I never thought I would ever see Venice. Truth is, I never wanted to. I’ve always imagined it would be one big tourist trap. There are many places in Italy I would rather see, I thought. But when this conference in Trento came up, and I had to fly in and out of Venice because it was cheaper than the alternatives, I thought: Why not? When will this chance ever come again?
I’m so glad I made that choice. Yes, it’s pretty much the world’s most baroque, costly tourist trap, but it’s also one of the most special places on the planet. Not even the giant cruise ships disgorging tourist effluent into the overcrowded streets can obscure the wonder of this old, old city. When my son Matt and I disembarked from the water taxi on Saturday morning at the Fondamente Nuove and made our way on foot towards our hotel, my cynicism was jacked up. It didn’t survive the first 200 yards into the city. By the time we made it to the hotel 15 minutes later, we were both agog. Can such a place really exist? In this world? Really?
Really. There’s a view like this around every corner:
Yes, the streets are crawling with tourists, and at times are jammed. That’s not hard to do in a medieval city where many of the streets are so narrow you can extend your arms and touch buildings on both sides at the same time. And when they aren’t lousy with luxury goods, the shops are filled with kitsch (Murano glass clown sculptures, anybody?). All of that is true — and it’s all beside the point.
The point is that Venice exists. Nobody would ever plan a city like this. Nobody would ever imagine it. But here it is. Venice was built by Roman people escaping the fifth-century barbarian invasions. They settled on marshy islands in the lagoon, figuring they would be safer (they were). They built the city on piles made of wood and limestone, sunk into the marsh. By the High Middle Ages, the Republic of Venice was the wealthiest city in Europe and an imperial power. Her economic and geopolitical decline began around the 16th century. Napoleon’s invasion finished off the thousand-year republic. Today, Venice is more or less a museum, and maybe this is the best fate that such a city can hope for.
I say this because Venice — the island city — is spectacularly unsuited for modern life. It’s medieval warrens are an unintentional work of art, but there is no rationality to them, and it must take forever to get things done here. I used to chafe at the thought of Baron Haussmann in the 19th century destroying the medieval tangle of streets in the heart of Paris, but being in Venice gives me an idea of why the government hired him to do it. No normal modern city could succeed with a built landscape like Venice’s. But then, I have rarely been in a modern cityscape that seemed more built for the human being.
That might say something about what I find to be human, though. Matt and I were in the Renaissance-era Greek Orthodox church of San Giorgio dei Greci on Sunday morning for the Divine Liturgy. I didn’t understand a word of it, of course, but I knew where we were in the liturgy most of the time, because as in the Catholic Church, the liturgy is the same everywhere. Not understanding the Greek gave me the chance to appreciate the sheer beauty of the liturgy and the chanting. It occurred to me that Orthodox Christianity, which I have been practicing for 11 years, feels a lot like the streetscape of Venice. It’s so rich and winding and organic and, well, Byzantine, but if you’re new to it, you’re often lost, but pleasantly surprised by what you wander into within it. You sense that you are adrift in a place that is more ancient than you can comprehend, but not to worry, because it’s a place built for human beings, not machines, and soon enough these pathways to God will become comprehensible, after you have lived with them for a while, and allowed them to become a part of you.
Again, we got lost a lot, even with Google Maps on my phone (much better than Apple Maps, which was fairly disastrous there), but that was no problem at all. It was fabulous to get lost in that city. You round a cramped corner and stumble into a courtyard the size of your pocket, lined with café tables resting in the shade of a church wall. Not knowing what you were going to wander into in the next five minutes, but having the certainty that it will be old and beautiful and intimate, gave me a sense of pleasure I haven’t had traveling in a long time. By the end of our short stay, I had already intuited the street layout around our hotel, though I couldn’t have drawn you a map to have saved my life. “Not all who wander are lost,” as the saying goes, but in Venice, all who wander are lost, but you aren’t really lost, for you stand a good chance of finding some secret about yourself or about life that had been hidden from you in the real world.
On the other hand – and this is a weird experience – I felt exhausted by all that beauty. It
was too much to take in. Can’t say that’s ever happened to me. The only place that ever had a similar effect on me was Jerusalem, which is not aesthetically exhausting, but spiritually so, or that’s how I found it. I mean, I loved Jerusalem, but it was so intense that it felt disorienting. I’m back in the US now, but I started writing this entry on Venice from my hotel room there on the last night. It has been difficult to say what I want to say about Venice, because I don’t know what I think yet. I spent a day and a half walking through a great and glorious mystery, and one doesn’t have hot takes on great and glorious mysteries.
I write all this from my hotel room in Dallas, where I am attending a conference on classical education. It seems to me that Venice itself is an education, even if you have only seen it for a short time. This city arose out of the malarial marshes when barbarian raids destroyed the world of the Romans of the Veneto. God made Italy, but the Venetians made Venice. Through genius, courage and cunning — sometimes cutthroat — they built a city of impossible beauty atop the green water of the lagoon, and from it became extremely rich and powerful, ultimately ruling a de facto small empire.
They could not keep it. New discoveries — geographical and technological — passed them by. Their formidable trading fleet was not prepared for ocean voyages, which is how trade shifted following the discovery of the New World. They were pressed by the Ottomans, whose rise they arguably assisted by their horrific sack of the Byzantine Orthodox capital of Constantinople in 1204, leaving the Byzantines much weakened and more vulnerable. Yet the Venetians and their Latin Christian allies achieved a magnificent, civilization-saving defeat of the Ottomans in the 1571 naval battle of Lepanto. The Republic of Venice, then at her military and cultural apogee, managed to stay relatively strong for another century or so, until steep decline struck in the 18th century. By the time Napoleon threatened in the 1790s, Venice had been spent, and could not muster the wherewithal to defend herself. The historian John Julius Norwich writes:
The fact of the matter was that Venice was utterly demoralized. It was so long since she had been obliged to make a serious military effort that she had lost the will that makes such efforts possible. Peace, the pursuit of pleasure, the love of luxury, the whole spirit of dolce far niente [pleasant idleness] had sapped her strength. She was old and tired; she was also spoilt. Even her much-vaunted constitution, once the envy of all her neighbours, seemed to be crumbling: votes were bought and sold, the effective oligarchy was shrinking steadily, the Senate was reduced to little more than a rubber stamp. In this last decade of her existence as a state, almost every political decision she made seemed calculated to hasten her end. Did she, one wonders, have a death wish? If so, it was to be granted sooner than she knew.
Napoleon, that great villain, sacked the city and ended the thousand-year Republic. Today, Venice lives off of barbarian invasions — tourists like me whose money keeps up the place.
I am still too dazzled by what I saw to draw any complex conclusions from the Venice experience, and in any case nobody can take any profound lessons from only two days there. Still, I think that the immediate lessons of Venice, at least the ones that remain with me as I look out the window of this high-rise hotel in Dallas, are these:
- Much of that rich beauty was obtained through the pain and suffering. I have been reading Rebecca West, who is murder on the Venetians for the way they treated those under their exploitative rule in the Balkans. And, of course, the horses and much else in St. Mark’s was stolen by the Crusaders from Constantinople, where they sat a whore upon the Patriarch’s throne in the Hagia Sophia. Nevertheless, this is the story of all rich nations and peoples. The beauty does not negate the cruelty, nor does the cruelty negate the beauty. They live together, side by side. Wheat and tares. This is universal. (It is, by the way, why I am so divided within myself over the Confederate monuments. The Venetians had a similar controversy over a Napoleon statue in the city back in 2003. I can understand why the Venetians would not want a statue of Napoleon in their city, and I can understand why African-Americans and others would not want statues of Confederates in their cities. What worries me, though, is a Puritanical tendency to purge ourselves of objects that remind us of the morally problematic past. Those grand plantation houses of the South were built in part on the bodies of slaves. The palazzi of Venice were built in part on the plunder of others. Yet who can possibly believe that we would we be better off by tearing them down? But I digress… .)
- The fragility of civilization, and its inevitable decline, was made more visceral to me in Venice than it ever was in Rome. Rome has ruins; Venice does not. But somehow, seeing Venice as it was physically during its heyday, but knowing that it is nothing now but a stage set for dolce far niente — well, it affected me more deeply. It requires a leap of the imagination to think of Rome at the height of its imperial glory, but you don’t have to work hard to imagine Venice in full ripeness. The entire city is a memento mori of hypnotic power. The conditions that made Venice — or to be more precise, the conditions that made the people who made Venice — are long gone, but the outward form remains, as it does not in most other cities, at least not to this degree. The transience of life, the way it slips through our fingers, is on full display in Venice, in a way I have not seen elsewhere. A closed fist can strike powerful blows, but it cannot contain water.
- Venice arose from the swamp, the work of human hands, and like every work of human hands, it will descend into the swamp. This cannot be stopped. Everything that rises must converge. To lose oneself in Venice is to be reminded of what once was, and of the tragedy of living in time — but also of how the sweetness of life depends on its transience. To enjoy something fully requires an awareness of the inevitability of its loss.
The sheer pleasure of sitting at a table drinking wine with my 17-year-old son was intensified for me by the certain knowledge that he will soon be away at college, and then starting his own life apart from us. I hope we will have the opportunity to travel like this again, but that might not be granted to us. The reason I’m taking these trips with my children on this, my 50th year, is also an awareness that death always awaits us. That might sound morbid to you, but I will never forget the shock of my 40-year-old sister, in the prime of her life, learning that she had terminal cancer. Within weeks of her diagnosis, she was bald, pockmarked, and badly swollen from the chemotherapy. She and her husband and children made one final journey on the last summer of her life, to South Carolina, but Europe would have been out of the question.
We are only given today. By the grace of God, I was granted the resources to make these trips with my kids this year. The memories I am making in them will comfort me the rest of my days, and, I hope, will do the same for my children.
On Sunday afternoon, Matt and I got lost on the way back to our hotel from St. Mark’s Square, and found ourselves standing in front of La Fenice, the city’s theater. The map indicated that the way back to our place required taking the street that ran along the theater’s right side.
As we walked, we suddenly heard the voice of an opera tenor coming from one of the upper floors of the theater. It stopped us in our tracks on the corner of the Calle Fenice and the Rio Verona, where the theater abuts the canal. The tenor was upstairs practicing an aria. I had the presence of mind to take out my video camera and record a few seconds of it. I won’t post an image of my son here, but this is the view from our spot. On the video, you will have just seen him beaming, mouthing the words, “Wow.”
My best guess is that the tenor was singing in the theater window with the open shutters that you see in the middle of the photo, but it’s just a guess, and it doesn’t matter. The point is that we stumbled onto extraordinary beauty wafting over the canals, campielli, and vine-buffered lanes of this old, old city. Edmund Burke’s phrase “the unbought grace of life” came to mind. Here is a short reflection on it by Burke’s 20th century disciple, Russell Kirk:
I mean by the phrase “the unbought grace of life” those intricate and subtle and delicate elements in the culture of the mind and in the constitution of society which are produced by a continuing tradition of prescriptive establishments, reflective leisure, and political order. I mean also the sense of duty, the feeling of honor, the concept of ordination and subordination, and the adherence to the classical definition of justice which grow out of the spirit of a gentleman. I mean all those super added ideas furnished from the wardrobe of a moral imagination. I mean the wife of imagination, harmony and generosity which sometimes flourishes in those societies commonly called “aristocratic.” More than this, I can hardly express lucidly, except by describing particular examples of this high grace, the meaning of “the unbought grace of life.” I do not say that this complex of sentiments and traditions, which Burke calls the spirit of a gentleman, is the only pillar of civilization. As Burke himself declares, the spirit of religion is the other great source and support of our social establishments and our culture. But the spirit of religion still retains many able defenders, and the spirit of a gentleman has few; therefore I am confining my remarks here to the unbought grace of life, as distinguished from that elevation of spirit which is the effect of religious belief. I do not think that the on bot grace of life, or the spirit of a gentleman, could subsist indefinitely without the animating power of religion; but, with Burkett, I do not think that religious establishments, as we have known them for 1000 years and more, could endure along in a society which had discarded the last traces of the unbought grace of life.… Wherever the unbought grace of life withers, the church as a living force is much diminished, if not extirpated; and wherever religious establishments are broken or derided, the spirit of the gentleman has short shrift.
We had the blessing of this grace that afternoon, standing in the shade of the theater. For me, that moment more than any other summed up our Venetian weekend, and made me want to return one day to spend more time among its treasures. That night, for our last experience of Venice, we went to see a performance of Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons” in the church of San Vidal. (Vivaldi was a son of Venice.) I glanced over at Matt during a particularly thrilling moment in the concert, and saw his face beaming, and him mouth the word, “Yes!”
In Venice, Matt was able to glimpse some of the finest achievements of Western civilization. May he spend his lifetime saying yes to them all, and getting lost in the streets of Venice for the sake of finding himself.