Vienna Postcard 4: Venice — March 14, 2004

Last week, my folks & my brother Pat came into Vienna for a couple of days. We visited some of the museums — the amazing new Leopold Museum & the newly refurbished Albertina — scarfed down some käsekrainers, & got jittery on $4 cups of coffee (it’s the going rate these days, thanks to the weak dollar). The weather was decidedly lousy — cold & snowy — but Venice beckoned, allowing us to flee the March winter for a few days. I’d never been to Venice: we prepped ourselves a few nights before our departure with a concert of Monteverdi madrigals, including the ur-operetta “Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda,” adapted from Torquato Tasso’s La Gerusalemme Liberata, his epic poem about the conquest of Jerusalem during the first Crusade, performed amazingly by Le Concert d’Astrée. I was jazzed to go.

My folks & my bro “established a beachhead” for us on the Adriatic by taking the night train on Monday evening. Venice is about nine hours away from Vienna by rail. The entryway to the Súdbahnhof, the train station you leave from, is flanked by two Venetian lions — St. Mark’s theriomorph is the symbol of Venice — to symbolize the connection between the two cities, a vestige of the Hapsburg rule, last of the Holy Roman empires. They took a sleeper car, leaving near 11pm & arriving around 8am. It sounds like Pat is the only one who slept. Rebecca & I decided better to travel to Venice during the day, just in case Gabby didn’t sleep on the train, so that we wouldn’t lose a day in Venice in recovery. Instead, we took a night train back to Vienna (on which G. slept like a log but we didn’t sleep a wink. Oh well).

The train ride is amazing: any train travel I’ve done in Europe over the years has been at the very least pleasant. Anymore — as in the US — discount airlines with cheap rates & fast connections make travel by rail a bit quaint & even expensive. Even so, it’s so much more pleasant a way to move across the landscape. And it’s a superbly toddler-friendly mode of moving. The train to Venice travels mainly through the Austrian province of Carinthia (whose governor is the radical right-winger Jörg Haider), which is beautiful & alpine. The rails are laid in a valley, running alongside the Mur, a lovely river that carves through the region. As the train ascends to the bordercrossing, the mountains become increasingly picturesque — like in a fairytale, slopes frosted with icing.

Italy is similarly stunning in the Alps. But slowly the train descends into the Veneto plain, which is as flat as it is unappealing to look at. A stretch of modern-looking cities, industries, moderately cared-for yards. In fact, it remains so until the very end of the trip. Venezia-Mestre is the main trainstation, but it serves the whole region. To get to the fabled city, you travel an additional few kilometers to Venezia-Santa Lucia. And even as you exit the train, you-re still in a familiarly modern setting. But once you exit the trainstation into the city, you stand on the banks of the Grand Canal. It’s like stepping into the Renaissance.

Rather than catalogue our itinerary — which blurs together for me anyways — I want to offer some impressions: nothing especially novel, but ideas & impulses that nonetheless moved me while we were there.

• • •

It’s amazingly hard traveling in Europe with a toddler. Have I mentioned this already? Gabby is always surprising me with how adaptable he is, but he has some well-defined limits already. These limits command us. Even in a city with streets, he’s a little too wild to let run freely; in a city without streets but only canals, it’s even tougher. He was fascinated with the canals. They brought out his most precarious dawdling. Venice wasn’t designed for strollers (which begs the question: how did the Venetians carry their children around — back in the day? In silken sashes?) — to traverse the canals, you have to walk over staircase bridges. Gabby needs to have a nap every afternoon. But it’s not just the sleep —he needs time to decompress; he can’t spend a day sightseeing. It’s just too much for him. And he needs to eat pretty early. Now Venice — a city overrun with tourists, even in the first week of March — doesn’t dine nearly as late — or so it seemed — as other cities in the Boot I’ve been to, where even at 9.30 we’d be the only people eating. But Gabby likes to eat dinner around 5pm. Which means, you know, we end up eating at 5pm. Which leaves many hours remaining to digest before going to sleep, I guess. (And to watch DVDs on this laptop).

Venetian G.

But given the strictures of this schedule — up early, back to the hotel by noon for a nap, a few hours in the afternoon for poking around — we managed to do a lot. We were facilitated magnificently by our hotel room, a total score thanks to my mom’s travel agent discount: we had a balcony we could sit on, which overlooked the Grand Canal — right across the water from Santa Maria della Salute, just a bit aways from San Giorgio Maggiore, looking out to the expanse of the fabled lagoon. Likewise, a little spring weather helped us: during Gabby’s naps, we could sit on the balcony feeling the full pleasure of the sun, reading, watching boats, gondolas, vaporreti, even funeral hearses coast by. Utterly pleasant. We felt like 15th century aristocrats.

Rebecca overlooking the Grand Canal, St Giorgio Maggiore just beyond

• • •

Before we left Vienna, as we were making plans of what to do, Rebecca said that she thinks Venice is one of the cities in which simply being there is the most interesting experience because the city itself is so intrinsically strange. The days we were there I kept imagining Blake’s Jerusalem, which he describes as a perfectly artificial city. There are very few trees, or even plants, in Venice, which means very few birds. It’s like a vast stage set. Its decay is essential to its appeal, the feeling of the city crumbling, algae-pocked, into the sea. And yet the sea, seething with life & destruction, is everywhere around. It’s like the unconscious, streaming through the watery lanes. The gondoliers seemed to be the nimblest, the most at ease moving through Venice: navigating the submerged imagination of the place. It’s very evocative, to say the least.

• • •

St. Mark’s Cathedral — what to say? Merging Catholic & Byzantine culture superbly, I felt created to enter this space, it so keenly has been buzzing the east-west nerve of my religious imagination. As a space, it provides: but one sensation overwhelmed me, that the church was a mausoleum, a great funereal memorial, existing on at least two anagogic levels. On one level, its plan — of eight domes arranged around a massive Greek Cross — mimics that of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople. But that church — reported by many a soul to have been the most beautiful in all of Christendom — ceased to function as a church over five hundred years ago. As such, St. Mark’s is its living memory. But this life is resolutely memorial — a function of an ideal. It still functions as a church, but only in its deep ante-chambers. The fabled church itself is a vast, iconic cavern, streaming with shadow — whose images are gently daubed with dust above, graying the light considerably. On another level, St. Mark’s is the memory of an archetypal Church, one that alloyed the most diverse elements of its constituents, from its artisans, to its designers, to its liturgists, to its theologians, to its history. For a city comprised of ecclesial districts, each draws its energy from the hub of St. Mark’s considerable aura. It’s really mind-blowing. Rebecca said, while it’s not the most beautiful church she’s ever been in (we both reserve that feeling for the Duomo at Monreale, near Palermo), St. Mark’s is certainly the strangest. I can’t disagree.

Gabby & Rebecca in Piazza San Marco

We visited so many killer churches, with vast Titians & Tintorettos, but the one merits special mention: San Giorgio Maggiore. This church lives on its own island, very close to St. Mark’s square (you get over there on a vaporetto). It’s a really pleasant Renaissance church, open-spaced with compelling paintings. It’s also got a commanding bell-tower. We decided to ride up to the top, all three of us. There was an elevator, whose operator was a pony-tailed, thickly-bearded twenty-year old, with tight jeans, a key-chain wallet, & a leather jacket with a Manowar patch. Manowar! I think I still have a Manowar tape in my basement (tip o’ the hat to Klemme). This guy — he was totally pleasant — had a little CD player in the elevator, with some speakers attached. He was cranking out “Don Giovanni”! I instantly wanted to be his friend. He was more interested in Gabby.

• • •

I can’t not mention the impression the Accademia left. A smallish museum with some of the most incredible paintings I’ve ever seen — most impressively a room filled with scenes from the mystic procession of a fragment of the True Cross through the city, rendered by Gentile Bellini & another room with depictions of a pilgrimage from Venice to Rome & back again by Vittore Carpaccio. These paintings are vast! They take up the whole space of a wall in a room devoted to this transformative panorama. It’s like entering a panopticon of another world. The whole verity of the Venetian spectacle on display.

• • •

Pound’s grave

One afternoon, while Gabby napped, I strode across the city to Fondamente Nuovo & hopped on a vaporetto out to San Michele, a little island just north of Venice in the Lagoon. It’s the cemetery for the city — though I take it few bodies are interred out there nowadays. In one of its sections — the “Evangelical” quarter — Ezra Pound is buried, alongside Olga Rudge. It’s a lovely, quiet place — with trees, birds, & the smell of the salty Adriatic. Pound’s grave is deliberately minimal: a large plot with a simple headstone bearing his name. There were hardly any people out at the cemetery that afternoon, so I took this photo myself. I’m looking away to make it look more “natural.” Homage has been paid.


• • •

One last item, not about food (which, by the way, was delicious: coffee, brioches, pizzas, spaghetti, inky cuttlefish). One of the vestiges of the Venetian Renaissance ubiquitous in the city is the book & paper stores. It can be difficult to re-enter the historical imagination, to realize that in some cases a relatively simple innovation or act spurred a revolution in Western thought: navigational devices, interest rates, Aristotle translations, bookbinding. In Venice some monumental books have been published, for me none more consequential than the Philokalia. Tucked into the innumerable alleyways of Venice are little paper shops, selling beautiful handmade books, lined with incredible endpapers, bound in carefully wrought leather. Within minutes of our arrival, lugging our giant suitcase over the cobblestones, we passed three or four such shops, & my gland of coveting was secreting its bright juices into my limbic system. So, I prowled through the mazes looking for the right shop. Should I tell you where it is? I don’t think so. I had thought at first to leave you with a digital photo of the book I purchased in this shop, one in which a fabulously far-sighted artisan explained to me in hypnotically slow Italian how he made the book, none of which I understood; but a charitous feeling overcomes me. I want to protect the poets out there reading this. See, once you look on this beautiful book, I fear that your imaginations will crumple up like used tinfoil, folding you into dense catalepsy. Because on seeing my book, you will unavoidably begin to conceive of the mind-blowing poem that I will inscribe — that I will be compelled to! — in its pages. And I want to protect you all from that vision, one I am hardly myself Frodo-minded to contain. Besides, it’s My Precious. You’ll need to get your own.

• • •

Last thing: a public thanks to my folks for such a fabulous trip!


Peter O'Leary (© 2004)