Among the unaccountable peculiarities of this diary, and indeed of my general wav of seeing things, is that one can never expect to learn something of Capri from my impressions of Capri. And yet, I keep asking as though to placate myself, why should it be otherwise? I am aboard the Stamos with a group of friends who had foregathered at a beachfront villa in Sabaudia and then sailed the 90-foot catamaran—built to race in the Americas Cup—to Ponza, Ischia, and Capri. I don’t know anything about sailing apart from the Dutch naval terms that entered the Russian language at the time of Peter the Great. I don’t know any more about the Amalfi Coast than any sunburnt accountant who has ever eaten the insalata caprese or appeased his girlfriend with a pair of Capri pants in cerulean cotton twill. The sea is blue and warm, obviously. The coast, as anyone who has seen the Bay of Naples on the wall of a pizzeria can recall, is rocky and picturesque. The mozzarella is delicious, and the girls are buxom. So, what is there to say?

Besides, my mind is back in Venice, where I just learned that our landlady at the Palazzo Mocenigo, the young contessa with the lawyer whose verbs are always in a mysterious mood, does not intend to renew our lease when it expires in the autumn. I now need to find another place to live, one that would be cheap enough not to alienate myself from the affections of friends yet grand enough to strike fear in the hearts of enemies, one that would be beautiful enough to spin tales about yet modern enough to have central heating. As there are precisely 221 buildings on the Grand Canal, and fewer than half are in private hands, the task of finding an apartment to satisfy these modest demands is formidable, even from the point of view of simple statistics. But, as so often in life and always at roulette, the problem is less statistical than it is dramatic.

A neighbor at the Mocenigo was away in Apulia this summer. One day, when the tanned and rested Signor A—returned to Venice to check up on things back home, he saw scaffolding on his balcony. The management of the palazzo, whom he had been petitioning for years to make some repairs to the exterior, had finally brought the masons round but apparently neglected to tell him about the scheduled works. Concluding at once that the scaffolding had not been put up with the delicacy owed to the historic importance of his ancestral home, right then and there he suffered a heart attack. He is still in the hospital. But the gruesome punch line is that, during the previous decade, Signor A— had outlived, and buried, both of his sons, young men of great charm and abilih’, without any appreciable harm to his famously robust constitution. Losing both of one’s children in their prime, and looking nonetheless tanned and rested for it, is quite normal in this social environment. Losing some plaster curlicues on the front of your house is a different matter entirely.

I am convinced that back in 1851, at the world premiere of Verdi’s Rigoletto at the Fenice with Teresa Brambilla as Gilda, Raffale Mirate as the Duke, and Felice Varesi as Rigoletto, the audience applauded the new opera because, subconsciously, every Venetian interpreted the court jester’s madly possessive love for his daughter as an allegory of his own private feelings about his corporeal hereditament, meaning his house and all its movable heirlooms. “La donna è . . . mobile!” they probably thought; thats right, at last somebody’s said it, a woman is just like that fine pair of ormolu commodes I stand to inherit from my aunt. “Questa o quella?” sang the dissolute Duke, choosing the object of his seductive attentions, but the audience probably saw an unscrupulous foreigner ogling their palazzi on the Grand Canal (“What if it was your house?!”). And so on down to the final scene, in which the jester discovers his daughter felled by the vengeful blow he had sought to direct at her presumed seducer:

Gilda! Mia Gilda! . . . È morta! . . .Ah, la maledizione!

(Strappandosi i capelli, cade sul cadavere della figlia.)

Ah, the curse! (And, tearing at his hair, he falls upon the breathless body.) This is just how a Venetian of ancient lineage feels about the unforeseen outcome of a quarrel with an intransigent plumber or an avaricions plasterer. Miei pavimenti! My floors! (Only a barely audible creaking byway of reply.) Miei stucchi! My ceiling reliefs! (Waterlogged.) Le cose della mamma! Mommy’s things! (Sold at auction by the wastrel uncle.) Because the truth, which every charlatan beginning with Freud has made a living obfuscating, is that any human trait can work backward as well as forward. While a Viennese psychiatrist may well want to sleep in his mother’s canopied bed because it reminds him of his mother, a Venetian gentleman is far more likely to want to sleep with his mother because she reminds him of her canopied bed.

Given such intensity of natural feeling, suggesting that it may be rather easier to check into a Three-Star Kraut Excelsior & Rooms in Mantua with the virgin Gilda under the name of “Mr, & Mrs. Bill Gates” than to rent her father’s apartment in Venice on an honorable one-year, tourist-accommodation lease, it is hardly surprising that when I look at a piazza in Rome, a street in Milan, or, as now, a stretch of the Amalfi coastline, all I can really see is so much easily rentable, emotionally neutral lodging. The house on the Grand Canal, or more specifically the filet-mignon portion of it called the piano mobile, is all the Venetian nobil homo has in this world. It is the habitation of his dignity. To him, the house is a machine for feeling.

An added complication is that Venice—though more cosmopolitan, both by tradition and in actual fact, than all the rest of the great Italian cities—is a small town where everybody knows everything about everyone else, and literally none of it is ever remotely true. I say this advisedly. As a Russian, I am used to treating rumor and gossip as alternative channels of information, more trustworthy, if anything, than official news bulletins and press reports. As it happens, the local paper, Il Gazzettino, has just astonished Venice with the news that the American owner of the Palazzo Persico, directly across the Grand Canal from the Mocenigo, “rents out”—has rented? would rent? is thinking of renting? has had a dream in which she was going to rent? Italian syntax goes all coy at this juncture—”her piano nobile for $60,000 a month.” From this one may easily draw the mistaken conclusion that no rumor, and no gossip, can possibly be as false as what gets printed in newspapers.

In my childhood, we laughed at the question of whether it was true that a certain Armenian had won a million in die state lottery. The answer was: “Yes, it is true. But it wasn’t in the state lottery, it was at cards, and it wasn’t a million, it was a hundred roubles, and he didn’t win, he lost.” Whether the nice Mrs. Press rents out her apartment for $60,000, or $6,000, or $600 a month, there is still at least an element of truth in the Gazzettino story, whereas the things one hears at dinner at the Circolo, the gentlemen’s club where the city elders doze over their Camparis, are total, blinding, Byzantine inventions.

“Countess M— has run off with a Colombian drug baron. The count has eczema, caused, I happen to know, by a bad oyster he once ate in Monte Carlo. Later this year he will be going to Switzerland for prolonged specialist treatment. You should speak to his nephew in Milan, who is an important publisher of books on the history of dance, and he will almost certainly let you have the apartment.” Now the truth is that the nephew, a banker in New York, has not been to Italy since the age of three; that it was back in 1959 that the countess left her husband for an English racecar driver; and that the 82-year-old count, eczema or no eczema, is happily ensconced in his ancestral palazzo in the company of a raven-haired Brazilian dancer named Miu, whom he found through an Internet singles site. By the time you unravel the knot and follow up the lead, the old man drowns in his bath, Miu turns blonde, and die apartment is rented to a RAI television executive.

Byzantine indeed. “The worst,” as Byron noted of the people of Greece in whose service he was about to lay down his life,

is that (to use a coarse but the only expression that will not fall far short of the truth) they are such damned liars; there never was such an incapacity for veracity shown since Eve lived in Paradise. One of them found fault the other day with the English language, because it had so few shades of a Negative, whereas a Greek can so modify a “No” to a “Yes” and vice versa, by the slippery qualities of his language, that prevarication may be carried to any extent and still leave a loop-hole. . . . This was the gentleman’s own talk, and is only to be doubted because in the words of the syllogism “Now Epimenides was a Cretan.”

I suppose the moral of the story is that, after a year or two at the Palazzo Mocenigo, a man should go off and fight for Greek independence, especially if his lease has run out.