I was not sure what to expect of Venice; I was not that excited to go and see it. I thought I already knew it well enough even though I had never visited since pictures and descriptions of Venice abound. How could Venice surprise me if I had seen plenty of pictures of it on Instagram and Pinterest, in commercials, and as cheap posters of romantic sunsets over the town?
But even with this lack of excitement – or maybe because of it – Venice surprised me and turned out to be one of my favorite towns in Italy. I was sure this would not happen – it was too touristy after all, but it did enchant me. If I thought Florence was difficult to describe (see previous post), Venice and its surprising appeal seems even more difficult to put into words.
Venice is too well-known even to those that have never visited and it has inspired plenty of artists. As American writer Henry James in his Italian Hours addresses this issue, “Venice has been painted and described many thousands of times, and of all the cities of the world is the easiest to visit without going there. Open the first book and you will find a rhapsody about it; step into the first picture-dealer’s and you will find three or four high-coloured ‘views’ of it.” So how can this city still be surprising and enchanting? Isn’t the unexpected or novelty truly enchanting? Even though we think we know Venice even if we have never visited, Venice is difficult to compare and to completely “get.” German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe mentions in Italian Journey that “Venice can only be compared with itself. The large canal, winding like a serpent, yields to no street in the world, and nothing can be put by the side of the space in front of St. Mark’s square – I mean that great mirror of water.” Venice is a “strange island-city, this beaver-like republic” (Goethe).
This strangeness and the city’s many sides accentuated by the quick change of light and reflection in the water are some of the reasons for Venice’s charm. It is hard to forget this city. As James explains, Venice – “the creature varies like a nervous woman, whom you know only when you know all the aspects of her beauty. She has high spirits or low, she is pale or red, grey or pink, cold or warm, fresh or wan, according to the weather or the hour. She is always interesting and almost always sad; but she has a thousand occasional graces and is always liable to happy accidents. You become extraordinarily fond …. The place seems to personify itself, to become human and sentient and conscious of your affection. You desire to embrace it, to caress it, to possess it; and finally a soft sense of possession grows up and your visit becomes a perpetual love-affair.”
One of the many charms is of course the water, the many canals and the numerous small steeply-curved bridges across them. Venice without the water would still be interesting but not as unique. The water reflects the light, the colors, and the mood; it prohibits the use of cars and Vespas and thus creates a quietness that does not exist in any other city.
What can be more stereotypically touristy than a gondola ride? But if in Venice and a tourist, I felt I had to give in and hire a gondola. And once I again I did not expect much; after all, it was just a small boat. And once again Venice and its experiences surprised me. The gondola ride was one of the highlights of the weekend, maybe because it was still early and we stayed mostly in small canals: “The gondola moves slowly; it gives a great smooth swerve, passes under a bridge, and the gondolier’s cry, carried over the quiet water, makes a kind of splash in the stillness. A girl crosses the little bridge, which has an arch like a camel’s back…. The pink of the old wall seems to fill the whole place; it sinks even into the opaque water. …On the other side of this small water-way is a great shabby facade of Gothic windows and balconies – balconies on which dirty clothes are hung and under which a cavernous-looking doorway opens from a low flight of slimy water-steps. It is very hot and still, the canal has a queer smell, and the whole place is enchanting” (James).
It does not take much to enjoy Venice; just take the time to look and soak in the light and colors because “the mere use of one’s eyes in Venice is happiness enough, and generous observers find it hard to keep an account of their profits in this line. Everything the attention touches holds it, keeps playing with it — thanks to some inscrutable flattery of the atmosphere. Your brown-skinned, white-shirted gondolier, twisting himself in the light, seems to you, as you lie at contemplation beneath your awning, a perpetual symbol of Venetian ‘effect’” (James).
I remember the light glittering on the water, the waves rocking the boats, the water slapping against hulls and steps, and the smell of the damp walls battling the saltiness of the seawater. But it always comes down to the light as “the light here is in fact a mighty magician and, with all respect to Titian, Veronese and Tintoret, the greatest artist of them all. You should see in places the material with which it deals – slimy brick, marble battered and befouled, rags, dirt, decay. Sea and sky seem to meet half-way, to blend their tones into a soft iridescence, a lustrous compound of wave and cloud and a hundred nameless local reflections, and then to fling the clear tissue against every object of vision” (James).