Travel Thursday: Not So Serene Venice

Some places advertise themselves as cities of change, in motion and in partnership with the future, while others–those somehow deemed historical–like to crow about how things are peachy keen and need no changing whatsoever, ever.
Venice is in the latter group, though if the water keeps rising, that might change after all.
“It was the inevitable destiny of Venice to be painted, and painted with passion.” Even though I’m not a painter, and I don’t particularly like Henry James, I am forced to agree this time. Somerset Maugham, another of my unfavorites despite using his quote to header this page at times, said the best thing to do in Venice is to sit at the Hotel Gritti Palace with a bottle of Soave in its ice pail and contemplate a city whose beauty remained as when you saw it the first time. I have no idea what Soave is, other than “smooth,” but I figured it would work just as well with 7-Up. Considering the pollution, there’s just no way Venice looked like it did even a few years ago.
And did I mention the water rising? But for tourists who’d never seen it before, in their minds it looked the same as the days when Veronica Franco was running around. . .
Shooting a very architecturally famous town for an architecture magazine isn’t nearly as fun as it sounds. It means getting shots of landmarks like the Rialto Bridge, of course, but also just about every other building at least on the Grand Canal, if not the entire town. In between the preety preety compositions of the canals and old buildings were literally thousands of close-up shots, with just one architectural feature. It seemed like every square inch of the town had been carefully drawn out on photographic paper and pixels, but since I’m a photographer with a habit of being thorough, I can only blame myself.
Methodically I made my way through the photos, trying to see anything new but only having the same thoughts as before. I had to order another gelato before I was done, but finally it was over, and I claimed my reward, another helping of Balcony Babe.
I’d nicknamed her Juliet, of course, since the play was set not too far away, but it would be just too funny if that really was her name, so I tried not to get too hung up on it. I just hoped it wasn’t something silly like Francesca or Be-a-tri-ce. Of course, there was little chance I’d ever learn her name, unless I could think of an excuse to somehow run into her. Or maybe I could claim I wanted to find out who was playing that Vivaldi piece I’d heard soon after she’d left her lounging balcony. . .
Grimace. I hadn’t thought about it at the time, but maybe she was the one on the violin. Wouldn’t that be perfect? Now I really had to find out. . .
Well, even if she was playing it on a CD, she figured to have more than just looks. And her balcony would make a wonderful place to shoot from. Hmmm, best not mention that last one in any attempted seduction. . .
I looked at the photo on the laptop’s screen one more time, and smiled at the way she was grinning and waving at me. Yeah, she was perfectly happy in her body, her long lean body, had to be close to six feet and–
At that moment–of course–she passed right in front of me, carrying a bag of groceries.
“Hey, it’s you!” I blurted in English, then looked sheepish and apologized in Italian.
“Pick your poison,” she told me in English, then said in Italian, “but yeah, it’s me, all right. What’s up, stranger?”
I showed her the photo.
“Oh! You!”
Hmm, did she mean the type of “Oh you!” frequently followed by a friendly slap to the shoulder? Did it mean–
“Never did get a good look at you without the camera,” she blurted happily, unintentionally resolving my question, “but I figured such a good lens would make you remember me.”
“It isn’t the lens that makes you memorable.”
She didn’t blush, but grinned happily. So she was used to being complimented about her looks, but still liked it. Either she’d learned quickly or had caught thousands of compliments, probably from an early age. . .
Hmmm, why was I even bothering with that thought? Quick, throw her another compliment before she decides she’s late, she’s late, for a very important date or something!
“You look very strong, but can I still do the gentlemanly thing and carry those for you?”
Her grin grew impish, well aware of my dastardly plan. “You may, sir.” Since it was about a ten minute walk, she figured I had plenty of time to blow it.
“You don’t have to call me sir. . At least not yet.”
“I am Julietta.”
“Oh, of course. No wonder you chose to live in a place with a balcony. Aren’t you glad I’m not a Montague?”
She tried to look surprised. “Thou art not Romeo?”
“Nice. You don’t sound too disappointed.”
“Not really. Names don’t matter that much to me. Call me Julie.”
“Love to.”
What else I’d love to do I didn’t say, although she seemed like the type who didn’t shock easily.

Anyway. . . I placed the bags on the kitchen counter when she opened up, trying not to pant from the stairs. She told me to have a seat while she put everything away, but instead I went out to the balcony to check on the photo possibilities. This would be perfect.
I came back when she called my name, and I found her sitting on the couch, legs crossed to show her curvy calves and some thigh from under her sundress. The only other thing she seemed to be wearing was a smirky, almost evil smile. Hmm. . .


At sunset I set up the tripod on the balcony, letting her help with the always fun task of screwing the nuts tightly on the legs–that’s tripod talk, don‘t get too excited just yet. Her entire body jiggled nicely as she giggled, still in schoolgirl mode, then went to get my cameras. I took plenty of shots, some with her in the foreground, even letting her shoot a few, just for fun.
After that we went for a walk, where I let her believe she was showing me stuff I’d never seen before; see, I’m not stupid all the time. The summer I turned 16 was spent at a soccer academy where the hotel and field were on the mainland, but after morning practice I had the afternoon off till evening practice, and I always spent it exploring Venice.
Which, being pretty much a small town/island, I didn’t think we’d get tired before reaching whatever destination she was taking me. “It’s San Polo in this direction, right?”
She confirmed this, registering only a little bit of surprise at my lay of the land, then squealed, “Isn’t that cute?” while pointing to a building we were just passing. A very old palace–though from a family not rich enough to be on the canal–had a tower on the side that, no other description for it, “snail”ed up to the top.
Still trying to stay on her bright side, knowing she liked to show her brains, I asked her what that round thing was in the middle of the open square.
Being asked a question that allowed her to show her smarts got her bubbly again. “There’s one in every little piazza. It collects rain, has a layer of sand to filter the water. See, back in the late eighteen hundreds, an aqueduct was built from the mountains. . .”
I let her ramble on as I looked for shots in the murkiness.
“Isn’t it cool that you’re getting to see sights hardy any tourists bother with?”
“I think its more cool hanging out with you.” Grammar notwithstanding, I didn’t add.
“Really?” Her grin told me that was rhetorical. She somehow managed to blush and bask at the same time. “So, San Polo. . . don’t ask me how I know, something I heard from a friend, or something, okay? There’s a couple of whorehouses down here.”
Trying to recover any possible lost ground, she informed me this area had been the red-light district for centuries. “This street is called Rampani. In the fifteen hundreds there were over ten thousand registered courtesans here.” She bit her lip and waited for me to say something, but I didn’t.
But then, I didn’t really have to, right?
“That bridge we crossed a few minutes ago? Ponte delle Tette.”
“Bridge of Breasts?” I hooted.
“Yep. In the fourteen hundreds there was an increase in homosexuality, and someone decided it’d be better to let the prostitutes show their wares–”
“On the bridge?”
“Actually, in windows, in buildings surrounding it. Forerunner to Amsterdam, I guess.”
“Good thing you’ve already convinced me of your vast historical knowledge. Wouldn’t want to think it was just on one subject.”
She couldn’t think of a response to that, so she just pouted a little while keeping up her role as lovey-dovey girlfriend, in case she came across someone she knew.
San Polo turned out to be a mysterious maze of narrow streets and canals, very atmospheric even without the spooky early morning fog; she admitted she kept expecting masked revelers to approach us at any moment, even though it wasn’t Carnival season, or whatever they called it here. Having to cross these high, seemingly rickety, bridges wasn’t any fun; some of the canals looked tiny enough to jump across. And there were teeny-weeny little statues everywhere, and mosaics on these empty back streets that I really should be photographing, but thought it’d be better to come back during daylight.
Passing through what would usually be a hidden garden, we very suddenly came to a tiny piazza. This area of town had nooks and crannies everywhere, reminding me of the Alhambra, and it would have been a ton of fun had the darkness not made it so spooky.
“Come with me to the Rialto tomorrow morning so I can cook for you.”
“Ah, you meant the market instead of the bridge.”
“True, a lot of things called Rialto here, and the bridge is the most famous, quite an engineering feat for the fifteen hundreds, don’t ya think? Ya know, before all the tacky souvenir shops, that usta be the commodities area, where the money usta hang out.”
“Causing Shakespeare, or Marlowe or Bacon or whoever really wrote it, to say ‘What news on the Rialto?’ in The Merchant of Venice.”
Finally, after an incredibly long-seeming but relatively short walk, we were back in the touristy areas, as was evidenced by the street musicians. Once again it was an Andean pipes group, like I’d seen all over Europe. In fact, my theory is that it’s only one group I keep bumping into everywhere. And a few meters away was the old black guy playing blues guitar; if we hung around long enough, he might play “Greensleeves.”
But on the way back to her place we were walking alone again, the only ambient sound in this dark canyon between tall buildings the everpresent lapping of water against land, which perversely magnified the thud of our passage.
“I love Venice for the footsteps,” she sighed. “Where else can you actually hear your own footsteps when you walk down the street?”

The next morning it was pretty obvious what direction we were taking, and it was my nose that told me, unfortunately. It was too early for tourists to be filling the streets and alleys of the Rialto district, but the vendors were either starting to show their wares or already selling to people who had to open up their own shops and restaurants soon. And the first market section we ran into had to be the Pescheria–fish market. Yeah, even had my nose not confirmed it so early on, I caught a glimpse of the street sign on the corner: Campo de la Pescaria. A little redundant, considering the overwhelming smell. . .
Keeping my nose pinched shut internally so as not to gag fishily was leaving me gasping and suffering from reduced oxygen flow, made all the worse by now having to climb the Rialto. The canal was only fifty yards across, so therefore the bridge span was too, but the foundations started long before that, and it surely felt like we were going uphill quite a distance before the white-covered span. And of course the bridge itself was uphill. . . well, halfway, anyway. If I made it to the icebox, as the summit is called–a great place to kiss, according to Julie–I might stay there until I photographed at least 100 boats, or caught my breath, whichever came first. It wasn’t even that easy to listen to her as she cheerfully lectured, “See, palazzos on the mainland had to be built to be defended, but because of the lagoon there were no worries here, so it was all about luxury. And it wasn’t so much about the biggest palace, it was about location. The richer you were, the more central to downtown, and you had to be on the Grand Canal. And it didn’t matter if others had bigger mansions on the outskirts, there was plenty of room in one of these palaces to be as lavish as you could, and anyway, that one across from where I live had a rep for being the most lavish of its day.”
Sunlight played along the canal, making for some more joyful compositions, especially considering what I had to work with last night. People in tiny boats happily shouted at each other to fuck off, which Julie blushingly said was a long tradition. She also told me about the gondola race, which dated back to when Venice was an independent republic and trading capital of the Med. The race was preceded by a regatta of decorated gondolas and their costumed crews, which she thought would be a great photographic experience for me.
Not for an architectural magazine, though. . .
If you ever feel homesick–those of you from El Lay, that is–just climb to the top of the Rialto. I know that sounds weird to say, but just take a gander at the Grand Canal, and you’ll see the similarities to the freeways back home: traffic jams! Water taxis, police boats, delivery trucks, Vaparettos, and over 400 gondolas. . .
And then we found ourselves on one, where I wasn’t bothered by the traffic as much as the ride itself, with my propensity for getting seasick in a swimming pool. She cheerily told me more anecdotes about her town in order to distract me, though I did notice she made sure to sit upwind.
“Someone once said ‘The city’s very existence defies reason.’ The town sits on pilings, millions of tree trunks stuck in the middle of a lagoon. There are 100 individual tiny islands and 400 bridges, with vast web of alleys and canal-side walkways, as you discovered last night. It is a patchwork of land and sea.
“Yet this watery town became an empire, and for 800 years grew in strength, wealth, and pride. From the 10th to the 17th century, it was the gateway to the east. Venice made a deal to protect Byzantine and Crusader ports in exchange for free trade, which made Venice very rich. In the 16th century it was one of the biggest cities in Europe, with over 180,000 people, nearly 1000 of them big time Rockerfeller-like wealthy. It was the commercial powerhouse of the world, merchants from all over the known world met here.”
“And they brought all those little statues and peculiar religious thoughts and such?”
Laugh. “No, it was all stolen. Whenever Venicians stole something, like a patron saint or gold horses, they would smuggle them in pork so the Muslim border guards wouldn’t check it.” Then she let out a dramatic sigh. “Venice plummeted in importance with the discovery of America, and as its power fled, its decadence grew.”
I wondered if a Dangerous Beauty reference was coming, but by then we’d arrived at Murano, which was known as the hottest place in Venice. In past times glassmakers were considered so important they enjoyed immunity from prosecution. Pliny told the ancient tale of the accidental discovery of glass by shipwrecked merchants on the beach, where nitrum–whatever that is–sand, and fire all came together to form not just beauty but plenty of functionality. Though I was a bit skeptical when Julie quoted someone as saying glass is the fourth state of matter; I think someone’s being fanciful. . .
I love watching the glassblowing so much I sometimes forget about the intense heat, though the same couldn’t be said for Julie. Since the glassblower knew English, she abdicated any translating duties and went outside to lie in the sun, having worn her bikini underneath just in case. If she thought that would distract me from my more usual photographic obligations, she underestimated my sense of duty.
But not by much, I’ll admit.
I had no idea there was a glass museum on the island, so I had to shoot that too, but soon enough we were back in Venice proper, if there is such a thing. And then it was back to the water after dinner, with a more typical and romantic version of local boating. Gondolas are not taxis, Julie said, they’re limos, and cost appropriately, though I can never forget reading about some couple who were kissing in a quiet side canal, water lapping gently against the boat, when they suddenly heard “I’m a Barbie girl, in a Barbie world, life in plastic, it’s fantastic.” What made the story even better was that it wasn’t being blasted from a house; it was the gondolier’s cell phone! I hope someone gave him a hard time about that. . .
Taking photos of the boat before hopping on, I noticed it was about thirty feet long, shiny black with a two-person seat in the center that looked quite comfortable, with rugs, throws and pillows. Julie had said up to six people could get on one, but I didn’t see how, unless it was an orgy, but then you wouldn’t see any sights, so that couldn’t be it. And as I finally climbed on, the gondolier–clad in the traditional black trousers, blue-and-white-striped shirt, and straw hat–gave me a wink, obviously approving of my companion and figuring I wasn’t going to get many shots after all. . . at least not with the camera.
Once we were comfortably on the pillows, we were on our way. The gondolier and Julie had agreed not to go on the Grand Canal, because it was too rough from the motorboats, until the end of the ride, where at sunset I would get shots of the grand palaces, so most of the trip went through the narrow and dark back alleys we’d walked in last night. Despite my best efforts to look for things to shoot–and then shoot ‘em–the damn thing was just so romantic I had to struggle not to give in.
Until Julie said, “See that brick wall there under the bridge? Long ago it led to the best brothel in town, the Ridotto della Procuratoressa Venier.”
Someday I would have to ask her how she knew so much about the history of Venice’s prostitutes, but I would save it till the last thing I ever said to her. . .
Having some journalistic mojo backing me, or at least credentials, I’d managed to snag an after-hours time slot to shoot some of the more famous buildings, especially the magnificent Doge’s Palace. I’d already shot the pink and white Gothic façade exterior during sunrise, but I had to do the inside too.
I had an English guide who didn’t seem to believe me when I told him I was photographing architecture, not museum exhibits. Julie had la-de-da’d something about being my assistant, so she got to tag along as well, even squeezed my hand when the guide said the body of St. Marc had been stolen in 828 A.D. from Alexandria so it could become Venice’s patron saint, hidden in a basket of pork to repulse the Muslim customs guys. I’d done the Doge’s Palace and the long stairway tour before, when I was 15, and as this walk continued I realized I remembered most of it: that huge hall with the biggest oil panting in the world, the prison and the Bridge of Sighs–thinking about how lonely Casanova must have felt locked up in there–the Arsenal, with the stat that the Navy built one warship each day in its heady years. And of course the horse statues, though it’s impossible to recall all the people and countries who’d enjoyed them over history.
As always, I had one thing to complain about, and again it reminded me of the Alhambra: these lions don’t look at all like lions! Their mouths were used for denouncing your rivals to the Doge’s secret police, which made them all the creepier, but you woulda figured someone must have seen them, or drawn them, before. . .
But then you stop and stare at an exhibit, or just close your eyes and take in the quiet, and something magical happens. I can’t imagine it occurs very often, since this place is overrun by tourists all day, but I guess that made it all the more special.
And all the serene feelings I was given by the remnants of the Most Serene Republic are instantly shattered once back outside. Fucking pigeons!