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In the Light of Venice

The winter light in this city! It has the extraordinary property of enhancing your eye’s power of resolution to the point of microscopic precision—the pupil humbles any Hasselblad lens and develops your subsequent memories to National Geographic sharpness. The sky is brisk blue, the sun, escaping its golden likeness beneath the foot of San Giorgio, sashays over the countless fish scales of the lagoon’s lapping ripples; behind you, under the colonnades of the Palazzo Ducale, a bunch of stocky fellows in fur coats are revving up Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, just for you, slumped in your white chair and squinting at the pigeons’ maddening gambits on the chessboard of a vast piazza. The espresso at your cup’s bottom is the only small black dot in, you feel, a miles-long radius.

Such are the noons here. In the morning this light breasts your windowpane and, having pried your eye open like a shell, runs ahead of you strumming its lengthy rays—like a hot-footed schoolboy running his stick along the iron grate of a park or garden—along arcades, colonnades, red-brick chimneys, saints, and lions. “Depict! Depict!” it cries to you, either mistaking you for some Canaletto or Carpaccio or Guardi, or because it doesn’t trust your retina’s ability to retain what it makes available, not to mention your brain’s capacity to absorb it. Perhaps, you think, art is simply an organism’s reaction to its retentive limitations. At any rate, you obey the command and grab your camera, supplementing both your brain cells and pupils. As long as this city exists, as long as winter light shines upon it, Kodak shares are the best investment.

At sunset all cities look wonderful, but some more so than others. Reliefs become more supple, columns more rotund, capitals curlier, cornices more resolute, spires starker, niches deeper, disciples more draped, angels airborne. In the streets it gets dark but it is still day-time for Fundamente and that gigantic liquid mirror where motorboats, vaporetti, gondolas, dinghies, and barges like scattered old shoes zealously trample baroque and gothic façades, not sparing your own or a passing cloud’s reflections either. “Depict it,” whispers the winter light, stopped flat by the brick wall of a hospital or arriving home at the paradise of San Zaccaria’s fronton after its long passage through the cosmos. And you sense this light’s fatigue as it rests in Zaccaria’s marble shells for another hour or so, while the earth is turning its other cheek to the luminary. This is the winter light at its purest. It carries no warmth or energy, having shed them and left them behind somewhere in the universe or in the nearby cumulus. It’s particles’ only ambition is to reach an object and make it, big or small, visible. It’s a private light, the light of Giorgione and Bellini, not the light of Tiepolo or Tintoretto. And the city lingers in it, savoring its touch, the caress of the infinity whence it came. An object, after all, is what makes infinity private.

And the object can be a little monster, with the head of a lion and the body of a dolphin. The latter would coil, the former gnash its fangs. It could adorn an entrance or simply burst out of a wall without any apparent purpose, the absence of which makes it oddly recognizable—for, in a certain line of work, and at a certain age, nothing is more recognizable than a lack of purpose. The same goes for a fusion of two or more traits or properties, not to mention genders. On the whole, all these nightmarish creatures—dragons, gargoyles, basilisks, female-breasted sphinxes, winged lions, cerberuses, minotaurs, centaurs, chimeras—that come to us from mythology (which, by rights, should have the status of classical surrealism) are our self-portraits, in the sense that they denote the species’ genetic memory of evolution. Small wonder that here, in this city sprung from water, they abound. And the water, reflecting and refracting everything, including itself, alternates forms and substances, sometimes gently, sometimes monstrously. That’s what accounts for the quality of winter light here; that’s what explains the city’s fondness for little monsters, as well as for cherubs.

Monsters, however, command more of one’s attention. If only because this term has been hurled at one more frequently than the other; if only because one only gains wings in the air force. One’s guilty conscience would be enough to identify oneself with any of these marble, bronze, or plaster concoctions—with the dragon, to say the least, rather than San Giorgio. In a line of work involving the dipping of a pen into an inkpot one can identify with both of them. After all, there is no saint without a monster—not to mention the underwater origins of ink. But even without reflecting upon or refracting this idea, it is clear that this is a city of fish, caught and swimming around alike. And seen by a fish—endowed, let’s say, with a human eye, in order to avoid its own famous distortion—man would appear a monster indeed; not an octopus, perhaps, but surely a quadropus.

So you never know as you move through these labyrinths whether you are pursuing a goal or running from yourself, whether you are the hunter or his prey. Surely not a saint, but perhaps not yet a full-scale dragon; hardly a Theseus, but not a maiden-starved minotaur either. The Greek version rings, though, a better bell, since the winner takes nothing, since the slayer and the slain are related. The monster, after all, was the prize’s half brother; in any case, he was half brother to the hero’s eventual wife. Ariadne and Phaedra were sisters, and for all we know, the brave Athenian had them both. In fact, with an eye on marrying into the Cretan king’s family, he might have accepted the murderous commission to make the family more respectable. As granddaughters of Helios, the girls were supposed to be pure and shining; their names suggested as much. Why, even their mother, Pasiphaë, was, for all her dark urges, Blindingly Bright. And perhaps she yielded to the dark urges because she was interested in chiaroscuro, rather than in bestiality, and eclipsed the bull for purely optical reasons. And the fact that the bull, whose symbolismladen pedigree ran all the way back to cave paintings, was blind enough to mistake the artificial cow Daedalus built for Pasiphaë on this occasion is her proof that her ancestry still holds the upper hand in the system of causality, the Helios’ light, refracted in her, Pasiphaë, is still—after four children (two great daughters, and two good-for-nothing boys)—blindingly bright. As far as the principle of causality is concerned, it should be added that the main hero in this story is precisely Daedalus, who, apart from a very convincing cow, built—this time on the king’s request—the very labyrinth in which the bull-headed offspring and his slayer got to face each other one day, with disastrous consequences for the former. And the whole thing is Daedalus’ brainchild, the labyrinth especially, for it resembles a brain. Small wonder, then, that one’s meanderings through the streets of this city, whose biggest colony for nearly three centuries was the island of Crete, feels somewhat tautological, especially as light fades—that is, especially as its pasiphaian, ariadnan, and phaedran properties fail. In other word, especially in the evening, when one loses oneself to self-deprecation.

On the brighter side there are of course lots of lions: winged ones, with their books opened on “Peace upon you, Saint Mark,” or lions of regular feline appearance. The winged ones, strictly speaking, belong in the category of monsters, too. Given my occupation, however, I’ve always regarded them as a more agile and literate form of Pegasus, who can surely fly, but whose ability to read is somewhat more doubtful. A paw, at any rate, is a better instrument for turning pages than a hoof. In this city the lions are ubiquitous, and over the years I’ve unwittingly come to share this totem to the point of placing one of them on the cover of one of my books: the closest a man gets in my line of work to having his own façade. Yet monsters they are, if only because they are products of the city’s fantasy, since even in the nadir of this republic’s maritime might, it controlled no territory where this animal could be found even in its wingless state. (The Greeks were more on the dot with their bull, its neolithic pedigree notwithstanding.) As for the Evangelist himself, he of course died in Alexandria, Egypt—but of natural causes and he never went on a safari.

Their unfamilarity—better to say, their nonexistence—was what would unleash the ancients’ fantasy, enabling them to attribute to the animals various aspects of otherworldliness, including those of divine commerce. So it’s not entirely wild to have this animal sitting on Venetian façades in the unlikely role of the guardian of Saint Mark’s eternal repose; if not the church, then the city itself could be seen as a lioness protecting its cub. Besides, in this city, the church and state have merged, in a perfectly Byzantine fashion. The only case, I must add, where such a merger turned out—quite early on—to be to the subjects’ advantage. No wonder, then, that the place was literally lionized, that the lion itself got lionized, as well as humanized. On every cornice, over nearly every entrance you see either its muzzle with a human look or a human head with leonine features. In winter, they brighten one’s dusk.

Once in a dusk that darkened gray pupils but brought gold to those of the mustard-cum-honey variety, an owner of the latter and I encountered an Egyptian warship, a light cruiser, to be precise, moored at the Fondamenta della Arsenale, near Giardini. I can’t recall its name now, but its home port was definitely Alexandria. It was a highly modern piece of naval hardware, bristling with all sorts of antennae, radars, satellite dishes, rocket launchers, anti-aircraft turrets, etc., apart from the usual big-caliber guns. From a distance you couldn’t tell its nationality. Even close up you could be confused, because the uniforms and general deportment of the crew aboard were vaguely British. The flag was already lowered, and the sky over the Lagoon was changing from bordeau to dark porphyry.

As we marveled at the nature of the errand that brought this man-of-war here—a need for repairs? a new courtship between Venice and Alexandria? to reclaim the holy relic stolen from the latter in the twelfth century?—its loudspeakers suddenly came to life and we heard “Allah! Akbar Allah! Akbar!” The muezzin was calling the crew to evening prayer, the ship’s two masts momentarily turning to minarets. All at once the cruiser was Istanbul in profile. I felt that the map had suddenly folded, or the book of history had shut before my eyes. At least that it became six centuries shorter: Christianity was no longer Islam’s senior. The Bosphoros was overlapping the Adriatic, and you couldn’t tell which wave was which. This was no architecture.

On winter evenings the sea, welled by the contrary easterly, fills every canal to the brim like a bathtub, and at times overflows them. Nobody runs up from downstairs crying, “The pipes!” since there is no downstairs. The city stands ankle-deep in water, and boats, “hitched like animals to the walls” (to quote Cassiodorus), prance. The pilgrim’s shoe, having tested the water, is drying atop his hotel room’s radiator; the native dives into his closet to fish out his pair of rubber boots. “Aquaalta,” says a voice over the radio, and human traffic subsides. Streets grow empty, stores, bars, restaurants, and trattorias are closed. Only their signs are burning, finally getting a piece of the narcissistic action as the pavement briefly, superficially catches up with the canals. Churches, however, remain open, but then treading upon water is no news to either clergy or parishioners. Nor for music, water’s twin.

Seventeen years ago, wading aimlessly in one campo after another, a pair of green rubber boots brought me to the threshold of a smallish pink edifice. On its wall I saw a plaque saying that Antonio Vivaldi, prematurely born, was baptized in this church. In those days I was still reasonably redhaired; I felt sentimental about bumping into the place of baptism of that “red cleric” who has given me so much joy on so many occasions and in so many God-forsaken parts of the world. And I seemed to recall that it was Olga Rudge, the widow of Ezra Pound, who had organizeed the firstever Vivaldi settimana in this city—as it happens, just a few days before World War II broke out. It took place, somebody told me, in the palazzo of the Countess Polignac, and Miss Rudge was playing the violin. As she proceeded with the piece she noticed in the corner of her eye that a gentleman had entered the salone and stood by the door, since all the seats were taken. The piece was long, and now she was somewhat worried, because she was approaching a passage where she had to turn the page without interrupting her play. The man in the corner of her eye had started to move and soon disappeared from her field of vision. The passage grew closer, and her nervousness grew, too. Then exactly at the point where she had to turn the page, a hand emerged from the left, stretched to the music stand, and slowly turned the sheet. So she kept playing and, when the difficult passage was over, lifted her eyes to the left to acknowledge her gratitude. “And that,” Olga Rudge told a friend of mine, “is how I first met Stravinsky.”

So you may enter and stand through the service. The singing will be a bit subdued, presumably on account of the weather. If you can excuse it in this way, so, no doubt, will its addressee. Besides, you can’t follow it that well, whether it’s in Italian or Latin. So you just stand or take a pew in the rear and listen. “The best way to hear Mass,” Wystan Auden used to say, “is when you don’t know the language.” True, ignorance helps concentration on such occasions no less than the poor lighting from which the pilgrim suffers in every Italian church, especially in winter. Dropping coins into an illumination box while the service is in progress is not nice. What’s more, you often don’t have enough of them in your pocket to appreciate the picture fully. In the old days I carried with me a powerful, New York City Police Department issue flashlight. One way to get rich, I thought, would be to start manufacturing miniature flashbulbs of long duration, like those they mount on cameras. I’d call it “Lasting Flash,” or, better yet, “Fiat Lux,” and in a couple of years I’d buy an apartment somewhere in San Lio or Salute. I may even marry my partner’s secretary, which he doesn’t have because he doesn’t exist…. The music subsides; its twin, however, has risen, you discover upon stepping outside—not significantly, but enough for you to feel reimbursed for the faded chorale. For water, too, is choral, in more ways than one. It is the same water that carried the Crusaders, the merchants, Saint Mark’s relics, Turks, every kind of cargo, military or pleasure vessel; above all, it reflected everybody who ever lived, not to mention, stayed, in this city, everybody who ever strolled or waded its streets in the way you do now. Small wonder that it looks muddy-green in the daytime and pitch-black at night, rivaling the firmament. It even looks like musical sheets, constantly played, coming to you in tidal scores, in bars of canals with innumerable obbligati of bridges, mullioned windows, or curved crownings of Coducci cathedrals, not to mention the violin necks of gondolas. In fact, the whole city, especially at night, resembles a gigantic orchestra, with dimly lit music stands of palazzi, with a restless chorus of waves, with the falsetto of a star in the winter sky. The music is, of course, greater than the band, and no hand can turn the page.

A tear can be shed in this place on several occasions. Assuming that beauty is the distribution of light in the fashion most congenial to one’s retina, a tear is an acknowledgment of the retina’s, as well as the tear’s, failure to retain beauty. On the whole, love comes with the speed of light; separation, with that of sound. It is the deterioration of the greater speed to the lesser that moistens one’s eye. Because one is finite, a departure from this place always feels final; leaving it behind is leaving it forever. For leaving is a banishment of the eye to the provinces of the other senses; at best, to the crevices and crevasses of the brain. For the eye identifies itself not with the body but with the object of its attention. And to the eye, for purely optical reasons, departure is not the body leaving the city but the city abandoning the pupil. Likewise, disappearance of the beloved, especially a gradual one, causes grief no matter who, and for what peripatetic reason, is actually in motion. As the world goes, this city is the eye’s beloved. After it, everything is a letdown. A tear is the anticipation of the eye’s future.

Italy,” Anna Akhmatova used to say, “is a dream that keeps returning for the rest of your life.” It must be noted, though, that the arrival of dreams is irregular and their interpretation is yawn-inspiring. Furthermore, should dreams even be designated a genre, their main stylistic device would be no doubt the non sequitur. That at least could be a justification for what has taken place thus far in these pages. Also, that could explain my attempts in the course of all these years to secure that dream’s recurrence, manhandling my superego in the process no less savagely than my unconscious. To put it bluntly, I kept returning myself to the dream rather than the other way around. Sure enough, somewhere along the line I had to pay for this sort of violence either by eroding what constituted my reality or by forcing the dream to acquire mortal features, the way the soul does in the course of one’s lifetime. The reality suffered more, and often I would be crossing the Atlantic on my way home with a distinct feeling of traveling from history into anthropology. For all the time, blood, ink, money, and the rest that I shed or shelled here, I never could convincingly claim, even to myself, that I’d acquired any local traits, that I’d become, in however miniscule a manner, a Venetian. A vague smile of recognition on the face of an hotelier or a trattoria proprietor didn’t count; nor could anyone be deceived by the clothes I’d purchased locally. Gradually, I’ve become a transient, in either realm, with the failure of convincing the dream of my presence in it making it somewhat more disheartening.

That, of course, was familiar. Yet I suppose a case could be made for fidelity when one returns to the place of one’s love, year after year, in the wrong season, with no guarantee of being loved back. For, like every virtue, fidelity is of value only so long as it is instinctive or idiosyncratic, rather than rational. Besides, at a certain age, and in a certain line of work at that, to be loved back is not exactly imperative. Love is a selfless sentiment, a one-way street. That’s why it is possible to love cities, architecture, music, dead poets, or, given a particular temperament, a deity. For love is an affair between a reflection and its object. This is in the end what brings one back to this city—the way the tide brings the Adriatic and, by extension, the Atlantic and the Baltic. At any rate, objects don’t ask questions: as long as the elements exists, their reflection is guaranteed—in the form of a returning traveler or in the form of a dream, for a dream is the fidelity of the shut eye. That’s the sort of confidence our own kind is lacking, although we are part water.

Should the world be designated a genre, its main stylistic device would no doubt be water. Thought itself possesses a water pattern. So does one’s handwriting; so do one’s emotions, so does blood. And if we are indeed partly synonymous with water, which is fully synonymous with time, then one’s sentiment toward this place improves the future, contributes to that Adriatic or Atlantic of time which stores our reflections for when we are gone. Out of them, like out of frayed sepia pictures, time will perhaps be able to fashion, in a collage-like manner, a better version of the future than it would without them. This way one is a Venetian by definition because out there, in its equivalent of the Adriatic or Atlantic or Baltic, time-alias-water crochets or weaves our reflections into unrepeatable patterns, much like the withered old women dressed in black all over this littoral’s islands, forever absorbed in their eye-busting lacework. Admittedly they go blind or mad before they reach the age of fifty, but then they get replaced by their daughters and nieces. Among fishermen’s wives, Parcae never have to advertise for an opening.

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