Life in Venice

When I woke up the other weekend, I had forgotten that I was in Venice but the view from my hotel room soon reminded me.

On my trip round Switzerland and Italy, I had come to Venice for the weekend and found a small hotel off a back street in a part of the often very over-visited city that was definitely far from the madding crowd.

I was even able to do my early morning taichi on a nearly deserted space by the Grand Canal with a backdrop of essential gondolas.

Then, panama hat essential of course,  it was time for a wander round this wonderfully beautiful place which can also be infuriatingly complicated to navigate with its crisscross of canals, tiny alleyways interspersed by startlingly dramatic glimpses of magnificent medieval and Renaissance palaces.

This is the city of the great Italian playwright Carlo Goldoni (1707 – 1793) whose comedies, especially  The Servant of Two Masters (Il servitore di due padroni), written in 1745, can still make us laugh in the modern theatre – well when I saw it, I loved it and laughed a lot. Goldoni’s comedies are full of intrigues, confused identity, stolen back street conversations and all the things that we can still imagine in this labyrinthine place.It is quite right that Goldoni has a very jolly statue right at the heart of the town.

This is a place for confusion certainly, intrigue too no doubt, and, as I wandered down small alleyways, over tiny canal bridges and then found that I wasn’t where I thought I was, I was quite convinced that Goldoni found his inspiration here.

It is also, of course, very beautiful but, if you are there in August like I was, it is essential to keep away from the crowded parts if you want to savour the atmosphere of the place. Venice is crowded for a reason, it is really somewhere everyone should see at least once in their lifetimes but, as I was lucky enough to have been here a few times before and seen Saint Mark’s square on a rainy November day when I was the only person there, I decided that I would keep well away from the crowds and that meant trying to make sure I was never within five minutes walk of  the main square or the Rialto Bridge that leads to it. San Marco is large enough to accommodate, or so it seems, every other visitor here at this time, except me. It is great that most tourists in Venice stick together – almost literally in this heat.

Elsewhere there were all those moody streets, some too narrow for more than one person at a time.

The play of light on water and the shadows on Venice’s wonderfully decaying bricks was always changing and alluring…

and those tempting little bridges ahead always drew me onwards, deeper and deeper into this ancient urban landscape.

Looking up at those shuttered windows or wondering what was going on behind closed doors, I often thought of Goldoni and sometimes more macabre thoughts too.

Then, seeing a church tower behind a row of houses, I decided to find out where I was.

It was a magnificent building known as I Frati, stuck away in a nowhere in particular part of Venice, and it was, I discovered, one of the wonders of Italy.

There were two people inside this vast and awe-inspiring building which had plunged me into darkness as I stepped in from the blazing sunshine outside. I had read in my guidebook that the Venetian painter Tiziano Vecellio (c. 1488- 1576),  better known as Titian,  had once painted an altar piece for this church but I assumed that it would have been packed off to a major art gallery centuries ago but, no, there it was. Titian’s Assumption of the Virgin Mary, in its original setting, in a church that I nearly passed by.

It is easy to get swamped by religious paintings in Italy but this dramatic masterpiece stopped me in my tracks. I, maybe for the first time, sympathised with Mary as she is whisked up into Heaven. She is leaving a panic-stricken and distressed crowd behind her lit with a lurid front light whilst she is drawn upwards to a terrifyingly golden sky with the dark clouds of her maker directly above her head. She is disturbed, confused and awe-struck. It is a frightening image of death.

Then I was outside again, walking through empty squares……

and wonderfully ragged streets….

….to the sound of distant and very near bells ringing in conversation with each other over an other-wise silent car-free ambience.

There were times when I thought that Venice had really lost all of its visitors and then I came across Giorgio.

This solitary gondoliero was looking very morose until we agreed a price for a forty minute gondola trip around the Venetian canals.

He led the way down another alleyway to where he moored his gondola……

…and soon I was seeing Venice as it is meant to be seen – from the water.

Giorgio cheered up remarkably as soon as he got into action and maneuvered his gondola down various canals which were only navigable by boat.

This, I suggest, is the true spirit of Venice….even if a gondola ride is also the ultimate in tourist luxuries.

We were constantly travelling between darkness and light……

from narrow and sinister back waterways……

to the excitingly broad and palatial Grand Canal itself.

….and there it was, the Rialto bridge which leads to Saint Mark’s Square with its glorious Byzantine cathedral.

You follow this guy if you want to…..he was one of the hundreds of tour guides leading long and exhausted looking files of weary tourists around Venice’s main attractions.

When you get there, all you can see are people……
Well I made it there briefly but decided to get away as soon as I could……and I survived my time in Venice too. No “Death in Venice” for me unlike Thomas Mann’s Gustave von Aschenbach and unlike Wagner and Stravinsky too. I was off to Florence.

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