It has been only a few weeks since I used my tears to moisten the mixed-fruit schiacciata cake of Florentine captivity, but from the chaise lounge on my terrace it seems that this was in another life. Here, at last, I know I am where I belong, a spark of cosmic indolence fortuitously restored to the serene plenitude of the great green lagoon, or, in a less overtly Gnostic idiom and the more popular style of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis:
First I movéd all my stuff-a
With a big motoscafo.
No, let me see if I can do better than that:
Then I placéd each bundle-a
In a nice old gondola.
And so on. When it comes to first impressions of Venice, obviously the important thing is to stem the creeping sentimentalism associated with the otherwise perfectly reputable soundtrack of a certain homosexual cult movie based on a lugubrious German novella, and now that that’s been pretty much achieved, I can be serious.
Sleeping in Venice is like no other sleeping I’ve ever done. This is significant, because since my university days I’ve done more kinds of sleeping than most people at Yale have read dull books. “Not more than Harold Bloom!” I hear you cry. Yes, even Harold Bloom. My approach is characterized by total commitment, which in this case mandates the ownership of some reasonably voluptuous linen, and even a kind of Talmudist frenzy that seizes me whenever it is time to turn off the bedside lamp. Sleeping, for me, is more than the wise man’s reading. It is the poor man’s gambling.
Venice, meaning its 47,000 native inhabitants and roughly twice as many naturalized or resident aliens like myself, goes to bed early. By 11:00, 11:30 at the latest, the Venetians who have been out for the evening are making their way home, and only the tourists still overhang the canals and crowd the streets in giant, amorphous, apparently purposeless clusters of transient bodies and foreign vocables. There are 1.5 million of them, annually. By midnight, when the cafes along the Via della Pace in Rome would just begin doing their shady business, willowy youths winking determinedly at the waiters in the hope of grabbing a white wire-mesh seat near the moving throng, here—and I hesitate to say it for fear of being accused of only having seen Venice in my dreams, yet it is true—by midnight all one hears is the occasional sound of water splashing against wooden piles and mossy stone.
In the daylight the piles, called bricole in the Venetian dialect, look like giant stalks of white asparagus. Some seem centuries old. The streets are paved with identical masegni, flagstones quarried in the volcanic hills of nearby Padua since the time of its annexation to the Republic. But the only sort of stone used in building here, apart from Roman brick, is pietra d’Istria. There is a reason for this, as only three kinds of material—wood, combination red-and-yellow clay brick, and just this type of stone quarried in what is now a part of Croatia—can withstand prolonged exposure to the elements in the primordial soup in which the city steams like a piece of toast in fresh bouillabaisse. Iron, whether in oar locks or window latches, has a life expectancy of five years; untreated marble may last up to 20; granite, a while longer. The very climate which is Venice, in short, is a kind of subconscious release from individual responsibility, where all constructive striving within the elemental pool of life is ultimately useless and all human effort is doomed, dissolving in due course into the rust and algae of the ages. That suits me fine, and a fresh graffito in the Campo S. Stefano confirms that the indigenous attitude to life is conducive to sound ratiocination: “USA Assassins,” it reads, “Milosevic Butcher.”
By the Rialto I saw some young soldiers in uniform, native Venetians on leave from their unit, chitchatting in dialect with their gondolier friends. I asked them, in my best foreigner’s Italian, for some views of the war, which, as I write, is being waged from airbases an hour’s drive from Mestre, and not exactly under a dense veil of international secrecy. “Bo!” they replied cheerfully, in their own best foreigner’s Italian, giving me to understand that they neither knew nor cared. Of what relevance is a world war if a gondola across the Grand Canal still costs less than a thousand lire? Of what permanence is peace if the noblest marble will melt like a sugar cube? Driving wooden bricole into the soggy primeval silt, on the other hand—although likewise not of eternal significance—is an undertaking considerably less frivolous. A single one of these trammels of free movement, an ordinary tree trunk about nine meters long, may cost over $2,000 to put up, as the right to perform such work is held exclusively, and in such perpetuity as there can be on this impermanent earth, by the professional association of gondoliers.
And then there is the central issue of lunch, which furnishes a further illustration of the city’s collective idea of order, justice, and fair play. At the world-famous Harry’s Bar or any other restaurant of distinction, a seafood risotto and some grilled fish, with local Veneto white, will set you back $100 a head, $150 if you unnecessarily upset the impeccably disciplined staff by wearing a baseball cap backward. But if a Venetian is one of your party, not necessarily acting as host or paying the bill but merely present at your table, you will not spend more than $50 a head. This is no urban myth I am passing on here, nor an open secret of the gossipy kind one finds in youth travel guides; it’s just the way it is, unapologetic and public as the nose on Shylock’s face. A fool might call it discrimination; but if fools had their way, there would be no good restaurants left in Venice. The moral of the story is that justice is but an ingredient of happiness, and its obsessive pursuit is as odd as a plateful of cumin, or a liter of gin, for the main course.
Venetians do not seize the day. They prolong it, believing that a good man ought to live as the great city does, sinking beautifully and as slowly as can possibly be arranged. A complex web of apparently intractable urban traditions, ruthlessly syndicalist superstitions, and openly arcane practices of every description, which covers everything from the flavoring of grappa to the mooring of boats, is actually an intricate and effective safety precaution, many centuries in the making, designed to retard the processes of physical corrosion and social erosion. I hope it will not sound too sad if I say that a hundred years ago my own nation still had such retardant measures in place, or that in the United States they were forcibly dismantled not very long after. Certainly I have seen with my own eyes, within the last decade, how the wholesale removal of all arbitrary and arcane bulwarks against progress—in the name of fairness, social mobility, and untrammeled trade in dogmeat-and-soybean hamburgers—has made England not England. It is equally sad to reflect that so much of Italy is to suffer the same streamlined fate.
It is not specifically the specter of a European superstate, or the pursuit of American pseudo-prosperity, or the new freedom sold by the communications industry as cunningly as General Motors had sold the old one, that are razing the last love of my life to the ground. It is simply the realization, on the part of most decent, working, normal people—in Italy as elsewhere—that things are going in a certain very obvious way, and that one must in the end be a stubborn, recalcitrant, almost suicidally lackadaisical sort of person not to go with the flow.
Well, Venice has not gone with the flow. It has stood athwart it, quite literally, for a thousand years, thanks to the obstinate, insular, suicidally lackadaisical race that inhabits this proudly surreal Canaletto landscape, ever mindful that progress—in any and every sense—is another word for inundation, deluge, entropy, or collapse of everything that is truly valuable, really important, and should be preserved just a little longer, and then a little while longer again. While the Superstate of Europe is being mooted, Italy as a whole will doubtless linger the longest among nations as the place with the stamina, or the contrariness, or the capriciousness, or the laziness, or the serenity, to deny the khan his spiritual tribute. But when that Superstate is truly upon us, this Scheherazade of a city will become Superitaly, or Italy’s Italy, destined to survive as an authentic social organism even as its more worldly, energetic, and accommodating neighbors gorge themselves on artificially inseminated spaghetti from Frankfurt and genetically modified sea bream from Minsk.
Two years ago, I wrote in this space that Italy was where I hoped to make my last stand, or at any rate to have my last sleep. Now I know exactly where in Italy.
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