The Poetry of Venice

The Fabulous Land
  The allure of Italy rests on the long history of the Roman Empire, and of the city-states that sprang up in the wake of its decline, the magnificent creations of its artists, its politics, its military might, its practical spirit, which capitalized on the Greek genius, and its laws. Together these achievements laid the foundation for the flowering of Europe, especially in the establishment of Christianity, the institution of the law, and the philosophical underpinnings of Greek thinkers. For those of us who have a modicum of curiosity about the past, there is no avoiding Italy in their quest for that fascination.
 Our journey took us to Rome, through the plains and mountains of Tuscany to Florence, and to water-logged Venice. Each enchants with its peculiar haunting charm that endures through the centuries. There is something in these cities that speaks directly to your heart and soul, something that you carry with you perhaps for the rest of your life.
The Pagan Myths and the Christian Faith in Literature and the Arts
 Down through the centuries the works of great artists came to us from the churches, basilicas, cathedrals, chapels, palaces, and museums, even private homes. Many masterpieces were motivated by faith as well as by pride and vanity, or inspired by creative imagination. Their creators tapped into the inexhaustible sources of Greco-Roman mythology and scriptural themes without which Western cultural heritage would have been that much poorer.

 Imagine for a moment the absence of the Christian faith. There would have been no works of art on the Genesis, the Annunciation, the Adoration of the Magi, the Last Supper, the Madonna and the Child, the Holy Family, the Deposition, the Pietà, the Transfiguration, the Tower of Babel, the Last Judgment. Giotto wouldn't have built the Campanile, nor San Giovanni the Baptistery, nor a host of masters from Giotto to Andrea Pisano to Francesco Talenti and Brunelleschi the Duomo in Florence. The Sistine Chapel ceiling couldn't have depicted the scenes of Creation, and its wall behind the altar the stupendous Last Judgment. Nor could Michelangelo have carved the magnificent David.

 Take away Greek and Roman myths, their sparkling poetry, and their profound insight into human nature, and gone too are the Birth of Venus, the Allegory of Spring, the Graces, the Muses, Ariadne, Prometheus, Neptune, Cupid, Leda, Vulcan, Bacchus, Apollo, Hercules, Minerva, Diana, Mercury, Juno, Jupiter, Io, Europa, Daphne, Galatea, Orpheus, Daedalus, Narcissus, Hyacynthus, Achilles, Paris, Agammemnon, Clytemnestra, and more.

 The Middle Ages would have been much different without the Church to provide a framework for medieval life in Europe. The Renaissance would have been an impossibility without the Classical ideals to revive and emulate. And the Reformation before it would too have been utterly pointless and impossible. Where would Martin Luther have nailed his ninety-five theses? And how many theses would Luther have come up with against a non-existent Church? The entire course of history would have been altered.

 Not only did artists draw inspiration from Christian themes and pagan myths, but writers, poets, playwrights, novelists too depended on them for their allusions. Without them literature would have suffered qualitatively and quantitatively. Among the great literary masterpieces missing would have been Homer's Iliad, his Odyssey, Dante's Inferno, Boccaccio, Petrarch, Milton's Paradise Lost, Shakespeare, Byron, Shelley, Keats, Pope, Tennyson, Racine, Corneille, to name a few.

 The world would have been an enormously boring place, as the effects of the absence of this rich tradition manifested themselves in other disciplines in later times too.

 Where would astronomers have had to go to find names for all those constellations? There would have been no rockets named Saturn or Titan or Atlas or Centaur, neither would there have been spacecraft named Mercury or Apollo or Gemini. And how would psychoanalysts refer to the Oedipus complex, the Electra complex?

 Modern cities such as Washington, D.C., where classical Greek architecture dominates in monuments, memorials, and certain government buildings, would have had to look elsewhere for inspiration. And for generations to come what writers or poets can allude to any of those endearing gods and goddesses, who in their vices and weaknesses, come so close to being human had it not been for their superhuman power and immortality? A great loss to culture and to the intellectual tradition of universal value.

 Therefore abandon yourselves to the enjoyment of the Classical myths for their poetic quality, their allegories, their adventures, their drama, and their humanity.
  While you are here read a thumbnail history of Venice, which is as fascinating as its culture.
  See Paris, City of Light
  See Paris Romantic
  See Renaissance Florence
  See Troyes, the Medieval City
  See Troyes Revisited
  See Across Northern France
Using the Minitel system (the French national mini-Internet), our friend found a discount airfare to Venice on a chartered flight leaving in four days. My reservation was confirmed by fax the following morning. From his own experience, flights like these are no-frills affairs that often encounter delays. Yvonne and I were lucky since we experienced no delay. After arriving at the San Marco Airport and with hotel reservation in hand, we boarded the next boat that sped us through the calm waters of the lagoon toward Venice. When the boat stopped at the first island, excited beyond judgement, Yvonne and I jumped on land. Consulting our spare instruction sheet, we boldly sallied forth with the reckless confidence of intrepid adventurers onto small alleys with no ideas where we were except for the one overriding goal: We were going to San Marco. It turned out that we were on Murano island, the renowned glass-making center punctuated with glass stores and factories anywhere we looked. Finally after a few futile turns into a maze of more narrow lanes we regained enough of our senses to ask a local if we could walk from here to Piazza San Marco. Barely concealing his astonishment, "You must take a boat.", and after a brief pause, "Unless you like to swim there.", said the man with a twinkle of amusement in his eyes. Swim! I thought we were only minutes away from Venice, and we could surely walk if there was a land connection. So another boat trip, more delayed gratification, interminable stops along the way, passengers boarding and leaving, the tapping of waters against the hull of the boat, the sea spray that misted its glass windows, the repressed feeling of excitement, the mild anxiety at how to find the hotel before nightfall.

  At long last, the loud monotonous rumble of the engine, and the water's clap-clapping against the boat's hull gave way to a gentle murmur of a graceful glide toward the shore. The well-known Venetian skyline emerged in the mid-afternoon sun from the shores of the lagoon, a breath-taking vista already making its indelible mark on our minds. We were now greeted by the familiar sight of Piazzetta San Marco, its entrance flanked by two granite columns, one topped by the statue of a winged lion, the symbol of Venice, and the other by the statue of St. Teodoro, the campanile, the Basilica's Byzantine domes, and the Ducal Palace's massive façade supported by a ground-level Gothic portico topped by pointed arches, and above it a loggia enclosed by a delicate colonnade of ogives and tracery. Mingling in the crowds, arrived at last, we immediately set out on our all-important mission of finding our hotel, along the way marvelling at the intricately ornate front of the Basilica looking out onto the spacious legendary square that was at the heart of Venice's political and cultural history.

  According to the rudimentary map we had been given, the hotel should have been only a few streets away from the Piazza. We found no wide streets with names (Actually, street names are painted high on the walls of the buildings at the corner of the alleys.), but waves after waves of tourists filling narrow twisting alleys endlessly leading to more narrow twisting alleys. We kept walking until the alleys became deserted, turned back, and after a few inquiries with helpful strangers, finally found the hotel hidden on a small campo (square) probably no more than 100 yards from Piazza San Marco. Our room was in a separate building behind the office, with the tiny bathroom tucked away in the attic accessible via a spiral stairway as steep as the eastern side of Mt. Everest. Our temporary residence was surrounded by red rooftops, even a window or two into neighboring apartments. After a brief refreshing rest, we ventured out into the neighborhood.

  Ah, Venice! The poetry of this very old city-state is here at every step, written a verse at a time, on its exiguous calli, streets many of which barely wide enough for three people walking side by side, meandering in a delightful labyrinth of surprises; on its rii, small canals criscrossing in every direction and spanned by hundreds of small bridges which offer romantic views on the buildings, many of which open onto the canals; on its main waterway, the Grand Canal, slicing in vast arcs the town in two halves which are connected by just three bridges each with its own peculiar history, and bordered by palaces, stores, restaurants, and churches on photogenic waterfronts; on its campi, or small squares, erstwhile fields, now oases of serenity and tranquillity; on its gondolas sliding placidly in narrow canals so deftly controlled by gondoliers; on its sunsets casting incredibly striking hues over the lagoon. And more. Together, this uniquely Venetian landscape weaves a tapestry of harmonious decors each vaunting its own beauty yet combining into a perfect symphony of colors, shapes, movements and styles.

  Like Venus Venice seems to rise from the sea. Unlike Venus, Venice stays anchored in the sea: there are no Zephyrs to blow it to shore. It floats on tiny pieces of land, but preserves its dreamy quality through the closeness of its people, buildings, palaces, churches, warehouses, museums surrounded by water and alleys and bridges. The simple exteriors of its houses are a counterpoint to the external ornateness of its palaces. The sumptuousness of some churches is tempered by the plain façades of others.

  Just wander around along the alleys. Without haste, linger at the window displays of souvenir shops that are no deeper than they are wide, and the stucco houses painted in different colors as in a modern painting (think about Hopper), reaching out for each other across the alleys. Let go of yourself, follow the twists and turns, worry nothing about where you are heading, and expect the unexpected. Every alley, every corner takes you back centuries. After all Venice is just a hundred years younger than England. In this pedestrian haven, the slow pace of life, the deserted quiet, and the solitude, all foster a sense of peace and restfulness for everyone, more so for people who are vexed by relentless daily routines. Steps away from the tourist traps Venice displays its charm in these oh so hushed alleyways and byways where your own footsteps are muffled as if to enforce a tacit respect for this Parnassian realm.

  Follow the labyrinthine alleys and soon you will reach one of the numerous secluded squares that dot the landscape. Slow down and look around. You are likely to find a quaint old church, its unassuming front seeming to age so gracefully, a small restaurant barricaded with tables and chairs outside, a fountain presiding in the middle, a large tree casting its sprawling shadow over a wide expanse, or simple stucco buildings. Listen to the silence. You may encounter a solitary local resident, a small group of tourists, or not a soul. The essence of the campo is its age-old quiet and simple charm. You are easily carried back to medieval times with precious little to remind you of the modern age. Let your imagination loose, and try to relive the experience of the chivalrous era, the courtly romance, and the serenades because in a few minutes you will reach the Grand Canal, and the magic quickly evaporates with the bustling activities of a busy mercantile district.

  Stop on a bridge over a rio. Look down. Here a barge plies its trade, there a gondola glides silently to the largo rhythm of the solitary gondolier's moving oar. The distinctive profile of the gondola's raised bow projects an unforgettable image. The gondola's unique asymmetrical construction achieves balance with the rower positioned on the narrower half. While standing on top of my favorite bridge over the Palazzo Canal, look south toward the Bridge of Sighs, the legendary covered structure that connects the tribunal in the Ducal Palace with the New Prisons across the rio; which explains how it earned its name. Forget the unpleasant history (although Casanova's nineteenth-century escape from prison here was, and I hope still is, quite an inspiration to novelists and poets). Enjoy the narrow vista against the glorious red-orange backdrop of the lagoon beyond, when it is slowly engulfed in the waning light of a gorgeous sunset.

  The Basilica of San Marco facing the Piazza shelters the remains of Venice's patron saint. Every cupola above the narthex depicts in exquisite gold mosaics scenes from the Old Testament, and the entire Basilica's ceiling with its profusion of domes, vaults, arches, and cupolas, richly covered with mosaics bathed in golden light, bears witness to Oriental influence. Once the Doge's Chapel it served a dual religious and political function, and is richly decorated with masterpieces of Venetian masters as well as treasures taken from Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade in 1204. Among these the most famous are probably the four bronze horses, which the French under Napoleon took back to Paris during his Italian campaign, only to return them in 1815. Copies of these horses now stand guard over the great portico of the Western façade. The Basilica is an idiosyncratic mixture of Gothic, Romanesque, and Byzantine styles, blending into a structure so unique that it is as unmistakable as a fabulous creation. Its awe-inspiring interior is adorned by centuries of artistic creativity, culminated by the Pala d'Oro (Golden Altarpiece), which was embellished over three centuries with gilded frames, enamels and thousands of precious stones.

  Steeped in Venetian political history, the adjoining Doge's Palace is an architectural complex whose façades owe their ethereal quality to Eastern influence with its open ground-floor loggia pierced by huge pointed arches, and its upper loggia delicately adorned with quadrilobate tracery atop slender columns, all terminated by a pink marble face punctuated by wide windows and more round tracery windows. Inside the palace opulence reigns, designed to impress and to advertise Venetian power and influence in its heyday. Today, this exuberance still projects its former might as much as the surpassing artistry of the paintings and frescoes on the walls and ceilings of its chambers of government and the Doge's apartment. Admire the numerous Veroneses, among which the The Rape of Europa, the Tintorettos (Jacopo and Domenico), which include Discovery of Ariadne, and masterpieces by Titian, Bassano, Tiepolo, Giovane, among others, which treat mythological, biblical, historical, even political themes, and which adorn these great halls whose guilded and inlaid wooden and stucco ceilings dazzle and inspire: the Senate Chamber, the Chamber of the Council of Ten, the Philosophers' Hall, the Great Council Chamber (the largest of them all), the Collegio Chamber, the Anticollegio Chamber, and many more. Marvel at the ornate vaulted ceiling fashioned in guilded stucco of the Golden Staircase (Scala d'Oro) built in the mid-sixteenth century on the design of Jacopo Sansovino. Walk around the Doge's Palace, and linger at the capitals in its corners where exquisitely carved images of men, women, and animals are allegorical.

  Here is the heart of Venice, the endearing image of the city of canals and gondolas, the magnet that draws millions of polyglot visitors from all corners of the globe, a choice destination of lovers. Piazza San Marco is the traditional political and cultural hub, what Venice presents to the world as its image. Camera-toting tourists are almost a permanent fixture of this world-famous plaza. At most times of the day you can encounter armies of them insatiably snapping pictures of themselves and of everything in sight including the top of the belltower and Sansovino's loggietta at its foot. In 1902 this campanile collapsed by itself. The city rebuilt it as it had been and where it had been. During the day, other than the swarms of the ever-present pigeons, scarcely anything in this piazza is romantic enough to move your Muse. But wait. When the sun has given way to darkness, and the lights atop the lampposts pierce the tenebrous air with feeble darts that illuminate their perches' graceful profile, look out toward the basin, and you are in a different world, a different mood, a different reality. While the gentle breeze from the basin caresses your face against the backdrop of the Ducal Palace's dreamy silhouette, and when most of the people have settled comfortably in restaurants, homes, or hotels, walk around. You now enter the bewitching world of what I would call San Marco night for lack of a better term. For indeed San Marco has charm in spite of its trite designation of 'the living room of the world.' Even its high waters, which sometimes flood the piazza, and the majestic colonnade of the Ducal Palace are a part of the hallmark of this terminally poetic place. From one of the columns of the Palace, direct your gaze toward the basin at dusk when the last glow of the sun is smothered in the leaden somberness of the coming night. It is then that the enchantment of crepuscular magic carries you to a blissful realm from which you will not want to depart.

   The Rialto Bridge spanning the Grand Canal at its narrowest symbolizes the mercantile face of Venice. This is the heart of the business district, an essential pillar of Venetian power. The stone bridge, with two gracefully arcaded pedestrian walkways along the sides, and a street in the middle lined with leather and jewelry shops, is a remarkable structure in its own right. Ignore the constant crowds, and the commercial activity. Find a nook on the bridge from which to take in a memorable view of Venice, its narrow alleys, its buildings that almost hug one another, its red roofs, the bends and palaces of Grand Canal, the colorful maritime setting. The joys and delights of the unfolding panaroma, very different, very unique, very Venetian, will fill your heart and soul to satiety.

  There is the modern Venice, the Venice of vaporetti, the motorized boats that link all parts of the city through the Grand Canal and other islands of the lagoon. As you sit in those boats, let the wind sweep past your face while palaces, churches, businesses, restaurants, and hotels on Grand Canal offer a kaleidoscope of colors and shapes that are delightful to behold. Let the salt air penetrate your lungs and revitalize your system for the explorations to come because Venice is an explorer's paradise. Unlike land-locked cities, Venice does not grow larger or taller, but remains essentially the same for centuries. Venice preserves its history with grace and pride. You can see the faces of the medieval era, and of the Renaissance period perhaps where you are, but more so in the museums and churches that grace the city. You can see history as you step off the boat onto the Piazzetta San Marco, as you walk the quiet alleys, as you admire the mosaics in the Basilica of San Marco, as you enter the halls of the Doge's Palace. And you need not ask why Byron, Wagner, Hemingway, Monet among others have come to Venice to stay awhile. You know intuitively that Venice has by magic taken hold of your soul and its in-dwelling will bring you back to this poetic city of the ages.

  

The Beauty of Classical Ideas
 A large part of European arts and literature is greatly enriched by the mythology of Greek and Roman antiquities, which left us the Classical heritage.
 This Classical tradition and the humanism it engenders during the Renaisance period are at the heart, if not the very essence, of much of Western cultural experience, just as Christianity is virtually the totality of Western religious experience. There is no obvious way to conceive of Western art and literature as we know them, as being different, given the manner in which they are profoundly shaped by this strong humanistic tradition, and reactions to it over time. The humanists' belief that the Ancients, their thoughts, and their mythology represented a more refined cultural level had led to a revival of Classical studies, and preservation efforts without which our knowledge of history and of cultural achievements would have grievously suffered. Their comparative method of study of ancient texts, which was undertaken to insure reliability and faithfulness to the source, was later borrowed by proponents of the Reformation, who, inspite of their idealogical opposition to the humanists, applied it to the study of the Scriptures.
 Why did poets, writers, playwrights, novelists, sculptors, painters, architects, and other artists love so much to find inspiration for their works in the pagan myths?
 First the pagan Classical mythology is eminently seminal. The stories of gods, goddesses, giants, nymphs, naiads, and heroes, are not only captivating in and of themselves, but give rise to myriads of allusions, embellishments, expansions, and artistic and literary creations of utmost beauty and imagination, all fascinated and fascinating, over centuries throughout the Western world. Even Roman Catholicism, which generally regards pagan myths as anathema to its dogmas, yields to their weight as humanists such as Tommaso Parentucelli was elected Pope Nicholas V (1447-1455), and Enea Silvio Picolomini became Pope Pius II (1458-1464). As many humanists were deeply religious, and many members of the clergy were neo-Platonists and humanists, the line dividing Christian belief and the classical ideals became much less pronounced, so that the two are not entirely irreconcilable; at least not in the arts and literature. Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel ceiling frescoes show definite classical influences. One can wonder what his statue of David would have looked like without the classical model, which he tried to emulate, and surpassed.
 Classical mythology is poetic. Ample illustrations may be found in the stories of Pandora, of Baucis and Philemon, of Hyacynthus, of Pygmalion and Galatea, of Diana and Endymion, of Echo and Narcissus, of Hero and Leander, of Cupid and Psyche, of Venus and Adonis, of Orpheus and Eurydice, and more. Let us take just one example. Apollo, having incurred Cupid's annoyance at his untoward remarks about Cupid's arrows having no warlike power, receives an arrow from Venus's son that inspires in him an undying love for the beautiful nymph Daphne, whom the mischievous Cupid struck with a different arrow that impels her to flee Apollo's ardent fire with equal determination. When within grasp of the pursuing Apollo, Daphne implores her father, the river god Peneus for help, whereupon she was turned into a laurel tree before his very eyes. The love-struck Apollo kisses the tree, which, still warm as flesh, trembles under the bark, and recoils from his passionate lips. Full of sorrow, Apollo begins from then on to wear laurel branches as his crown to be forever close to his first love.
 Classical mythology is insightful. All myths are rooted somehow in man's attempt to explain nature to himself, and in the process anthropomorphizes the forces beyond his control. Classical myths show a profound understanding of human nature, and reduce the supernatural to the human dimension. In so doing, these stories proclaim the centrality of man. In stealing fire for the humans that he loves, and to whom he taught civilization and the arts, Prometheus defies Jupiter, the god of gods and humans, and has to pay dearly for his transgression by being chained to a rock, his eternally rejuvenating liver to be eternally devoured by a vulture.

 One day when the sky was darkened, Jupiter's wife Juno suspected that her husband was flirting with some fair maiden, an activity that would best be concealed by the clouds he created. So following her female instinct, she dissipated the clouds, and caught her husband standing by a beautiful heifer. She was right. Jupiter had just transformed the nymph Io, daughter of the river god Inachus, to conceal his act. Shrewdly she asked her husband to give her the heifer, to which Jupiter had to consent with great reluctance. Jealous and suspicious, Juno entrusted the heifer to Argus, whose one hundred watchful eyes never closed at the same time even during his sleep. Jupiter could not come near his mistress for fear of being caught. Before long he could not stand seeing her suffering so ignominiously, and decided to deliver her. He sent Mercury to get rid of Argus. Mercury had great difficulty lulling Argus to sleep with stories about how his flute had been invented, but finally succeeded. When Argus fell asleep Mercury killed him. As a memorial to her faithful servant, Juno put Argus's eyes as ornaments on her peacock's tail, where they remain to this day. Then in revenge Juno sent a gadfly to torment Io to the end of the world. At last Jupiter interceded on Io's behalf, and had to promise to end his relationship with Io. Juno relented, and restored Io to her original form.

 Classical mythology is high drama, the rich source of Greek tragedy. The abduction of Helen to Troy by Paris, which triggered the Trojan War, was celebrated in Homer's epic poem Iliad; Ulysses' return trip to Greece after the fall of Troy, in the Odyssey. Oedipus, Sisyphus, Tantalus, Laocöon, all are the stuff of tragegy. On the other hand, the wanderings of the Trojan Aeneas after his city's destruction, offer adventure of the most engrossing kind extending from the Levant to Italy through the Eastern Mediterranean basin and the northern African shores, from the land of the mortals, through the infernal regions to the Elysian realm.
 Why don't you revisit the Classical myths today, and make much of the arts in the museums of Venice, Florence, Rome, Paris, London, St. Petersburg, Madrid, Washington, New York come alive?


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