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June 18

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Life and Death in Venice

By Rick

June 18, 2013


But come back in November or December, in February or March, when the fog, la nebbia, settles upon the city like a marvelous monster, and you will have little trouble believing that things can appear and disappear in this labyrinthine city, or that time here could easily slip in its sprockets and take you, willingly or unwillingly, back.” –Erica Jong, “A City of Love and Death: Venice”

Before arriving in Rome in July of 2010, I had the fortunate circumstance to live in Venice for a few months.  I went there to study Venetian history through the lens of its literary traditions with a group of professors and students from my hometown in Florida (Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton, with professors Emanuele Pettener and Ilaria Serra).  I shared an apartment in the Castello district, just behind Piazza San Zaccaria, only about 100 meters from the Venetian lagoon.  It was just far enough from the midday swell of tourists to feel homey, and yet central enough to give me the illusion of being Venetian for a short while.

death in venice, la serenissima
Venessia

Prior to that stay, I had been to Italy several times, but surprisingly never to Venice.  I knew that I’d be enchanted by its famous “elegant decay,” which of course I was.  But what I didn’t expect were all the little miracles and mysteries that you can only discover by actually living in that impossible floating city and catching the “Queen of the Adriatic” off her guard.  After sunset, when the cruise ship crowds have departed, or during the small hours of the morning when the real Venetians tend to their daily work, La Serenissima becomes the back drop to all your romantic fantasies requiring very little input from your imagination.

Nowadays, I certainly feel most connected to Rome—that famous she-wolf who nurtured Romulus and Remus.  And those who read my blog regularly also know about my love for Sicily (and my little sicilianuzza, Demetra). But before Rome and Sicily there was Venessia; the Queen of Adriatic, La Serenissima.

Life and Death in Venice

Living in Venice, you quickly realize that it’s a city you can never fully know, no matter how long you stay.  And once you concede this, you feel grateful for your ignorance rather than frustrated by it.  The thrill is in the constant rediscovery.

So after you’ve nearly mapped out your little neighborhood, you need only cross one unfamiliar bridge to find yourself in quite another place.  Shape-shifting shadows and strange new reflections confound your senses, trapping you in a house of mirrors.  The muffled echo of a rippling tide against crumbling palazzi is like the  voice of a ventriloquist and you don’t know which way to turn.  A twisting labyrinth of calli and canali that always leads to more water and another dead end.

venice, italy
From biennale park

I will always recall my time in Venice as the most tranquil period of my adult life.  I had only two obligations for those few months: read Venetian history and visit the places where it happened.  After three or four “stressful” hours of that, Spritz and cicchetti occupied the rest of my day.  Or sometimes, just before sunset, I would put on my running shoes and jog West along the fondamente; past the Bridge of Sighs, past the Arsenel, past the biennale park, and all the way to where the land simply stops and empties into the sea.  This is about the only part of Venice where there’s enough bridge-free sidewalk to gather a bit of momentum.  Here is where most of the remaining Venetians still live, in the quiet residential areas far removed from the landmarks and tourists and progress.

For the students and professors currently experiencing this miracolo—or for anyone interested in Venetian literature—I’ve attached the little essay about labyrinths that I wrote during my time there while happily lost in that seductive maze.  In Venice, there are labyrinths everywhere you look: Not just in the street map, but in the art, the architecture, the literature, and even in the geography of the lagoon itself.  Getting lost is a foregone conclusion and the only reasonable thing to do is to just submit to the disorientation.  To paraphrase Erica Jong, “Let time slip in its sprockets and take you, willingly, back…”

A Few Venice Suggestions

garden maze of villa pisani
The Labyrinth of Villa Pisani

If you haven’t guessed by now, I believe that the best suggestion that anyone can give you for enjoying Venice is to throw away the itinerary and just get lost.  (Or lose yourself, to be more accurate.)  The standard checklist will keep you locked on a worn path from the train station to The Rialto Bridge to St. Mark’s Square and back again without ever seeing the Venessia of Marco Polo or Giacomo Casanova or Veronica Franco or Lord Byron.  You’ll only see what the souvenir salesmen want you to see and that would be a huge tragedy.  Just resolve to buy a piece of Murano glass at the train station on your way out of town and otherwise forget all about that sort of conspicuous consumption.

But if you must, here are the things that I would make an effort to visit if you have plenty of time. This list is intentionally brief.  Remember, time doesn’t play by the rules in Venice.

Art: Tough to pick one, but for me it’s between L’Accademia and Scuola Grand di San Rocco.  Eeny, meeny, miny, moe…

the belltower of St. Mark's, Venice
The Labrynth of the Sestiere Castello

History: The Doge’s Palace Secret Itineraries Tour.  The official website:

http://palazzoducale.visitmuve.it/en/pianifica-la-tua-visita/secretitineraries/

Restaurant: Al Nonno Risorto Sotoportego, De Siora Bettina, 2338.  The fish here is fresh and excellent.  And cheap—they forgot to charge me for it the last time I was there.  Well, after two scroppini I guess I was having a hard time with the math.  I intend to pay them back—it’s my excuse to return one day.

Cicchetti: Bacarò Risorto, Castello 4700, (Campo San Provolo)  I’m not claiming that this particular bacarò is the best cicchetteria in all of Venice, but it holds a sentimental place for me.  It was only about ten paces from my front door, so I went there nearly every day for two months.

Hotel: Locanda Casa Querini, Campo San Giovanni Novo, 4388.  I lived in apartment so I don’t know much about hotels in Venice except that they’re expensive. My cousin visited me for a few days and she stayed in this one, which was reasonable, well-situated, and quite nice.

venice traghetto
Take the traghetto instead of the gondola.

Avoid: Gondola ride.  They are ridiculously expensive (are they up to 90€ now?) and in the end, pretty cheesy.  Instead, take the traghetto from one side of the Grand Canal to the other for 50 cents.  You’ll likely share the 5-minute ride in an unadorned gondola with a couple of businessmen in suits on their way to work.

Ciao!

Did you know that “ciao” is derived from the Venetian for “schiavo,” or slave?  In other words, “At your service,” or “I’m your slave.”  It’s true, look it up.

Venice will always be a special place for me.  In some ways, I’m reluctant to ever go back there again—perhaps it’s better to leave my idyllic memories intact and not risk spoiling them by trying to recreate the magic.   However, I doubt that I’ll be able to resist her charms forever, because as Peggy Guggenheim has so perfectly explained, “To live in Venice means that you fall in love with the city itself.  There is nothing left over in your heart for anywhere else.”

(Shhh…don’t tell Rome that I said that.)

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About the author

Living in the Caput Mundi and trying to decipher Italian culture for the English speaking world.

  • Happy I found your blog. I love Italy, especially Firenze, Roma e naturalmente Venezia. I love Venice, especially in late autumn whenmost tourists have left. My parents live one hour away from Venice, so I am there every now and then.

  • Nono Risorto is MY secret Venice place! Now you’ve spoiled it! Personally I am in lust with the Maurwulf Pizza at Nono. Going back to Venice for the 4th time in September, taking our (adult) son. Can’t wait to see his reaction to her. But we’ve not done the Secret Itineraries Tour. Seem we must. Thanks Rick!

    • OH, I’m sorry to have spoiled the secret! But the truth is, even if you know about the place it’s still NOT easy to find. But yes, PLEASE do the Secret Itineraries tour. You’ll learn so much about Venetian history…it’s my favorite thing to do in Venice.

  • Rick, reading this post just brought all my memories of Venice back to the surface. I always got lost there, every day, but loved it.and yes the best spots were on small calle`s away from the main attractions. Venice will always be one of my favorite places in Italy, and one which i will always want to return.

    I loved your essay on Venice labyrinths written so long ago. Thank you for including it here.

    • Thanks Margie, I also enjoy reading about your Italy adventures on your blog. And yes, Venice is like no other city in the world where getting “lost” is always a pleasure. Ciao!

  • Hi,
    Really enjoyed your Venice story. I have never lived there or in Rome, mh favorite; however, I’ve been to the Serenissima 7 or 8 times in my 13 or 14 trips to Italy. (I hasten to add over 52 years and have always included Rome) After I discovered the Doges Palace Secret Itineraries several visits ago I have always included it.
    Of course, I’ve managed to get lost. One time I was sure I was heading back to my hotel, where I have stayed at least 5 times (and it’s resonable too especially the last time when I prepaid at a far cheaper rate) I was even watching a church tower that I knew would get me there. I ended up going in a circle after beng sure I knew! Never figured out what church I was looking at!
    I have visited in summer, the only time to visit as a teacher, and enjoyed that, but my favorite time now in retirement is late fall and only once–last November–have had to walk the planks and then only because on my last day I wanted to visit the museum in St. Marks which I hadn’t done in a while.
    I have done the walk past the Arsenal, the huge park, have fallen in love with the stature memorial to the female risistance fighters (unfortunately with waves washing over her the last time), wandered to San Pietro though now I boat back..
    I agree about the decision between the Accademia and Scuola San Rocco, but squeezed them both in the last time. One last item to attend to from your story if I am lucky enough to get back there–I have never been to the top of the Campidoglio.

    • Joan, thanks for sharing your lovely memories of Venice. I forget to mention “walking the planks” (l’acqua alta) in my piece, but leaves quite an impression, doesn’t it, when you approach St. Mark’s Square only to find it under water. Especially when it hasn’t rained for week and you appreciate that the city is truly floating–if only barely! Ciao!

  • Before visiting Venice last September, I had so many people tell me how much they disliked the city and the inhabitants and that I shouldn’t waste my time. Having spent almost a week there, I can understand their feelings IF one is there for only the day (cruise ship visitors) or if their main focus is to visit every “must see” tourist attraction highlighted by the travel sites. I’m sure that what they found is like-minded people all converging on the same “hot spots”. I did exactly what you had advised. I threw away my map (quite useless anyway!) and simply wandered and got lost (easy to do). However, The Doge’s Palace Secret Itineraries Tour is not to be missed as well as the view from atop the campanile, a couple of “touristy” adventures that I allowed myself. Coincidentally, I had dinner at Al Nonno Risorto Sotoportego and it was fantastic but I did have to pay for my meal! I love Venice and I hope to return soon to this amazing city before it sinks into the lagoon! .

    • Grassie, Riccardo! Yes, the view from the Campanile is incredible. And you make a great point about the map–it really doesn’t do much good anyway. When you get lost (which you will) just stop for a Spritz and then give it another try! Ciaooooooo!!!!!!!!!!

  • The labyrinth in Villa Pisani is really nice and more complex than you would say seeing it from the tower in the center…also the park is reeeally relaxing and quite big.
    This is not a suggestion about Venice, but I saw the picture and I took the opportunity to suggest it 😉

    • Great suggestion, Giulia! Yes, it is very beautiful…AND very complex! I’ve gotten lost in it myself and I needed the help of the park’s guide to show me the way out! And it’s not too far from Venice, if I remember well. A very nice boat ride on the Brenta Canal.

      • Thank you! I don’t know how far is from Venice because I came from Padova…a boat ride? Amazing! 😉
        I’ve gotten lost too…I observed the guide from above, but when I tried to follow her steps…that wasn’t to easy too! 🙂

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