Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Spring | Night | Walk

Spin a little Debussy for these random thoughts while walking on a mild spring night.

The No. 1 vaporetto from Salute (deserted) to San Marco (not deserted) is crowded at 9-27pm. Those with cameras hang over the railings, flashing furiously. I can't imagine that they get anything, but they seem happy with whatever they get.

There is a Babel of languages around me. To my right, a bambino perched on the luggage rack screams for biscotti. To my left, a young couple kisses. People gape at the succession of palaces turned into luxury hotels; they will only see it once or twice and it is eminently gape-able.

The best music is Venice is often the worst. The "good" music rarely measures up, but the bands on Piazza San Marco can be thrilling. "Con te, partiro" -- part of the standard set at Gran Caffe Chioggia, winter or summer -- soars on a feverish and melancholy violin solo taking the vocal line. It transcends itself for a moment.

Crowds have returned to the piazza; they come with the warm weather. Nothing like summer, of course; not a huge crowd where you can barely walk, but large enough to give the musicians a big hand and clap along with a swingy "New York, New York."

The tower of the original castle -- before the present incarnation of the Doge's Palace, back around 900 AD when it was an island -- is clad with a satiny patchwork of stolen marble. Above it, you can see the unencrusted Byzantine brick arches; atop the arches, the original dome is capped with an even more massive dome.

The Basilica astonishes. It always astonishes. It will never cease to astonish until it has completely dissolved from salty damp and time. Structurally, it stops at the Gothic period. The original cove mosaics above the doors, with the exception of "The Removal of the Body of St. Mark" above the Door of Sant'alipio, were sacrificed to poor baroque replacements, once considered restorative improvements. Only the original mosaic retains the proper Byzantine majesty. Nonetheless, it astonishes, from the clustered pillars with their lacy capitals (see masthead) to the swirling fringes along the roof line to the finials crowning the dome like airy bronze molecular models.

If you live in Venice, Piazza San Marco is a place you avoid wherever possible, or walk through of necessity on the way from one place to another. It takes a special effort to find the right moment to stop and appreciate it, because it really has nothing to do with real life, like any work of art.

But this work of art wasn't created in one stroke. It accrued over the centuries like barnacles on shells, rebuilt and renovated again and again, stopping only with Napoleon's addition of the Ala Napoleonica spanning the two Procuratie, with its suitably impressive staircase and curiously small ballroom. Napoleon's parties were imperial, but intimate.

As I jot this down, a group of young Americans careens past. A self-styled blond bimbo stops, notices where she is, points, and says "Isn't that what they have in Vegas?" A group of Germans stands and stares at the water welling up through a drain in the grey paving stones of the piazza creating a widening reflecting pool.

There is very little Venice left in Venice. The buildings stand, but what it was, and what made it what it was, has long since vanished. It is a memento mori; all that truly remains is its allure, most intensely felt in the utter stillness of small canals where the mirror of shimmering obsidian reflects the lights inside an unshuttered palace, in the unearthly silence of gondolas, in the magic of moonlight on carved stone.

I know the young Asian guys selling single long-stem roses are desperate when they approach me walking toward Accademia Bridge. Couples first. Single women, always. But a single old man on his way home? It must be a slow night indeed.


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