CORRESPONDENCErnLetter From Venicernby Curtis CaternIllusion and Reality,rnThen and NowrnYears ago—so long ago indeed that I hesitaternto record the date—a wise lady ofrnHungarian origin said to me in Vienna:rn”Oh, to be able to see Venice again forrnthe first time!” It was one of those casualrnremarks which, behind the smiling maskrnof a truism, reveals a hidden, monitoryrndepth.rnContrary to what Thomas Jeffersonrnand many other 18th-century optimistsrnbelieved, human happiness is not somethingrnthat can be methodically pursued.rnIn its supreme forms or visitations, wherernit approaches or attains the pinnaclernof ecstasy, it is a delicious surprise, arn”gift of the gods,” and for all of us thatrnblessed moment when the expectation isrnequaled or surpassed by the attainment.rnIt is that magic instant, so delicatelyrnevoked by Joyce, when on the occasionrnof his first kiss, his autobiographical hero,rnStephen Daedalus, experienced with arnthrill the “soft, sweet swoon of sin.” It isrnthat extraordinary moment in the life of arnyoung male, described by Stendhal withrnsuch psychological penetration in LernRouge et le Noir, when for the first timernan adolescent proves his virility with therntrembling consent of his female partner.rnIn citing these two examples, I do notrnwish to suggest that the “firstness” of anyrntruly happy experience is limited to eroticrnpleasure—which fortunately for all ofrnus is not the case. It is simply becausernVenice —the serenissima Republic ofrnthe Doges, the proud maintainer of arnMediterranean fleet that was long arnmatch for all others, the home of PaolornVeronese, of Jacopo Robusti (betterrnknown as a dyer’s son by his nickname ofrnTintoretto), of Tiziano Vecellio (whomrnKenneth Clark once called the greatestrnportrait painter of all time)—was also therncity of that exuberant lecher, GiovannirnGiacomo Casanova, and of his libertinernfriend, “Abbate” Lorenzo da Ponte—thernpoet and librettist who persuaded Mozartrnto compose Don Giovanni.rnTwo centuries ago, many were therntravelers who came to Venice withrnno clearly defined impression of thernwonders that awaited them. They werernmoved by the vivid tales they had heardrnof this floating city and which, like everythingrnread or heard about, were embellishedrnand embroidered in their feverishrnimaginations. But in our age of illustratedrnmagazines, travel leaflets, and touristrnposters, this kind of visual innocence hasrnvirtually ceased to exist. The no longerrndistant destination must now vie with thernpre-existing photographic image which,rneven before the alluring goal is reached,rnhas robbed it of much of its mystery.rnFor this 20th-century plight there isrnof course a kind of ersatz remedy orrncrutch —the hired or self-appointedrntourist guide. As the great art historian,rnErnst Gombrich, has never ceased tornpoint out, knowledge of the circumstancesrnin which a great painting, a greatrnpiece of sculpture, or a great edifice wasrncreated adds to one’s enjoyment of whatrnmight otherwise be casually dismissed asrninexplicably puzzling, quaint, and deplorablyrn”unmodern,” just one morernartistic extravaganza sponsored or financedrnby members of an inexcusablyrnpampered “leisure class” (to use the languagernof Thorstein Veblen). The extentrnto which the puritanical “subconscious”rnadversely affects and cripples aestheticrnjudgments is, I think, matched in ourrncontemporary democratic world only byrnthe crass ingratitude the willfully ignorantrntourist displays towards extraordinaryrnworks of art that it took years, andrnsometimes even decades, to complete.rnFor the willfully ignorant tourist is also,rnin this age of supersonic transport andrnspoudiphilia (love of haste) the itinerantrntourist-in-a-hurry. As my brother, nornlover of museums, once said to me, afterrnaccompanying a Canadian friend to thernPalace of Versailles, “I normally gornthrough a museum on a bicycle, but hernroared through on a motorbike!”rnWhen I made my first visit to Venicernin 1949 —for the truth at last “mustrnout”—the floating city did not yet boastrnan airport. It was linked to the mainlandrntown of Mestre (since become, o scandalrnof scandals, an oil-refining center) by arnnarrow causeway paralleled by a trackrnleading to the railway station. I arrivedrnwith a friend by car (more exactiy a Jeep),rnwhich we left in a large garage or autorimessa,rnwhich to this day adjoins thernPiazzale Roma and the fluvial terminusrnfor the vaporetti that ply up and down thernGrand Canal. Night had already fallen,rncloaking the darkly silhouetted buildingsrnin a mantle of nocturnal mystery in thernmidst of which, like golden sequins, arnrow of receding birthday candles seemedrnto offer us a wobbly greeting.rnEven though it was undertaken in arndiesel-powered vaporetto (steam-drivenrnriver ferries were already a thing of thernpast), that first trip up the Grand Canal,rnwith a long necklace of lanterns illuminatingrnthe facades of neo-Gothic palazzi,rneach with its small wooden wharf andrngaily colored barber-poles for the hitchingrnof its gondolas, was an unforgettablernexperience. Had I been richer, I wouldrnhave insisted on making the tiip by gondolarn—then, as now, an expensive luxuryrnreserved for leisurely millionaires.rnIt was only much later, when I was doingrnresearch for my biography of GeorgernSand —whose Lettres d’un voyageurrn(written during her six-month stay inrn1834) are among the most enchantingrnpages ever written about this city by arnnon-Italian author—that I realized whatrnI had missed. Her description of her ownrnapproach to Venice with her poet-loverrnAlfi-ed de Musset is worth quoting, if onlyrnas a sad reminder of how much ourrnmodern, time-pressed world has lost inrnterms of slowly unfolding beauty everrnsince the automobile replaced the horseand-rnbuggy, and the water-churning vaporettornthe kind of hooded gondola,rnpoled by three stout gondoliers, in whichrnthe two French “honeymooners” werernsilently propelled toward the heart of therncity.rnSuspended like a lantern over therntwinkling lights of the Giudeccarnwaterway up which they were gliding,rnthe moon now came into viewrnwith an almost theatiical sense ofrntiming, a sultry, heavy-liddedrnmoon, against whose huge blood-rn34/CHRONICLESrnrnrn