Friday, October 19, 2012

Six Flags Over Venice

October 19, 2012 – Six Flags over Venice

Deaths from second story windows horrify me. I found this out when I read Colm Tóibín’s The Master, a novel about Henry James. In 1893, in real life and in the story, James’s friend Constance Fenimore Woolson, also a writer, moved to Venice where she rented an apartment that overlooked the Grand Canal. In January of 1894 due to a case of influenza or depression (or both) she fell or jumped from her bedroom window and several hours (or was it days?) later died.

Of all the things I read in The Master that was the bit that stuck most strongly with me. Perhaps because I read it while sitting on the fourth story balcony of my apartment in Lima, Peru. I stood, leaning over the railing, looking down, wondering what it would be like to fall. Even that height didn’t seem high enough for a well thought out suicide. And yet, it’s so easy to die. The story left me with a sense of darkness, wonderment, and sadness. I walked around for days reflecting on how fragile and delicate our human frames are. How dark and forlorn our thoughts. How isolated we can become. How desperate, resolved, or resigned a person must be to take their own life. Why would someone jump from such a small height? Is it better to die like that by accident or on purpose?

Since good books should stay in motion (this one was given to me by my writer friend Tim), I passed the book on to another writer friend, Rodney, to read. When he’d finished it we discussed, among other things, Constance’s death. A few weeks later when I told him I was going to Italy he sent me a list of the places mentioned in the book for me to consider visiting.

Casa Semitecolo, Constance’s home, was on that list.

Most people, I imagine, go to Venice because it’s the City of Love. It’s romantic. It’s beautiful. It’s watery. I go to check out the Doge’s Palace which I’d learned about in Art History and to evaluate a 118 year old death site.

I’m not normal.

I know this.

I’m okay with it.

However, I am a little ashamed that most of my knowledge of Venice comes from Woody Allen’s Everyone Says I Love You and not more from history or books. This is probably why I often expect impromptu singing and dancing to occur in high profile movie places (like New York, Venice, or Stockholm’s Sergels Torg). It’s always a little disappointing when they don’t.
Life isn’t a musical. Not even in Italy. At least not yet.

I catch my first glimpse of Venice as I elbow my way out of the train station and into the open air. Of course it’s a church that domes its way into visual prominence right off the bat. That and the crowds. It’s early, but already the streets are packed with tourists. Throughout the day I have to keep reminding myself that I am one of them.

Off to my left is the Ponte Scalzi which I’ll take to cross over the canal on my way to St. Mark’s Square where the Doge’s Palace is. I go up the steps of the bridge and squeeze between people to take my own photos. I’ve purchased a city map but quickly find that it’s easier to follow the signs that point me street by street towards San Marco than it is to keep my nose plastered to the laminated page.

I’m grateful for the signs because asking for directions is out of the question. Venetian venders are not friendly. I can understand why. If they let down their guard for even a millisecond they’d never get the chance to get it back up again. They’d be stuck answering questions for every single one of the 20 million people who visit Venice over the course of the year. It feels like there are that many people here this day.

Venice is a maze. A labyrinth of streets and canals. I’m shuffled through the narrow roads by the stream of people before and behind me in such a way I begin to feel I’m in a never ending amusement park line. I find myself getting antsy, feeling closed in, and touching my fingertips against the edge of agoraphobia.

Despite myself, despite the touristy nature of the surroundings, despite the amusement park feel, Venice has a distinct beauty. I find it over the heads of my fellow viewers. I find it down lonely streets. I see it in the old stone buildings, the soft lapping of the water, in the intricate detail of statues, in the architecture. But I never lose the sense that I’ve come to a place like in Disney’s Pinocchio. It’s Pleasure Island and I’m afraid at some point I’ll be turned into a jackass.

I want to escape.

Eventually, I wend my way to St. Mark’s Square and admire the crowds, er, the buildings. I didn’t purchase entry tickets to any of the Venetian sites beforehand, and seeing the queues standing hundreds of people long, I decide I don’t need to see the inside of anything here.

I work my way to the far side of the Square and look for open space. I need some breathing room. A little bit later, I find the only friendly Venetian and ask him how to get to the Santa Maria Del Giglio vaporetto stop from where I’ll be able to see the Palazzo Semitecolo where Constance died.
“It’s only one stop away,” he tells me. “You just cross this bridge, go around the street and you’ll find it.”

I thank him, “Mille grazie!” and follow his directions.

At the vaporetto stop there are two gondoliers sitting off to the side. They don’t acknowledge me lest they have to answer a question, and I keep my distance. Other than them I’m the only one here. For the moment. I step up to the edge, as close as I can get, and gaze across the Canal at Constance’s once upon a time home. I stare at the building. Hers is easy to spot being just to the left of a building with a gold mosaic.

What’s drawn me here? A morbid connection to another female writer? A desire to understand death by falling from not great heights? I don’t know. I don’t feel anything especially. Where are my emotions when I need them? All I feel is that the second story window seems awfully low. It’s not that high even if she jumped from the other side of the building onto the waiting stone street as I believe she did.

Ah death. So quick to grab us.

I want to sit down and scrutinize the building. To get a sense of the place. To grasp a sense of the past. But there’s no place to sit. The water comes right up to the edge of the buildings without even a ledge to stand on and the place where I am is not great for viewing. While I’m considering my next move, an English speaking couple come stand on the dock just to my left. I curse them inwardly for blocking my view that direction and for being in my space. Then I realize they’re waiting for the vaporetto, the taxi-gondolas that cart people from one side of the Grand Canal to the other. So I quit cursing and go stand behind them as the gondola arrives.

Crossing the Grand Canal is on my list of things to do. It’s perfect timing. Since I can’t admire the Palazzo Semitecolo very well from here, I can maybe see it from the approach and then check out the other side.

We, the couple and I, pay our Euros and climb in. A small group, also ready to take the short trip across, has formed almost numinously. They pay and find places to sit. An American couple argues with the gondolier about the price. It’s higher than the internet had said, but I’m not surprised. Everything is expensive here. Just pay it and get on, I think rudely. You’ve come to Venice and you’re going to quibble over a few euros? Soon enough they decide to pay, and when we’re all on, the gondoliers push us away from the dock and pole across.

You’re on a gondola crossing the Grand Canal, my inside voice says.

I know! I reply.

I get a brief close up of the Semitecolo and then we’re docked and shooed out. There’s not much else to see so I take the streets toward the Punta della Dogana. I’ve been told there’s a great view of Venice from the point and also a new, strange eight foot tall statue of a boy with a frog.

It is a strange statue and marvelous in its oddity.
Why is he holding a frog?” I ask the security guard watching the statue, but he doesn’t understand my question and turns from me immediately to tell someone not to touch the frog.

I’ll find out later, I tell myself. That’s what God made the internet for.

I turn from my questions to the panorama. The view from the point is worth the crowds. St. Mark’s Square is amazing from this vantage spot. It’s just like I remember from my Art History books. Only I’m seeing it in real time, with my own eyes, and it’s way better than a photograph.

In the opposite direction are the churches Santa Maria di Presentazione and Chiesa di Redentore which seem to float up solidly and majestically from out of the water of the Grand Canal. Boats, gondolas, and water-taxis pass by. This is Venice. This is the magic of a city built on the water. This is what the guidebooks rave about, the movies proclaim as romantic, the books painted out as amazing.

Now I can see what was being talked about.

I walk to the less trafficked side of the Dogana and sit on the convenient ledge with my back to the wall and my face to the sun. I pull out my ipod and scan to the song that fits this moment. That’s been fitting multiple moments on this trip.

It’s Coldplay’s Paradise. I turn it up and play it on repeat. “This could be para- para- paradise Para- para- paradise Could be para- para- paradise,” the song says. And I feel like I’m there. In paradise.

An older lady decked out in a sweater and with a newspaper in hand takes the seat beside me. Of all the places to sit. She talks to me and I tell her in Italian, after pulling out my earpieces, that I’m sorry I don’t understand Italian very well. This doesn’t seem to bother her. She goes on for a bit (even after I turn my attention away) and then settles back with her reading.

I adjust my earpieces, turn the music up a little louder, stare through the shading lenses of my sunglasses and write in my book:

I sit looking out across the Grand Canal
with an Italian lady so close
our elbows touch when she moves
I have Paradise on high volume
and when they sing
I’m so full of the sun
that I almost cry.
This is me
 In Italy.
 In the last days of an unimaginable
                                          On a perfect day. 

I don’t want to ever forget this. I don’t want to lose the threads of this moment when music, emotion, art history, the story of a long ago death, sun, and beauty collided and overwhelmed me. The best I can do is scratch a few words in a notebook and hope I can carry this memory with me forever like a rounded stone in a coat pocket.


  1. Henry James observed more than a century ago: "Though there are some disagreeable things in Venice there is nothing so disagreeable as the visitors."

  2. Thanks for posting your impressions of Venice. I was there only a week after you were. I too sought out the Casa Semitecolo. (I am writing a biography of Woolson--and blogging about it at Your post brought me right back to the brilliant sun of Venice and the mix of emotions it stirred up in me as well. Thanks!