BRITISH INTELLIGENCE ABROAD
LETTERS FROM VENICE (4)
1st August, 2020
Venice is a preposterous invention, a mental construction, a fantasy which has been, unaccountably, embodied. If it didn’t exist and someone suggested building a whole city on a petrified forest of tree trunks driven into the clay beneath mudflats, at the mercy of the sea, they would be considered insane. Because of this one always has the sense of walking through the capillaries, canals and divagations of someone’s brain. One is inhabiting a cerebral projection that has no more reality than a dream and which will vanish as soon as the power source is cut. And yet I have always assumed that my flesh and blood has substance and displaces the air around it and this corporality of mine, to all intents and purposes, seems to thread its way through the magical city. The paving stones of the calli and fondamente bear my weight as do the arched bridges taking me over the canals, and the green-shuttered buildings resist my urge to pass through them and disappear. And then, on top of these resistant facts, this phantasmal cake is iced with beauty, with the onion domes of St Marks, the pink stone of the Palazzo Ducale, the stark white facades of San Giorgio and the Redentore and the ever-changing reflections of the sea surrounding the city and in its canals.
I arrange my days in visits. In the morning I will see the Veronese paintings in San Sebastian and the Tiepolo in the Gesuati, taking boat numbers 4.2 and 2 to reach the far side of town. In the afternoon, on my return, I will visit Joseph Brodsky’s Watermark and Eugenio Montale’s Ossi di Seppia (Cuttlefish Bones) which I encountered too early at university and never got to grips with. Now I have a wonderful second hand library book from a school library in Connecticut. It is a hardback with the poems in the original Italian with excellent English translations by William Arrowsmith.
In this way I have two distinct modes of travel and both are equally exciting.
In gorgeous October sunshine I walk past the Arsenale to the Via Garibaldi in the East of Venice. I’ve been taking an interest so a detour through a park lined with an avenue of tall trees and benches causes me to wonder what the trees are. No sooner has the thought occurred to me than, half way down the avenue I spot two tree surgeons busy roping up to climb one of the trees. My guess is that these are lime trees so I ask one of the men who tells me they are ‘tigli’ – in other words limes. I’m very pleased with myself but even more pleased with the way in which my question was so swiftly and summarily answered when I thought it might never be.
From here to the Giardini Pubblichi where the Architecture Biennale is taking place. At the box office I buy a ticket to a concert of Ravel and Stravinsky being given in two days by, of all people, the London Sinfonietta. This is from the Music wing of the Biennale of course. The concert is to take place inside the vast Arsenale but the woman in the box office is unable to tell me how I access the theatre where the concert is being put on.
From here through a maze of streets to the bridge that leads onto the Island of San Pietro where I take in another Palladio church, one which was the Cathedral of Venice until 1807 – San Pietro di Castello. I thread my way towards the vaporetto and pass a large brick shed the high door to which has brown velvety curtains across it. It makes me curious and I pluck up the courage to part the curtains. It is part of the Biennale di Architettura tucked in an obscure backstreet in this quiet part of working class Venice. It says Free Entry in English and tells me that this section is dedicated to Barcelona. The long high shed is uninhabited except for a dutiful young woman who sits at a desk and smiles at me. I enter into the gloom and see around a dozen projectors suspended form the ceiling and a large number of screens forming a kind of winding corridor down the centre of the room. Projected onto the screens accompanied by barely audible music are scenes such as a muslim woman loading shelves, static cityscapes in black and white and car-transport trains pulling out of a city. It all seems pointless and, instead of, as great art does, registering delight, interest or amazement on me, the viewer, it invokes an almost physiological reflex to get out of the room. I’d rather look at a brick wall which would register nothing than this which actively summons boredom. It seems they have made serious-minded boredom a commodity.
And to do this in a city ram-packed with great art. It’s a good image of the parochial backwater that the present can become.