Act 2, Scene 22

Venice patch

Ancient Rome, The Italian Renaissance, And Postmodern Love

by Frederick Noble

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My first day in Venezia (Venice) and I already have so much to say I'm not sure where to start. The bipolar descriptions of "beautiful" and "nasty" simultaneously apply. The canals are a pretty green from afar, but up close I spot 2 water bottles, an oil spill, a piece of a wooden tobacco pipe, several cigarette butts, some tape and some sewage. But it’s all floating in the wake of a marvelous gondola, long, sleek, black, carved wooden bow, the gondolier poling it along almost silently. The buildings are wonderful, stuccoed in but pastels and yellows, but look a little closer and you can see the water damage - on the second story shutters.
On one hand I’d warn you to stay out of the main strip and square in the afternoon. Hordes of day-tripping tourists pack the place beyond capacity.
Crowded Venice
On the other hand, if you do get off the main street you'll be immediately and hopelessly lost. But on yet another hand you’ll be lost in the charming, quiet, half-deserted neighborhoods of Venezia the tourists never see. Venice

As you struggle through the main “street” you’ll pass the same four stores over and over again. Three of these sell cheap glass trinkets not worth looking at, the kind of crap you give as Christmas gifts to a cousin you never see the rest of the year. But one in four is a shop with works of delight – the most incredible glass sculptures and dishes I have ever seen. The other three out of four shops are obviously poor imitators, just cheap knock-offs for cheap tourists.
In one of the better shops I saw the most amazing goblet. The stem was a brilliant ruby-red devil, grinning. His cloven hooves stood on the base, he raised the bowl of the glass up with one hand. Tiny little demons sat on his shoulders and on the top of his head, each one only a few millimeters tall but perfect in every detail. Amazing.
I used the word “street” here loosely. They’re closer to alleys than streets. The canals serve as the true streets of Venezia. The sidewalks are for pedestrian traffic - no cars allowed. The canals support the boat traffic that gets the goods and a few people around town.
Gondolas cater to tourists with too much money - for those folks who do things so they can say they did them, not actually for the experience itself. Don’t bother. Take the water bus or just walk instead, you’ll save a bundle and see the same things.
As I headed back into the street I could barely move due to the crowds and my backpack slaughtered people wholesale any time I turned. It was as if I was a salmon trying to reach the spawning grounds, with a 40 pound backpack.
It just wasn’t worth it. By 4 PM I was cursing. I would have left that very day had my flight not been leaving the Venezia airport a couple of days later.

"Italia! Oh Italia! thou has
The fatal gift of beauty."
Byron, from Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage

Four hours later Venezia is a joy.
Around dark, the day-tripping tourists are herded back to the barge and get shipped out of town en masse. All the locals go with them - nobody can afford to actually live in the place. It’s just too expensive, as you'd expect from a tourist trap on an island. And there’s not enough to see to hold most tourist’s attention for more than an afternoon so it’s strictly a day-trip destination. By night it’s completely deserted, a ghost town.
The overcrowded, miserable square by day became an incredible fairy tale by night, with lit boats sliding by and people slinking through the shadows. No longer the world's largest, most crowded, flooded shopping mall, as I'd thought of it earlier. The endless rows of redundant stores remain, but they close at sundown and the water bus ride becomes a magical mystery tour. Unfortunately, nobody sticks around to see it.

As is often the case, Mark Twain said it best:
"This Venice, which was a haughty, invincible, magnificent republic for nearly fourteen hundred years, whose armies compelled the world's applause whenever and wherever they battled, whose navies well-nigh held dominion of the seas, and whose merchant fleets whitened the remotest oceans with their sails and loaded these piers with the products of every clime, is fallen a prey to poverty, neglect, and melancholy decay. Six hundred years ago Venice was the Autocrat of Commerce; her mart was the great commercial center, the distributing house from whence the enormous trade of the Orient was spread abroad over the Western world. Today her piers are deserted, her warehouses are empty, her merchant fleets are vanished, her armies and her navies are but memories. Her glory is departed, and with her crumbling grandeur of wharves and palaces about her, she sits among her stagnant lagoons, forlorn and beggared, forgotten of the world. She that in her palmy days commanded the commerce of a hemisphere, and made the weal or woe of nations with a beck of her puissant finger, is become the humblest among the peoples of the earth — a peddler of glass beads for women and trifling toys and trinkets for schoolgirls and children."
From The Innocents Abroad

map of VeniceAnd that was a hundred years ago. The population has been in serious decline ever since. Aside from the expense of living there, the only mass transit is the slow water bus and walking everywhere gets rather tiresome. There are no shortcuts either. The canals cut off any logical arrangement of the roads so that you'll trek for kilometers, cutting back and forth countless times until you're totally turned around. Round the next corner and you'll find a dead end and have to try to find your way back to the turn you missed. To make matters worse, some creative vandals have altered all the road signs so you have to look carefully to avoid misdirection. I was lost more times in the first day than I've been lost cumulatively in my entire life.

But I won’t have to warn you for much longer. The place is sinking into the lagoon at something like an inch a year. It currently floods 100 days out of 365 and there are pictures everywhere of Piazza San Marco, St. Mark’s Square, under two feet of water and tour groups trekking across makeshift boardwalk bridges to see the sites. There's a plan to build some high tech levy system in an effort to stop the floods, but there's disagreement about whether it'll actually work or not, even if they can afford to do it.

Despite the romantic feel of the place at night, there's no real reason to spend more than a night or two there. There’s just not that much to see.

Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari houses the lovely Assumption by Titian. It’s not the easiest church to find, but then nothing in Venezia is easy to find (except Piazza San Marco – just follow the crowds.)
The famous square is pretty when it’s not too crowded. The rows of columns create a nice backdrop for the string orchestra that's often playing for tourists in the outdoor cafes. The church itself is somewhat forgettable after so many other glories over the past months. The Torre dell’Orologio, a clock tower with the signs of the zodiac, is interesting.

Scuola Grande di San Rocco, The Big School of Saint Roch, houses some paintings by Tintoretto and others, but in my opinion the wooden sculptures by Franceso Pianti Jr. around the upper floor were the coolest thing in the place. Unfortunately they weren’t lit well enough to get a good photo so I had to pick up a couple of postcards in the gift shop.

The water bus ride down the Grand Canal was a joy by night. But really the best parts of Venezia are the picturesque little scenes you just stumble across at random.





When we trekked across town to find the hostel Heather’s friend Jen was staying at we saw the most beautiful scenes of canals and fading baroque beauty. Romantic stuff.
And it had better be romantic as there is no nightlife. We'd been warned but I hadn't taken it seriously. You can walk for an hour at night and not see a single soul, at all. Much less any form of organized entertainment.

Lena boarded a train to Amsterdam and Heather’s friend Jen was beat from her jetlag. So Heather and I had the latter part of the evening to ourselves. We settled on the only restaurant we could find that was open after dark (it took us over an hour to find one) and had a couple glasses of vino.


A poem by Mary Coleridge, from Poems, sets the mood right:
Egypt’s might is tumbled down
Down a-down the deeps of thought;
Greece is fallen and Troy town,
Glorious Rome hath lost her crown,
Venice’ pride is naught.
But the dreams their children dreamed
Fleeting, unsubstantial, vain.
Shadowy as the shadows seemed
Airy nothing, as they deemed,
These remain.

Both Heather and I were quite distracted. Neither one of us were in a good mood at all. Heather dreaded returning to the States and facing her worries.
I dreaded returning to the States and facing her worries.
I’d had her almost-undivided attention for 9 weeks and I liked what I got. I worried the shit was going to hit the fan when she stepped off that plane in Atlanta.
So we bickered, as worried couples will. We went back to my room to possibly work off our worries, only to find it absurdly hot and stuffy. To make matters worse my roommate showed up, girlfriend in tow, grabbed his mattress and crashed on the balcony right outside my open window. The rest of the night is a black, hot blur.
The next morning I walked Heather and Jen to the train station.

I was worried about how much fun she was going to have without me as she ran amok across Greece and France and Switzerland, and further worried about what would happen when next we met back in the States.
I had considered changing my plans and going with her, but I couldn’t have afforded it.
But more than anything she probably needed a little breathing room and as much as it worried me I knew better than to push that boundary again.
Besides, I was headed to Amsterdam where I’d catch up with Lena and have all sorts of sinful fun. So I almost managed a smile as I turned from the train station on my way to the airport.

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