“The Grand Canal at Midnight” by Felix Francois G.P. Ziem
They charge from their tour boats like Trojans from the horse. These tourists who march behind their leaders' banners and take the city by siege claiming their booty from souvenir stalls: gondolier hats, gondolier shoes, gondolier shirts, and bumper stickers that proclaim, VENEZIA!
As the guides invade the hush of churches their booming voices ricochet off the walls. Old ladies in black shawls unfold themselves from prayer and wander out into the light, surrendering their peace to the invading hordes. That is, after all, the Venetian tradition, staying one step ahead of the barbarians. It’s what first drove them to this improbable place, to set a civilization on a foundation of reeds and swamps, leaving terra firma and pragmatism far behind.
The tourists take the church of Santa Maria dei Frari at a trot. Thirty seconds for Titian's Assumption, three for Bellini's Madonna triptych.
The call to a waiter at Florian's, "Hey, Amico!" Amico approaches formally. A woman in her sixties with an open, innocent face and hair permed for the ages puts down her copy of Europe Cheap! and asks, "Is your orange juice like it was in Rome? You know, kind of bitter?" The waiter bows slightly at the waist and says, "I don't know, madame. I was not in Rome."
Disneyland or Venice? Well, it depends; the city will oblige and be either, depending on what you want. Do you want something to tell the Rotary Club back home or do you want to be moved? Do you dare to be moved?
If so, book a room on the Grand Canal. Never mind that people will tell you it's noisy and you won't be able to sleep. That's not why you won't be able to sleep. It's amazement, not noise, that will keep you wakeful. Book a room on the Grand Canal so that you can observe Venice when it is most itself. At dawn and midnight. This is when it will have its way with you.
Six in the morning. The sun sprays gold across the canal's green slick, and the work boats ply its path. The deep grunts of the motors slowing down, revving up, changing gears. Your wake-up call. The postman shouts from his boat to the garbageman in his; the garbageman greets the greengrocer floating by with baskets of dewy figs reflecting the early light. Their voices bounce off the water's edge and echo along the palazzo walls, bringing the news of the day.
The news of the day is that you cannot be casual about Venice once you have made your commitment to know it. There is no escaping its demand that you see and be moved. Try as you might to shake it by spending hours in lace shops, mask shops, paper shops. Each dawn, as you hear the bells of Santa Maria delIa Salute, the church built to honor Mary for driving the plague from the city, you will be reminded of the fragility of life on the water. And you will feel just that fragile, just that vulnerable.
If you give yourself to those quiet times before the arrival of the hordes, if you dare give yourself over to enchantment, you will not be the first to be left speechless. How to describe it? How to put a finger on it and press it down as if it were a butterfly captured for closer scrutiny? Captured for revelation. It's no wonder that Byron regularly swam the length of the Grand Canal. Swam out into the lagoon. Swam to the Lido. Swam for his life and wavering sanity. He was trying to clear his head, to find the words to describe this mystery posing as a city. But for the pollution, you too might swim the canals as if your life depended on it, as if you could swim to revelation.
Of course, you can get away from the crowds all together. Leave the city for a place with a pool and a garden, peace and quiet, and cool, clean air. Head for the camaraderie of other Americans and relax with the news of New York and Boston after too much news from Bellini and Titian. Leave Venice and ease your mind.
But if you dare put yourself at the mercy of Venice, book a room at the Gritti Palace and stand on your balcony over the Grand Canal as nighttime comes, as the curtain descends and the players kick off their shoes and masks. The audience departs amid complaints or praise, depending on their expectations. They will discuss whether it was worth the journey, and leave you behind as the lights go off and the poignancy of an empty theater settles about you.
If you remain as silent as your surroundings, you'll begin to sense the presence of old actors and old dramas, long since played out. Venice at midnight, when the tour boats have cast off the pier at the foot of San Marco, when the sellers of maps and masks and postcards have closed their stalls with a violent clang of metal, when the potbellied baritone who sings " '0 Sole Mio" from the helm of a hired gondola has silenced his voice with a glass of grappa, when the guides have folded their banners and soaked their feet, this is when Venice returns to her senses.
And this is when you are at risk. You cannot divert your attentions with another trip to Krizia or Bottega Veneta. Harry's Bar is closed, and you cannot eavesdrop on the petulant ladies who complain, "Well, next time we'll insist that we be seated upstairs." The doors of the Accademia are locked against your compulsion to see, to learn, to swallow a culture whole. The tourists have left their sun blocks and novels on the beach at the Lido, and their chatter of restaurants and bargains has retreated to dreams. No more clatter of cups and glasses at the espresso bars, no more shouted conversations between boatmen. Venice returns to her watery loneliness, relieved by an occasional cry of a seabird diving through green, guided by the moon's reflected light. A cat protests the silence and then surrenders to it.
“venice looking east from the guidecca sunrise” by joseph mallord william turner
For Ms. Anja. Not yet hooked on Venice? Just you wait. Not so much for the first impression, or even the first day or week, but that growing feeling of unease and intrigue and the realization that you are in a place unlike any other.