Visiting La Serenissima*
In memoriam – angels on a grave, San Michele
On Sunday, we first take a walk on Lido, this time in the other direction, towards a church called San Nicolò. Browning, Shelley and Goethe are said to have been in raptures on account of the beauty of the church and its cemetery. We have to wait till after mass to take a peek inside the small church, then sit outside looking at Venice across the water. We catch the bus back to the vaporetto station and go across to San Michele, the cemetery island just off the main island. San Michele is Venice’s largest cemetery. Apart from the great number of “ordinary people” buried on the island, there are the graves of Igor and Vera Stravinsky, ballet dancer Sergey Diaghilev, and author Ezra Pound who died in Venice in 1972.
old man of san michele
he shuffles past rows of
bright flowers that never droop,
to the only grave that means
something to him.
he leaves her fresh roses,
sums up his week,
fingers twitching nervously
around the brim of his hat.
he stays the usual half-hour,
sighs on his way out -
not a sign of mourning,
but of regret that she went
and left him behind.
We visit the graves of the above-named famous, slowly walk along the row of children’s graves, look at the photos that are to be found on most gravestones, then decide to take another boat out to Murano, the “glass” island.
The glass factories were moved out to the island of Murano in the 13th century because the danger of fire was too great within the main part of the city which then consisted mainly of wooden buildings. The glass objects manufactured in Murano are stunning – you can have everything from colourful necklaces and tiny little figurines (all shapes, animals, comic characters, etc) to fairly big scupltures, chandeliers, from vases to whole sets of table-ware. And you can be sure that with the exception of the little figurines and some necklaces, these objects are NOT cheap!
Murano doesn’t live up to the expectations one might have, judging from the colourful glass objects produced there! As much colour as there is on Burano – Murano has nothing cheerful to it, especially not in winter with a few stray tourists, most shops closed, and hardly any cafés open. We take a long walk through the main and backstreets of Murano, cross several bridges, pass by decaying furnaces and factories that have long been closed, all of them brown and grey buildings with yawning holes where windows and doors used to be. The only colour seems to be that in shop windows where glass products are displayed, and the few wooden boats on the canal. The atmosphere is very melancholy, to say the least. Even the cemetery island has a more cheerful atmosphere than Murano!
Like a scene from the past: gondolas in winter sunlight
On our way back to Lido, we stop over on the main island and are witnesses to a beautiful blood red sun setting in the calm sea.
At night, the fog settles in more than on the previous nights, and being inside a cosy ristorante is definitely a better option than shivering on board a vaporetto! After dinner, we have a couple of drinks at the bar opposite the hotel, where many locals, especially a bunch in their twenties, come to chat with the guys who are tending bar. What fun to watch people, the music’s good, and Bailey’s always tastes lovely!
The next morning we need to check out of the hotel; we drop our bags off at the station and then head for the part of town known as Dorsoduro. Sepp wants to see the paintings at the Galleria dell’ Accademia, but I am not crazy about 15th / 16th / 17th century paintings. so I decide to take a walk instead. I prefer to be outside in the sunshine, the day is even warmer than the ones before!
Tranquillity – gondola gliding past Canal Grande palaces
From the boat we once again see all the famous sights along the Canal Grande: Ca’ d’Oro, Ca’ Rezzonico (where the English poet Robert Browning lived and died), the Rialto Bridge, palace after palace in various states of decay; boats carrying goods for the market glide past us while we are waiting for people to get off or on board the boat at the vaporetto stations.
While Sepp educates himself within the walls of the Accademia and finds many a masterpiece by Tintoretto, Tizian, Tiepolo, Vivarini, Bellini et.al., I stroll along the Zattere on the other side of the “peninsula” – a favourite promenade with Venetians and tourists alike. The sea, the sun, seagulls, streetlamps, small bridges … and very few people. I walk as far as the church Santa Maria della Salute, but unfortunately it is closed. So I sit in the sunshine and write, then wander back along the Zattere where I spend more time sitting on a bench soaking up the sun – it feels like spring! We have lunch in the area, sitting outside in t-shirt & pullover, what more can you possibly ask for?
From Dorsoduro we catch a vaporetto to San Marco, take another look at the Ponte dei Sospiri, the famous Bridge of Sighs, which connects the Palazzo Ducale (Doges’ Palace) with the former prison. Many a prisoner, among them Giacomo Casanova, has been led across that bridge never to return – reason enough for many sighs, hence the name of the bridge.
We visit the Basilica di San Marco, and boy, those rich decorations inside must be worth such a fortune! Even though I prefer simple interiors, San Marco is impressive and definitely worth a visit.
Afterwards we take another boat to Campo san Marcuola and walk through the ghetto.
Now there is a chapter in Venetian history which started a very sad “tradition”. Venice was the first city in the world to confine its Jewish population to a district of their own. The law was passed on 16th March 1516, almost half a millennium ago. The Jewish population was made to live in a part of town called “ghetto” (the Italian word for “foundry”) which was surrounded by canals, and they were being watched by Christian guards all the time. The Jewish population grew a lot, because Jews all over Europe were being persecuted. Today, only about three dozen Jewish families still live in this part of town, in the ghetto.
“I love you, Lea” – message of love in the ghetto
There are several synagogues, unfortunately it is too late in the day to get inside any of them, and the museum has just closed. I find it to be a charming part of the town, even though (or maybe because?) many of the houses are far from being beauties, what with their cracked walls, peeling paint, broken windows, dark backyards, and the limp clothes hanging from windows; but there is something to it – a certain melancholy mixed with a lively atmosphere, at least in parts of the quarter. Maybe that is due to the many artists and students who have settled there (probably due to cheaper rents).
We ramble around till we have found a nice little restaurant, and then walk back to the station where, after a cup of hot choc, it is finally time to board the train back to Vienna – but not after one final look outside in front of the station where I take a last deep breath of Venetian air, and begin to look forward to returning to la Serenissima.
in dozy backstreets i follow
in the footsteps of sinister dukes,
gay courtesans, sharp-tongued priests.
browning’s words echo from wall to
decaying wall, gondolas glide past me,
wrapped in the same old songs,
sotto voce, lingering like a lover’s caress.
i encounter death in many
stone faces, but he, too, has been charmed.
old men sit, fishing and smoking,
stoically awaiting their time.
this is my paradise by the sea,
complete with temptations
no man can resist,
and doomed to face its ruin
by that one, that everlasting love.
Author’s note: winter sunrise, san donà and night boat to lido have been previously published in niederngasse.