19 January 2012

Venice "La Citta' Magica"

Read the text below and do the exercise: “Venice the magical city, the city of water, dominatrix of the seas, the city of a thousand faces, the mysterious city.”

Odd that my Italian teacher, born in Vicenza, near Venice, now living in Istanbul – odd that she would send me this exercise in the Italian language just now, when I’m reading the magical book Venice: Pure City by acclaimed British writer Peter Ackroyd.

To open this beautifully constructed book is to fall into the poetry of Venice:

"They voyaged into the remote and secluded waters.They came in flat-bottomed boats, moving over the shallows. They were exiles, far from their own cities or farms, fleeing from the marauding tribes of the North and the East."

For those who love Venice, only this kind of poetry can do it justice. He continues:

"This was a solitary place, its silence broken only by the calls of the seabirds and the crash of the billows of the sea... at night it was the setting of a vast darkness, except in those places where the moon illumined the restless waters... Yet in the daylight of the exiles’ approach the silver sea stretched out into a line of mist, and the cloudy sky seemed to reflect the silvery motions of the water. They were drawn into a womb of light..."

These paragraphs open a short history of Venice, as if any recounting could conjure Venice’s magic, an admittedly unique and indescribable phenomenon. The centuries-old power of Venice is long departed, leaving ruins, mists and reflections for modern eyes to ponder.

Ackroyd describes the building of Venice as “an act of communal perseverance against nature.” Piles of oak, larch and elm were driven into the ground beneath strata of clay and sand, sixteen feet down. Cross-beams were laid on, then cement and broken stone, a decking of wooden planks, and more cement. “From these foundations Venice rose, resting upon a petrified forest” that is “almost imperishable” – if kept perpetually below the waters’ surface.

The buildings of Venice rose in brick,faced with marble facades – gorgeous Baroque and Gothic faces somewhat unrelated to the buildings behind them. This may remind an American reader of frontier towns. Jury-built wooden buildings on main streets boasted larger-than-life facades, as if the poor structures were swathed in elegant costumes with the backs cut out.

The Venetians have always been famously insecure. They live on shifting mounds of mud, at the mercy of ocean tides and the falling water table, dependent on trade to exist. Until the last century, drinking water in Venice was collected in neighborhood cisterns, compromised by sea water leaking in on the same conduits and pipes. Sometimes ships were sent to nearby rivers to collect fresh water.

The Venetians were relatively safe, but never wholly secure. I wonder if 19th Century settlers in California coastal logging towns sensed a similar insecurity.

The great redwoods were everywhere, but each mill town, and there were dozens, worked to cut them down ever more efficiently. Exposed hillsides silted up rivers and the fishing industry largely disappeared. When the big trees were gone the loggers departed. Mendocino survives now as a largely empty wooden town on its ocean-battered bluff, the remaining members of a working class serving tourists rather than industry.

Mendocino’s Historical Review Board insists their singular vision of the past be built out today. Similarly in Venice, Acroyd writes, “The contemporary restoration of many buildings... is a case history of seeming rather than being. In their devotion to appearances the restorers have created an unreal city, bearing little relation to its past or its present.”

Awash in tourists, both Venice and Mendocino ask the visitor to pretend things are as they always were. Even at its height Venice was insecure, isolated, inward looking, melancholy. Now it is our turn to tour – in museum dioramas – towns that once forged steel, built locomotives and cut down forests.

It amounts to a creation of fakes, Ackroyd believes. He quotes a German visitor from the early 20th century who remarked that Venice represented “the tragedy of a surface that has been left by its foundation.”

Still, the falseness “does not render Venice superficial,” Ackroyd writes. “Quite the contrary. The attention to surface, without depth, provokes a sense of mystery and of unknowability.”


“The Futurist movement of Italy... in its manifesto... declared that it was time ‘to fill the stinking little canals with the rubble of the tottering infected old palaces. Let us burn the gondolas, rocking chairs for idiots’; the entire city was a ‘great sewer of traditionalism.’”

Venice: Pure City by Peter Ackroyd. Anchor Books paperback $21. ISBN 9780307473790.

The New York Times has a page collecting its articles on the author...

Decent article and a classic photo of the author...

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