BRITISH INTELLIGENCE ABROAD
LETTERS FROM VENICE (3)
1st July 2020
It feels like a discretion and a gentleness that, in Venice, where bells ring often and sometimes with insistence and proximity, they seldom seem strident or jarring. There is always a pleasingly muffled quality about them. Similarly, if one has turned in early on a Saturday night and excited Italian voices and accelerating footsteps pass close to one’s ground floor windows the voices never feel coarse or abrasive. In no way do they seem to invade or assault semi-waking figures stretched in sleep. Why this should be is certainly debatable. One is tempted to think that it is simply due to the benign genius of the place and the people and that there is calculation in such benignity. Perhaps, though, there is a more scientific explanation. Perhaps the pealings of the bells, striking the hours or calling to prayer, are diminished and absorbed by the water below or by the volume of buildings, which dampen the sounds with softly ricocheting echoes or, yet again, by the surrounding atmosphere, so laden with moisture is it. Perhaps the language that the people are speaking has a fluid kindness to it. Whatever the explanation the effect is one of understatement and consideration and one feels grateful that it is so.
Opposite the front door of my flat and across the yard or two of paved alleyway which passes it is a long mesh fence. This is succeeded by a few feet of vegetation and, then, the wall of a long, high building. Two floors up, where this building meets the intersecting Calle San Francesco there is an enclosed wooden walkway traversing the gap to the side of the building opposite. This building then continues for a hundred yards along the canal-side Fondamenta in the direction of the sea at the Northern edge of town. After a few days, emerging at the same time as hundreds of adolescents converge on the Fondamenta I realise that I am living in a school district. Arriving on the first day I had noticed from the bridge a section of building with a battered baroque façade bearing the anciently stenciled words – Liceo Scientifico. I had simply assumed that these represented a function long past as with so many other buildings in Venice. It hadn’t crossed my mind that that function might be extant. Some days later, one or two streets away, I notice a hidden doorway surmounted by the words Liceo Linguistico and, then, a day after that, returning from the Vaporetto stop, I see a mother speaking to a nun in a doorway and, from the babble of the many voices behind the nun, I realise that there is also a primary school in the district.
If you turn right by the massive church of San Francesco you pass under another longer walkway linking buildings held aloft at the level of the first floor by large, round columns. If you cross the next canal you soon find yourself in shopping streets with a distinctly local feel. There is a pet shop, an old-fashioned hardware shop and a shop which conceals and does not advertise its depths which, on entering, you find to be full of artists’ supplies, including packets of the solid, coloured glass pipes and fragments used in the flamework which you see on Murano, together with a large selection of paintbrushes and tubes of paint. This area serves the quiet district in which I find myself and seems a secret hidden in the back streets.
I jump on the boat for the Cemetery island of San Michele intent on viewing the graves of the famous buried there. I have read that, in the Protestant (Evangelisti) section, lie the bodies of Ezra Pound and the Russian dissident, Nobel prize-winner, Joseph Brodsky. Brodsky became an American after leaving the USSR and wrote in English. I have noticed his book on Venice, Watermark, in a lovely bookshop near to the Campo Zanipolo where I often sit and read over an americano. In the Greek and Russian Orthodox sections of the cemetery are to be found the graves of Diaghilev and of Igor Stravinsky and his wife. I disembark and quickly find the sheaf of A4 size maps at the entrance lodge which indicate the whereabouts of the illustrious dead. Imagine my disappointment when, finding the two sections side by side I discover that both have been taped off with police tape from which hangs a notice forbidding entry to them alone for reasons of a 2014 act regarding the use of chemicals. By the entrance of the Orthodox section there are chemical carts and sprayers on the floor. I make a swift decision and pass under the tape of the Protestant section, swiftly locating Brodsky’s clean and modern grave (he was buried in 1996) whose headstone bears his name in both roman and cyrillic characters. I am unable to locate Pound’s grave and, wishing to avoid a confrontation with a guardian, I step back into the main body of the cemetery. I don’t attempt the Orthodox section deciding to return on another day.
On leaving I spot a notice bearing a picture of a race of seagull – gabbione or, in Latin, Larus Michahellis - which, it explains, soils the gravestones when it breeds on the island. For this reason they have installed loudspeakers at strategic points amongst the mausoleums, family vaults and gravestones which emit loud recordings of seagull alarm calls, destined, they hope to frighten away the offending seabirds.
As the vaporetto approaches my home stop of Ospedale I notice, bolted on top of the modern four storey hospital building behind a high wall on the quayside, a large circular helicopter landing pad. Glancing down one of the canals leading into the city as I walk along the Fondamenta Nove I catch sight of gondoliers punting casually while consulting their mobile phones unbeknown to their passengers.
On my way home I duck into the Calle Fumo to buy the glass insects which my wife has selected from pictures I have sent her. I have chosen a Monarch butterfly, a green iridescent beetle and a small red-eyed fly. They are all made by the world famous flame worker - 72 year old Vittorio Constantini who, once he has put aside the fish he was working on, wraps the objects in much cotton wool before accepting payment in cash (with a 10% discount) as, he assures me, his card machine is broken. Earlier in the day, at the Glass Museum on Murano, I had seen some of his gorgeous creatures on a table ready for a new display which opens next week.
I return and, a child of my time, download the Kindle edition of Brodsky’s English language essay on Venice for £5 instead of the 16 Euros asked for by the bookshop. My guilt in not subscribing to local business is assuaged without too much difficulty as the Euro price seems grossly over-inflated even though it is a foreign language book. The opening pages describe his midnight arrival in the city at the Santa Lucia railway station, stepping out onto the Fondamenta to be met by a beautiful Venetian academic, the only person he knows in the city, and, immediately, I know that I have found a new author to give me great pleasure. His prose is muscular and quirky with many asides and jokes and I view the 140 pages ahead of me with excitement.