I have been to Venice many times in my life, and I think my favorite moment is the approach. As the train pulls into Venezia Santa Lucia station I have the feeling that I have arrived. I feel as though I have arrived at the end of a pilgrimage, across the world, to another land, another era. It may have something to do with the fairytale beauty of this ancient archipelago, or it may stem from the sensation of a connection to the crusaders of the Middle Ages, a connection that is encouraged as I am plunged into another era the minute I walk through the front doors of the station. I feel as though I step into a time warp in Venice, arrived to defeat pirates and do business with the silk merchants from the East. And this time, because I had recently been to the exhibition, I felt as though I was stepping into the world of a Canaletto painting.
And then, always, after twenty-four hours in Venice, I approach exhaustion. It’s always the same: anticipation, celebration on arrival, followed by malaise. I don’t know why. I am guessing, but my usual fatigue, and this time, nausea, is no doubt related to being in the maze-like streets, going up and over bridge after bridge, and never coming any closer to my destination. Negotiating the streets is tiring, dizzying, the narrow passages make me feel hemmed in, as though I am in a struggle with my own sense of orientation, my own control over the steps that I take in search of a destination. In Venice I lose all sense of direction, orientation, and at times, my balance. When I step off the train at Santa Lucia, I sign an agreement: I am now at the mercy of the waterways, canals, bridges, islands, the lagoon, all of which follow a logic that was determined 1600 years ago. This time I watched young people especially, often those on their own, walking around reading the mapquest function on their iPhones; and judging by the number I saw either stopped or turning around to head in another direction, even Apple Inc cannot master this ancient maze. This must be what exhausts me: the constant dead ends, the futility of reading a map, having to turn around and go back, retrace my steps that, the second time around, seem to be walking completely different alleyways. But it is also the water that makes me sleepy and, at time, nauseous in Venice. The water is like a drug. There are no street lights, no sounds to keep me awake, no sound of cars, of sirens, of anything really. Just the noise of the water as it laps against the walls of sinking buildings at the end of the day.
Canaletto, Vista de Piazza San Marco, 1723.
And as I walk around these streets I remember all of the famous characters in film, fiction and theatre who have felt like me. I remember Gustav von Aschenbach from Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice who enters some kind of insanity in the stifling heat of summer. I remember Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland, the Baxters, in Nicolas Roeg’s brilliant Don’t Look Now and I remember the struggle between truth and justice, between Shylock and Antonio, between wrongdoing and Mercy, between Shylock and Portia, in The Merchant of Venice. None of these characters found it easy. They were all the subjects of this strange city. Venice is tinged with an undercurrent that pulls me to a deadening stop, somewhere in a nameless alley, somewhere I could have equally walked down a hundred times, or never before, I wouldn’t know.
My suspicions about the strangeness, the presence of a seething darkness underneath the waters of Venice, become confirmed when I wander past the shop fronts and I see, again and again, the fabrication, buying and selling of masks and costumes. The carnival of Venice seems to be an industry, not just for tourists, but for the locals as well. The year is spent preparing for carnival in February – making scary masks – but really the Venetians can wear masks from the celebration of Santo Stephano on December 28 through to Lent. With their black robes and their glass masks, the Venetians' preferred identity is anonymity. That’s creepy by any dime horror film standards. And the longer I spend wandering through the narrow alleys, the more palpable is the eeriness, the feeling of something dark lurking deep beneath the surface. The Venetians are not happy and open like their fellow countrymen and -women. It’s their reputation, but also their reality. The Venetians can be surly, sullen, monosyllabic. And when they are pleasant, they are direct, but not jovial or warm. As though too much gesture might break the glass on the mask.
No wonder I felt groggy in the past twenty-four hours in Venice. I was under the sway of the grotesque, the darkness, the mask that is placed over the whole city, not just those who inhabit it.
I was intrigued by the fact that everyone walks fast. You would think, given its physical beauty, its vibrant colours, its silences and gorgeous weather, that it would be natural to saunter, to stroll lazily through the maze of Venice. But no. There must be something about the narrow alleys that induce the speed of the step. Has no one noticed this? Architects must have. The narrower the space and the higher the walls on either side, the quicker the people walk. There is a sense of urgency that strikes me as counter to the experience we are all meant to be having when we visit Venice. It is as though by moving faster, the destination will reveal itself sooner.
Venice, photo courtesy Frances Guerin.
Venice has the reputation of being romantic. It is beautiful, mainly because of the water, which, like all natural elements, changes as the day passes. The colours of the water change together with its motion, dependent on the tides at different times of the day, different seasons of the year. Likewise, the colours of the buildings—whether Medieval, Byzantine, Gothic, or Moorish—change constantly throughout the day, as the water and the sun together make them glorious. There is something dreamy about the reds and yellows, the ochres and taupes, framed by a clear blue sky and the luminous green water. But all those writers and filmmakers know what they are talking about. Venice might be romantic, but the deep secrets of the waterways are heavy, foreboding, and out of grasp.
Over the years that I have been visiting Venice, I have seen the city sinking, inch by inch. The lower floors of some buildings have now been evacuated, closed up because they are made uninhabitable by the water. And this year I see the elevated walkways around Piazza San Marco have become a permanent fixture. The high tides, or Acqua alta, are either becoming higher and higher, or the city is sinking deeper and deeper into the world where it began, which gave it meaning: the Adriatic Sea. I notice the bell tower of the Basilica San Marco, the Campanile, is beginning to crack and has been fenced off, in the process of renovation. I wonder if the tower is facing the same fate as the stairways and first floors to the buildings that line the canals? Is it also sinking? I can’t fathom what might be so romantic about losing the ground beneath you. Where will the people go? Will it be a national disaster or a tourist inconvenience, when Venice is no longer visitable?
On my way to the Accademia that afternoon when I began to feel dizzy, nauseous, I only had one explanation. I sat on the steps of a fountain in a campo, in the sun and fell asleep for two hours. At the time, I didn’t know what came over me: was it the full moon which is almost here for Easter I wondered? But no, my instinct tells me that this is Venice, the city of eerie, inexplicable, dark forces.*
(image at top: A flooded Piazza San Marco, photo courtesy Frances Guerin. *This article was previously published on the authors blog, Fx Reflects, on March 30, 2013.)