Venezia: Handle With Care

A throwback post for Long-form Friday. April 2009 — Venice, Italy

In the blackest hours, a train snakes its way through the darkness of the Czech Republic, through the slumbered quiet of a dozen Austrian towns. It rises like the sun over the Alps, descending like a sigh into the Italian dawn. It coasts into the morning with all the sleekness it’s silver coat can provide, the sunlight dancing off its shoulders, throwing sparkles onto the Adriatic aquamarine waters that spring up, suddenly, on one side. And in the distance, Venice appears, as if an apparition.

In the compartment with me are four strangers. We group together at the window as the train pulls in and the city becomes reality. None of us can summon words.

What is there, still, to say? Venice is beautiful, but laced with a sad sort of beauty that I’ve never seen anywhere else. Having just come from Prague—the great, preserved city of the East, it is hard to imagine that Venice once looked differently. That the water once did not lap at its heels and flood into its campos to flirt with the ankles of tourists. How strange to think that in a year, in ten years, in fifty years, the city will not look the way it looks now. That water will have claimed some more of Venice’s stones and wonder for its own, creating an Atlantis right before our eyes.

“Streets full of water. Please advise.”

I stumble into the early Venetian morning, out through the lofty, golden lobby of the Santa Lucia train station. There is water in front of me where there should be road, and crowded around the stairs that lead to the pedestrian trail are dozens of travelers who, like myself, are trying to process the scene. The humorist Richard Benchley, upon arriving in Venice, telegraphed his editor with the message: “Streets full of water. Please advise.” For a moment, I am dazed. There are no cars, no cabs to hail, no screeching of brakes or slamming of doors. I follow the trail of the turquoise water, climbing the many stairs of my first Venetian bridge to descend, on the other side, at Piazza Roma, where I meet my companion. We haul our suitcases onboard a waiting vaporetto—our destination, Lido.

They have called Venice, la serennisima—“The most serene city.” As the hull of our vaporetto cuts through the wide waters of the Grand Canal, I can see why. It is quiet. Peaceful. Thrilling.

We explore the city at night, making our way through the labyrinths of narrow alleys and wrought iron bridges. Twisting and turning our way through the paths, we occasionally stumble across a campo, usually empty. These are beautiful moments, finally free from the claustrophobic constraints of brick and mortar, with the sky suddenly upon us and the open square offering infinite possibilities of where to go and what to do next. Here in these spaces is a sense of adventure, of excitement.

We stumble upon the Piazza San Marco sometime close to midnight, following a man in a long overcoat and a red scarf. As we pause to look at a fleet of gondolas, moored in a lagoon, I hear the man exclaim loudly and hiss, stumbling back around from the corner he’d just disappeared into. He stomps past us, his face furrowed into a frown. Curious, I trace his steps.

There is water all over the stone floor of the piazza, licking around our toes as we stand there in huddled amazement. “It’s not time for this yet,” my companion murmurs to me. “The square shouldn’t flood until late in spring.” But there it is, a thin layer of water pooled in the alleyway. By unconscious agreement we turn, suddenly, and hurry around the corner, seeking an unflooded entrance to the famous square. A quick left at the fleet of gondolas and the area opens up.

The Piazza San Marco is covered in a layer of water at least an inch deep. In the darkness, the lights on the buildings seem to shine brighter, and their reflections waver like ghosts on the stone. The Procuratie Vecchie, the Napoleonic Wing (housing the Museo Correr), and the Procuratie Nuove all compose a hulking structure, made twice so now by their watery twins, and something about them—maybe just because it is night, and the square is almost deserted—reminds me of the desperation of a sinking ship, the sad sparkle of so many orange lights, like gleaming portholes—like one last hurrah. Somewhere far away, the mournful sound of a violin rises—Venice’s last waltz, played out over an almost empty square.

Acqua Alta is the phrase that denotes a flooding. High water. The guidebook says it occurs “when a number of lunar, meteorological, and hydrographic factors coincide to bring a spring tide in on top of lagoon waters that already have reached abnormally high levels.” The first night, upon arriving in Venice, I noticed a full moon in the sky. It lit up the sky and the alleys and turned the whole city into a contrast of moonlight and streetlight—silver and gold.

And I thought to myself, then, How romantic.

There is romance, for no one, not even I, who hate the cliché and overly Romanticized descriptions of cities, can deny that Venice is romantic. We buy a bottle of wine from a store on Lido’s main street and meander down to the rock wall that makes the island border more definite. A mossy stone staircase leads to the aquamarine waters, whose edges are slowly turned cobalt as the sun sinks.

We sit on these stairs and drink our wine, watching the sky flame orange and fade to a soft cherry, watching the ribbon of black at the far reach of the horizon widen as darkness set in. Watching the stars start to appear, watching the boats come home to port, watching the wine disappear. Watching, as the lights of the shoreline hotels start to beckon the couples home, and the Venetian skyline, sitting so low in the water already, is swallowed by darkness.

Venice exists in a network of rules governing the use of water, the production of smoke, the use of vehicles—wrapped in rules like cautionary tape, each one trying to save the city from breaking. Like a newly purchases glass vase from Murano, Venice is cushioned by bubble-wrap.  I read once that Venice is sinking almost three times as fast as it did in earlier centuries.  Due to the rise in global temperatures, which are tied to the water levels, the sea level surrounding Venice has become higher. And due to the tapping of the underground water supply, pressure in the subsoil of the city has been reduced, and the structures above are slowly being lowered from their original heights.

“To build a city where it is impossible to build a city is madness in itself, but to build there one of the most elegant and grandest of cities is the madness of genius.”
–Alexander Herzen

I see the city and think of magic tricks, where the magician is trapped in a capsule as it slowly fills with water. Somewhere, dozens of engineers and architects and inventors are working on solutions to save the city, just as the magician is working his behind-the-scenes magic on his own situation. But the fact still stands: the water is rising.

Venice is constantly under construction. Metal scaffolding and huge, flat expanses of wood can be found on almost every street, wrapped around an old building, or shielding the façade of some project-to-be. Streaked across these wooden bulletin boards are posters—advertisements for Vivaldi concertos, children’s theatre, some pop star’s newest album. And across some, duct-taped to the wood like strange travel stickers are posters that read: “Venice, Handle With Care.” White and red lettering splashed across a black backdrop, these messages are both cheery and ominous.

“Maybe it’s the lifeguard in me, but do you think these things ever crash?” my companion asks, as our vaparetto cuts through the waves, the island of Lido establishing itself on the horizon. He is fascinated by the fact that the vaporetti carry no life jackets, wondering if those on board, who have grown up surrounded by water, know instinctively to swim. Perhaps there aren’t any because the water in the canals does not run too deep—maybe nine feet if averaged. The water, to me, looks too thick for anything not to float. I picture myself on the deck of the boat and stepping off—not sinking, but standing—as if on marble. I picture myself carving a piece out of the sea, holding it up to the sun to catch the light, like glass, wondering how such a beautiful thing can be so destructive.

Sleekly black (a relic of a century old rule banning ostentatiousness and flamboyancy), the gondolas glide up and down the canals with all the stealth of panthers. A symbol of Venice’s romantic side, the gondolas can be found tethered to almost every canal, their hearty boatsmen, cigarettes clenched between their lips, standing on the bridge above, hawking their crafts to any and every one who passes. They are beautiful boats, to be sure, each unique in some way—from the patterns of their seats (some lush and velvet, others tightly brocaded, still some tasseled and gold), to the bouquet of flowers clipped to the forward stern (roses, lilies, lilacs), to the amount of people they can take (upwards of five for a family ride, and as cozy as two something more romantic)—yet their beauty reminds me of something dangerous, maybe even frightening. At their prows exists a gleaming ornament of silver—six horizontal metal bars protrude forward, neatly stacked on top of each other. At the top of this stack is a hunking curve, reminiscent of a scythe. No one knows the origin of this symbol, but it seems as warlike and threatening as it does graceful. Something about them reminds me of a funeral boat, waiting for its last occupant, bobbing in the water in anticipation.

When not in use, the gondolas are covered in electric blue tarps and left alone, unguarded. I approach one cautiously, taking care that no one is around. The wood is varnished, gleaming in the sun. I reach my fingers forward, carefully running the tips over the shining surface. Nothing harmful. Nothing scary. A shell of wood, waiting for money to be exchanged, and some neatly dressed foreigner to sink into its seats.

If Nero fiddled while Rome burned, what do I do while Venice sinks? I splash through the water at Piazza San Marco like I splashed through puddles as a child—sending the image of the Basilica—all white arches and gold mosaics and lights, so many lights—splattering into the night air, regrouping behind me as the water ripples back together.