As I looked down on Venice descending into Marco Polo airport, I didn’t get the surge of joy that I usually get when I see the rolling hills and tall cypress trees flying into Rome or Naples. The Venetian islands looked like hibernating frogs packed into the swampy laguna and I thought that this is not a place of depth.
Venice is a slippery city and not an easy one to fall in love with. I can partially understand the negative comments that people make about the city. That it’s damp and smelly and overrun by tourists and lacking in local vitality. That its beauty is a backdrop to the wealthy tourists desperate to relive some Hollywood glamour in the fancy hotels on the Grand Canal.
Some people say it’s the type of place that you can see once and feel like you never need to go back. But I’ve been here several times now and I’m married to a man from Venice and while I’ve not given up on this place, our love for each other is still a work in progress.
It’s futile to resist the superficiality, the philistine beauty, the duplicity of reality and reflection in Venice. What I do when I come here is relive over and over every moment that has happened to everyone else that has come here before me. Henry James said that ‘there is nothing left to discover or describe and originality of attitude is completely impossible.’ I have to make amends with the fact that there is no difference between me and the Russian stepping off his yacht to visit the Biennale and the group of Japanese tourists holding up a selfie stick and making the peace sign.
‘And there is no use pretending that the tourist Venice is not the real Venice, which is possible with other cities – Rome or Florence or Naples,’ says Mary McCarthy. ‘The tourist Venice is Venice: the gondolas, the sunsets, the changing light, Florians, Quadri’s, Torcello, Harry’s Bar, Murano, Burano, the pigeons, the glass beads, the vaporetto. Venice is a folding picture-postcard of itself.’
So Venice is constantly imitating itself, it is acting out what everyone expects it to be. How do you build a relationship with a city that is one giant mirror reflecting back images and perceptions tha the inhabitants and visitors have in their head? How do you create a connection with a place like that?
I thought about this last week in Venice as I walked with Paola, my mother-in-law, and Davide and I tried to keep my solar plexus open so I could feel something about the city. I asked to see the map, wanting to picture myself where I was walking, but none of us had remembered to bring it. ‘I’m your map,’ Paola said proudly. ‘Where do you want to go?’
We crossed from the bus station at Piazzale Roma to the Ponte della Constituzione and walked past the train station. Then we turned left and threw ourselves into the alleys and tiny canals towards Canareggio and the Jewish Ghetto. This was a residential area and at 10 am on a Sunday morning, the alleys and canals were quiet. Every now and then I got a smell of laundry detergent or floor cleaner and I pictured the people inside slowly getting the house ready for Sunday lunch. A radio played old Italian pop-songs and there was a slight breeze to the overcast day.
We passed by a funeral parlour with the elderly funeral director sitting at the threshold on a straw-woven chair surrounded by cages of green parrots that filled the street with their tweets and squawks. A man sleepily rowed his boat down the canal. A woman wearing white framed sunglasses smoked a cigarette in the empty church courtyard while mass was going on inside. A chef wearing a floppy white hat sat in front of his restaurant shelling large scungilli.
What did I make of these cinematic images, of McCarthy’s ‘picture-postcard moments’? It was difficult for me to get a sense of context or history, to place myself in some sort of scene. These were not mysterious things to me, they didn’t show me how Venice fit into the chaotic fabric of Italy.
They say there is no hidden Venice, there is no authenticity, but something caught my eye. I kept seeing these red metal things along the canals and I finally pointed one out. Me and Davide stopped to discuss it. Is it a place to put out your cigarette or an extra boat tie for when the tide comes in and covers the sidewalk? Paola told us it was a fire hydrant.
A fire hydrant? My mind flooded with unanswerable questions. What would a fire in Venice look like? Why would you need fire hydrants if there is water all around? How big are the fireboats? What if the water is high and they can’t get under one of the bridges?
I needed to research this and when I got home I found out that the fire hydrants in Venice were only placed in the late 1990s. Why did they wait so long? I kept reading and I found out about a terrible fire that occurred in 1996.
Fire is a serious matter in Venice. For all of the ornate stone facades of the palazzi in Venice, most of the buildings are made of wood and a fire, especially on a windy night, could spread if it’s not contained quickly. And even if the city is sitting on water, fighting a fire is extremely difficult in Venice. Fire fighters can’t mount their ladders from the boat, they need firm ground and often there’s not a lot of space to construct them since the buildings are densely packed next to one another. The boats that are needed to navigate the canals can’t carry a large amount of heavy equipment. And as I had thought of earlier, if the high tide has come in, the boats can’t pass under the bridges.
What a nightmare of a city holding onto existence by a string.
In the beginning of 1996, the beloved and world-renowned opera house La Fenice, the theatre where operas by Rossini, Bellini and Verdi had made their world premier was completely destroyed by fire.
On the night of 29 January just before 9 pm, smoke was seen rising from the building. Fire fighters acted fast because the opera house was located in one of the oldest parts of the city in a crowded square. The fireboats rushed to the fire, but the canals surrounding the opera house had been recently drained for dredging and restoration works, so they couldn’t get enough water. At that time, there were no fire hydrants, so fire fighters had to connect their hoses to canals farther away. The distance didn’t allow for effective water pressure. A helicopter carried water in from the lagoon and dumped it onto the fire, but it couldn’t save the building. Within 20 minutes, the walls started to collapse and the only thing to do was the let the opera house burn in on itself in order to keep the fire from spreading.
Mystery surrounded the cause of the fire and the investigation lasted years. Finally two electricians doing work at La Fenice were charged with arson in March 2001. They had apparently set the fire in order to avoid paying a penalty for delaying a contractual deadline. Some people were not satisfied with the answer and there have been speculations that the fire was mafia related. You can read an excellent article about it here.
La Fenice, meaning phoenix in Italian, eventually rose up again from its ashes and reopened in 2003. While the fire of 1996 was devastating, La Fenice seems to be following a historical tradition of enduring fires and living up to its name, having been rebuilt twice before in 1774 and 1886 after a fire.
That squat red fire hydrant revealed to me a vulnerable Venice with a heart under the surface, a city that endures even as it dies. It takes guts to keep on existing and I think that me and Venice have become a litte bit closer, a little more intimate, building a relationship slowly, brick by brick.