The Venice of Our Dreams

The first time I saw Venice and walked across its flooded Piazza San Marco on makeshift wooden scaffolding was in the icy winter of 1974. The sea the Venetians ruled for centuries had triumphed the night before, a seemingly eternal curse that sounds benign by its official name “high water” – acqua alta – but which, with an assist from climate change, isn’t benign at all.

For the past few days, I’ve watched the news footage of acqua that was so much more alta flooding the Italian city I love best, a city that’s Byzantine in more ways than one. And I’ve longed to be in Venice if only I could think of some way to help.

We all have our private Venices, of course, if we visit, if we choose to love it despite the crowds and cruise ships, if we walk it through the seasons and the years, if we collect a stack of books and movies, if we simply care. All these Venices are the same city with the same too-visited landmarks. Yet all are also the “us” we bring to the place when we are there, frozen in time, both collage and montage, its hidden life inseparable from our own.

Another key to Venice’s enduring appeal, come hell or literally high water, I think, is the city’s genius for finding its way long ago into poems and paintings and, in our own day, into novels, movies and television. It’s a safe bet that most of us read about Venice and find it remarkable, perhaps even watch its “audition tape,” before we ever cross the lagoon to the city of 118 islands connected by more than 400 bridges.

I’m fairly certain my first exposure to Venice as a place of magic and romance came via Ernest Hemingway’s much-panned late novel Across the River and into the Trees. Hemingway was a Venice regular by then and he, oddly, chose to write his “World War II book” set there not during the war but after it. We meet a worn-out warrior, a colonel, who hunts ducks, eats and drinks too much, and makes love (in a gondola, no less) to a 19-year-old Venetian beauty named Renata. Renata, of course, means “rebirth” in Italian, a fate that embraces the aging colonel, before he dies all the same.

I remember a similar story, Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice, though it’s also quite different. And unlike Hemingway’s aging male love/lust story, Death managed to become a movie starring Dirk Bogarde. This time the protagonist is an aging professor who craves even a moment of the beauty he’s been teaching all these years. What makes both novel and film controversial is that he finds this beauty (and rebirth) not in a young woman but in a young man. As the realistic future of any such discovery is questionable, the old man has no choice but to breathe his last cinematically slumped in a beach chair facing the sea along the Lido.

A movie director who became one of my favorites, Paul Mazursky, first entered my life by way of Venice, with a painful romance called Blume in Love. Featuring sex in and out of marriage, Blume seemed very grown up when I first saw it, as did George Segal, Susan Anspach and Kris Kristofferson. It was, perhaps, the first time I understood that all things could be less than happy after your wedding day. The finale – reunited Segal and Anspach moving by boat through the waters of Venice to the strains of Wagner’s Prelude and Liebestod – provided a young mind with both its art direction and its soundtrack.

It might seem strange now, but what probably is the scariest movie I ever saw was set in beautiful Venice. Based on one of the scariest stories I ever read (“Don’t Look Now,” by Daphne du Maurier), story and film concern a British couple who’ve grown apart through grief, guilt and anger after the drowning death of their young daughter. They travel to Venice to escape and re-discover each other – there’s a desperately steamy sex scene between husband Donald Southerland and wife Julie Christie – and the results are hopeful until they start “seeing” their daughter around every corner in a city full of corners.  

If it sounds like some of the best of Venice is behind us: in poems and paintings (Canaletto, Turner and Monet took memorable swings), or literature from decades or centuries past, then you haven’t dug deeply enough. Venice plays a major role in the Gabriel Allon espionage thrillers penned by Daniel Silva, who reminds us that history’s first ghetto was created in Venice to house Jews, and also throughout the glorious Commissario Guido Brunetti mystery series by Donna Leon. One of her best-known installments is, in fact, titled Acqua Alta. I have watched the German TV version of Brunetti, but I don’t think I’ll ever get used to these thoughtful characters speaking nothing but German. Happily, they do get to stroll through some of the most beautiful settings on earth.

Here is Venice once again – my Venice from visits over four decades and everyone else’s. Except, this time it’s moved to the nightly news. There are those feet carefully crossing makeshift scaffolding that’s not five inches above the cobblestones as it was that long-ago winter but five feet. There are those violent lakes roaring down into basements, museums, music halls and basilicas, the places where the Venice of today meets the Venice of history, which then together meet the Venice of illusion. The world truly needs all three Venices to still be there when the acqua alta at last recedes.  

My Venice, 1974

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