BRITISH INTELLIGENCE ABROAD
LETTERS FROM VENICE (6)
1st October, 2020
I watch two canottieri from a local club pass quickly across the field of my vision. They are dressed alike in a powder blue uniform and row vigorously, in rhythm with each other, standing like gondolieri. The vessel they are in is a wooden canoe, slightly narrower and shorter than a gondolier, and flat-bottomed. They are 80 yards out on the sea, standing inside the boat rather than on the raised aft like the gondolieri. Behind them I make out the dark blue smudge of the Dolomites.
Last night, unable to sleep, I found I could recite the following in the correct sequence – the divinely named Celestia (closest to me), Ospedale, Fondamenta Nove, Orto, San Alvise, Tre Archi, Crea, Guglie, Riva de Biasio, Ferrovia, Piazzale di Roma, Santa Marta, San Basilio, Zattere, Spirito Santo and then, along the Giudecca, Sacca Fisola (a name sounding revoltingly anatomical), Molino Stucky, Palanca, Redentore, Zitelle, San Giorgio, San Zaccharia, Arsenale, Giardini, Sant’Elena, San Pietro di Castello, Certosa ( a separate island), Bacini and back to Celestia. These make a perfect circuit on the number 4 and 5 boat routes round the periphery of the whole of Venice. The fact that I can recite them in order is indicative of the fact that I am beginning to get a sense of the city as an integrated whole. By now I have also been on foot in all six of the Sestieri although I didn’t know the name of one of them. I am getting a sense of how it all joins together and of its proportions. Joseph Brodsky reckons that it takes about an hour to walk from one end to the other. I am also feeling that it is a city in which, putting the vast tourist population aside, real inhabitants live. I have discovered sporting clubs – Venezia FC in the third division (but they have been in Serie A several times) actually have a ground hidden away at one end of the island, the only one in the league reached principally by boat – old peoples’ homes, schools, universities and hospitals. Yesterday I found there was a municipal library nearby which I will visit tomorrow. I know how to sort and on what days to hang the different types of rubbish from the front door. I have a sense of locality. I have also noticed the blindingly obvious. People in this other-worldly city speak Italian which means that this wonder of the world is in Italy as opposed to being a startlingly unique location fallen from the skies and independent of everything else in the world. It shares a territory with Rome, Milan and Florence and, so, is grounded (as much as it can be) within a single polity. As a result of this discovery I advert sluggishly to the fact that I can attempt to improve my Italian here as well as anywhere on the mainland.
I order a simple acqua frizzante and it arrives with a tall glass full of ice with a thick segment of lemon and in a heavy glass bottle. The waiter unscrews it, places it before me and walks away. I squeeze a large dose of lemon juice into the glass. The ice cold drink is thrilling and cleansing. I am sitting on a terrace projecting into the sea of what must be one of the great promenades of Europe –the Fondamenta Zattere. The Giudecca canal, in front of me, is not really a canal but a 250 yard wide shipping lane thronged with every kind of vessel from the size of a rowing boat to, on occasion, the Passenger Liners held in such derision by some Venetians. It’s like Piccadilly Circus on water. Opposite I survey the low, even skyline of the facades on the Giudecca, beautifully punctuated and dominated only by the three churches in sequence of Redentore, Zitelle and, as a perfect full stop, San Giorgio, and fronted by the orange-topped piers of the boat stations. Above all of this is a perfect blue sky streaming with sunlight in which I am happy to bathe. To my left I look down the wide Fondamenta Zattere disappearing to a vanishing point, somewhere beyond the golden ball of the Punta della Dogana, past the high shoulders of the Gesuati. People disappear into or emerge from this distance as I watch. It is a perfect compostion. Green seawater sloshes and spills onto the Fondamenta.
Twenty minutes later I am at the Ca’ Rezzonico, the Museum of 18th Century Venice – the period before the terminal decline which came with the end of the Republic in 1797 when Napoleon arrived and then departed handing Venice over to the conservative and repressive Austrian Empire. It is a baroque container of marvels which I only leave three hours later in a state of exhaustion to sit, my legs dangling over the edge of a canal, grateful to be resting while consuming life-saving and wonderful pear and lemon sorbets bought from a shop on the Campo San Barnaba. Mounting to the first floor I am ushered into the vast ballroom which is two stories high and contains the largest golden chandeliers I have ever seen. The Rococo furniture is extraordinary. Ebony blackamoors with glaring eyes made in white paste with rusting metal chains around their necks make jardinières and even the supports for the arm rests on the chairs heavily carved with human forms on every available wooden surface. There are also life size similar figures with clubs and horse’s heads at their feet. A suite of ten more rooms ensues notable for four of Tiepolo’s extraordinary ceiling frescoes, one of which shows Marital Harmony and a host of accompanying virtues. Soft radiant light stream from heaven as putti gambol about the cloud-borne chariots of the protagonists crossing the skies so triumphantly above us. There are gorgeous pastel portraits, glass chandeliers from Murano, and rooms complete with green-laquered chinoiserie in the furniture and the décor. Everywhere is resplendent decadence.
The second floor contains the Portego Picture Gallery with paintings by Venetians such as Lunghi, Guardi and Canaletto together with lovely, sadness-tinged landscapes by Zucarelli. Finally there are the zany, ironic frescoes of Giandomenico Tiepolo. I reach the top and third floor, already tired, to encounter the Egidio Martini collection of literally hundreds of paintings from the Veneto. It is this that finishes me off. I descend to the floor giving onto the Grand Canal. On the small pier I step back to look at the façade, noticing that the low chain across the edge of the pier is the only thing between me and the water just in time. The façade bears gigantic grotesques peering down onto the passing boats – art truly in the service of power.
I depart through a courtyard under the building where Robert Browning died. Sitting there is a beached 18th century gondola complete with the little black shed on board you see in Canaletto paintings and in which one imagines many a water-borne tryst took place.