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Set in a Turquoise Sea

By (October 1, 2008) No Comment
Venice is a Fish: A Sensual Guide
By Tiziano Scarpa, translated by Shaun Whiteside
Gotham Books, 2008
There are many enviable things about Charles Ryder’s youth in Brideshead Revisited. The cost-free bacchanals, the easy eloquence, the romantic liaison with a scion of British nobility – all are things we all retroactively wish for our own late teens (instead of pimples, canned meat, and bawled arguments over the house’s one television).

But surely there is one detail in Waugh’s great novel that excites more envy than all the rest: the interlude in Venice. Ryder is chastely in love with Lord Sebastian Flyte, and the two have visited the Venetian palazzo of Sebastian’s father Lord Marchmain and his compliant mistress Cara. Waugh takes the opportunity to uncork some of his most lyrical, sentimental prose:

The fortnight in Venice passed quickly and sweetly – perhaps too sweetly; I was drowning in honey, stingless. On some days, life kept pace with the gondola, as we nosed through the side canals and the boatman uttered his plaintive musical bird-cry of warning; on other days, with the speed boat bouncing over the lagoon in a stream of sunlit foam; it left a confused memory of fierce sunlight on sands and cool, marble interiors; of water everywhere, lapping on smooth stone, reflected in a dapple of light on painted ceilings.…

Readers familiar with the book will know that it’s the calm before the storm, but that knowledge doesn’t lessen the envy of the calm itself, and the single most enviable detail of the whole episode is mentioned only once, in a quick aside: when Cara is informed that the boys would like to play tourist, she “enlisted as a guide a midget Venetian nobleman to whom all doors were open.”

More than anything, the harried visitor to the legendary Queen of the Adriatic wants the acquaintance of that nobleman, that well-connected insider. Emerson said Venice was a “city for beavers,” and public intellectuals have always had dodgy reactions to the place. Gibbon hated its “slime,” Virginia Woolf called it “detestable,” D. H. Lawrence preferred “abhorrent,” and one incensed tourist wrote, “The bathing, on a calm day, must be the worst in Europe: water like hot saliva, cigar-ends floating into one’s mouth, and shoals of jelly-fish.” The incomparable Mary McCarthy seems to speak for a whole class of disaffected voyeurs:

This grossly advertised wonder, this gold idol with clay feet, this trompe-l’oeil, this painted deception, this cliché – what intelligent iconoclast could fail to experience a destructive impulse in her presence?

It’s hard not to conclude that these people – who in life would never have agreed on anything – were all reacting to the same thing, and that this thing was not dirty canal water. More likely, they were feeling something most visitors to Venice feel (though it’s conveniently unmentioned in the guidebooks): excluded. Venice is a city of closed doors, inaccessible galleries, and hidden gardens. The great palaces were built to be seen from the canals, in all their forbidding splendor; their street-sides, the only faces tourists can approach up close, are often as impersonal as stone walls. Often they are stone walls. The indefatigable walker in the city will catch a tantalizing glimpse here and there – a door closed too slow on a beautiful sunlit garden no bigger than a kitchen, the entirely enclosed corti reachable only through a secluded passageway, a sotoportego, the water-stairs to a nondescript house front mounting to the hint of a marvelous interior, curtains closed too late on a book-lined second-floor study. Because of the endless, relentless flow of tourists flocking to her wonders, Venice is one of the most public cities in the world; it’s understandable that her more sensitive visitors would yearn to see the parts of herself she manages to keep private.

Venice’s Grand Canal

There have been countless books written about Venice (quite literally – a student of mine once attempted, for academic credit, to count them … and quit the task after four straight months of steady tabulating), and in the latest one, Venice is a Fish by Tiziano Scarpa, readers may find the closest thing most of them will ever have to that all-knowing native guide. Scarpa, a respected journalist, playwright, and novelist, is a native Venetian who knows the city backwards and forwards and is willing to share some of its secrets – although, in typical Venetian fashion, not all:

Is it true that in Venice people make love outdoors, on every street corner? Let’s make one thing clear. Most young Venetian couples don’t have cars; as you can see, even bicycles are forbidden in the city. Where are you supposed to go when your parents are at home? All teenagers have their own secret places, niches at the end of secluded calli, gloomy courtyards plunged in silence, and I’m certainly not going to be the one to tell you where they are. You can find them on your own (or even better, in company!), and you’ll enjoy them all the more.

(He good-naturedly relents a little on the subject of this particular quest, hinting at some likely places for such assignations: Doorways without doorbells, which are often the entrances to shops, corners under broken streetlights, freight barges docked for the night, which are damp but convenient.…)

The passage gives the reader a good sense of Scarpa’s easygoing, free-flowing style (and also a good sense of translator Shaun Whiteside’s happy ability to capture that style in English), the peculiar conversational style of his home city, in which objective truth is often as liquid as the waterways that thread everywhere. Here he continues on the subject of lovers meeting:

All these things are perfectly obvious to Venetian lovers. I went through my own stage of emotional buccaneering, between the ages of fifteen and twenty, searching for open-air hiding places in the streets. I’d like to tell you five little stories that occurred during that time: perhaps they happened to me, perhaps I was told about them, perhaps I witnessed them.

I have been vacationing in Venice for many years, and I can tell you there is no note more authentic than that “I will tell you five little stories” – followed by a winking refusal to attest to the truth of any of them. Scarpa, like all Venetians, is counting on charisma to carry the burden of veracity – Venice is the most Irish of Italian cities.

In addition to his many other accomplishments, Scarpa is a fairly well-known Italian poet, and Whiteside has managed to capture something of this even in Scarpa’s playful prose:

Venice is a fish. Just look at it on a map. It’s like a vast sole stretched out against the deep. How did this marvellous beast make its way up the Adriatic and fetch up here, of all places? It could set off on its travels at any time, it could call in just about anywhere, following its fancy: Dalmatia this weekend, Istanbul the day after next, summer in Cyprus. If it’s anchored hereabouts, there must be a reason for it. Salmon wear themselves out swimming against the current, to make love in the mountains. Sirens and swordfish and seahorses go to the Sargasso Sea to die.

But there is more than the usual encomiums going on in this slim, impressionistic, and utterly delightful book. Scarpa has a light touch, but he nevertheless fancies a large canvas, from history to art to sociology, starting, quite literally, with the foundation:

How do you lay solid foundations on slime? The Venetians thrust hundreds of thousands, millions of poles into the lagoon. Underneath the Basilica della Salute there are at least a hundred thousand; and also at the feet of the Rialto Bridge, to support the thrust of the stone arch. St. Mark’s Basilica rests on big oaken rafts, supported by elm-wood stilts. The trunks were floated down to the lagoon along the River Piave, from the Selva di Cadore on the slopes of the Venetian Alps. …You’re walking on a vast, upside-down forest, strolling above an incredible inverted wood.

And always he is eager to show us the real Venice, far away from the crowds at San Marco. In all of the city’s sestieri – Santa Croce, Cannaregio, Dorsoduro, San Polo, San Marco, and Castello – along all of the rii, down every main street – liste – and crossroad – crosere – he finds the odd (the putting out of clear bottles of water, to ward off clandestine lovers – and cats) and the intimate:

You stretch out your arms and touch both sides of the calle, from one side to the other. In the narrower ones you can’t even elbow your way through. They seem to be made to measure for your shoulders: you almost find yourself walking down them sideways. I can point you to one behind Campo San Polo: it’s actually called Calle Stretta, or Narrow Calle, 65 centimetres wide.

As exotic as all this is, it has a flip-side. In one wonderful passage, Scarpa betrays the native Venetian’s fascination with the one feature his city doesn’t have – cars:

The processions invade the streets at all hours: look at the costumes made of sheet metal, headlights and tyres, the chassis camouflaging the whole body, not just the face, wrapping up the whole of the appearance, standing in for the face. The carnival spirit is rooted within the urban population, in that everyone has his own fashion parade car-costume, his own carnival music booming from his car stereo, everyone takes part in the merrymaking with horn trumpets and exhaust-pipe explosions.…

But the real highlights of the book are always Scarpa turning his sharp eye and lyrical pen inward, toward all the various little idiosyncratic moments and pictures that combine to make up the city. Some of these moments are as evanescent as the shadowy shapes of young lovers trying to find a private corner (for “an interesting exchange of opinions,” as Scarpa puts it); others are seen every day, but drawn in Venice is a Fish with skill born of love:

The gulls wheel screeching above the market stalls of Santa Margherita, the fishmongers throw flying fish through the air, feather-light sardines, silver fish against the blue sky: the gulls swallow them in mid-flight. They follow you alongside the motor boats, motionless, suspended a metre from your hand, flying at the same speed as the boat, waiting for you to throw them a snack.

Scarpa is the most good-natured of hosts, and this is all the more remarkable because anybody who cares about Venice today must be tempted often toward bouts of ill humor. The city has in recent years begun to become uninhabitably expensive and overcrowded, and the source of both these maladies is the same: tourists. Their numbers increase every year, choking the campielli and every palace and museum. The city is completely dependant on the revenue these tourists provide, even though the sheer traffic of those tourists hurts the city’s very infrastructure. This congestion frustrates Scarpa as much as anybody, but even on this subject, he’s mostly just wryly playful:

In the eighties, groups of tourists from Eastern Europe started coming to Venice. Dressed to the nines, shirts and jackets of inflammable acrylic; men in slippers, women wearing the kind of pale eye-shadow that in Italy you generally find as a free gift in a bag of crisps. From dawn till dusk they wandered along the calli in well-behaved committees, silent, almost stunned. They had travelled through the night from Budapest or Prague to feast their eyes on as many cities as possible in twelve hours.

Tourists in Venice

Anyone who’s ever travelled abroad will doubtless have rueful memories of such tourists; indeed, to the more fastidious among us, the guaranteed presence of such people is reason enough for a healthy case of isolationism. Noel Coward put it best in his effervescent show “Sail Away,” in the number “Why Do the Wrong People Travel (While the Right People Stay at Home)?”: “What explains this mass mania/To leave Pennsylvania?”

If this is you, if the thought of cramming yourself alongside all those inflammable Hungarians has you hastening toward the drinks tray, then Venice is a Fish is the book for you. Henry James, that most famous of temporary Venetian transplants (next to Byron, that is), once wrote, in supremely mandarin style, “One may doubtless be very happy in Venice without reading at all.” This may be true (as unthinkable as it is), but one could hardly be happy without now and again reading about Venice, and this slim volume is perfect for that, written by a guide to whom all doors are open.

Hugh Seames is a retired professor of Baroque art and architecture who now makes his home in Orvieto, Italy. He occasionally vacations in Venice. This is his first dabble at freelancing for the public.