Sunday, March 7, 2021


Lost In Venice


“In the Id the Principle of non-contradiction does not apply.”

Venice.  Night.  Bed.  
A susurrus of distant whispers; the surf on the Lido.   But it’s only S. breathing quietly on her pillow.

We travel in order to be lost. If we want to be found we can stay at home. It’s cheaper.
A feeling of alienation comes suddenly upon the traveler after having been in Venice for a few days. Being lost there is not as it is in other places. Being lost in the medieval warren that is Toledo in Spain is being lost in only two dimensions. You’re merely displaced in linear space from where you wish to be. But when you’re lost in Venice you’re lost in three dimensions; you’re not only displaced in a linear fashion from your desired destination, you feel as though you’re lost in some third, unspecified, dimension. That’s confounding because Toledo is on a hill and Venice is as flat as a board. There’s no way you can be lost in vertical space there but the creepy feeling is that you are. Or perhaps it’s time that’s the missing dimension. You have the feeling that not only are you not at your destination – that quotidian hotel, albergo, restaurant, cafe, or campo where you have arranged your rendezvous – it may not even currently exist. 

It doesn’t help that the map of Venice, when turned upside down, still looks right-side up. Nor does it help that Venice, even at noon, is in a perpetual twilight and that every shop looks like one that you’ve seen just moments ago. That paper shop; how familiar it seems. Those are the identical leather bindings that we saw but half an hour since. That shop of mascherie looks very much like the one we passed in the Ghetto. Same owner? Same shop? Or is it coincidence? Perhaps we’re not lost at all; we simply haven’t the wit to recognize that we’ve reached our goal.
 A conspiracy of  venetians
Your senses are already overloaded by the exotica for sale: Paper goods, glass vases, parti-colored fish forever fixed in the glassy interior of a paper weight (85 inches around), masks, costumes, leather-bound books, capes, cloaks, tricornes, Punchinellos, faux antiques and reproductions – Canalettos, Titians, Veroneses – all gently glowing  in the golden Venetian twilight. Objects endlessly recurring in a riot of feathers, papier mache, leather, and silk. A welter of swords, canes, and objets du vitrail.

A friend of mine explains in a restaurant – “A few years ago there was a butcher shop on this street and a drug store, – you could live here – Now it’s all masks, costumes, leather, and glass.” He’s right.

Signs point in opposite directions – both say ‘Rialto’.

Another acquaintance confirms: “Street names mean nothing here, signore.”
Others solemnly warn you against Venice; ‘It’s not healthy. The cold, the damp, molto arthritico.’

They’re right. To live here would be an agony; it’s cold, misty, foggy, and damp in the winter. Spring brings warm rain and the mosquitoes (in 2002 I killed a dozen in my hotel room). In summer the canals smell like drains .. and not good drains either. The acqu’alta is likely to strike at any time. Always there is the plague of tourists. (And it is a plague; only Waikiki could possibly be worse.) Only autumn (late September or October) is really bearable.

Venice is an enigma; it is the home of esoteric knowledge, of Hermeticism, of Kabbala, of the Tarot. Why has it never found its Robert Byron or its Lawrence Durrell?*  It’s a scheme; Casanova planning his next conquest or your restaurant man passing off the shark as scallops. Florence is rational, a dream of the Renaissance emerging from the Medieval in a shower of straight lines and rose-colored glories. Venice is a grey contemplation of the Hidden and Revealed, of Hermes Trismegistus. Venice’s patron saint is Giambattista Vico; Descartes never arrived here.   Unlocking the Hidden is the great goal here. Whenever I dream in Venice I’m always in a library. I’m hauling down some musty volume of Casanova’s Vita or of Piccolomini. I’m surrounded by volumes of A.D. Nock, of Festugiere ... even Marx. There’s a sense in my dream of real urgency; I’m always about to learn ... something.

 But I never do.  

Muddled identities, ambiguous sex. Misrule; upset; reversal. Love affairs by small bridges, of fights, strange cries and obscure alarms in the dark. And how much is just oneself? The other day at sunset on the balustrade in front of San Marco, standing beneath the bronze horses, S and I heard a muffled thud; it sounded as though half of Venice had blown up. It was only New Year’s fireworks; … perhaps I’m the only one who heard it.

Everywhere is the smell of fresh pastry.  And the cries of the watermen like birds of prey swooping by in their barchieti.  And around every corner the bright shop windows. Last night a pretty shop woman said, ‘You speak Italian well!’ At the time I was paying her 800 euro for a turquoise necklace. 

Damp and dirty, decaying, decrepit (in San Marco the marbles are in ruins and cold as death); even to me the city seems to have gone downhill since I first visited in ’93. The garbage lies in corners; filth and decay, but then you wake up to a blanket of virginal snow and you remember how close Venice is to the Alps.

The other day, (was it today?), S. and I crossed over the Ponte ‘Storto or ‘twisted bridge’. Who are they kidding? They’re all distorted. And don’t get me started on the campanili. They all lean at different angles (Santo Stefano looks on the verge of collapse); Pisa has nothing to boast of with just the single leaning campanile.

But I was speaking of being lost. Here’s an example of what happens:

Some time ago I determined to visit the Church of the Zanipolo (Venetian dialect for ‘SS. Giovanni e Paolo’) and off I ventured. I followed the map very carefully and – for my pains – was led to the Church of Santa Maria di Formosa. A charming and important church, certainly, but not my destination. I sat down, consulted the map and set off again. By following the map to the letter it was only a short time before I was led, ineluctably, back to Santa Maria di Formosa. In despair, and like the prophets of old, I lifted my face unto the sky and, to be sure, I could see the top of the Zanipolo’s dome. Keeping it before my eyes – like the proverbial column of smoke – I was able to guide my faltering steps there.

After my visit I turned my back on it and crossed a little bridge away from the Campo di Zanipolo. On the other side I turned – like Lot’s wife – and gazed back. This giant Gothic church (the largest in Venice save for San Marco itself) had disappeared as utterly as though it had never existed. It had gone back into the same imaginative space where we keep Aladdin’s cave … or Samarkand. For those who call the Zanipolo their own parish church the exterior world with its linear streets and strictly numbered houses must be as alien and disconcerting as the warrens of Venice are to the outsider.

*Although in the Alexandria Quartet, in Balthazar I think, there’s a brilliant bagatelle which has Venice as the setting.  Subject? Vampires.


Lunch in Venice; An Albino Shade of Pale

A fable

It was hot. 

The Venetian afternoon was sweltering and sleepy. I sat by myself at a cafe table across from San Moise.  S. and I had quarrelled and I eyed my luncheon glass of wine grumpily.  Across the street two giant Africans were selling knock-off purses from a blanket laid out on the ground. They were being watched by two bored Carabinieri.

Palazzo Contarini del Bovolo.  Detail of the external stairs.
Venice, Italy.

His sudden appearance startled me. He was huge; six foot three or four, and dressed in white monk’s robes. He had close-cropped pale hair and his skin was white. White as snow. I felt slightly stunned, paralyzed; it was like a dream, like I could see right through him. “Maybe he’s an albino”, I found myself thinking.

He sat down at my table uninvited.  “I’ve been looking for you”, he said.

I blanched.

He got right to the point.  “I’ve been having a lot of trouble with this writer Dan Brown”, he said in sulky tones.  “The guy’s writing all kinds of terrible things about me.  He’s making me sound like a monster.  My lawyers won’t do anything.  You’re a fellow writer.  Help me.  Talk to this Brown character.  Make him understand.”

“Look”, I said. “We’ve been all through this. I can’t do anything for you .  You don’t actually think Dan Brown would talk to a lowly travel writer like me do you?”

“I dunno”, he said. “But, well, you have a blog.  You can at least help me get my story out!  If people just knew the real me. I’m a really sensitive and caring individual. I love flowers and kittens. I actually have a pet Corgi and how wimpy is that?” He paused for a sip of wine – my wine. “But he didn’t talk about any of that in his book. Oh no! He made me out to be a freak and that’s not who I am, you know?”

He realized that he’d gotten off to an awkward start and he held out his hand. “I’ve told you before, call me Silas … or Si,” he said in a forced jovial tone.

I took his hand cautiously.

He turned sulky again.  “But I come off in his book like a ghoul and it’s upsetting. All that Latin stuff!” He frowned. “I don’t speak Latin; didn’t like it when I was in school. Just a couple words, see?”  It was obvious that he’d been drinking before he came in; he was going from sulky to pugnacious.

I felt intimidated by his size.  I wondered if I could just discreetly alert the two Carabinieri.

“And another thing!” He was getting louder and drawing stares from the other patrons. “All that nonsense about the self-torture. It’s just a couple of glancing blows now and again. It’s more for form’s sake than anything. And it’s nothing, nothing!  I’ve hurt myself worse by getting my finger caught in the car door.”

“But what about all that stuff about the nun and Saint Sulpice?” I tried gingerly.  But this was the wrong thing to say.  He started shouting.

“Cheap lies!   Exaggerations!”

He jerked drunkenly to his feet.   “Numquam eram in Lutetiae! NUMQUAM!!“(1)

He raised a giant arm and I covered my face with my hands.  But no blow fell.  I peeked out between my fingers.  He had vanished.  Everyone in the cafĂ© was looking at me.  I slowly lowered my hands.


It was hot.  

I took another sip of wine. Tourists sauntered down the street towards Saint Mark’s Square as though nothing had happened.  I glanced across the street again. The Carabinieri had left but the African purse-sellers were still there.

I wondered whether S. would like a purse.

(1) “I was never in Paris!  Never!”