BRITISH INTELLIGENCE ABROAD
LETTERS FROM VENICE (2)
1st June 2020
Following a tip from Nige I head for Acqua Alta, a bookshop (largely second hand) in my neighbourhood. Acqua Alta is what the Venetians call the spring tides that sometimes flood Venice and require the bringing out of the duckboards in St Mark’s Square. I find the shop at the bottom of a small courtyard hiding behind a fig tree. On entering the first things I notice are an elderly male shop assistant wearing shorts and braces in the form of crossing over yellow tape measures (he is feeding two cats on the counter) and, secondly, and this causes me a double take, a full size gondola in the middle of the first room. It is filled and stacked up with books - twenty high. Penetrating further into other rooms I find canoes, wooden rowing boats and two bath tubs similarly spilling over with books. There is also a large surf board. Every room is floor to ceiling with books. At the back is one of several outside spaces where books continue to be piled, open to the elements. These books are stacked in regular piles with builders’ foam filling the interstices, binding them together. Wet leather suppurates. One of these spaces backs onto a canal but a high wall spoils the view. Nothing daunted the owners have built steps out of old encyclopedias, something which you can’t do with Wikipedia. The steps are topped with carpet squares screwed into the top book. I climbed them and looked down the canal.
In the seventh century a Bishop had a dream about a buxom and shapely Virgin Mary. I really don’t know what to say about that! There is, no doubt, much that could be said. Anyway they took him at his word and the church of Santa Maria Formosa was built. In the square surrounding the church I found what I had been looking for – a Farmacia. My Braun Oral-B toothbrush charger, in spite of having a twin-pronged plug, did not fit the Italian sockets in my flat so I had to buy a toothbrush. I learnt the word for toothbrush which couldn’t be more Italian – lo spazzolino. They came in three degrees of hardness – morbido, medio and duro. I bought uno spazzolino duro.
On the way back a builder standing in a long boat loaded bricks high in a wheelbarrow which another builder raised up to the third floor on a single wire with an electric winch, the overloaded wheelbarrow swinging above the guy in the boat as it rose.
Yesterday evening I went for a stroll in my neighbourhood. A few yards from my flat a door is left open all day. Inside, about twenty yards away I can see large paintings propped against a white-washed wall. One large one is always placed so that the door through which I look frames it perfectly from a distance. For the first few days of my stay the central painting was a section of the body of a crucified Christ done in a modern style. This evening it has been replaced by a painting of a dancing couple. They both wear large, billowing white shirts and the style is the same as that of the drapery in the Christ picture. The man holds the weight of the woman who is leaning back in his arms, both caught in movement.
Often the water in canals close to the edge of the city slaps and washes against their sides as though there is too much of it to be contained by the channels in which it runs, or as though the sea is trying to force too much water into the city. This evening, though, the sea at the edge is still, lapping and shimmering. I have walked a short distance through a poor area with red housing blocks to a Vaporetto stop, which I know from my map is closer than the stop where I alighted on my arrival. It is at the feet of one of the blocks which come right up to the water and is delightfully named Celestia. The housing blocks are separated by a narrow sea moat from the external walls of perhaps, along with Portsmouth’s, the most famous Dockyard in the world – the Arsenale. The walls are very high, made of orange and ancient brick and are topped with Ghibelline swallowtail battlements and sprouting vegetation. I discover that, contrary to the map, there is a raised metal walkway that one can follow, above the edge of the sea, all along the north-facing perimeter of the ancient dockyard where so many galleys were built. Tomorrow morning I will try this route in an attempt to get to the church of San Pietro in Isola, another with a Palladio façade set on a little island reached by bridges at the Eastern end of Venice.
In the morning I make my attempt, walking along the metal walkway bolted, ten feet above the sea, to the sea wall of the Arsenale. The walkway rises on steps midway to accommodate an arched sea entrance to the dockyard. Reaching the end I pass several gated, one-story row houses with, on Venice, of all things, small gardens. I see a small park garden and even a football pitch showing that, at this end of town, space is less at a premium than in the rest of Venice. I feel I am now lost and, in looking for a route to the San Pietro island, I follow a sign for part of the Architecture Biennale called, unaccountably, ‘Gangstory’ which is on throughout my stay. I pass through a boat shed fitted out with sterile canvases of photos of gondoliers or simply rows of dots and stripes. A man with a TV Camera is making a film of it occasionally pointing his camera at the ceiling. There is a spanking new café bar and an unmanned ticket desk. I pass through and emerge, to my surprise, on the dockside of the huge internal sea basin of the Darsena Grande, which was once the engine room of seafaring Venice. The vast dock is about a kilometer across and, unfortunately, I can see the roof of San Pietro on the other side. I explore along the dock for a little. I can see huge geometric shapes on the other side and a banner with the name of Norman Foster on it, also a submarine and Coast Guard vessels. I then encounter a gaggle of Italians, many young, in t-shirts and jeans, and some, elderly, in linen suits. A middle aged man perches on a tall step ladder taking photos of the focus of all their interest. This is a twelve foot high pyramid made out of taped together coloured hoops which, presumably, is a work of modern “art” in the Biennale. It all looks very serious and is typically Italian. They love this kind of loopy pointless stuff and would, no doubt, be horrified at my “emperor’s new clothes” reaction to it. There is something endearing about this crazy behaviour, though, if that doesn’t sound too patronizing.
Along the edge of the quayside are huge cast lions’ heads holding giant iron hoops in their mouths which serve as mooring points and, on the walls, here and there, the primitive lion of Venice is seen in relief.
I return through the boat shed, a patch of overgrown scrubland and along the metal walkway having failed to reach San Pietro.