‘Perhaps I am afraid of losing Venice all at once, if I speak of it.’ – Italian Calvino
Venice is a city that appears to have sprung up perfectly formed from within the pages of a storybook, and yet it is slippery to capture with words. Its magic is unique and timeless, every street a miracle of melancholy beauty.
I had been to Venice before, in the burning summer sun, when the streets were crowded and the canals humming. My first glimpse of the city came from the window of a train, speeding along the causeway through the lagoon. Stepping out onto the bridge across the canal with the man who was to become my husband, we found ourselves in a maze of backstreets, winding our way between peeling facades, alongside tranquil canals and over curved bridges. I fell immediately and irretrievably in love with this unreal city that revealed marvels around every one of its innumerable corners. The days that we spent there that summer became like a treasure that I held close, occasionally drawing them out to gaze at and marvel over.
It was sixteen years before we were able to return to the city again. On hearing that we had visited many years previously, Venetians exclaimed ‘ahhh, but Venice, she does not change.’ They were right. Grand old lady Venice, a fading belle, clutches her fur coat close around her as the glamorous Venetian ladies do in the wintertime, and touches her elegantly coiffured hair- the gentle marks of time only adding to her eternal beauty.
This time, we arrived in Venice on a February morning. It was my birthday. We stopped at a tiny cafe in the Campo Santa Margherita, the sign on its facade reading simply ‘ Caffe.’ Inside, on the bar, stood a glass case filled with cornettos, and an enormously grand brass coffee machine with a golden eagle perched atop. Pigeons periodically fluttered in from the sunny square, flew once around and out again. We sipped macchiatos on the window seat and ate buttery pastries clutched in paper napkins, as the morning sunlight collected around us in pools.
In the square beyond the window, Venetians stopped at the flower stall, shopping bags in hand, trailing small dogs on leads. The stallholder served up smiles, and wrapped bunches of roses, tulips and lilies in sheets of bright paper. The fruit-seller set aside his barrow for a moment and ducked into the cafe for a swift espresso at the bar, the bartender greeting him by name.
It is not so much that I am afraid of losing Venice if I speak of it, but more that I must accept the impossibility of putting its dreamlike charms into words. As we walked the streets, my patient husband stopping every few moments for me to pause and photograph a doorway or a shadow, a shopfront or a sign, I found myself jotting down a list of sights that I wanted to remember. These were not the Venice’s grand buildings and impressive landmarks (though of course we saw and wondered at many of these), but a handful of the tiny details that make up life in this strange and wonderful city.
I want to remember the early morning barges gliding through the silent canals, laden with boxes, and the delivery men who unload these boxes to the quays, tossing them easily, one to another. The floating fruit and vegetable stall, laden with bright and tempting produce, and beside it, the smallholder peeling fleshy globe artichokes, pale petals piling up beside him. I want to remember the lady leaning out of her window overlooking Campo San Polo, a small watering can in her hand, to tend to the bright cyclamen adorning her windowsill.
The handwritten signs on walls above shop windows: ‘Rialto’ and a feathery arrow. Gondoliers in striped T-shirts joking with one another as they peddled their trade on a bridge. A smart Venetian gentleman greeting a poised Venetian lady in the street and exchanging kisses: ‘Ciao Sorella!’ ‘Ciao Nesto’. These are the moments that I hope not to forget.
I think of distressed glass mirrors and sparkling chandeliers, of a lone butterfly fluttering in the sunshine on white stone steps of the church of San Rocco, a man in velvet cape, strolling past smoking a cigarette. The monogrammed brass doorbells in distressed brick wall outside our apartment, and the curly haired busker with a ukelele, cheerfully strumming in a patch of warmth in a deserted square. Around every corner there was a story untold, a poem waiting to be written.
Venice wears the hazy winter sunshine like an expensive silk gown. The milky light slides over grand palazzos and humble backstreets alike, reflecting off buildings with a soft pink glow. On the pavements, shifting puddles of light form. The sun glitters over the surface of the canals like gold, dressing the city in the jewels of which she is so deserving. A love of Venice never leaves you: her ineffaceable melancholy beauty does not change. I hope that it never will.
For DH (1931-2019), who also loved Venice. With love.