Venice is the most photographed city in the world, so Venice is now unphotographable. I can no longer see pictures of Venice that I like and me myself have been taking very few lately. Because Venice has been photographically explored and exploited down to its bones.
I thought so until I have flipped through the book Dream of Venice - Architecture: the second volume of a collection curated by JoAnn Locktov and addressed to an international audience of lovers of this city. The texts of several architects and intellectuals including Tadao Ando, Mario Botta, Michele De Lucchi and Massimiliano Fuksas accompany the photos by the italian Riccardo De Cal. Riccardo is a friend, so this criticism could be tendentious or benevolent. Actually I know De Cal as a documentary filmmaker and not as a photographer. Seeing the quality of the images of his films, and knowing how much he cares about them I might have been sure about his photographic eye, but it’s always better to wait until you see.
What I was looking for in the photography Venice was an unfamiliar city, at least to my eyes. I wanted to see a brand new city and the one photographed by De Cal is just like that: unpublished or at least little known. There are of course famous places because Venice is also made of places like Piazza San Marco, the Basilica, the Doge's Palace, the Grand Canal. But its hidden places are the ones that really give flavor to those pictures: the Querini Stampalia, the Museum of Natural History, a detail of the Fenice. The details are the ones that are noticed less in a place like that, because the whole city is so surreal and alienating that the mind fails to process any other informations. The mind wanders bewildered and perched between the calli and the fondamenta. A place like this can not exist. Yet there she is.
I think that part of the amazement that Venice generates in visitors is due to the powerful dose of surrealism they are exposed to: streets made of water, the floating cars, the perfect silence broken only by isolated voices. Venice is a capsule of reality contained in the reality of the phenomenal world, but it is so different and unique as to be immeasurable and therefore incredible.
I rarely take photos of my loved ones. I can’t shoot my father or my mother. I do not know if it is because I fear to not do them justice or because I know them so well. Or maybe it’s because the photograph reveals more than what you see with your naked eyes. Shooting Venice is a little bit like photographing your loved ones: the relationship is too intimate and you are afraid of revealing too much. So I appreciate even more what De Cal was able to achieve. He photographed his own fears or his innermost thoughts. Some pictures are invaded by the fog: a Venice canceled or difficult to read, a kind of metaphor for something nebulous and unclear. Or something that you want to delete. A photo that I like very much is that one of Piazza San Marco, even if it seems impossible to see once more Piazza San Marco without being overwhelmed by boredom. Instead this San Marco is not only invaded by the fog: it is obliterated by fog. It is almost a visual negation of San Marco.
In the words of those who wrote of Venice in this book - in the words of many, not all of them - I found curiously more a reference to themselves that to the city. They spoke of Venice talking about when they went there for the first time, of how they lived the city as students or as workers. They wrote about what Venice gave them instead of the city itself. They were images reflected on Venice itself.
After all the only way to talk about Venice is of reflection (it is the city par excellence which contains itself and its dual, reflected in its waters). But it is not only double: it’s manifold. You can visit it by walking along the calli. You can see it from the top of its roof terraces, and that’s another Venice. You can navigate it by boat, and here it is yet another Venice.
These are not variations on the same theme, mind you: these are other scores, different melodies. Each speaks to a different part of each of us, or to all, together. It’s impossible to speak about Venice in an absolute sense, as an object different from our hearts. Venice will reveal why her surreal component puts you at ease: she is not a city like any other, you can lower your defenses and let you be embraced by her as a mother.
But that's when you find yourself alone in Piazza San Marco, or watching the bacino: you're in your own dream. Just you and Venice which is now a woman. Familiar and quiet. You can only be sincere with her; words would build false mechanisms. You look at her and she looks back at you. Now you see her for what she really is. You also try to take a picture but it is almost impossible: there is nothing familiar about those buildings or those calli. Everything is overturned, everything is in the wrong place. The land from which the palazzi arise is liquid and you float miraculously. Venice should not exist, yet she exists. You shouldn’t be there, but she welcomes you.
What did Venice tell you?
They should ask you this when you come back from Venice. Not what you saw, but what that city whispered to you. What she did tell you about yourself. Hard things, tough, honest, brutal things perhaps?
Venice has told you what you were able to listen: she took your measures, she told you what you're worth. Have you been able to bear the weight of the floating stones? Is your Cartesian logic still so strong?
Maybe it was just a dream. Maybe you really thought it was possible for old and new to coexist in the same place. You really thought that different centuries were just sons of different ages but of the same mother.
Venice knows you. You can lower your defenses: you are not dreaming.