by Beatrix Ost
26 June 2015
Fear of drowning
I know my room from previous visits. Room 14 in the Piano Nobile. Four tall windows, two opening up to the street - Calle Priuli, the bridge over the river - two out to the garden, shadowed by olive trees.
A rug of green moss and tile, with several tables and chairs. A stone bench, propped up on a wall at the far end. Some sunflower beds. All of it watched over by a tall iron gate separating the garden from the street.
I lie down on the large bed. It is the room Casanova slept in when he ended up in Venice, tired and old, in debt, out of luck, his sex no longer an option, no more secret to his fame. The bed is high and looks like its era, the 18th century.
“Love can be surprising. Love can be heartbreaking. Love can be an art. But love is the singular emotion that all humans rely on most ... and crave endlessly no matter what the cost ...” Thus said the great lover and adventurer, and con man.
What else? Here nothing changes, and as I know, the citizens of the world still have several old, well-described desires. They never change, only circumstance. From the ceiling putti look down, arranging garlands of flowers around the light fixture in the middle: back then, a chandelier with candles; now, small electric tubes with flames, giving only enough light to tap around the room on your way to the bath.
The late sun is trapped in the walls.
The floor is stone and looks like a slice of the Bavarian sausage called pressack. I have been here at every season. in July, during the Festa del Redentore, thousands of boats fill the stretch between San Marco and the Chiesa del Redentore. You are invited to walk from boat to boat, drink wine and feast, visit and chat. When night falls, fireworks adorn the firmament, an orgy of form, noise and color, haunting, inexhaustible in its beauty, the images of the city drowning under the magnitude and splendor from above. A sanctified rain, feasting.
When I am here, I feel like a Venetian citizen from all previous centuries simultaneously. My shoes are made by Giovanna Zanella. The shop is at the end of a labyrinth of small streets. One walks through de Chirico-like silence, ended suddenly by the shock of commerce and noise, like a train station.
At Carnival one can see one’s breath, take a glass at Ca’d’Oro, my favorite bacari.
I sit and lift the veil from my face, over the brim of the hat, and measure the small room. I take off my long gloves, to use my fingers for eating their cicchetti.
A man sits down next to me. A dark face, but I cannot find details establishing anything to fear. Only an inkling. He is still. Even after he smiled invitingly.
Luigi, he says, giving me a curt nod. I say my name. Beatrix, che bello!
My costume has a long train of blue silk and lace, and an exquisite jacket, very narrow. A furry thing of a fox over the shoulder.
His is no disguise. He wears a Loden coat, and a black hat. He takes it off. His hair shines dark and long. In his face, a landscape of beard.
I could walk off with him. He is no tourist.
Another time, in summer, I am having breakfast down in the garden. June, July perhaps, or even September. The brisk brilliance of morning still in the walls. Attilio Codognato arrives at the gate. Doves fly off. He brings with him his assistant and a small suitcase. He smiles when he sees me.
I have rings from him. His grandfather made one for the actress Maria Felix. An enormous pearl, crowned by a diamond and encircled by a snake. The sun jumps off it as if bitten. I have it on, together with another of his, a skull with a poem engraved on its head. One can read it from multiple sides. A palindrome:
Sator - Arepo - Tenet - Opera - Rotas
Diamond eyes. It looks at you calmly.
Signore Codognato has moved closer and bows like an aristocrat, elegant and servile at the same time. He likes me, and my husband. Each for their own reason. Very clearly he caters to his clients.
I order a cappuccino and an espresso from Maria. We all sit in the shade of a black-and-white striped baldachin. Everyone is happy now, smiling in anticipation, speaking languages in small tokens, like a beggar.
The surface of the table gets cleared, the assistant rolls out a black velvet carpet. Doves coo. Breakfast clutter, background further off. Tourists step on Calle Priuli outside. Beyond them, the roar of a motorboat.
First a brooch, a Moor with an ivory body, with rubies adorning his jacket, his face made of onyx.
It is for both of you to wear, says Sr. Codognato. The assistant confirms this with a grave nod.
Next, a snake ring. I try it on. It is very large for my forefinger, jutting far out over the knuckle. Fantastic emerald eyes shoot at you.
Signore Sorlino, the assistant, a fine gentleman, is by now in full tilt, representing the House of Codognato, while Sr. Codognato himself relates little stories about Venice and its restaurants.
My husband is practicing his Italian. I am practicing being myself, with the snake ring on my finger.
A collier is laid out on black. Oval crystals engraved with dancing skeletons, held together by golden leaves and skulls. Inexhaustible symbols, rounding around the neck. It is still in its depth, like all beauty, like a veiled face.
When I look into the mirror, I know it is mine.
On my way to Caffé Florian, I pass by a gate. It opens onto the private courtyard of the Palazzo Volpi di Misurata.
The man with a broom nods.
Like all the gardens in Venice, it can claim centuries of neglect and resurrection, like an aging diva, her beauty inexhaustible. It is cooler there as I enter. Five degrees lower than on the street. Time has bleached the brick, centuries have brushed it with their precious clothes. The moisture of the Canale Grande has laid down moss between the seams.
In ancient stillness two male figures stand by the door, vines dripping down from above, hanging across windows, a veil over a curious face. Birds flit in and out. An iron balcony, balancing.
I step inside, to look down into the marble well. A sphere of stone lies there, forgotten, like a soccer ball thrown over the gate.
The street has me back. It is empty, except for some like me. It is that Italian time of lapse, not yet 5. Shops closed. The miracle of Venice keeps me company.
At Carnival, all the streets are covered with confetti. Now they are carefully swept, like a corridor. One can hear the steps, the boats’ motors, some conversation, some clutter, all separate, an orchestra in the stillness of a summer day.
The Piazza San Marco is just getting ready, like a woman in front of a mirror. The doves know that. Soon they will sweep down from the roofs, and from undisclosed homesteads, to peck around the cafes.
I stride through the large north portal, built by Napoleon, down some steps, out into the open, the square of sky, virgin blue. The piazza’s marble polished by centuries of conflict.
At Caffé Florian the orchestra is getting ready to play. I walk towards it, slow and deliberate, solitary. I love its festive rooms. To this day it is the oldest coffeehouse in continuous operation. At Carnival I would inevitably end up at, or begin from, the Cafe, the meeting place. Vittorio, with a blue glass eye, would sweep through on his way, followed by Casanova in black leather, mask and all, to look for prey and friends.
I stroll into the Sala Cinese. I can’t help it, I am transfixed, walking slowly into the next salon, the one with the paintings of lovers. In the Sale degli Specchi sits nobody.
What happened? Oh, it is the Biennale this room is dedicated to! The usual small mirrors, framed in rococo, have disappeared. Instead, the whole space is recursive, an infinite regress of mirrors within mirrors.
I sit down upon a mirrored bench on a mirrored table. I am watched by myself watching myself. My hat is descending into the endless reproduction of myself wearing it. I touch my face, or someone touches someone’s face: one hundred hands cautiously stroke their respective cheeks. My own private Internet, self-addiction.
The Piazza san Marco presses in. I become part of the moving image from outside, of the perpetual stream of visitors. A clone in a predictable backdrop resembling myself, myself, myself.
I turn my head left, toward the window, smell the cakes from the buffet. Outside, the music. Vivaldi, and the piazza in pale tin. The lights go on across the way. The pigeons flutter, in no hurry when disturbed, like tourists themselves. The sun sets into the lagoon.
I order a tea and little sandwiches. The waiter smiles at me.
Bongiorno, Signora. He knows me from all the years I have been coming to the Florian. I am not a tourist to him, I am a guest.
In the midst of the piazza a figure steals my eye as the orchestra plays to my right. The window glass is ancient, littered with beautiful flaws.
He is strolling across the peopled piazza, diving in and out of that moving silence as if in a silent movie accompanied by Verdi.
I catch his gaze, searching for the cafe I am sitting in. I lose sight of him as he enters.
When I get up the night has awakened. I step outside. The streets are hollow, echo with every step. I walk through them like a procession, church clocks answering to each other, skeletons carved into columns. Above entrances, Memento mori Et in Arcadia ego. From the lagoon, night wet enters the city’s passages. Canale Grande snakes through. I can see the water to the left. I know the way to the palazzo in my sleep.
Some young people are hanging around the steps of a church, drinking. One kicks the other until he tumbles down.
The swearing follows me into the canyon of streets. It rips me out of my silence. I have to laugh while bending into a low arch along a small waterway, gondolas pushing against each other in the whispering water. The facades before Strada Nuova are out of Francesco Guardi paintings. Green growing in niches, windows disaligned, gates rusted. Venice was old even then. City in the marshes of the lagoon: La Serenissima, Queen of the Adriatic.
Behind curtains and doors the night measures her hours, unmistakably precise to the end.
I turn right, towards Rio Priuli. The gate is closed. I ring the bell. Buonanotte, says the night watchman.