An article about Venice in Border Crossings has helped me to better understand why that city moves me so much. It describes St. Mark’s church: “‘You are going to be shocked when you go inside,’ the guide said solemnly. It is very oriental.’ Pause. ‘You see, the mosaics were made by Greeks. You’re going to see Greek words on the mosaics. A surprise in a Christian Church'” (Vol. 14:4, 9).
My father was born in Central Greece, the village of Karditsa. In 1994, I stopped in Venice before flying to Greece for ten days. As the train approached Venice from Florence, I saw all this water and asked, “What is this?” AnItalian guy traveling in our car said, “The Venice Lagoon!” What a lagoon! The place was very different from what I’d expected, and immediately I knew it would be one of my favorite cities in the world. I felt at home there.
I hadn’t realized how much the East had influenced Venice in architecture and design, a mix of ornate decoration and classical elements. It gives a bizarre feeling, a magical quality. It’s not exactly Italian or European but more like stepping into another culture entirely. Venetian. Its own world. The bride of the sea. It has great symbolic value to me, the bridge between east and west, between my mother’s Scottish heritage and my father’s Greek roots.
The opposite of dignified Florence, Venetian life has a dreamy quality. Slow moving—you can’t go that fast on the water, so the pace of life is easier. Water everywhere also makes you feel reflective, suspended. It’s truly miraculous that men were able to build the place in water, in mud.
In fact, Venice seems a real mix of cultures and people, much more varied than other places I visited on the trip. It was incredible to sit in St. Mark’s square, drinking a beer, watching the tourists amble by, some dancing to the elegant pop music, violins, accordions. These were sweet sounds, not the clashing ones of rock. Venetian feeling. From where I sat in a restaurant, I could see a pigeon making a nest in the fold of a canvas curtain. It was touching during all that activity. (Many of these images fed into my novel Freefall: A Divine Comedy, that pigeon becoming an actual zany character I named “Bird.”)
The boat rides after dark were lovely, spots of light illuminating the night and reflecting in the water, gondoliers snaking through the canals, paddles soundlessly cutting into the depths, passengers reclining and enjoying the ride.
So many of the buildings seemed only partially inhabited, many windows dark. Of course, the shutters may have been closed against mosquitoes and noise from the canal. But it was dramatic to look at the illuminated places, glimpses into elegant parlors, walls and ceilings ornately decorated. A woman stepping out on her balcony was silhouetted against the light. It was like being on a giant stage, everything considered for its effect.
The day I visited St. Mark’s, I realized fully why this city is so important to me. I was looking at things saved from Constantinople, items Venetians had ransacked during that great city’s demise. I understood then emotionally, not just intellectually, that Venice is the gateway into Greece, into that part of my heritage. It has a strong Greek influence (the Greek cross is used in the sanctuary rather than the other one, the Greek Orthodox church putting more emphasis on resurrection than the crucifixion, on completeness). I was in tears and having to control myself, St. Mark’s itself being the most appealing church I’ve ever visited.
Nearly everything about Venice pleases me—the ambiance, the beauty, the color, the art, the architecture. The mix of so many periods and styles. I like that kind of blending. There is also an assortment of races not found so much in other Italian communities.
The Academia became my favorite gallery on the trip. The Northern Italian painters—Titian, Giorgione, Veronese, Tintoretto, Tiepolo, Bellini—each spoke to me in a different way, capturing my attention completely through their use of color and emotion. The contrasts. The drama and tension.
The other thing I learned in the Border Crossing’s article is that “Venice herself is understood to be female, either La Serenissima or, to use Apollinaire’s nasty phrase, the ‘sexe femelle de l’Europe’ (the she-animal of Europe).”
No wonder I felt at home there!