Last week we left Venice with about half an hour to spare, an unanticipated but not completely unwelcome sense of melodrama that somehow felt consistent with the theatricality of the city. The waters at eight in the morning were already rising to new historical levels which had been heralded early in the morning with strange sirens and unfamiliar sounds of industry, I looked out of the window onto the Grand Canal in the cold light with a sense of anxiety, the waters rise would have prevented our boat from passing under the bridges on route to the airport, so quick call to the taxi service brought it around to the palazzo earlier than planned.
It took us out to the Grand Canal before sharply turning in again to the cities dark waterways. The driver was young and we were to discover held reckless tendencies. He had announced his insolence early by asking for a cigarette when we boarded and then initiated what he might consider a flirtation with us for the duration of the ride, leaning back to talk to us with obvious casualness, but it was halfhearted, charmless and inept….I felt he could have done better. This was a game to him, the tight canals and the perilous inch to spare when racing under the bridges, the open water to the airport with the waves thumping the hull of the boat, its engine speeding and buzzing like a dentist drill, our bag already carelessly soaking on its side. Mary was asking about the apparent lack of life jackets and already fearful towards this feckless progress, pale with the cold that she was developing. Looking back at the city, heavy and grey, one cloud high to our left was shaped like a human hand with a single accusing finger pointing downwards at one of the outlying islands. In moments like this, with extreme weather approaching and primal fear of the sea, it wasn’t hard to understand the power of religious belief, six hundred years earlier this image might have found itself on the walls of a church.
It was November and already we had experienced the Acqua Alta which plaques Venice at this time of year due to the rising tides. In the alley at the entrance to our hotel temporary wooden benches were placed each morning so we could walk over the waters that breach the canals banks. Should you wish to walk to Saint Marks then wellingtons or throw away plastic boots are required to keep your shoes dry; wearing these, like I did, you are unambiguously a tourist. But this day was to be special, there were high winds, sirocco’s that had come up from North America and storms over the Tyrrhenian Seas creating surges which lead to some of the highest waters in history. We counted our blessings, watching it unfold later that day on Television comfortably in our hotel in Vienna, images of flooded stores, ruined merchandise and people wading thigh high through the brown water.
But why go to Venice at all in November or the winter months? We had two, perhaps three goals, and, as they say; it seemed like a good idea at the time. The first was to catch up with friends who had moved from New York, the second to see the last days of the contemporary art biannual and finally was simply to get absorbed in something that was not New York, to be removed from our regular life. We had not accounted for the weather. Arriving late on a dark, wet Friday evening we shared the Alilaguana vaporetto with an excitable French family, trawling slowly through the inky, half lite canals. Then waking to a Canaletto day, opening the window to the city’s main artery which was already alive with traffic, the sky as blue as a robin’s egg and a winters conundrum; cold in the shade and warmth in the sun. We were staying in the grandly named Doge’s room which had thirty feet ceilings embellished with cherubs floating in a dreamily blue sky, on the walls faded mirrors, gilded wood and rich wallpaper, a grandiloquent, typically Venetian, confusion. A room that reminds you not to take this city too seriously or to believe in its surfaces which hide all manner of builders shortcuts, economies and mistakes, its pompous swagger and assurance that for me is irritatingly Italian to its core; full of ornament and weighed down by the curse of pride.
The contemporary art Biennale, as its name suggests, comes around once every two years and it’s needed in this crusty city, scattering itself around churches, halls and squares. Its main space is in the large Arsenalle building, a curated exhibition with artists from multiple countries represented. It is a big deal to be selected, to represent your country, an Olympian honor that is frequently difficult to rise up to. But walking around the exhibition I had the sensation of going around an art fair or a cluster of commercial galleries, by which I mean attempting to absorb the art while at the same time being overly aware of all the others around me jostling to do the same, uncomfortably negotiating the shared space, a constant distraction. When we talk to artists they are increasingly dismissive of these attempts at global surveys, they say that they see the same handful of participants, the same mediums and strategies, that it’s increasingly pointless in our modern world of instantly available images. Yet in practice it is enormously popular with the public, and that something else we turn our noses up at if we are being honest. We convince ourselves that the Art world used to be a small one, a place for long drunken, happy discourse and tight communities, now its opened up to a different group entirely and so we were quick to leave the show with a feeling that it was repetitive and redundant, a contest for the brightest, most photogenic, the most recognizable pieces. But I have doubts about all this now and think the art world was probably always like this, each passing generation lamenting the past and complaining about the new.
I am glad that we did not to the show’s openings, the “vernissages” with all the art world air kissing, the party lines and the guest lists; I’m too thin skinned for all that. And anyway I feel as though I’ve seen it a thousand times, the rawest, most naked form of human behavior on full view, the pruning, the territorialism, the fights and the hierarchies. Should Jane Goodall witness this she might be appalled and regret all the years spent in the discomfort of the African bush. It is of course the tribal and adolescent that is most offensive, like being a member of a gang or a fraternity, the “A” lists and the “B” lists created in order to protect and elevate such insubstantial talent, such transient fame. There are the cool kids hanging out together, just like it was at high school, except they are now in their fifties and sixties, still with an unresolved need for admiration, we can read it plainly on their faces and in their ill-advised skinny jeans and sneakers. I was thankful to be away from this art of our time, even the show of the dour Belgian Luc Tuymans, one of my favorites, was underwhelming in this city of Bellini, Tintoretto, Veronese, Giorgione and Turner.
But this negativity was coming from somewhere else, specifically from the outside, where the winter sun was now shining down on Venice and I was burning to out on the streets, away from all this commodification. We escaped to the Island of Burano, on holiday at last! And to a fish restaurant recommended to us as I had ink squid risotto on my mind, something salty and tender, fresh from the lagoon. But when small squid arrived to start I found myself a little squeamish, affronted by their sensuality and the rawness, its fleshiness. We were ripped off sensationally at the restaurant, deliberate misunderstandings by a surly waiter and a huge bill left both sides unhappy and illustrated this uneasy coexistence between the locals and tourists.
The beauty of Venice is that we see the same cityscape that a person from the fifteenth century would have seen, it is a city largely unchanged and for a modern observer, this is what makes the city remarkable. In our own country we struggle maintain roads or bridges or to build the most basic infrastructure project, and yet starting a thousand years ago this miracle of engineering, art and business grew over a short period to become the capital of the world. And it did so without resources other than salt and sand, just a wooden settlement on the edge of the sea. But it did have a location poised on the edge of Europe, a perfect port for the rest of the world and the land based silk routes to China, famously Marco Polo travelled far and wide, trading and administering but he was one of many, and that spirit and ambition seemed to radiate from this place.
We come here from all over the world to look at the past, but we know that are also looking at the future, one day I believe New York’s downtown, the East and West Villages, SoHo, Wall street will all be flooded, Spring and Canal streets reclaiming their inheritance, Miami too, the whole east board of the USA will succumb to the Oceans rise. How equipped will we be? I suspect we will be looking at the conclusion reached by the architects, city planners and builders in Venice to see how we can adapt…or perhaps this will be all too much ambition and the place will be abandoned.
Is it an ordeal to live in this city, we ask ourselves, how do they do it? Putting aside the visual harmony, how do they manage with this extraordinary influx of tourism which must be a cat and mouse game between locals and outsiders who arrive on masse from their cruise ships? I sensed anger several times at our questions for directions and moments of hesitation down fast moving alleys and thorough fairs. But mainly I was annoyed at the tourists, many who didn’t seem to know how to handle the Cities energy and small spaces and would block routes or walk while staring at their cell phones. We have to assume that this many outsiders must have a crushing impact on the culture of the city. In the most popular months they outnumber locals six to one and traversing the city is difficult. Their behavior is criticized, and for good reason, if you look on the internet there are several forums where locals post images of tourists with their shirts off, large white stomachs, drinking beer on the streets, and women in revealing casual sportswear amongst the familiar sights. It’s not the only city to be scarred permanently by providing tourists their needs, cheap restaurants and souvenirs that I uncharitably guess have been made in China only to be sold to the Chinese but because of its size and narrow streets they are unmissable and a nuisance. Perhaps it is people like us who are even worse ones in our pursuit of “authenticity”, that holy grail of travel, the “real” Venice, our clumsy attempts to blend. We are the ones that encroach upon local restaurants, go out of our way to find unpopulated, local districts. I have been to these out of way places several times where I’ve felt like a rat in a maze, finding myself going down the same familiar alleyways, passing streets I’d recently gone by, circular pointless journeys both frustrating and inexplicably prophetic. Venice suffers the fate of every beautiful old city, a kind of schizophrenia where one city is revealed to tourists while the other is hidden from their sight
This time I had more of a grip on it, felt more positive about its possibilities and on the last evening, drinks at the Gritti Palace and quiet walk home in the wonderfully empty lanes leading to our hotel and the sound only of our footsteps echoing thorough the cities tight corridors, I recognized for the first time that it’s also a manipulative place and pulls on your heart strings. It is the most improbable and difficult city I can imagine to live in but already Mary was hinting at spending some time here in retirement and slowly I allowed myself to be seduced at the idea, fantasies emerged and perhaps I will play an unconvincing Dirk Bogarde here towards the tail end of my life. I concluded that there is something profoundly human about the city and that’s what draws us in, we are aware of its disorder and slow death, its vulnerabilities and audacity, a high low mix of decadence and decline, something that has been ongoing since the 16th century. The city has arteries, veins and capillaries, lungs and kidneys. We recognize also its wear and tear from the weather, the sea persistently peeling it and exposing its age, like an act of cruelty to an elderly person, increasingly see ourselves in this cityscape as we too grow older. It a miracle that the City was built at all, it was and still is being repaired and renovated by the heart not the brain, we look back at our ancestors in wonder and not a little envy, there are few comparable achievements in history.