sell some work to those money-merchants who are so desperate to prove how holy they are!
Every other artist in 1500ish: Same.
Turning up at the Scuola Grande de San Rocco brings me to an unassuming campo, shaded and shadowed by the Scuola itself on one side, and the back of the towering Basilica dei Frari on the other, its plain Franciscan facade of bricks looming like a factory, no hint of divinity in its structure. Here in this corner of San Polo there are no canals in sight — they’re close, but there’s no flowing water to soften the visual impact of the stone frontage of the Scuola. I’m here to see Tintoretto’s masterpiece, described by the guidebook (not a Baedeker, but a Rough Guide on my Kindle app) as ‘astounding’ and many other overwhelming superlatives. Inside the ground floor, I’m underwhelmed. The paintings that line the walls between the stone columns are impressive, sure. I don’t quite connect with Tintoretto’s work the way I do with that of other Renaissance artists — too much darkness. The light, of course, is there, that’s the point. But you have to look for it. Your eye has to find it and settle on it to find the detail. It doesn’t lift the spirit the way Venice’s lagoon-light does. But I can appreciate the detail, the expression, the drama, and the modernity of it.
But it’s when I take the broad marble staircase to the upper floor that the guidebook’s description makes sense. Leaving behind a relatively unadorned pale marble hall, dotted with canvases, suddenly I’m dwarfed by art, in an enormous space with painting and pattern and carving on every surface. No expanse of wall has gone unembellished. The ceiling is a tessellated chequerboard of art after art after art, the idea repeating itself beyond my upward peripheral vision. It’s a feast for the eyes alright. You gorge and digest and gorge some more. An art binge, a colour binge, a narrative binge: bible stories and the history of the Scuola, more stories than the brain can hold on to at one time.
And there has to be room to remember that the art exists thanks to the fear of illness and death. San Rocco (from France actually, so St Roch) was considered a protector against the plague — a canny choice for the merchants setting up this scuola. Such was the fear of the plague, that it’s the amassing of huge gifts for this saint that funded the building and its art.
Venice has an intimate history with the plague. Contained and finite as the city is, its residents were a captive host for the infection. The plague was spread by rats and humans, but I can’t help thinking that the water helped it flow, enabled it with the right conditions, simultaneously keeping the people in a holding pattern. That damp is dangerous. It’s hard not to think about it again and again as I pass through the canals: I admire the ingenuity of building on water, of creating a fluid existence between commerce and canal, the very brazenness of building a city on a swamp in a lagoon, and with it creating what was once one of the world’s commercial hubs, drowning in money; and then I see how the water will seep into it all, will dampen the foundations, will hasten entropy, will, ultimately, submerge and immerse.
Venice is stunning. It’s delicious. It’s sinking. It’s sickening.
Once I’ve gorged on it all, and tried to contain all the contrasts, hold them together in the same set of thoughts, the soul is rocking, seasick. There’s too much pitching and listing.
There’s too much movement.
Of course I’ll come back to Venice. Just, not too soon. I need time on land, on solid ground, where things are steady and banal. I need to let my stomach settle.
But my boys want to see the city where the roads are water, and I want to show them the light, the art, the history, the silence of the calli. When I go back, I’ll be ready to gorge again. I’ll feel the paradoxical solidity of being held up by the opaque waters, and I’ll bring my boys to the spaces I’ve felt lifted up and effortlessly floating. I’m not the type of parent who’s too virtuous to give them a glorious, dizzying sugar rush.