Monday, October 12, 2009

Night thoughts

Venice is different at night, drained of color, a study in shadow and light. It is a brightly lit city in general, at the street level, where there are almost no dark corners. I know this from experience.

After I had been here less than a year, I was teaching English on the mainland, in Mogliano Veneto. One night I stayed late with one of my students, drinking wine and talking about literature until almost midnight. I ran and caught the last train to Venice at 12-15. I sat down in my seat feeling pleased with myself for having made the train and then realized, half-way to Venice, my bag, with my cell phone and my keys, were locked in the classroom in Mogliano and there were no more trains that night.

At 1am they close Santa Lucia train station. It was early November, cold, but fortunately not freezing. My neighbor, who had a key to my apartment, was asleep; her lights were out.

I felt amazingly stupid, and I decided I could tough it out until 6am, when I knew my neighbor would be up, or I wouldn't feel so stupid about waking her up. I couldn't get a hotel for the night because my passport was at home; and I was paranoid about being stopped by police because I was, at that point, technically an illegal alien. Paranoia and frustration grew in equal measure.

As I walked across the Scalzi bridge, through Santa Croce and San Polo I looked for the kinds of places I might have found in the US to warm up. Venice closes early; nothing was open. All the shutters were down. The streets were deserted. I walked to the Accademia bridge, across, toward San Marco and then to Rialto and up Strada Nova back toward the train station. I did the entire circuit of the city, twice, before exhaustion set in and I had to find a place to rest. That was when I learned, indelibly, that there are no dark corners in Venice at night. There are incandescent street lamps on the narrowest lanes and in the most obscure cul-de-sacs.

Around 4am I found a walled courtyard just off the Grand Canal near Campo San Polo. The heavy iron gate was ajar; inside it was reasonably dark, the only light coming from a streetlight outside the wall. There was a marble bench under a large magnolia tree, and I lay there, trying to sleep, until 5-30, and then I knew I could find some coffee somewhere and head back to the apartment.

I didn't cover the entire city, but enough to know it intimately, at night, with nowhere to go. I never felt more alien, nor more alone; a sixty-year-old man in ridiculous situation. It had become something of a quest for me, a trial by darkness and solitude. I had the same feeling I had felt about jail forty years earlier. If I can get through this, I thought, I can get through anything. There is nothing left to frighten me.

At least -- and the only thing that got me through the long, long night without despair -- I knew that with the sunrise it would be over, that I would be able to get into my warm apartment, to sleep for a few hours before my real day began, to eat and piss in comfort and security. That was when I thought about what my friend Kate, who worked for the Canadian State Department in Rome, had said to me one fragrant spring morning in the garden of the bed and breakfast. She was stationed in Rome after years in Africa, where she had witnessed the worst poverty, carnage, and genocide, dealing routinely with torturers and the tortured. She hated Rome, and wanted to get back to Africa eventually.

"You have at least one good meal a day every day; more than one pair of shoes; and a reliable roof over your head," she said. "You're in the 1%." Her smile was simultaneously mirthful and ironic. "And if you can't get everything you own into two suitcases," she added, "you consume too much!"

Although I have always made a point of walking Venice at night because of its particular beauty, that night I had no choice. The lovely was menacing, the quaint, threatening, the obscure, frightening. But I also had ample opportunity to begin to understand the effect of moonlight on water and stone, the combined effect of all of these, and the miracle of sunrise as the sky finally lightened.

I finally bought a tripod. I have been thinking about it for a long time. Now I can experiment with capturing the experience of Venice at night. Given the limitations of my camera, and given that I am not a photographer, I do the best I can. With each batch, I learn.

I am working toward capturing Palladio's Giudecca churches, Redentore, Zitelle, and San Giorgio Maggiore. Tonight I began experimenting with Redentore. The difficulty with these Palladio structures is that the only way to get the proper distance from them is from the water, where you bobble. Bound to land, and without a panoply of lenses, you are forced to extreme longshots or extreme closeups. There is little middle ground.

You can see the preliminary attempts with Redentore and San Giorgio IN THE NIGHT GALLERY

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