The Visible City of Venice

by Jennifer Wright

Nothing is firmly rooted in Venice. As such, it is a city that lends itself to a great deal of missteps and wrong turns. Any traveler who has been there will tell you that finding any particular destination can be a great struggle, and not simply because the locals are apt to wave their hands about in a cheerful, vague way whenever you ask them for directions.

It is a city of mazes.

Unlike every other city in the world, where streets, if not always cleanly laid out and labeled are at least land based, walkways in Venice are forever being cut off by canals, or flooded over, forcing you on routes you had never anticipated. In fact, the streets create such a great labyrinth that you can set out attempting to go one place and end up in another altogether. The place you end up in–perhaps a modern coffee shop when you are expecting a decaying villa, or else a historical landmark where you are expecting new shops–can instantly offer you an entirely different perspective on the city. It is little wonder then, that in such a labyrinth, where everything seems hidden away and unexpected surprises confront visitors at every turn, Venice lends itself to so much fascination.

No one understood the complex aspects of Venice better than Italo Calvino when he wrote of Venice in Invisible Cities :

Kublai reflected on the invisible order that sustains cities, on the rules that decreed how they rise, take shape and prosper, adapting themselves to the seasons, and then how they sadden and fall in ruins. At times he thought he was on the verge of discovering a coherent, harmonious system underlying the infinite deformities and discords, but no model could stand up to the comparison with the game of chess.

Invisible Cities, for those not already familiar with it, traces the story of adventurer Marco Polo as he describes the various cities he has traveled to for the amusement of the monarch Kublai Kahn. He describes 55 cities, all of which represent some different aspect of Venice. For some readers the end of the story–the realization that all these wonderful cities have been one–is distressing. Not only does it mean that there are fewer intriguing places in the world to consider visiting but it also seems simply impossible. And yet, history and literature will testify to the fact that there are just as many Venices as Calvino suggests.

Turn down one road and you may well stumble upon Cafe Florian, the historical coffee shop where Sebastian Flyte met his father, Lord Marchmain, in Brideshead Revisited and at that venue that Lord Marchmain declared that there was “nothing like a Venetian crowd.” 300 years after its founding, and 60 after the release of Brideshead a better spot for people watching is yet to be discovered. Situated as is prominently in the Piazza San Marco, you need to linger there if only for a while, and observe the multitude of people rushing by, to see that Venice is still a thriving and bustling metropolis. And you can have some absolutely excellent espresso while you’re at it. After all, there’s something to be said for anyplace not frequented by merely the fictional Sebastian Flyte but also Henry James and Charles Dickens.

But perhaps your tastes run to something a little more exotic, and decadent. Had you lived at the turn of the century, if you were to venture out late at night, your desire might be sated by coming upon that imitable Marchesa Casati with her extravagant kimonos and her ravaged appearance, about whom Kerouac wrote, “Marchesa Casati is a living doll, pinned on my Frisco skid row wall.” She would parade through St. Mark’s Square at midnight, perfectly nude, accompanied by her pet cheetahs in their jeweled collars, with her servants holding torches to cast a heavenly light over the surreal scene.

As it is you can perhaps still feel a touch of her spirit by visiting her former residence, the Palazzo Venier dei Leoni on the Grand Canal. Those of you seeking the unusual might be pleasantly surprised to find that this residence is now the home of the Peggy Guggenheim collection which showcases some of the most inventive surrealist art to be found anywhere in the world. Peggy Guggenheim once stated that “if Venice sinks, the collection should be preserved somewhere in the vicinity of Venice.” It seems appropriate–such an otherworldly collection of images would be out of place in any more earth-bound city.

If, however, you crave a city seeped in aristocratic, old world flavor, you might want to stay at, or at least visit, the Grand Hotel des Bains in the Lido district. The hotel was built in 1900 and combines regal pillars with rustic beach huts. Though it is a beautiful hotel in its own right, it is perhaps best remembered for housing Gustave von Aschenbach, the protagonist of Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice. Certainly, no one craved aristocratic, old world flavor more than Gustave did–he even went so far as to add that imperial ‘von’ to his name. In Venice, perhaps because of the constant motion of the water through the city, we are ever reminded that all of life is in flux, and that everything passes into history. Though it seems unlikely that, like Aschenbach, you’ll die there while on vacation, Venice does have the potential to be a city that lends itself to contemplation, longing and bittersweet sentiments.

If, however, that simply seems too melancholy, it is worth remembering that Venice can also be one of the most romantic cities in the world, and can be a place filled with desires more fully satisfied than Aschenbach’s. No one knew that better than the 16th century poetess and courtesan Veronica Franco. During this period Franco did a good deal politically to aid Venice and at one point enlisted her lover Henry III to help the Venetians defend the Cyprus against Turkish invasion (she later went on to dedicate a book of poems to him).

It’s little wonder Franco was so concerned about Venice’s political power. After all, in what other city could her talent for love flourish so fully? You can perhaps walk in her shoes–platformed sandals were all the rage with 16th century courtesans–by visiting the Bruno Magli shoe store in San Marco. Of course, Venice also played host to Casanova, perhaps the world’s most famous lover, lest that spot is occupied by Lord Byron, who loved Venice nearly as much as Casanova. If you wish you can see the Palazzo Malipiero where Casanova lived, or the Palazzo Albrizzi which Byron frequented–depending, of course, on which lover you prefer. If these residences aren’t enough to satisfy your appetite you may perhaps tap into some of their lusty spirit by visiting the Museo d’Arte Erotica, which describes the erotic history of Venice (and also pays tribute to Veronica Franco).

Taking all that into account, it can be a formidable task to separate Venice from its exceedingly literary past and the erudite figures that inhabited it.  With Venice there will surely be those who can’t believe that it lives up to the literary standard that has already been set by those aforementioned personages. There will be those who, like the Kublai Kahn, are a little skeptical that so much can be contained in one city. They can perhaps take comfort from the words of Fran Lebowitz who stated that:

If you read a lot, nothing is ever as great as you’ve imagined. Venice is. Venice is better.

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