Venezia Unmasqued

La Serenissima is like a weathered prostitute whose looks have lost some of their lustre but can call on a wealth of experience to guarantee satisfaction as she wearily hoists up her skirts. Yet another cruise ship clefts the horizon; vast metallic tubs drift in like spaceships from a sci fi film, making ants of us all and casting churches into their shadows. It is an armada that no port can defend against as teeming pestilence is disgorged into the city. The cruiser bruisers scatter like a Hyksos tribe securing strategic locations such as pizzerias, coffee shops & Piazza San Marco where coded classic music coordinates dive-bombing missions for mutant pigeons to snatch wallets, cameras & occasionally small children.

Il Ponte dei Sospiri is a bridge too far…sigh; clad within a synthetic vista, it is a bridge in a burka, Othello’s Moors have hacked it to pieces & built a mosque in the Promised Land although they are not quite sure whose Promised Land it is. Cue the entrance of MOSEs…there are now 78 Commandments anchored to the seabed, guarding against outside influences & ready to write a New Testament for the future. It was so much simpler when there were marshes & bulrushes.

As for the present…mighty palazzi are overburdened with history that is forcing them to face a watery grave in the canals. There is no escaping the coursing water of Venice because it is alive. It fluxes lyrically according to her mood – soothing, seductive, indifferent, angry. Whatever the pervading emotion, the water looks so elastic that I could peel back a layer & fashion a carnival masque. So many secrets lay buried within her aqueous embrace. If the waters were summoned to ascend to Paradise, another Venezia would arise – vengeful, cruel, teeming with the spirits of the dead ready to conquer the living.

If you stare for long enough, the water will shed its masque. The Virgin Mary revealed Herself to me, glittering like a thousand tears sharpened on Christian broadswords, blessing me with Her beauty. The memory is more finely honed than a piece of Murano glass.

Many commedie are played out each day within the grasping tentacles of calli & rii that enfold the city. There are groups of jesters that juggle imitation handbags as they play hide & seek with the police, getting in the way of weary pilgrims who are in search of the easiest & most tangible holy artifact on offer, a sailor’s cap.

The Commedia del Vaporetto is a highlight. As the ebb & flow of vaporetti shuttle bovine tourists to their next tick in the guide book, keep an eye out for the two Players. The first is specialised in casually holding a rope but in a blink of an eye his gloved hands can cast a noose around an indifferent rusty mooring, the rope tightens & another heretic kicks his heels for the last time. In between executing enemies of the Republic, he proffers his hand to ladies, young & old, facilitating (dis-)embarking without serious injury. This Player is known as the Il Cortigiano.

The second Player pilots the vaporetto with the funereal concentration of a modern day Charon. The price for a trip to the Underworld is printed on a small ticket. This Player is known as L’Ammiraglissimo. While Il Cortigiano may occasionally metamorphose into L’Arlecchino during the journey, engaging with the audience/chorus, L’Ammiraglissimo is insouciant to the questions & entreaties of the passengers as he toils in his Purgatory, day after day, up & down the canals until he is fated to command his own fleet.

Nota bene: There are two variations of L’Ammiraglissimo:

  • The Casanova: he guides the vaporetto to the mooring as if it is an act of seduction; smooth, gentle caresses until boat & mooring are locked in a tight embrace.
  • The iRonic Kelly – you would be forgiven in thinking that this should be similar to The Casanova but The iRonic Kelly thinks there is something wrong with a little bump’n’grind thus his modus operandi is a full & violent assault of boat against mooring. Each docking is not so much a seduction but a sex crime.

Gondolas are sharp razors ready to defend their masters & the water is the whetstone, the edges become finer & more lethal. The noble gondoliers hang about like expectant striped gigolos, part with a lot of cash & you get the service. Of course, if you don’t want to pay a man with a big stick the choice is yours, just don’t offend him as he was probably trained by Shaolin monks. The gondolier is like an after-dinner speaker so get the most out of him, challenge his historical knowledge, gem up on Venetian gossip & if possible get him to shout at an Ammiraglissimo but make sure it is the Casanova type.

The gates to the Ghetto are no longer locked at night as they were in the past, which might make the Merchant of Venice uneasy however he did not follow Polonius’s advice. A sobering memorial to the Holocaust is located in the square: a metal relief known as the Last Train with figures pouring out of the carriages. It is a simple & understated image, more emotive is the wooden background with the names of those who were murdered.

Not far from the Old Ghetto is San Michele’s Island where Napoleon decreed the dead should be buried. Stravinsky’s wish was to be buried at San Michele & if you stand before his grave in absolute silence, you may hear his dominant 7th chord rearrangement of the Star-Spangled Banner quietly undulating in time with the waves. It’s a sobering journey exploring the cemetery. Photos of the deceased adorn graves & tombs; smiling/serious faces, families of twelve are together in a snapshot for all time, some people dress formally as the photo is an occasion.

What photo would you choose to encapsulate your life? What message would you want your photo to convey? What legacy would you leave behind? Is your etched name on a tombstone enough? How long is mortality? If no one remembers you, did you ever exist?

My pilgrimage included a choice slice of St Bartholomew’s thigh served by Tintoretto; a Warhol disciple offering delightfully vulgar bejewelled underwear with either virus or a swastika on it; a Frog King clearly having an overdue mid-life crisis; the illuminated Biennale; a small note being left on a tree in the garden area of the Guggenheim Museum with the message: The owls are not what they seem!

Firenze has long been the Italian jewel in my spiritual wanderings so how would Venice stand up to the comparison. I had invaded Venice on three separate smash & grab visits, I freely admit, when it came to people’s fascination with Venice, I just didn’t get it. All my visits to Venice have centred around the The Biennale. In October 2011 I resolved to stay in the city for five days for a Biennale fix which would not involve me getting lost on the way to the train station with Mission Impossible music ringing in my ears.

When I look back on the sojourn I remember how for a few hours I wandered the cemetery on San Michele lost in thought as the weight of those no longer with us surrounded me; I remember that I met up with a relative who took time out of his busy schedule for informal tourist walks despite never having met me before; I remember the astonishing visual scene of walking up from the lower end of Via Garibaldi (I am reliably informed this is the only Via in Venice) & the sun was setting in the sea, brilliant surging beams shone like Tron (the original) lasers, it was like Close Encounters as figures issued forth from the light; I remember the contrast of Venice at night when I was stood on a small wooden pier jutting out in the Grand Canal – no shouting, no cars, no chugging spluttering boats, no people – solely the sound of the water lapping against the buildings.

Hypnotic, mysterious, seductive Venice showing me her other face, a finger against her mouth, shhhhh, whispering to me, don’t tell anyone, now you understand me.

Yeah, I do get it now.

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