[written Spring 2006? or 2007?]
Yesterday I took a walking tour around Venice with Jan, her son Chris and daughter Katie, and her brother Glen. Despite the grey sky, through which a glimpse of sun only occasionally broke through, and an intermittent spatter of rain, we hit some high notes, as it is almost impossible not to do, took a few breaths away, dropped a few tears of dazzlement and wonder, and covered a ridiculous amount of territory, the fault for which is mine, being, as ever, overly ambitious.
Every walk around Venice is different although all of them are basicially the same. You have, first of all, a group of people with various interests, whose buttons are pushed by different things — for good or ill — and who bring their own unique sensibility to the recognition and appreciation of the unique landscape that Venice offers. A simple ride on the vaporetto presents a dazzling array of responses. The questions come from all directions and are wide-ranging and unpredictable. And although I have become more familiar with the responses of adults, this time it was the children who provided the most challenging and fascinating glimpses.
Jan is a friend of Denise, Denise is a friend of my niece, Laura; they are old friends, childhood friends. Jan is an elementary school teacher who taught all of Denise’s children; her husband’s work brought him to the Veneto. This was not Jan’s first trip, nor will it be her last. You can tell. She’s gotten the bug, that strange and delirious infection with the unique music of the Venetian mise-en-scene. It was, however, the first time for her brother Glen, and for Chris and Katie.
Walking, the questions come from all sides, in volleys, and can be about anything, really, and everything, from “who is buried in that tomb” to “where do you eat lunch” to “why are you here” and “what are you doing here?” These last are, actually, the most difficult to answer. Either I know who’s buried in the tomb or I don’t; but why I am here and what I’m doing here are questions with no easy answers, they are moving targets, and most certainly fall under the rubric of “work in progress,” the answers at best approximate and variously dependent on the weather — emotional and physical — and one’s state of affairs. There is nothing stable or established in my being here; like all improvisations, the next movement, even the next phrases, are often unknown, barely visible.
It was hard for me to stop feeling like a tourist and confront Venice as place where I had to figure out how to live. Giving these tours lets me straddle the uneasy space, one foot in each world, and share what I’ve learned while I struggle to grasp the difference between visiting somewhere, and living there.
Jan had already tasted Venice, loved the taste, and wanted an opportunity to get an insider’s view — my view, what I have discovered by living here. She had read many of these scribblings, via Denise, and felt a sympathetic vibration. She was tuned like a virtuoso instrument to the peculiar tones of Venice; and as we walked from place to place, the range of her expressions was, for the most part, a narrow one– from joy to exaltation — a narrow range, but an ecstatic one.
Glen, on his first trip to Europe, had been first to Rome and Florence. Venice, viewed from that perspective, is a strange proposition; it is so much smaller, so much more idiosyncratic, the important names — except for San Marco — so much less familiar. What do most people know of Venice? Piazza San Marco, the Bridge of Sighs, and gondolas. Although leagues ahead of the general day tourist in Venice, when Glen made comparisons — which it was necessary to do simply to process the information — one could tell that after the dazzle and splendor of Rome, and the Florentine concatenation of great names, Venice was a more peculiar proposition, more idiosyncratic, something of a Byzantine puzzle.
Looking up at the ceiling of San Giorgio Maggiore or the Frari, he couldn’t help but comment that the white plaster seemed so bare after the technicolor splendor of the Sistine Chapel or Florence’s Duomo. It takes a different sensibility to slip into the space occupied by Venetian renaissance and baroque conventions. A chat about the death of frescoes by wet salt sea air in this island city makes sense intellectually, but it is, after all, more than just about the weather; necessity is the mother both of invention and of aesthetics. Here, where the frescoes were eaten alive by the very air, oil on canvas took their place, and in this medium came the dazzling light and jewelled colors of the Venetian renaissance: Carpaccio, Bellini, Tiziano, Tintoretto, Veronese.
The children, on the other hand, Chris and Katie, 13 and 10, with no immediate frame of reference (although they were obviously well-prepared, arrestingly so) and the kind of vague and intense expectations children have, approached the city with that distinct blend of curiosity, openness, of wonder and magic, that is the secret of childhood and which we all need to strive to remember and stay in touch with. Certainly they were bothered by the frequently cold wind, the gusts of rain, the “now let’s go here, now let’s go there” locomotive the adults powered and I led, and certainly not immune to the allure of gelato and model cars — and I knew, from touring Venice with my own son at the age of twelve in 1990, what that was all about — you could sense the moments when they were suddenly dazzled to distraction by — and it differed for each — something specific and concrete that catapulted them outside all of their expectations and into the realm of the sublime.
And some of the conversations I had with Chris and Katie provided me with some of my own best momentary insights into what this city, what these buildings and these ancient stones and paintings mean.
We met at Piazzale Roma, taking the 82 vaporetto around Tronchetto and down the Guidecca Canal, toward San Giorgio Maggiore. I thought a trip to the top of the Campanile there might be a good start for the day. A trip down the Grand Canal can be more dazzling, but Jan and Glen had already done that the night before, and Chris and Katie would certainly be doing it again, so I opted for a more contextual entry to our inevitable starting point.
Besides, I prefer San Giorgio’s campanile to its more famous sister in Piazza San Marco. I find the view more complete, with a sense of just how Venice is situated in the lagoon, protected from the Adriatic by Lido and surrounded by clusters of smaller islands, narrow navigable channels, broad sand bars and bricole that mark the way through the shoals and sandbars.
Stepping into San Giorgio Maggiore for the first time, thanks to the monumental genius of Palladio, is a humbling experience. The vast space is splendid in the truest sense of the word, with its harmonious vaults, the musical placement of niches and altars, the simple grey and white stone pallette, and then the ravishing marble parquet of the floors.
Jan was, quite simply, overwhelmed; Glen, fresh from St. Peter’s in Rome, was finding a personal context for this seemingly vastly unadorned space. The kids, quiet, struggling with how to both respond and behave in this grave and imposing space, took a while to adjust, and then focused on details as kids will– carvings, grotesque and angelic, the marble patterning on the floor, the height of the dome and the incredible carved wood of the choir stalls.
“So old,” they murmured– and not for the last time. “It’s all different,” and “it’s all done by hand!!!” — frequent motifs during the day. These simple apprehensions are the keys to slipping into the space where one can appreciate the wonders of the past that still exist in our prefab world. Chris, studying the renaissance in school had it all down before hand — the place of the renaissance in history, its revival of classical forms. That mastering of ideas — of book-learning, as it were, is one thing. But to touch the stone and get close to the woodwork of the choir stall and see the effect of the light through the clerestory windows on the stone floors and the marble altars and the paintings on the wall, is to experience it, to understand it not only with our sophisticated and educated nervous systems, but with our hearts and our souls, at which children excel.
And, impatient for more, they were ready to go up into the camapanile. The monk who sold us our tickets to the elevator spoke English with a slightly German accent. He wore a dark robe and wire rimmed glasses; balding like me, with a short white beard and an impish sense of humor, he recognized us immediately as American, chatting up the kids about New York. “Yes, very cold in winter,” he said. “But I stayed with my sister, my BIG sister, and she warmed it up, my big HOT sister, yes, she warms it up alright.”
One the way to San Zaccaria I led them through the lobby of the Danieli Hotel. Although it may have equals, there is none better; it’s jaw-droppingly Venetian, this 14th century marble extravaganza, its gilt ceilings hung with flowered Murano glass chandeliers, its marble stairway still waiting for someone out of Proust, the duchesse de Guermantes, perhaps, to descend, draped in Fortuny and carrying a feathered fan. It was great place to warm up. Chris splayed on one of the couches while Jan and Katie examined the tea service and menu, where, for starters, a cocktail is €16.
I had hoped that San Zaccaria would be open; the Bellini altarpiece there being one of the finest to be seen anywhere; but it wasn’t open, and so we headed to San Marco from behind.
The Piazza was packed solid, and although it was difficult to walk around to the front of the basilica, the line to actually go in was surprisingly short. It never ceases to amaze me how these dense hordes of tourists hit the piazza and stand about, here for some impenetrable reason; they chat, take pictures, look at their feet, at the pigeons, at their friends, at anything but the buildings surrounding them, figuring out where they will go next — McDonald’s or pizza? — or talking on their cellphones or looking at what everyone else is doing. It was just as well they stayed in the piazza while we went inside the basilica.
The basilica, of course, overwhelms. For everything I pointed out to Chris and Katie, they pointed out something to me, either in the form of a question or a mere observation.
The cavernous space of the basilica dwarfed Chris; the multiple domes amazed him.
After getting over the shock of all that gold, he was cofounded. “They didn’t have computers, or calculators when they built this. They had to do it all by hand.”
At any age, that can be a startling realization. We are used to seeing a building go from foundation to roof in a matter of months, a year, two at most. It is hard to grasp that two or more generations of craftsmen might be born, work a lifetime, and die while the building which absorbed their life and their energy was scarcely halfway toward completion. In the museum on the upper level of the basilica, the character of the labor and the intricacy of the work were recurring themes. A small and dwindling cadre of craftsmen remains who alone are capable of restoring these irreplaceable places from the ravages of time, while the notable features of the buildings of our time is their size and particularly their height. Except in rare instances there is no workmanship on their exteriors and precious little in the interiors. That is part of the childlike wonder we experience stepping into these landmark spaces that have managed to survive.
I understood what Katie meant when, standing on the balcony of the basilica, facing the Doge’s Palace, Katie said, “It’s still here. Nothing bad happened. That’s so great.” There was both wonder and trepidation in her voice. She was five when the World Trade Towers collapsed under attack. She meant exactly what she said.
Later, after lunch, we popped into Tonolo, the bakery with, I believe, the best pastries in Venice. In the mornings and early afternoon, it is usually mobbed; people three deep along the glass display cases and deeper back by the counter where coffee is served. We had eaten a late lunch and by the time we got to Tonolo it was nearly empty which is a mixed blessing, wonderful becase there is plenty of room, but often at those times the pastries are depleted. The windows near the door were fairly empty; some of my favorites, such as the pistachio cake with thin marzipan frosting, were gone; but we had coffee cream puffs and cappucinos which never fail to rev up the spirit in the waning hours of a long day.
[The day went on, next to Frari, but that’s where I laid down my pen…]