At Home in Venice
It was raining in Venice. The sharp droplets whipped down the Grand Canal, as if the wind was blowing beads out of the murky waters. The sky was cobalt grey, angry and low, with no sign of sunshine. Gondolas were tied together tightly under the little window of our hotel room. I had watched the gondoliers prepare them for the evening’s rain earlier that afternoon. They covered each one of them with a plastic blue “coat,” working fast and balancing deftly as they maneuvered from one end of each tiny vessel to the other, securing the tarpaulin.
As the gondoliers went home, no doubt to dine on mountains of spaghetti and copious amounts of vino, my friend Lori and I donned our jackets and ventured out into the rain. By now, the sky was turning an ominous black, and our umbrella was no match for the updraft, which lashed water against our legs. In my hand I clutched a crumpled piece of notepaper with directions and a rough map that I had scribbled hurriedly before we left. We headed into the rain, which drove against us in waves, its force almost enough to hold my body weight.
Crossing a bridge over the Rio dei Santi Apostoli, I realized that there was no one around. The rain had driven tourists and natives alike back into the cozy comfort of hotel rooms and apartments. For a moment I wished we weren’t making this ridiculous trip. But it was our last afternoon in Venice, and I was determined to find the church.
It was all because of a guidebook. That is a difficult thing for me to admit, since I am usually so adamantly against relying on anything remotely resembling a guidebook, planning instead to avoid the tourist-route and be led by the moment. We had wandered Venice aimlessly, and it had been good to truly discover this floating city instead of following a sign-posted map from site to site. But I had given in on the morning of the last day and opened the DK guide we had carted around Europe with us. My excuse was that the book was so heavy we should at least make some use out of it. I flipped through it aimlessly while I waited for Lori to shower before we embarked on our morning’s exploration. The church was given only one small column and a tiny thumbnail picture, but it caught my attention, and I read the description.
“The proliferation of green and white marble, carved in parts like great folds of fabric, gives the impression that the church is clothed in damask.”
The description was surprisingly eloquent, and I wanted to see it. The name of the church was simply “Gesuiti,” a lovingly familiar name that replaced its formal title, “Santa Maria Assunta.” We put it off until after lunch, and then the rain began to plummet from the sky. I had decided against the walk, but Lori smiled and dug our Minilite umbrella from my bag.
When we arrived at the Fondamente Nuove, the wind churned angrily towards us, determined to retrace our steps. The umbrella was no use, it was meant to protect one person from a light shower, not two from the torrent of water spurned up from the canal and flooded down from the grey clouds. Where the Gesuiti should have been was a huge wall of scaffolding. It covered the entire façade of the church, and I was afraid that the wind was going to win this fight and see us retracing our steps away from a closed church. But there was a gap beneath the web of scaffolding that revealed a magnificent door flanked with marble. I gestured towards it; the noise of the wind in our ears too loud to talk.
As we stepped into the vast space and I shook myself off like a dog in the entranceway, it struck me how fitting this moment was. We were entering this church for refuge from the storm outside, and the peace inside was tangible. The silence was audible. Above and below and from all angles the church was a blaze of light and color, the walls and ceiling covered with frescos. The walls really were damask, a soft blue-green curtain drawn against the world outside. I breathed in candle wax. The side chapels were filled with pinpricks of light from prayer candles.
We had visited many churches and cathedrals on this trip. Notre-Dame-de-Paris had always been my favorite for its cold stone sobriety and awe-inspiring coolness. This was different. The Gesuiti was colorful and bright, with walls that looked like the ocean. It was a feast to the eyes. Built in 1714, this church was a celebration. The Jesuits had been refused entry to Venice for half a century, and were finally allowed to build a church in the north of Venice early in 1700’s. Nowadays the church is famous for its Titian painting, The Martyrdom of St. Lawrence, and its Baroque façade, but it was the silence of the gilt church that captured me.
The brilliant blue Baroque light inside the domed altar in the church of Santa Maria Assunta
We sat silently, side by side, facing the Baroque domed altar. The light shone dimly through a small window behind the dome, but it was the light inside that radiated most brilliantly. A radiant, opal blue shone with supernatural intensity from the small dome’s interior, reflecting onto the altar below. The dome was held up by swirled, spiral pillars that looked almost oriental. I was stunned. There was no one else in the cathedral. The silence was thick and pregnant with memories. We sat together in silence, staring into the magical blue light, surrounded by a wallpaper of marble. I thought what a fitting end this was to our time in Venice.
When we arrived in Venice the sky was the same opal blue and the sun glittered and danced on the water. Stepping out of the statzione onto the wide steps of the Fondamenta Santa Lucia that led down to the water, the view of the Grand Canal was surreal in its picture-perfection. The pastel façades of the elegant palazzas seemed unreal, as if we had stepped onto a movie set, a recreation of the Venice I knew from photos and postcards.
But it was real. The gentle knock and splash of the water against the vaporetto, the accordion played by an old man sitting on the steps and the excited tongues of tourists; the salty, musky smell of the canals; the reality of luggage and the overloaded boat – my senses were filled with the reality of Venice.
We had arrived by train from Florence, having spent the previous night in a large, sparsely furnished room in a palazzo that smelled of lemon-scented mosquito plug-ins. We left Florence wishing we had longer to live in this terracotta-tiled room. I had found the hotel online and had requested a specific small room with fresco-covered walls, which ended up not being available when we arrived. In compensation we were upgraded to the best room in the hotel, a great deal since it had a balcony and a view of the Duomo (albeit you had to bend over in a rather awkward position to see it). The train to Venice took about three hours, which I spent eavesdropping on a conversation between two women across the aisle. One was French and the other Italian, so they conversed in English, sharing travel plans and life histories with lilting tongues. I listened quietly as I watched Italy slip past the windows.
The vaporetto took us under the Rialto Bridge, and we scrambled out onto the fondamenta. It was a Sunday and tourists swarmed around the Rialto gift shops and restaurants like bees. Finding our hotel was like searching for treasure on a map, but after a lot of back-tracking we found it, and were led down to a tiny pink room with windows that opened directly onto a side canal, the water only three feet below the windowsill.
The Baroque dome of the church of Santa Maria della Salute seen from across the Grand Canal
Venice became home for four days. We had been traveling for almost two weeks and this was our sixth city. It was time to relax for a while. We abandoned all plans and set out with nothing but our journals and cameras. The sun streamed between the buildings and down into the labyrinth of alleyways. We explored each sestieri slowly, pausing to sit and stare and write. We ate copious amounts of limone gelato and spent hours in the Gallerie dell’Accademia, taking in each Bellini and Tintoretto. We relished getting lost and walking in circles to find our way back to the Grand Canal, leaving the map in my bag until the very last moment when we arrived at the same piazza for the third time. An old man with a papery face waved cheerfully to us as he hung out his washing fifteen feet above us.
On the afternoon of the second day we bought pastries back to our pink room and sat on the windowsill eating them. As Lori lay on her bed gazing past me out of the window, I read aloud from a Fitzgerald novel. Between pages, I peered down at the green water below. A gondola slid by, the blue-and-white striped gondolier close enough to touch fingertips with me. They averaged one every two minutes, and each time the occupants of the tiny thin boat would stare up at me and smile, thinking me part of the scenery of their magical ride through the city. One gondolier looked up at me with a smile and, removing his straw hat and placing it against his breast, threw his head back and declared, “Giulietta, Giulietta…” followed by an indistinguishable but very familiar string of Italian Shakespeare.
Grinning back at him and buoyed by my unexpected inclusion in this Venetian scene, I leaned further out of the window and gestured with my book as I replied, “Romeo, Romeo..” hoping he wouldn’t hear the decidedly un-Italian accent or notice that I didn’t continue the line. The tourists in the gondola laughed hysterically and commented on the “wonderful Italians” as they slid out into the distance. I smiled to myself as I turned the page and continued reading, realizing how much I liked being part of Venice, even if only for a few days.
In the morning we were leaving for Milan. We would stay there for one night before taking a train through the Swiss Alps to Lucerne. Our stroll through Italy was coming to an end, and we sat in the church of Santa Maria Assunta looking back on the last few days with a smile. Venice had opened her arms to us and allowed us to wander her streets aimlessly. Like the silence of this church, she had given us refuge from the frantic city-hopping of the last few weeks, and had charmed us with her quiet magnificence. As we left the church we stopped to light a candle beside one of the altars, watching the tiny flame flicker with the others, each one signifying a prayer and a question. We headed back out into the rain, the draught from the door breathing softly on the flame we had left behind us.