*They gave the city the name Venetia as if to say Veni etiam – Come again!
Citta Noblisissima et Singolare – 1581
|Painted between 1580 and 1585 the fresco maps in the Gallery of the Maps in the Vatican represent the Papal States and other regions of Italy during the papacy of Gregory XIII (1572-1585). Venice was, of course, an independent Republic and often at odds with Rome and more than once under papal interdict.
I was chatting with my friend Marco the Napoletano a month or so ago and mentioning to him that over the past while I’ve been seized by a longing for Venice. The French have “envie” and the Italians “brama” both of which have a depth of meaning but for English I didn’t really couldn’t come up with one word that adequately expressed what I have been feeling other than longing. Craving? Hankering? Desire? Lust? Hmm not sure if all of those don’t in some way apply. Though I had been travelling in Europe since 1967, except for one brief stopover in Milan on my way from Aix-en-Provence to Salzburg in 1978, Italy was a country that just didn’t enter on my travel map until 18 years later. In 1996 a trip to Venice was my serious introduction to Italy; though of course Venice is no more Italy than Rome, Palmero, Napoli, Milan or Trento is Italy.
I was no stranger to the Venice of novels, operas, plays, movies and travel books – this was the place of music, art, warfare, debauchery and intrigue. It was the place of Monteverdi, Casanova, canals, gondole, La Fenice, the Lido and San Marco. It was a place I had visited time and time again as an armchair voyager but now I was going to confront the reality of all those images and impressions. I flew in from Ottawa via London to meet Laurent who was coming in from Amman and as I looked out the aircraft window there in the bright sunlight was the lagoon and its many islands dominated by that great winding inverted S curve of the Grand Canal and what I immediately recognized as the Campanella in Piazza San Marco. As with all things dreamt about there was a certain sense of apprehension; I remember thinking, well I’m either going to love or hate this place.
As I struggled with my suitcase over the cobblestone and narrow bridges from the dock at the Giardinetti Reali to our hotel beside the burnt out shell of La Fenice – despite fatigue (I had been on the road for over 20 hours at that point), hunger and jet lag – I felt that somehow this place would not disappoint. Within a few hours I had succumbed to the pull La Serenissima has exerted on travellers for over a thousand years. And four more visits over the next 16 years has done nothing to lessen that pull.
Now Marco being from Napoli has a natural aversion to much that is above the Great Apennine Tunnel (and even that may be pushing boundaries) so it came as no surprise to find out last summer that an impending vacation would be the first time he had been to Venice in his life. On his return he told me how much he – I think to his surprise – loved La Serinisima; and as he said in our chat “it is such a romantic city” and he is right, particularly when you are seeing it, as he did, with someone you care about. That is not to say that Venice cannot be enjoyed on your own, just that perhaps it is a place best shared with others – lovers and friends. And if you can’t share it in person then some of its magic can still be captured in pictures and words. And so many pictures have been painted or been taken and countless words written in an effort to capture “Venetia”.
So why this sudden “longing” to once again see Venice and to compulsion to revisit old photos and memories? Blame it on those words! In late April as I was trying to put some semblance of order into my books and discovered that I probably have more books about Venice – travel, anecdotal, historical and fiction than any other place on the plant. I started rereading The Stones Revisited, Sarah Quills’ distillation of John Ruskin’s The Stones of Venice: an exhaustive three volume study of the architecture of the Republic as Ruskin found it on his frequent visits in the early 1800s. He wanted to record in drawings and words the many buildings he feared would be destroyed by the occupying Austrian the way that he felt the artists of the Renaissance had destroyed the majesty of the Gothic island Republic – physically, spiritually and morally. Putting aside the Christian outrage he felt, his details are incredible – both graphically and verbal. And despite his fears most of what he records still stands today – often the only changes being those created by the natural element that both gives Venice its glory and its despair – the Adriatic and the man-made element that give its citizens mostly despair – the local government!
Then I came across Jane Turner Hyland’s Venetian Stories – a series of interconnected short stories that caused a bit of a stir in Venice when it was first released – apparently realty was often thinly veiled as fiction and tales were being told. It was also suggested that perhaps Hyland, who has lived in Venice for many years, had a few scores to settle and had decided to do it in non-libel fiction. I had intended to pick up her second book, Across the Bridge of Sighs when it was first published but just never got around to. However it was easily enough found on Kindle (I finally gave in and started reading e-books, not quite the same as holding a real book in your hand but easier for those bus rides in the morning). Hyland continued the stories of many of the people she introduced in Venetian Stories – though I was sad to see that one of her more intriguing characters, the aging gondelieri Volpon, had died at the hands of an inept Italian medical system. In the first book Hyland’s pen dripped a fair bit of acid but time has diluted some of the vitriol that had coloured her first book. Though she does a fair job on several of the more objectionable parvenus her stories could have done with a bit more of that acid and some pruning from a less indulgent editor. But I was happy to see that Contesssa Panfili had, in one of the more touching episodes, made peace with a Venice that was no longer the place of her youth. Strangely much like Ruskin, Hyland and her characters often seem to be celebrating and mourning a Venice that has been changed by another element that is both its boon and bane – the constant flux of tourists clogging its streets as they pour money into its coffers.
And often in Donna Leon’s mysteries the constant parade of day-trippers – hotels are so expensive these days in Venice that it is cheaper, though very inconvenient, to stay in Mestre and bus or train it over – are often as much of a source of irritation to Inspector Guido Brunetti, his family, friends and colleagues as the murders that seem to happen with alarming frequency in their home town. I had gone off Leon for a while, her writing had become a bit too dark and at times almost preachy. But I now realize that much of her disdain and despair for what was happening in Venice in particular and Italy in general was justified. These are attitudes shared by many Italians and people, like myself, who love Italy. Her two most recent novels – is it possible numbers 20 and 21 in the series? – still deal in murder, corruption, a crippling bureaucracy and a Venice beset by problems of bad government, a declining populations and increasing numbers of tourists but with a less heavy hand than the previous three or four.
Drawing Conclusions and Beastly Things include her cast of familiar regulars – Guido, his wife Paola, the enigmatic (though less cold with each story) Signora Elettra, his colleague Vianello and even, dare I say it, the pompous and much-despised Vice-Questore Patta have all grown into fully-realized people since Death at La Fenice back in 1992. And that is what makes Leon so readable – her characters, even the murder victims, have a life of their own. Not that she has given up on the social issues that beset Italy – and indeed much of the Western World. Drawing Conclusions centres on the problems of care for the elderly in a world where the social net has been strained or is broken and Beastly Things begins with a short episode that brings the horror of dealing with a much loved spouse dead before their time with Alzheimer’s tragically to life. But along with the tragic we get the joyful and the quietly thoughtful – Brunetti’s relationship with his family, his musings as he wanders the rias of Venice, the strange, unspoken and often strained bonds between colleagues and in Beastly Things one of the most devastatingly bittersweet conclusions to any novel that I’ve read in a long time. I’m back on a Leon kick and will be more than happy when she produces number 22 and I can revisit Venice through the good Inspector’s eyes.
In the meantime, until I can return to Venice to wander the campi, stop off at della Madonna for polenta with sepe and take an overpriced late night drink in front of the glorious stage set that is San Marco, I will have to settle down with one of the many other books that line my shelves. The word for the moment will have to do – until it can be made flesh. Though I’m not at all sure that “longing” can be truly satisfied until I have that coupe of pistachio gelato at Cafe San Stefano sitting in front of me.
02 September – 1666: The Great Fire of London breaks out and burns for three days, destroying 10,000 buildings including St Paul’s Cathedral.