To the unwary visitor from a distant shore who wishes to enter Venezia, having only heard about that quaint town’s beauty, negotiating the journey from the airport to the town is a complicated business. Whichever way he attempts to travel there, he will discover that his journey will have to slow down, from the deafening speed of the aircraft to the roar of a taxi, to the industrious chugging of a train, finally, to a quiet boat, which must let its engine die as it reaches the city itself—as Venezia reveals herself in her glory to the visitor’s jaded eye—and that once they reach the smaller canals, it may be swifter to swim.
Except that as the boatman warns his shooter in Ernest Hemingway’s Across the River and Into the Trees, the water is not safe enough to drink, and the luxuriant growth of moss and seaweeds along some of the buildings that appear to be crumbling, convinces the visitor not to dip his fingers in the water. The narrow waterways may remind the visitor of Bangkok, and sometimes its stench as well, but he is not in Asia. The art nouveau buildings that flank the waterway as it expands may make him feel he is in Brussels, but this is not Western Europe. The canals may make him think of Amsterdam, but this is Italy, where each canal branches in a direction of its choosing, refusing the precise symmetry of Amsterdam’s canals.
Kitsch and more: Ponte de Rialto is part of the experience that brings together people from the world over. (Photograph by Ameya Tripathi)
There are many joys Venice has to offer—bridges that stand precariously over the water; gondolas that gleam like well-polished furniture; gondoliers who flaunt their tight bodies; and a city where it is impossible to meet any Venetian. Even the man on Rialto Bridge selling cruises, wearing an Italian costume, is a Bangladeshi. Clearly, there are people who live in the city, you think, hidden away from the charmingly decaying grandeur revealed as a public spectacle, in the quieter alleys, away from the paths tourists take, but it is difficult to find them.
As the traveller walks near the Grand Canal and comes across Rialto Bridge, he is surrounded by people from every nationality, and while he will not find Bassanio or Antonio trading with other merchants of Venice, and while he will not spot a James Bond racing a motorboat and disturbing the harmony of the waterfront, nor will he see Dirk Bogarde, like a pained lover, looking for the boy that inspired an unusual outpouring of emotion, with Mahler’s Fifth serenading him, in Death in Venice (1971), the traveller will become part of the global circus of wandering souls who go looking for an authentic experience, only to get disillusioned by the kitsch that surrounds it.
The traveller’s sons, both teenagers, will not have time for the shops, which seem to sell only outrageously priced garish masks (which presumably Venetians wear to hide themselves from tourists) and the traveller himself looks in vain for a family-owned restaurant that does not serve pizza. It is evening, and he shares an outlandishly priced bottle of wine with a friend at Piazza San Marco, with nattily dressed musicians playing familiar tunes such as Bolero and The Blue Danube, and yet kitsch intervenes; the traveller’s mood is interrupted by what brought those tunes to the masses, Bo Derek’s 10 and Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.
The next afternoon, intimidated by floating cherubs and dancing angels, ornate statues and gold-tipped domes, churches with imposing ceilings and stained-glass windows, he leaves the Tintorettos and Michelangelos for a Woody Allen keen to impress Julia Roberts at the school of San Rocco in Everyone Says I Love You, and opts to savour love of another kind—a whimsical love, a charming love, an in-your-face love, that Peggy Guggenheim reveals in her beautiful villa; a love for Picasso, Chagall, Braque, Jackson Pollock, Dali, Mondrian, Kandinsky, and Miro, celebrating Guggenheim, who, 60 years ago this year, thumbed her nose at the classicists among us, deliberately unbalancing Venetian intricacy and disintegrating the straight lines and circles and spires and arches that give this city its grandeur, replacing it with the outstanding burst of creativity of the last century. All in a villa so unobtrusive, clean and white as to look like a sterile retirement home from the outside, seen from a boat. It is like performing the twist during the waltz (but no, not the Macarena).
It is only the next night, after a friend’s wedding, when the friend who has kept company with the traveller leads him to his first, tentative steps at the waltz, that he understands the divine electricity of that dance, even though the music accompanying them is not The Blue Danube anymore, even though it is desperately late in the night, even though the night remains young, even though the music in his mind is quaintly melancholic, and even though his dancing companion flatters him, telling him he has grace when he knows he has none left, and in dancing with him, she has done him a kind favour.
And then, finally, the traveller recalls the evening and his friend’s wedding, when it had rained lightly, the horse carriage that had brought the bride giving children a ride, with Bellini and Prosecco floating among the elegantly-dressed guests.
But he wanders off, drawn by the sunset, looking so soothing, so calm, so majestic, and yet so fragile, like life itself; the city becoming a silhouette; the branches of a tree lurching into his photograph, framing it perfectly.
And that light stays with him, for the entire night, as he walks back in the morning, with his delighted and exhausted companions as if in a trance, the mood light, the birds flapping their wings, and he pauses on a small bridge, with the canals branching off in different directions like the lines on his palm, and, somewhere, in the distance, he sees the sun rise.
Venice has given him his gift, his inspiration; and may tomorrow only get better, as he quietly apologizes to the master, Italo Calvino, and hopes he wouldn’t mind with what he has wrought from his sublime creation.
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