Venice is a city suffused with light and beauty. To say it is lovely is like saying St Peter’s is a church, or Siena a walled city. It isn’t untrue, it just isn’t saying nearly enough.
Canals that widen and narrow as they twist, their currents unknown by all but a few. Bridges of stone where one can stand to watch the passage of time, and blink to find an hour has passed. Multi-colored blossoms and Mozart’s operas tumbling from windows covered with wrought-iron grillwork… marble steps that lead down into glinting water and disappear into its depths… unseen children laughing, and footsteps echoing around a corner just ahead… or is that behind? Gondolas silent and swift, gliding through history. Moldering brick and stone facades of water-stained homes, whose footings descend into the blue/green water. Gold-gilt ceilings and the largest oil painting in the world… museums that capture and enshrine hundreds of years of worship… and around every bend, in every lane another campo opens, letting in the light and reminding travelers of themselves.
I spent a week in Venice in the summer of 2006, drinking in the city and its both overwhelming and somehow languid, understated beauty, along with strong cappuccinos and glasses of Chianti. And in that week, I began to understand what dreams are made of.
It took me days to adjust to the pace. Like any city, Venice can feel rushed, hurried, frantic. But below the surface lies the ease of movement I found in all of Italy, an unhurried living of each hour that has nothing to do with the surface noise and motion. Waiters with full trays take a moment to say Ciao to their friends, some of whom they have just met. Gondoliers talk and smoke and lean back in their chairs, watching pretty women walk by and waiting for nightfall when lovers ask them for trips that cost twice what anyone would pay in any other place for 45 minutes of romance. And store owners lock their doors at noon and drink wine at nearby bars, waiting for the day to pass.
The mornings are all but silent, waves lapping on the edges of the docks and the only human sound the calls of shoppers and merchants in the fish market. I often walked through the quiet streets in early daylight, in search of a panetteria with fresh-baked sweets. I found them by smell, the perfume of hot bread drifted easily through the winding streets, drawing me in.
Mid-days I spent in museums and scuole, in the Doge’s Palace and the Basilica of St. Mark, and in smaller churches scattered through the city in every campo, marveling at the overwrought, sumptuous, decadent beauty that lies hidden behind doors of rough wood – or chiseled marble. I hadn’t realized it was possible to depict the Madonna and child in so many hundreds of ways throughout the ages, nor had I known that much color could exist side by side with yet more color, until it all ran into one vision in my mind that would not take shape… and I staggered from the Scuola Grande di San Rocco feeling drunk on beauty… and overloaded on opulence.
I sat on the edge of the Grand Canal in the evenings, at the foot of the Ponte di Rialto. I listened to the babble of languages around me, catching a word here and there, heard the calls of gondoliers and the slap of water against a black gondola. I drank Chianti and cappuccino. I took deep breaths and watched the shadows creep across the slate gray water as the sun set behind the storied hotels across the water.
Venice at night… lights from the other side of the canal glittered in a mélange of color on unseen waves, twinkled behind me in the café doorway. Men’s voices somehow become deeper, and their laughter slower, and desire seems palpable in the air.
One night when the moon was full and the revelers had begun to go home, I heard footsteps above me on the bridge, and the chink of wine glasses against stone… a woman’s laughter and a man’s gentle words… and I looked up with a smile, expecting to see late-night lovers out for a stroll. The footsteps faded, the laughter slipped away, and only shadows stepped off the edge of the bridge.
A chill passed through me and I shivered in the cool spring air. The days of immense beauty… the nights of glowing richness… I suddenly realized that ghosts had slid by me, close enough to touch. In fact, Venice might very well be a dream being dreamed by these ghosts. Who could they be, to have such power?
I sat back in my chair and took a last sip of wine. In the back of my mind I heard them… Mozart and Vivaldi, Artemisia and Leonardo, Dante and Virginia Galilei, Michelangelo and Bernini, Tintoretto and Raphael, walking over bridges through the centuries… I imagined them slipping into their respective beds and closing their eyes…
… if they all were dreaming together of beauty and elegance and architecture and art, and of love and laughter and of time, something very like Venice would appear. I felt for a moment almost enchanted, as though I were also part of the dream. When I finally went to bed that night I wondered what I would find in my own slumber, and if I would walk beside those whose dreams have created such wonder.
I slept soundly and dreamed of nothing, and awoke to the sun streaming in through an open window and the sound of a dove on the railing outside. I arose and stepped outside, and watched the canal beneath my balcony come alive with light.
And I spent the rest of my time in Venice sitting on the edge, listening for footsteps.
© Teresa Cutler, 2006 See entire collection of travel essays about Italy in her book A Dream that Keeps Returning, available from Amazon.com.