For five of the past six Novembers, my wife Karen and I have spent a long weekend in Venice. I go to attend the Venice Talks, a two-day conference that brings together representatives of Europe’s center-right parties to discuss matters political, economic, and cultural. Karen and I then spend two extra days exploring the Queen City of the Adriatic, where the setting is always more than we had remembered. The hotels on the Grand Canal, discreetly updated as they now are, have a 19th-century splendor about them still, and they serve huge, warming breakfasts and luxurious dinners.
What Karen and I most enjoy is walking the twisting, often dead-end walkways, trying to master a baffling labyrinth of footbridges that arch up over dark, green-grey canals (whose water looks so thick that small animals might walk across it). Very often, despite the fact that we could see quite clearly where we wanted to go by means of steeples and towers, we couldn’t get there from here.
No matter: it is quite delicious to walk narrow Venetian streets in the bitter winds of November, ducking inside every so often for a cappuccino or a hot chocolate, or seeking sanctuary from the cold within a darkly shadowed old church whose bygone magnificence stuns the imagination.
One of our favorite little shelters — we try to stop by at least once a day, sometimes twice — is the church of San Zaccaria. There we dwell for a few moments at the foot of the single most beautiful painting in Venice — one of the greats anywhere in the world — by Giovanni Bellini: the Mother of God enthroned in a small temple of most marvelous perspectival precision, and in brilliant and subtly shadowed colors. I had never fully appreciated Bellini before, but he has moved far up my short list of the most thrilling painters.
Every church in Venice seems to shelter at least one artistic masterpiece, some three or four. One can spend an entire week visiting only the churches, apart from the justly famous and in some ways unmatched museums, guild halls, scuole, and public buildings.
A Thousand Years of Islam
This year, the Ducal Palace hosted a special exhibit on the 1,000-year history of wars, competition, trade, and mutual imitation between Islamic culture and Venice. The influence of Islamic design and architectural forms is seen throughout the older neighborhoods of Venice — in the shape of the windows, and in some of the cursive designs on the walls of old palaces. The façade of the Ducal Palace itself perfectly reflects the very Muslim influence its exhibit celebrated.
The Venetian fleet played a decisive role in one of the greatest battles of Western (and global) history, the preemptive Battle of Lepanto in 1571. So it is no surprise that whole gigantic walls in the Ducal Palace, in more than one room, bear huge and sumptuous oil paintings of the furies of that battle. Miguel de Cervantes was wounded in that all-day struggle for life or death. He called Lepanto the greatest sea battle of all time. The time was propitious for the Turks: The European powers were divided by the still-young Reformation. The battle settled very little, but it did bar the Turks from what looked to be their great sea invasion of Italy, which would have cut off Northern Europe from its Mediterranean roots.
In Venice, one always has the sense of striding across history. Centuries ago, no other city of Europe matched Venice as a seafaring power, trading with the Middle East and sending merchants to the Far East. Venice has lived a lot and seen a lot. Visiting the city, one can feel strong tides of cynicism, ambition, betrayal, moral ambiguity, sensuality, and also a kind of serene moral striving. One does not leave Venice without having one’s sense of “progress” and “the triumph of goodness” plunged into cold, murky, green-gray waters.
Murder in Venice
I have been intending to write about Venice for many weeks, without being able to seize an opportunity. Over the long New Year’s weekend, however, I decided to take a break from writing altogether. For five days, I mainly sat and read — well, aside from watching several hours of great football, and several more thumbing through the economic tables of the 2008 World Almanac, to refresh my memory on a few facts that are contrary to the conventional wisdom. Mostly, though, in a kind of delicious gluttony, I sat with a series of crime novels set in and around Venice that my sister had recommended to me. I was hooked, and read straight through three of them and into a fourth — and intend to read them all.