BRITISH INTELLIGENCE ABROAD
LETTERS FROM VENICE
May 1st, 2020
As I stand at the bus station in Portsmouth, a coach pulls in just as a silent silhouette of a jet liner fuzzily climbs across a misty sky between buildings and the hiss and clank of a departing train’s brakes signal its departure from the rail station behind me. Eight hours later I take the European Union channel through passport control at Marco Polo airport with some white clad muslims and they and all of us are greeted as we emerge into the arrivals hall by a knot of thirty or so similarly clad Muslims ululating their pleasure at being reunited and carrying plates of dates for their friends. It makes me think of the Arabian Nights influence on the architecture of Venice. The crowd is hard to negotiate with two wheeled cases. I head to the boat station about 800 yards away on foot and queue for the Linea Blu Alilaguna boat. The young pilot helps me on with my massive suitcase and we are soon ploughing toward Venice, between wooden marker spars, buffeted by huge furrowed swells of water set up by the speedboat taxis passing in both directions beside us. I watch herons, egrets and cormorants on the mud flats. The water sparkles in the sunlight. The crew are in polo shirts and sunglasses in late September.
The vaporetto is soon skirting an island whose first signs of habitation are scruffy white council flats. As we round the island the architecture changes to stock venetian. There are glimpses of arched marble bridges, ogive windows, balconies and pale, weather-scrubbed brickwork. The mustard-topped strip of the Vaporetto stop – Murano Colonna – heaves into view and we rock alongside it slamming against the wooden pontoon. I see glimpses of the word Fornace (furnace) on buildings by the dockside. We bounce away from Murano towards, immediately, the cemetery island of San Michele with its orange wall and multitude of cypress trees. The corner facing Murano sports the beautifully proportioned Renaissance church of San Michele in Isola with its onion-domed belfry. The facade and the belfry are bleached and skeletal, white, Istrian stone. We don’t stop at San Michele, turning instead towards the shimmering city before us, a strip of low dark buildings from which half-projects the tympanum of the mighty Gesuiti church, surmounted by climbing stone angels striking dramatic attitudes in the empty sky. At a distance they seem to move in their beetling fixity.
We stop at the Fondamenta Nove and then a short hop along the northern edge of the city to the Ospedale stop which we reach after passing the Pronto Soccorso covered jetty where the A and E boats arrive driven by boatmen in luminously striped orange oilskins. I alight and drag my cases along the walkway for a hundred yards before the path ends and plunges inwards to the city. I emerge into a small rectangular campo and exit it to cross a high marble bridge over a canal with the help of a passing tourist who grabs my hand luggage and deposits it next to me on the other side. Two more turns, a glimpse of a huge church façade, and I find myself at the corner of the Calle Tedeum. The door opens and I am greeted by my young host, Marco, with the word ‘Carissimo!’ He is delighted that I made it. He is extremely helpful, even advising me on which brand of starch - Merit - I should buy to use when ironing my shirts! Charlotte would be impressed.
Later, after Marco has left, I explore the shabby district where I am staying in a small, gloomy ground-floor apartment with exposed beams. Fifty yards away is a silent square with a single, towering lime tree in the centre. Towering equally above it and making one end of the square is the façade of San Francesco della Vigna, the church I saw earlier, partially occluded as it continues beyond the rectangle formed by the campo. The church is the size of an Ikea showroom. Its elegant façade - all perfect Renaissance proportion - is the first designed in the sixteenth century by perhaps the most influential architect Europe has known – Andrea Palladio – the man who inspired Christopher Wren. In keeping with the dilapidated area in which it finds itself the pediment of Palladio’s façade is fractured by sprouting vegetation high above. On a small plaque by the entrance to the church it mentions, just in passing, that it contains works by Veronese, Giorgione, Tintoretto, Tiepolo and Bellini amongst others. I am tired but I take a cursory walk around the interior where three completely white-clad (in an echo of the earlier Muslims) nuns sit in the front rows intoning a liturgy in bright electric light at their end of the building. As I leave the church I catch a glimpse of two gas-holders above the houses. On my first night, lying in bed, I hear bells ringing across the city and nearby. Voices pass by my window and I hear rumbling from the floor above.
I locate the Co-Op food store in my district. Passing through a pair of rusty light blue gates I find myself on a quayside with a gantry and a boat hoist. Beneath it are a pair of canoes and a gondola on trestles. The sea on the northern side of the city, facing the island of San Michele, heaves and sparkles in much agitated crests and troughs just inches below the quayside. The medium in which Venice is set conveys great power, almost to the point of being menacing. Large, stretching fields of water shrug and writhe very close to us. A few yards away from the water’s edge is the entrance to the Co-Op which is situated in an old boat shed.
I board the vaporetto 5.1 at Ospedale and, once again, experience the exhilaration and bustle on the water as we pass the stops of Fondamenta Nove, Madonna dell’Orto and San Alvise along the northern edge of the city. From the boat I notice the black-bordered street signs painted on the crumbling walls alongside the promenade. Stencilled in black capitals on a faded white-washed background are etched the name of the district – Sestier Canaregio – and, beneath it in a separate box, the parish – Parochia di SS Apostoli – and then, in a third box, the name of the bridge near the sign – Ponte Donà. We pass the many triple piles, some old, some brand new, bound with two metal hoops at the top and set in the water to guide the shipping.
We plunge into the city down the Cannaregio canal which connects the northern edge of the city with the Grand Canal. The Cannaregio canal is a delightful sequence of bridges, canal-side café’s, baroque facades, colour and activity. I notice the garbage boat lifting a wheeled container from the canal-side with its crane and tipping it drunkenly into its own bowels. A tall and elegant priest passes among the crowds. He is black, young and bearded, wears a long black cassock topped by a perfect, domed and wide-brimmed, straw hat, also in black.
Later I return to my flat. Living here in this silent quarter is like inhabiting a Martin Escher painting. In one direction is the occluded façade of San Francesco which seems to be hiding its mass behind buildings on the adjacent side of the square where it is set. Looking down one calle I see no water but a section of a bridge rising from left to right. Looking down another I glimpse a section of a different bridge falling from left to right. In the distance people climb up and down as if on escalators and traces of voices reach me. I have the sense of being locked inside a Rubic’s cube of buildings which affords me views of strips of sky. The world seems to tilt. Around another corner I encounter large ochre colonnades by the edge of a canal. There are glimpses of cloisters, well-heads and courtyards. Nothing gives up its secret. It could be a dream.