Fleeing the rapacious hordes of Attila the Hun, refugees from nearby Roman cities took refuge on the islets of the Venetian lagoon during the 5th century, laying the foundations of what was to become the great and powerful city of Venice. These days the “Serenissima” is overrun by hordes of a different kind.
Normally, one is overcome by an almost effortless sense of euphoria upon arriving in Venice. Even the most jaded soul feels a trifle embarrassed at the childish delight it inspires. There is a sensation that you have just walked on stage, the lights are on and the silk is rustling – until you realize that you are sharing the boards with about half-a-million other people, all in a state of charmed oblivion.
Looking around you see the hordes of “devouring Americans” described by Henry James, who have now joined forces with Germans, Chinese, New Zealanders and the rest of the known world. The have come to witness Venice’s perfect alchemy of beauty and magnificent decay – en masse.
Vaporetto No #1 took us down the Grand Canal from the Santa Lucia train station to the Riva dei Schiavoni near St Mark’s Square. We bumped along on the city’s most popular ferry route, favoured by travellers and locals alike – stopping off at the Rialto and the Accademia and getting a perfect view of some of the city’s finest architecture: the Ca’ Rezzonico (where Robert Browning breathed his last), the Palazzo Tron and the Palazzo Barbaro where Henry James and Whistler both stayed at different times. The sun shone, the water sparkled and even the other tourists looked quite civilized.
The Grand Canal is basically a highway, with motorboats, water taxis, delivery boats, gondolas and vaporettos all sharing the narrow waterway in apparently collision-free harmony. It is a bit like the chaos on the Golden Horn in Istanbul but not quite so bad.
It is easy to get carried away. The unreality of Venice is highlighted by the uncanny feeling generated by the transposition on to the canals of the humdrum of daily life; seeing a motorboat full of garbage, or huge bundles of hotel laundry being delivered on a barge makes you feel both a part of the drama and a million miles away from it. There is no hidden Venice – tourist Venice is all there is. It is an unsettling sensation. It is a theme park but strangely authentic.
Over the centuries visitors have come to Venice to gamble at the casinos, visit the world famous prostitutes, soak up the unique natural beauty or to study a strange independent people who managed to juggle the rationalism of a stalwart republican with the shadowy arcane reasoning of Byzantium. They needed nobody to tell them what to do, they just wanted to trade and make money and build beautiful monuments to their success. They were merchants with good taste.
Visitors to Venice in the late 16th century were drawn by the world-famous casinos and the nearly 12,000 registered courtesans who were, oddly enough, listed in order of professionalism – as French essayist Michel de Montaigne attests in his travel journal. Courtesans who were past their prime, or merely fed up with the whole business, would either oversee a literary salon or gracefully fade away, wistfully remembered in the memoirs of some foreign dignitary.
Visiting Venice nowadays is still rather like paying a call on a faded courtesan, whose melancholy glance suggests that we have both seen better days. One does really get the feeling that something is coming to a close here, that Venice has reached a dead end, and that soon there will be no courtesan at all to answer the door and visitors will be obliged just to wander aimlessly through her rows of satin dresses and memorabilia and her endless collection of silk shoes.
First thing in the morning we set off for the Accademia museum, all fired up to see Giorgione, Veronese and Tintoretto, but finding the length of the queue somewhat discouraging, we decided to move on and try the nearby Peggy Guggenheim Modern Art Collection. The queue there was pretty dreadful too. Undismayed, we headed off for St Marks to see if we could get into the basilica. Standing outside, an evangelical choir had burst into song and a woman was vomiting into a trash can – a globalisation set piece. Life goes on…we gave up all hope, consoling ourselves that despite the hype and John Ruskin, St Mark’s does indeed look like “…an Oriental pavilion; half pleasure house and half war tent belonging to some great satrap” as Mary McCarthy describes it in her excellent Venice Observed.
The queue at the Doge’s palace was even worse so we abandoned artistic aspirations and headed off to Harry’s Bar to drown our sorrows. We found Hemingway’s favourite drinking hole just near St Mark’s square and knocked back a Bloody Mary and couple of the world famous peach flavoured Bellinis. The bar itself is almost Spartan in its good taste and dare I say “sober” in its decor. Gentlemanly waiters in white coats serve you at the polished wooden tables and the no- photos rule was a pleasant surprise in a city full of digital camera-wielding visitors.
There is no getting around the fact that Venice is a nightmare, even an alcoholic afternoon at Harry’s Bar can’t wipe away that grim reality. The crowds are endless and relentless, tourists snapping away at literally everything in the vain hope of taking a reasonable photograph of the most photogenic city in the world.
Walking back through St Mark’s Square we resist the “superficial pleasures” of the Florian Cafe with its little orchestra and olde worlde neglected decor which would need a Hunter Thompson or at least an industrial quantity of LSD to get to grips with it….yet another touristic fetish that we passed up.
Henry James (his book Italian Hours by now our faithful guide) reminds us that “for though there are some disagreeable things in Venice, there is nothing so disagreeable as its visitors”. So we know where to lay the blame! Perhaps we should just apologetically high-tail it back to the railway station!
The “peep-show and bazaar of Venice” does needs an expiation, perhaps a ten-year ban on all visitors without a good reason for being there (a restricted number has actually been suggested)– perhaps on pain of being buried alive upside down in St Mark’s square with your feet sticking out like monstrous daffodils as a warning to other intrepid tourists, something the Venetian Grand Inquisitor used to do to spies and troublemakers in the 17th century. The tourist office may not buy that one.
It is possible to get away from the hordes which tend to congregate around the Grand Canal, and to that end we headed off to the Giudecca to see Palladio’s masterpiece, the Redentore. The Giudecca is a haven from the madding crowds in Venice: there are no fake Prada handbag salesmen, nobody selling squishy rubber things that disintegrate and recompose themselves when you smash them to the ground and a cappuccino costs just one euro. The name of the Giudecca has led many to presume that it had been another of the city’s Jewish ghettos but by all accounts the name derives from the word giudicati meaning ‘the judged’, as it was a place of banishment for 9th century aristocrats considered ‘troublesome’ or else from the actual word giudecca which was previously used in northern Italy to denote an area of aristocratic palaces with sumptuous gardens.
Here there is a hint of an authentic Venice. Here you can find laundry hanging between the buildings and a couple of political social clubs, like the Communist party headquarters – which admittedly looks a bit dated with its photos of Togliatti and Gramsci in the windows, but still appears to be a going concern.
Palladio is something of an anomaly. His two churches, the Redentore and San Giorgione on the small island next to the Giudecca have his famous mathematically perfect spaces and satisfying proportions. Walking around both churches you feel something is missing, until you realise there are no shadows. It feels like permanent noontime. There is no Byzantine hocus pocus, no lighting effects. Just perfect, spacious and sober spaces. Palladio was a Venetian but you feel that he might well have been adopted.
In the evening, the play of the setting sunlight on the water and on the façades of the pastel-coloured buildings sneaks past your cynical defences and you realize that Venice has worked its magic on you! A Byronic sigh almost escapes you, but you catch yourself in time as you are shuffled forward by the tourist herd. Henry James, said that the “light in Venice is a mighty magician” and it truly is….
Venetians are famous for having invented a good many things, among which easel painting (art for art’s sake) and a sound Republicanism with its skepticism of tyrants and the cult of the personality. There were Doges (the Venetian Chief Magistrate cum leader – elected for life) but there were also checks and balances of the sort that some countries now only dream of. They were suspect of the human character and what havoc it could wreak.
Venetians are untypical Italians. They have always looked further a field for sustenance (usually Byzantium) and even in contemporary Italy only the Venetians could have elected a philosophy professor (Massimo Cacciari) as their Mayor, while the rest of Italy is gaily electing mafia bosses, time-servers and arse-lickers!
Venetians have always had a contradictory reputation, at once sober and anti-tyrannical, robustly republican and at the same time overwhelmed by a lust for money and power. Even centuries ago the Venetians were reviled by their fellow Italians for what was perceived as their desire for world domination and their cupidity which inspired envy and hostility. Perhaps for this reason you have little sympathy for them as they make millions out of the devouring tourists. You feel they are merely doing what comes naturally anyway.
However, it is not easy to find a real Venetian. By all accounts the population of central Venice has almost halved from 121,000 to 62,000 – since the great flood of 1966. It is not hard to understand why. Either you run a hotel, a restaurant or a cafe or you leave town. Gondoliers and shopkeepers aside you can occasionally spot a local, usually actively minding their own business dressed in sensible and slightly un-seasonal clothes with a serious and unsurprisingly grumpy look. Our waiter on the first afternoon was Tunisian, the barman in the evening was a Jordanian, our landlord was Spanish – only the gondoliers were the real thing judging by their completely incomprehensible Venetian accent.
After a few days in Venice you begin to feel like you are stuck on a carnival float unable to get off. Sitting in one of the prized seats at the back of a vaporetto, I was skimming through Mary McCarthy’s Venice Observed who reassures her readers that “nothing new can be said about Venice, not even this sentence!”. I was beginning to feel it was time to go home. Our brief Venetian experience nevertheless seemed strangely satisfying and quite enough. Only at the end of the trip do you realise that you have come for the light and not for the monuments.
Packing up to return home while occasionally glancing out of the window on to the Grand Canal, I convinced myself that all this touristic chaos was not the fault of Venice or the famously mercantile Venetians, but just the sad result of the fetishistic series of spectacles that make up the Grand Tour of the 21st Century. Venice will no doubt survive this deluge (if there are any Venetians left) and may even be grateful if one day she falls out of favour with the travelling hordes. Remarkably, despite all the griping and moaning, the overriding sensation that Venice imparts is one of elation and a sense of the sublime, all of which is quite inexplicable – it would have to be put down to the city’s magic.
Reading yet another guide book on my way back to the train station, I came across what felt like the perfect quote to encapsulate our trip: “I was afforded some hours of astonishment and some days of disgust by the spectacle of Venice.” As ever, Edward Gibbon gets it in one.