Wednesday, March 16, 2016

The Swan (Part 10) Venice in the Fifties

Life Magazine
X. Venice in the Fifties

11th January, 1958

          There is nothing exciting to report. One wintry week of Venice is quite an experience, though—all kinds of weather with rain (today), freezing rain (and woe unto him who doesn't know his way—but they strew conscientiously to cut down Loss of Life), sun and frost and the fastest fog which comes rolling in from the Adriatic in grey balls and simply blankets out the whole city, as well as moonlit nights which are quite exquisite.

          For someone who has seen weeks and months of Rome, Venice is a city of pompous funereal churches with endless pompous tombs of Doges and precuratori in chapels which are sky high, where somewhere a tiny man on a gilded wooden horse s "IT"—but not the intimate churches of Rome which give one a feeling of musicality. Here all is pomp and great dignity. The 200 and more palazzi which line the curving Canal Grande are white and asymmetrical (very refined in taste) and completely unprotected because in contrast to other towns there was no reason to defend one's house against another member of the nobility because the democratic regime dates back so far.

          The city consists, like a jigsaw puzzle come apart (the seams filled with green transparent seawater), of so many sections but one soon understands that the centre, which is the knot, is the Rialto Bridge (known from postcards) which had Shylock's shoppe amongst many others (still standing). The thing to do is to hop from one of their B pontons into a vaporetto. The pontons rock like mad and the vaporetti seem mostly under water. In the 57½ minutes one has gone from one end of the city to the other, from the Station to S. Marco Square and in this almost hour (?) one passes one phantastically beautiful residence after another because there is no ugly house but all is XVIIIth-century, XVII, XVIth, back to the XIVth. 

          Most of those palazzi are of marble, at least their facades, and have coloured barber poles in the water with the heraldic signs (mostly in gold) of the owner of the palazzo. The poles are used to tie gondolas (all BLACK) or motorboats to. From the palazzi superb marble stairs, flanked by lanterns which are lit up (vaguely) at night, steps lead into the water and inasmuch as the water is the Adriatic Sea, it laps up the steps and often hits the wooden doors.

          The Canal Grande is alive with Gondolas which cross, because there are no more than three serviceable ridges and these gondolas are managed by two gentlemen in black (on rainy days with umbrellas in their left hand!) who stand high in back and low in front and with exaggerated motion and meter-long oars set the black shallow canoes in motion whilst nuns, ladies with laundry baskets on their heads, dogs, gentlemen in fedoras, elegant ladies in furs, stand in the centre of the frail ship which, in the waves caused by vaporetti, rock like mad. But a huge city is completely water-minded; schoolchildren hop into the boats and off they go. 

          All the rest of the city—it only takes minutes to traverse it at most points—moves on foot and the streets are mostly so narrow that if it rains only one umbrella fits into it—so there is endless ducking and shrinking into doorways, and the whole city is like an endless unfolding of theatrical vistas with the most intricate turns and twists and bridges, all of stone and very steep up and down—so that when, as I do it, one walks all day one goes endless staircases up and down again; within the city again numerous palaces with their own mediaeval bridges leading to the front door, churches mostly completely absorbed by the houses; turning a corner you will see, if you crane your neck to look up, suddenly a two-story apse(?) of a gothic church. 

          Through the streets (which here are called not "via" but "calle") the mass of humanity moves and one hears a tremendous hum of voices.

by Canaletto
          Restaurants are beautiful—mostly food to be had at about 8 pm; not before. I went to a modern opera yesterday in the finest theatre of Venice, The Phoenix, which is a completely intact XVIIth-century theatre. I wish I could say that the music was good; my theory that the Italians have lost their taste for music was verified once more. Indifferently good orchestra, fair choir, stinky soloists—and ugly as hell. But as an impression: fine. The city smells beautifully—most people seem to heat with wood, the fishiness (?) is not unpleasant. Most houses have canaries which even in freezing weather are outside the windows where they sing like mad. 

          The strangest thing is lack of desire for light. I have noticed this before in Italy. The city at night is dark. Even the gayest stores have dim lights. My own bulbs are 25 volt which we would give to the girls to burn all night (for nightmares) and even the station, which is one of Italy's three post-war stations, is dimly lit. The city at night is incredibly dark but one's eyes get accustomed to it and I, knowing Italy, always carry a very strong flashlight which means that in museums I creep all over the pictures, lighting up details but hardly ever seeing the whole. For art, the city has heavenly spots and especially the XVIIIth-century painters, such as Pietro Longhi with his small paintings of, practically speaking, every aspect of life, from hunting to tennis playing, to confessing, to dancing—makes you nostalgic for the good old days.

          In contrast to Rome: much less ravishing beauties. This is a hard-working city. And Italy, except for its tourist guest, is no fool's paradise. The amount of work is twice as much as in Holland and 30 times as much as in England. Here everyone works on Sundays and shops are open till 8-9 pm. The post office, for example, opens at eight am—closes at 8 pm or later. I heard from an American that Ravenna has the biggest oxygen plant in the world. And Venice, with all its dreamy (?) aetherial beauty, has a "Waterfront" with freighters and ocean-going vessels of all sizes.

          What is nice here is the damn good food. Bread is better and more varied in Rome, but meat and fih is good and soups are poetic. And one doesn't overeat on the whole. One orders meat which one eats. Then spinach appears upon which one strews parmesan cheese. Then one eats creme caramel and has a demi-tasse of the strong, mellow Italian coffee. If one is elegant one has consomme with vegetables or vermicelli in it at the beginning and a carafe of red wine which is pale red, slightly prickly and knocks me over (but pleasantly so). My breakfast consists of one roll (hard), three tiny dabs of butter, jam and four cups of foaming chocolate (which is, since the XVIIIth century, the drink here). 

          I rise at seven and try to be at my first museum at nine, home at one o'clock and on the beat again at 2;15. At 4 o'clock it is getting dark and at 5:30 I am at "home" writing my daily report and mapping out my strategy for the next day. 

          You can imagine that I sleep notwithstanding the fact that this little albergo lies in the slums with drunks singing till 1 am. The hotel is—as all cheap hotels in the world—run by a family where members sponge on whatever money comes in. Screaming babies, the owner a distraught widow, two effeminate sons, a beautiful daughter and two country maids who are extremely clean and appetizing. My room is immaculate every day. 

          In general: Italy is enormously clean compared to Germany and filthy Holland. Italian train toilets can actually be used. Dutch trains are the way I imagine country trains east of Kiev.


  1. How interesting. Never thought about their work hours or sense of cleanliness possibly being better than in Germany or Holland; Germany sure seemed clean to me in the 1980's! Never went to Italy. I thought Germany would have been the more industrious one!

    1. Isn't it strange and kind of boring? What she writes is so impersonal. Her personality is in it, (a cranky mood), and a few unusual observations (I never heard Venice described as dark), but she herself is sort of absent. (I think that's why it's boring.)

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