The Quiet Italian


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Once I met a man who did not travel. He lived in the Swiss city of Locarno, on Lago Maggiore — the city, famous now for its film festival, that Hemingway’s Frederic Henry rows across the Italian border to reach in A Farewell to Arms, making his sad separate peace with the Great War. It is a city of transit, a place to hide money, and probably my acquaintance knew about all that, for he was an investment counselor from an old family, a local pol, too, a man who looked as comfortable in a good suit as the rest of us do in jeans. But he did not travel. His wife might go to India or America, his children as well; he couldn’t even be bothered to cover the hour or so to Milan. Locarno had all the cultural and commercial amenities he needed, the lake was beautiful, and the surrounding mountains were high and cool. So he stayed put. Except that every now and then, not often but enough for it to be noted, he would call a cab and have it take him across the north of Italy to Venice.

I don’t know how he got home — maybe he caught the train, maybe he found a second taxi at the Venetian parking garage in Piazzale Roma. But his eccentricity and extravagance has stayed with me, and his logic, too. In Invisible Cities Italo Calvino has Marco Polo claim that his every description says something about Venice, that it “remains implicit” in his account of other places, providing the norm from which he distinguishes them. Yet for most of us, it’s Venice itself that looks marked off from the rest. It is the city least like any other, and the man from Locarno went there because it gave him something he couldn’t get elsewhere — not just a particular monument like the Eiffel Tower or the Colosseum, but an entire and unmatchable urban experience. If we travel for difference, then he had found a way to encompass the maximum of change with the minimum of effort.

Even footsteps sound differently there, as I was reminded on a visit this January. The streets are paved with flagstones, and your heel makes a hollow sound as it hits. There must be pockets of air underneath, for those flagstones rest on wooden pilings, millions of them driven into the silt of the Venetian lagoon, a precarious foundation for the weight of brick and stone they must bear. So your shoes strike like drumsticks, beating a slow march down the pavement; so different from Rome, where the noise is muffled by the absorbing power of its cobbled streets. Anyway, calling them streets pushes Venice towards a normality it refuses. Alley is better, or calle, vicolo, fondamenta — the last of these denoting a walkway alongside a canal, a kind of sidewalk along the water that itself forms the street proper.

Not that Venice has as many canals as it used to. Every now and then I find myself walking down a shop-lined way that seems unusually broad and straight, not by American standards but wide enough for boats to pass. One of them is called the Strada Nuova — the new street, because it was made in 1871 out of a filled-in canal. There are others, too, most of them dating to that same period, just after the unification of Italy, and for a time in those years there was even a debate about filling them all in and making the place modern. I don’t know how far the talk went or how long it lasted, or even whether the technology would have been up to it, but the Venetians settled for a causeway and a train station, and then the vaporetti, the steam launches that began running on the Grand Canal in the 1880s. Some purists — mostly English — were angry that they’d gone even that far, and maybe the city realized even then that modernity wouldn’t pay. The merchant fleets were not coming back, neither was the city’s once-great power, and any economic future lay in cultivating that sense of difference, as though the place now had nothing to live on but its beauty.

So the Venetians knew, before anyone, that their future lay in tourism. As early as 1882 Henry James noted that the place “scarcely exists any more as a city at all…[but] only as a battered peep-show and bazaar;” ravaged by the visitors who were nevertheless its sustenance. And for a century the whole trick of Venetian life lay in trying to contain the crowds, to funnel them along a few streets, the Rialto to the Accademia to San Marco. With a little invention and a willingness to get lost you could even tag along, arrowing down the narrowest calle in the hopes that it would lead somewhere; though as often as not, it would simply dead-end at a canal. But I am not sure it works anymore. Today we all know where to go in order to get away from ourselves, and even the once working-class district of Canareggio now has a few smart hotels; we count ourselves lucky if the other tourists in the restaurant are mostly European.

Yet there must have been a moment in the 19th century when Venice began to seem even stranger than ever. As wheeled vehicles — trains and tramlines and bicycles and carriages — became ever more important, ever more a part of the infrastructure of other great cities, Venice would have appeared even more unusual than before: No longer distinguished by the full range of the things that had once marked it out, its riches or courtesans or the peculiarities of its government, but solely by its topography. For that was what got left behind when the rest of it went, and the most aristocratic of Republics fell under the rule of the French, and then the Austrians, and then a united Italy. Even today the city looks at first to do without wheels. True, some of the campos, or squares, are just big enough for children to play with bicycles or scooters — a simulacrum of life outside — but grown-ups must walk and the motorboats aren’t allowed to rev up. Most of the noise you hear has stayed human, and a book of 19th century photographs seems to show you the city that you walk through still; you don’t have to edit out the automobiles before you can imagine the past. But of course almost all of it was old even then, and maybe that’s what made the vaporetto seem shocking. It was the only thing new in a town where almost everything modern could be avoided.

In his journals, John Cheever has a wonderful line about visiting classical sights in Rome, suggesting that we see them with a kind of double-vision, imagining them as populated not only by the ancients Romans but also by earlier generations of tourists, by our 19th century selves, all kitted out with parasols and beards. That effect is even stronger in Venice. Once again, no cars, and that allows us to fool ourselves into believing that the conditions of our visits don’t vary all that much from the way it used to be. But they do. We rented an apartment on an interior canal in Dorsoduro, maybe a five-minute dodge from the Accademia — four or five quick turns, and a bridge. The little stream was entirely lined with small boats — a slick motor, a deep-bottomed barge, a few rowboats with an outboard attached. But I never saw a boat go down our canal, and on the Grand Canal itself most of the water taxies are empty. The Venetians use the vaporetto as a quick way to get across, rather than walking to one of the Grand Canal’s three bridges, but even those of us willing to pop for the steeply inflated day-tickets they sell to non-residents spend much, much less of our time on the water than our predecessors did.


Gondolas are strictly a tourist business. Maybe the Venetians hire them for weddings, but they have long since ceased to be a way of getting around. My 1879 Baedeker notes that it then cost about a shilling to hire one from the train station to San Marco, but that was before the vaporetto, and such a journey would be ruinous today. We took a shorter ride — I’d always skipped it before — saying it was for the sake of our daughter, and hoping she’d remember it. And it’s true that gliding under the walls of a darkened palace did have all the magic it’s supposed to. It gave us the proper sense of mystery, of penetrating a place we could only reach by water — a better deal if more expensive than a carriage ride through Central Park. We listened to our gondolier’s misinformation about Marco Polo — my medievalist wife was inclined to argue — and more reliably learned that the city still manages to support 400 of them. And yes, he said, it would indeed be possible to hire a gondola for the day, to have it take you from church to church and store to store. But he laughed — he had never heard of such a thing, and was not young.

Even for James the city had already become “the most beautiful of tombs.” In 1879 Venice proper had 128,000 people, a drop of 40 percent from the end of the 18th century; now there are barely 60,000, and most of those who work in the city commute from Mestre, its more heavily populated mainland suburb. The city looks like the past, but the closer you peer the more that resemblance fades. We stood one night at the crest of the Accademia bridge, looking up the Grand Canal and saw — well, nothing. There wasn’t a light in the upper stories of any building we could see. The hotels were full but there was nobody at home, and while it’s true that many of the old palazzi along the Canal now have some official function, even the more modest streets down which we walked seemed darkened. They were often crowded, true, with voices in English and German and French, but anything that wasn’t a restaurant or a shop had gone black.

Few erstwhile Venetians can afford to live here, like cops and schoolteachers in Westchester; the rental market is too strong, the demand for second homes as well. It is a city where the local life has been trimmed away by the costs of its own pickled beauty. Our own building provides a good example: a German couple on the first floor, academics to judge by their mail, and then the rest of it divided between its owner and the short-term apartments he rented to people like us. Oh, there are pockets still. Every visitor now goes to Campo Santa Margherita, having heard it’s an untouristy place where actual Venetians still live, and it’s mostly true: The campo’s full-scale supermarket is a paradoxical sign of vitality. But those darkened buildings remain, and many apartments sit unoccupied, the property of families who have moved away but who cannot quite bring themselves to sell.

On this visit I found myself liking Venice best in the early morning, somewhere between seven and eight, when in the winter dawn it seems like any other city, only with water. The vaporetto is as yet uncrowded, the storefront shutters clang up, the streets are sprinkled with people on their way to work. I buy a newspaper, drink a cappuccino standing at the counter of a café where everyone who enters rubs himself against the cold, hunt out some rolls to bring home for breakfast. A greengrocer trims artichokes outside his shop, and I pass what I can only describe as a baker’s boy, carrying a wrapped tray of pastries. Other deliverymen are at work, too — only these make me realize that my Swiss friend was right. Outside a hotel I see the day’s laundry arriving, bags of sheets and towels handed off a barge, and then the garbage men are out in their barge, collecting from the bins along a canal, and on the wide Zattere a boat has backed into its mooring like a truck, with skids of groceries trundling off. A handtruck goes by loaded with building materials, only this barrow comes fitted with an extra set of wheels that help it to glide up and over the city’s bridges. Seeing it makes me realize just how labor-intensive this place remains, how much must still get done by hand. The early morning is a wonderful time in any town, but in Venice it is the hour at which you can best see all the contrivances that allow this city to function as though it were any other; contrivances that in doing so remind you that it is indeed like nowhere else on earth. • 18 February 2008


Michael Gorra teaches English at Smith College. His books include The Bells in their Silence: Travels through Germany and, as editor, The Portable Conrad.