Last spring, in one of my early letters from Venice, I promised that I would write in greater detail about Baron F—, who liberated me from Florentine bondage by letting me the attico at Corte Tron, with its lifesaving terrace looking over the courtyard of the Palazzo Volpi and beyond, to the motionless cranes over the ruined Fenice. Almost a year has passed, and we are still fast friends; last week I improvised a dish, along the general lines of Louisiana gumbo, with some mallards he had shot on a remote islet in the lagoon; moreover, Michael Palin has now exposed him as a public figure in a television series about Hemingway. In short, in print as in life, I can call him by his Christian name.

It is quite the first time, incidentally, that this business of calling a person by his given name has any significance in my life, and I want to put that new sensibility in a broader context. The other night, I was talking to a young woman about a dinner party in Porto Ercole we had both attended in the summer, where she and her friend the hostess were the only Italians. The other guests, with a whole pashmina of marriageable girls among them, belonged to the broad, fast. First World that is New York, Paris, and the new London. Ordinarily, in my former social hypostasis, I would have remembered with perfect clarity who they all were, especially the girls, by name and surname, stated occupation, last known address, and mobile phone number, as well as whose jokes they laughed at, what shoes they wore, whom they were likely to marry in the end, and whether it would be worth the trouble to get invited to the wedding. This time, nothing. A sociopath’s blank.

I realized just how much I had been spoiled by Venice in the intervening period, by Venice where the person with whom one is speaking is by definition a public figure, a permanent feature of the civic landscape, who has been here, perhaps in the form of his ancestors yet in this very armchair opposite, for 200, 800, 1,200 years. One’s awareness of one’s interlocutor, in such circumstances, matures gradually, progressing in small increments from the superficial and ritualized to the covert and coveted, and the privilege of addressing a person by his Christian name comes with the social territory that is painstakingly, but above all slowly, explored. This habit of social slowness, which is really a kind of wary sloth, is in vivid contrast with the manners of the First World and even of the Second, which in Italy would include Milan and to some extent the new Berlusconi-Murdoch, television-executive, wheel-of-fortune Rome.

There, in those newer, more intoxicating, less maigre worlds, the very firmament is in ferment, with human particles borne by diverse currents appearing and disappearing from view like snowflakes in a storm, with the effect that your interlocutor at a dinner party—all the more so if she is a pretty girl looking over your shoulder in no fewer than three directions at once—must be apprehended, appraised, fixed, and charmed all of an instant, whereupon the trauma of transience, dislocation, and accident is momentarily allayed and social life reacquires a semblance of meaning. Quickness, rapidity, rapacity are the jabs of the anesthetic that makes it all possible there, just as reticence, or perhaps dignity, is what you have to inject yourself with in Venice “if you want to have a good time.”

It is interesting that the bit of hackwork aired on the BBC made the same point, albeit in a somewhat more politically tremulous key. The presenter noted Alberto’s manifest “lack of urgency,” and even murmured that “the word languid could have been coined” for him. “I ask what I should call him,” Palin went on, “should it be Signor Franchetti, or perhaps Alberto? He purses his lips gently, as if acknowledging some distant, unspecific pain.

“Perhaps Barone?’ he suggests.”

Alberto may not be Venice, but he is as close to it as you can get without building a bridge of fine Istria stone between your pancreas and your liver. He is something more than a good old boy, he is an archetype, one of a tiny handful of eminent Venetians who are to their nation what Cogol’s “old world landowners” were to the Russia of his day. The author of Dead Souls never finished his “poem,” which he had envisioned as a variation on Dante—only the part corresponding to the Inferno survives, and half of the Purgatorio—and thus the modern chronicler of Venice can plunge directly into the sort of book that might have been Gogol’s Paradiso, without at any time feeling that he is treading on hallowed ground. And, insofar as what he aims to capture are the living souls of Venice, he must begin with Alberto.

As our landlord and neighbor, Alberto used to arrive on the terrace with a mess of dinner invitations for us in his pockets, and naturally we always wanted to accept all of them. A truly social foreigner in London would consider himself an outcast, perhaps a prisoner, if all of a sudden he had to limit himself to 300 dinner parties a year. Alberto would clear his throat, adjust a loose vine, fiddle with the ashtray. “No, but you know, you are going too fast. You cannot be so fast in Venice. You will burn out. You must be very careful. Why not have drinks with the M—on Tuesday, and then perhaps we can dine with G—on Friday, which will be very nice for yon because they have a pleasant garden. But tomorrow I would like to suggest that you stay at home, and do nothing. No . . . thing at all. You will see, it would be much better.”

“Can we go somewhere with your boat?”

“I do not think we should this week, no. No, we had better not. There is a terrible virus going round, you see. It is in the newspaper. I know many people who have it already.”

Palin approached him to be the guide to Hemingway’s haunts in Venice despite the fact that, when the American writer came here and was befriended by his family, Alberto was ten. But what I find so remarkable is how the BBC’s Virgil, or rather my Beatrice, gradually upstages the subject of that meandering documentary: The Man of Action, The Devil-May-Care Lover, The Celebrated Author, and Worst Shot-Up Man in the U.S. seems to shrivel up and recede into the background of modern history as The Languid Nobleman, The Man in the Moth-Holed Khaki Sweater, The Proprietor of the Palazzo Tron Wlio Never Replaces the Blown Lightbulb in the Hall and Drives a Boat the Size of a Child’s Shoe emerges as a far more interesting and genuinely literary personage.

The famous boat (commercial value: none, not even with a fresh coat of paint; value of the engine, if the thing ever starts: $50) sank the other night, in mysterious circumstances. Alberto telephoned with the horrible news. Apparently, he had left it on the Grand Canal, tied to one of the posts outside his door.

“What happened?”

“I cannot think. Certainly I had not moored her too fast, so it was not the hde that did it.” His voice is ashen. “I think perhaps the fire brigade passed and sideswiped her.”

“So what are you going to do now?”

“I went into the canal with a rope at low tide last night, to look for what was there.”

“How? In your trousers?” I obviously don’t know what else to say. Trousers? It was five degrees centigrade on the Sunday of the Madonna of the Salute, and a driving wind from the north called bora was thrusting wet snow over Venice and the lagoon.

“No, I had taken off my trousers. I managed to pull up the motor, and you know, it started on the first try. But the boat, no. I am afraid that is now completely lost. When the motor started at five o’clock this morning, I just smoked a cigarette and went to bed.”

I suggest that the protagonist of the dialogue, the same man who would advise us to stay indoors last spring for fear of viral infection and nervous exhaustion, has been using a drug all his life—the tranquilizer called human dignity—to keep the world at bay. This is evident from his comportment in the face of loss, something with which all the great families of Venice are familiar. Alberto’s have long lost the Palazzo Cavalli-Franchetti, built in the mid-1400’s and occupied first by the Condotierre Cavalli, then by the Counts Pepoli, who established there the famous music academy of the Rinovati, then by Archduke Frederick of Austria, and finally by Alberto’s great-grandfather, the noted composer Alberto Franchetti. And they have lost their other, even more splendid seat, the Ca’ d’Oro, “perhaps the most famous house of the Grand Canal,” according to the Eleodori Palaces and Families, “to be compared only to the Palazzo Ducale for the richness of its decorations,” which was eventually bequeathed to Venice together with its important collection of paintings. And now the boat. Now I ask you, is there anything in Hemingway’s life and work which even comes close to this as a test of character?