By Dr Loredana Polezzi
It may seem like heresy to start a piece about Venice by mentioning one of its historical rivals, but there is a song about Genoa which always reminds me of my meeting with Venice. It was written by Paolo Conte (a Piedmontese) and it describes the marvel and shock of the first encounter with a city of water for someone who was raised away from the sea (Paolo Conte, Genova per noi, 1974). I met Venice when I was eighteen, as I arrived from Tuscany to study at Venice’s Ca’ Foscari University for a year. I had grown up in the countryside. My landscapes were made of hill towns and expansive valleys. My elective city was Florence, with its airiness and its uneasy relationship with the river that cuts through it. Venice meant standing and walking on water, feeling surrounded but also protected by it. And it meant, like Conte’s Genoa, the strange encounter with a place so still and yet always moving, ‘anche di notte’ – even at night.
My dominant images of Venice are always of arrivals. By train first of all. I did not live in Venice as a student, but lodged with family friends in Padua, travelling every day with the commuters, crossing the bridge over the lagoon, stepping out of Santa Lucia station, and walking into the city. Walking in Venice was a disconcerting experience for someone used to reasonably straight lines, to open vistas, to the geometric progression and the layering of ages which in Italian cities usually tells you that you are moving from the periphery to the centre of things. Venice had no fixed proportions, allowed no steady pace; it blocked your way with surprisingly beautiful objects at almost every turn. Its shape seemed much more organic, and slippery, like the fish Tiziano Scarpa, a contemporary Venetian writer, has likened it to. Navigating the city demanded the reading of maps or the unfaltering faith in a blind sense of direction – two things I had never had to rely on before. And even those tools often failed me, requiring further detours and the retracing of steps. (Years later, there was a strange pleasure in discovering that even Google Maps cannot cope with Venice’s intricate patterns and small spaces: the blue dot that is meant to guide you gives up, and you need to ask someone, or just wander around, to find the next palazzo, the last art exhibition on the list, or the restaurant you just phoned to book your table for dinner.)
Walking the city at night compounded the effect. Every few weeks, after a trip home, I travelled on night trains, spent a couple of hours in Bologna station, and arrived in Venice at five in the morning. Italy’s anni di piombo, the years of terrorism and bombs, were not far away, and train stations were even less inviting than usual. So I walked the city, waiting for the first bar to open, and for a coffee taken in the company of firemen and old ladies suffering from insomnia and the need for a glass of grappa. I walked over humped bridges and under sotoporteghi, looking for the light of the next campo. Venice could be surprisingly empty, but also full of unexpected presences. There was one courtyard I kept coming across, with a walled garden on one side, a gate, and a tree.
That courtyard was a gathering point for Venetian cats, and they all seemed to like that tree. I walked past and counted: once it was sixteen cats on one tree. They were not ragged, neglected strays, but placid dignitaries arranged on branches as if for a salon conversation. They were a perfect corner of Oriental Venice.
After that year, I did not return for almost two decades. When I got back to Venice, I approached it by sea, navigating the lagoon. I re-drew my map, adding a contour which the city itself had hidden from sight. And it did not take long to regain an old confidence in walking seemingly random routes. Venice appeared to have stayed still, yet shifted slightly. Like Italo Calvino’s timeless invisible cities (all bearing the imprint of Venice), the city evokes its old, even archaic self, yet only through the lens of our contemporary sense of it. In Calvino’s words, it is a city of memory, a city of desire, a city of signs and of trade, a hidden and a continuous city, a città sottile – thin, but also light and subtle – and a city of visions. When I went back, I looked for my own visionary image of Venice: the courtyard, the gate, and sixteen cats on a small tree. I found cats on the islands – on Torcello, Vignole, Sant’ Erasmo – and a few in the city itself. They were always of the contented, regal kind. But I never saw so many in a single place again. A Venetian friend thought about it and mused: ‘Yes, there used to be lots of cats around here...’
‘Like Italo Calvino’s timeless invisible cities (all bearing the imprint of Venice), the city evokes its old, even archaic self, yet only through the lens of our contemporary sense of it. In Calvino’s words, it is a city of memory, a city of desire, a city of signs and of trade, a hidden and a continuous city, a città sottile – thin, but also light and subtle – and a city of visions.’
Dr Loredana Polezzi is an Associate Professor in Warwick’s Department of Italian Studies. She studied Modern Languages at Venice and Siena and has an MA in Italian Studies and a PhD in Translation Studies from Warwick. Her research focuses on the history of travel writing and the connection between geography and social mobility, as well as theories and practices of translation. Loredana is Director of Warwick’s Venice Centre.