I don’t know why I bought that copy of the then-recently released Jan Morris edition The Stones of Venice in 1980. I found it at Cosmic Aeroplane, a quirky, counterculture booklovers paradise (and headshop) in Salt Lake City and, beguiled perhaps by the enthusiasm of the book dealer, paid money I couldn’t afford for the lovely hardbound edition, its jacket a wash of pale blue, a detail from a watercolour of Venice.
Studying Victorian English literature, I had been reading, after a fashion, John Ruskin and trying to incorporate Criticism as one subject in a faltering doctoral programme. But I never made much progress with Ruskin’s dense, meandering prose. He remained an icon to be wondered about rather than a companion of the mind.
For years, though, the book, rarely opened, sat under a stack of ‘art books’ in a pile, strategically placed on a living room table to signal our ‘good taste’. Occasionally, I thumbed its pages, looking at the exquisite drawings and watercolours, but its thick ranks of type remained unpenetrated.
In truth, I never thought much about Venice. I remained nearly completely ignorant of its history, its location at the moon-shaped curve of land at the top of the Adriatic sea, of the fact that it is a series of islands, filled in by early settlers in the mouth of a broad lagoon, its buildings constructed on timber piers driven into the sea bed. I thought of it, when I thought of it at all, as merely another Italian city, shorthand for Art. Thousands of miles from where I lived, Venice was as remote as Asia, another stop on the tourist cruise I was destined never to take.
But I kept the book, one of many reminders of a part of myself I had hoped for but failed to nourish. Its dust jacket faded, developing tiny tears that lengthened as the years passed. Its edges were no longer smooth; dog-eared corners flared outward, spoiling the elegant coated paper, midway under the pile of disregarded books.
Preparing to ship our goods from California to Ireland, I culled a couple of hundred books – perhaps more – that I had kept since my university days. For some reason, though, I packed The Stones of Venice. From there it made the journey with us to Salzburg. So it was, when we decided to visit Venice, I unearthed it from the boxes still stacked under the stairs to take a look at what Ruskin was up to. I had no idea what I would find when I sat down to read it. I thought only that I should try, at long last, to justify the long-ago impulse purchase.
Ruskin had taken his new wife Effie to Venice in 1851 for their honeymoon. While she immersed herself in its social life, Ruskin took measuring tape, pen and paper and set out to catalogue its Gothic architecture, writing as he did a treatise, ‘The Nature of Gothic’, on why he considered the style, which was to be displaced by Renaissance, the apotheosis of artistic achievement. The Stones of Venice is his painstakingly detailed accounting of Gothic architecture in Venice, in which he minutely describes arches, windows, balconies, columns and capitals, backed by measurements, charts, sketches and diagrams.
Soon I was immersed in a welter of detail in Ruskin’s attempts to classify stylistic differences in architectural details. Reading, I took notes. I looked up definitions. I made lists of his criteria for the Gothic. I relied on him to set the guideposts for what to see in Venice – and how to see it.
And, when I first saw Venice, I tried to view it through Ruskin’s lens. But his attempt to classify and explain the mystery of Venice succeeds only partially. For Venice is surreal. Meticulous as his drawings and measurements are, they capture only a sliver of its presence.
Coming out of the train station into the haze of a summer’s day more heated than clear, we found the air dense with noise. Following instructions sent by our hotel, we wheeled our luggage over uneven pavement and up a steep bridge over one of the smaller canals amid crowds of other tourists and ordinary people of all ages, some stopping to talk or to take pictures or gaze in windows.
After checking in, we again set out, using the Blue Guide – my top choice of guide books for depth of information – exploring the Canneregio district, where our hotel was located.
Finding our way out of the crowds and into narrow, less-travelled calles and campos, crossing narrow canals and walking along the fondamentas, we wandered narrow lanes, at times only wide enough for three or four to walk abreast. From one window high overhead, an old woman leaned out, spitting, aiming for those who passed below her. From most, thought, it was laundry that hung, strung in colourful pennants across the passageways. Bright sun cut swaths of nearly colourless light in otherwise shadowed corners, arching and slashing designs on the pavement, sometimes cutting through iron railings to etch curling motifs. The walls were worn, bricks exposed, stucco peeling like old wallpaper, discordant colours jarring.
Then, at the end of a low archway, half in shadows, the wall would suddenly fall away and water lap at the edge of the pavement. We would find ourselves at the edge a narrow rio, the smallest of waterways that run between the canals. Sun glinting from the waters’ surface dazzled. Rippling light danced across walls, shimmered gracefully on walls, floated like thistledown on air currents.
Alleys led to narrow, high-ridged bridges that fed us onto fondamentas paralleling narrow rios, that, around corners opened onto Campos. Everywhere was the noise of motors, shattering the air between buildings as boatmen and -women navigated the passages, revved engines, puttered, idled. Boats of all sizes lay moored along the edge or, heavily laden with machinery or goods or people, churned the green water, which frothed effervescent with white. Then, around the next corner, we would cross a bridge and stare along glass-smooth water, its surface swelling, flexing solid yet fluid, reflecting the blue of the sky or of a boat cover.
Everywhere, colour overwhelmed with its garish brightness. Deep ochre and faded yellows, deep forest-greens were cut across by brilliant fuchsia and cerise. Dingy, neglected churches, walls faded to cream, were slashed by the shadows that cut diagonally across the campos they fronted, obscuring the statues that surmounted their facades. Walls were broken by balconies and punctuated with worn inlaid medallions; bronzes ornamented doors; small statues perched over doorways. Everywhere the walls and pavements seemed ancient enough and porous enough to conceal the minutes, hours, days, months, years and centuries they contained, their history swelling inside crevices, time enveloped by their depths.
These depths threaten to spill out through peeling layers of faded paint and eroded stucco, revealing worn brick and stone. Ruskin recalls the splendour of the city at the height of its glory in the 14th century, this jewel, ‘The Most Serene Republic of Venice’, its palaces glittering with white marble, gilded and inlaid with porphyry and serpentine. The centuries passed; its surfaces decayed; its beauty lies now not in precious surfaces but in its contrasts of surface and colour, of light and shade, its rough textures slashed by bright graffiti or startlingly brilliant flowers tumbling from window boxes and over walls.
With its mass pinned into the surrounding lagoon, the city seems to float. And, after several days of boarding crowded, lurching vaporetti that criss-crossed the canals’ churning waters, or waiting to board on bobbing, moored platforms, and, on the third day of our visit, the longer boat journey to the outlying islands, I seemed to feel it float. I had the sensation of rocking, even when I was at rest, especially while lying flat on the bed. (This phenomenon, is apparently associated with frequent boat journeys and, fortunately, it subsided in me about three days after we returned.)
‘The city of mirrors, the city of mirages, at once solid and liquid, at once air and stone,’ writes Erica Jong of Venice. It does seem reflected in a thousand fragmented mirrors. Everywhere you turn, water reflects the city’s colours, textures, buildings and people. So more than most cities, Venice seems never at rest, never static. Its pavements teem with people; its waterways churn with vessels of all descriptions. The disparate colours and textures of its buildings jostle so the eye roves restlessly over them. Intense light drains colour from near-deserted calles that then slide under shadowed archways; either way, spaces seem mysterious. Nothing is clear; nothing reveals its true being. There are no straight lines; all is distorted by time or light or water.
Experience seems to fragment too. Light, colour, noise, the interminable rocking of vaperetti, shifting crowds threading through thronged streets, beggars and hawkers in their midst, delivery men wheeling trolleys, all combine to shatter continuity. Life flickers, shattering, like the flickering effect one feels while moving under a flashing strobe light. Unlike Ruskin, I could not contain the experience; no more than I can catalogue its buildings, can I catalogue the days and night we spent there. I could write of the art we saw – the magnificent Titian Assumption of the Virgin at the church of the Frari, the jewel-like Bellini altarpiece in the same church, so lovely I felt a physical tug of the heart when I saw it, the lively and beautiful canvases of the Stations of the Cross in the church of San Polo by the younger Tiepolo, and, of course, the soaring mosaics of San Marco.
I could recount of disappointment at what we could not see, especially at the Accademia gallery, under restoration, where many of the most remarkable works were not on view. As with all of our trips, there is more to tell than I can write, more beauty than I can capture. But, especially with Venice, the experience is refracted through a hundred thousand bits of colour, movement, light, texture, and image, a week-long mosaic of being, irreducible, impossible to discipline into an orderly march of words marshalled into ranks of sentences and paragraphs, grammar and syntax. It shimmers, it moves, it metamorphoses, and, as with life itself, what one would say about it in one sentence would be a lie in the next.