La Serenissima mirrors the labyrinth
of the human heart.
Venice seduced me before the water taxi crossed the lagoon from Aeroporto Marco Polo. Dazzled by the light, the water, the famous silhouettes assuming their fantastic shapes through the early morning mist, I surrendered to the city at first sight.
On my honeymoon, I wondered if this meant I was unfaithful.
Questions of fidelity seemed unimportant once we reached the small landing dock of the hotel Monaco e Grand Canal. The youngest porter had stolen his face from a coin. The concierge’s deep eyes had winked at years of assignations. I wondered what the wind had done to my hair and smiled at my husband.
Glances were exchanged. We walked through the cool dark of the lobby and upstairs to the room we’d booked months in advance. When the requested room with a view mysteriously lacked said promised view, the hotel manager smoothly floated us down several corridors and into the luxurious excess of a small suite overlooking the Grand Canal.
Patterned silk covered the walls. Brocade lined the drawers in the dressers and secretary. Each ornate piece of furniture embraced inset over overlay. The chandelier clamored I might not want to visit the island of Murano after all.
Both the sitting room and bedroom had two tall windows, with sheer fabric ballooning off the elaborate curtain rods. The view through these windows banished all the lavish textures and colors of the rooms into a Motel 6 decorator’s portfolio.
For the first time in my life, I saw more than I had dreamed of. Books, movies, paintings, hours of fantasizing — nothing had prepared me. Dark gondole were moored right below our windows. Five thousand shades of color, blues and greens whose names I didn’t know, rippled across the canal. The gentle curves of the Salute on the canal’s far side turned every twentieth century building into a lego construction. Even the garbage barges looked glamorous.
The bedroom had two matrimoniales, double beds with seductively painted headboards and lush linens. At first reluctant to abandon the view from the windows, I learned the pleasures of watching reflected light cavort on a ceiling. The best cities embrace their visitors.
The hundreds of bewildered tourists clogging San Marco our first evening in Venice ridiculed my hopes that a late October visit might avoid the crowds.
Proust didn’t complain about the crowds in Venice. Then again, whoever swarmed his path probably didn’t wear plastic gondolier hats or garishly printed tee-shirts. It’s also difficult to imagine Henry James stopping in the middle of the plaza, arms extended in full crucifixion pose, silently bedecked with birds.
La Serenissima was unusually warm that October. Most of the crisp fall clothing I’d packed was far too heavy for the humid heat. The lightest weight clothes in my luggage were two simple long dresses, one cotton and one silk. I fantasized about Fortuny, alternated the two dresses, and softened both gowns with constant wear. The soft swishings of long skirts seemed the only proper response to the constant murmurings of the canals. Raising my hem to climb a flight of stairs or avoid a puddle in Piazza San Marco returned me to a grace I didn’t know I’d fallen from.
Except for the three creamy vintage nightgowns packed in whispering tissue, nothing I owned seemed worthy to be called a trousseau. I craved silk lingerie, hand-stitched by nuns, with lace intricate enough to blind a novice. I wanted hand-made shoes, soft leather to cradle my feet and flirt with the cobblestones. Longing for enough hair to sweep into a luxuriantly demure chignon, I searched my luggage for hatboxes full of large-brimmed creations. Despite the perpetual inadequacies of my wardrobe, I never wore jeans in Venice. It would have seemed like blasphemy.
The later the hour, the more deserted the streets, or at least their Venetian versions. In daylight, we toured the Accademia, admired all the riches of San Marco, visited everything we’d planned on. We really saw Venice at night.
Sightseeing during the day, a honeymoon’s late-afternoon naps, leisurely marble baths, cinzano on the hotel’s terrace, and dinners that lasted hours — nothing gave me as much pleasure as our late-night walks.
We wandered for hours each night. Never with a specific destination, we followed the patterns of light and dark, twisting through the labyrinths beyond the Grand Canal. There were treasures in the shadows, portraits in the rare unshuttered windows. The narrower and darker the alley, the more it lured us. Even the deadends offered rewards, some tiny detail on a building’s exterior that needed to be admired at rest.
We walked at night to avoid the crowds, yet more souls crowded the most deserted calle than have ever scrambled onto a rush hour subway. Time twisted and curved around us in the dark, and the twentieth century trembled in surrender. The past was almost visible in the city of reflections, as if the air were a mirror too. More complicated, more evanescent than ghosts, other feet stepped across the cobblestones, other shadows disappeared into darkened doorways. Sleepy eyes I struggled to see watched even the most stolen of kisses.
When an unexpected streetlamp threw our shadows into high relief across an alley wall, my resolutely modern husband claimed to want a costume to match the silhouette of my long dress. He described a plumed hat, high boots, and a sweeping cape. I felt the cape brush my right shoulder.
It was impossible for us to walk alone. There is no virgin territory in Venice.
My sense of direction is infamous. In twenty years of living in New York City, I never did master the fastest route to the airport. I can get lost, quite easily, on the freeways surrounding my current home city.
I never lost my way in Venice. Never.
I cannot explain the familiarity I felt in this most mysterious of cities, how I always seemed to know my way there, how my steps took us unhesitatingly through the most circuitous of routes. Discovering new wonders on each walk, I marvelled at my lack of surprise and insisted on a knowledge I couldn’t explain when it was time to head to our grand and temporary home.
Bemused and unwilling to argue, my husband followed as I infallibly led us back to the hotel at the end of each night’s excursion. He asked each night how I’d known the way. Never a believer in past lives, I joked about trails of biscotti crumbs, luck, and fate.
My husband died four years after our honeymoon, his body swamped by a disease more insidious than millennia of erosion. We never returned to Italy together and his death was not in Venice.
I still take pleasure in imagining him there. He wanders the back alleys, looks for his wavering reflection in the small canal below an ancient footbridge, waits to hear the rustle of my skirts. He never liked to be alone.
–Originally publishd in Travelers’ Tales, Italy