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A Venice state of mind

“…For I think there can be nothing else in the world so full of glittering and exquisite surprise as that first glimpse of Venice which the traveller catches as he issues from the railway station by night, and looks upon her peerless strangeness… and O you! whoever you are, that journey toward this enchanted city for the first time, let me tell you how happy I count you! There lies before you for your pleasure the spectacle of such singular beauty as no picture can ever show you nor book tell you,—-beauty which you shall feel perfectly but once, and regret forever.”

—William Dean Howells, Venetian Life

The first time I saw Venice, I cried. And every time I read this passage, I cry. The author, who served as U.S. Consul to Venice from 1861 to 1865, comes as close as I can imagine anyone doing to capturing the ineffable effect the first sight of Venice can have on a person and did have on me.

And he’s so right. You can feel it perfectly only once, that knock-out punch of ghostly gorgeousness rising from the water. While I’ve been back to Venice many times and always love to see it again, arriving there hasn’t made me cry since that moment years ago when the waterbus from the airport turned from the open water into the Grand Canal and — bam! — that impossible vision appeared right there in front of me. I think you cry because the senses go into overload that can’t quite be processed, so the mind becomes hysterical and sends back tears for lack of a better idea.

If I had that first time to do over again, I would arrive by train at night and read Howells' passage as the train entered the Santa Lucia station. That is how I’ll arrive this time. I can’t wait. Revisiting some of my favorite books and movies about Venice is making me restless to get there again and hopeful that I’ll see it with fresh eyes. Maybe this time I’ll lift my eyes from the page and stumble out of the station only to have a full-on breakdown. (Fingers crossed.)

With my arrival less than three weeks away, I’m starting to wonder which face of Venice I’ll find. At this time of year, it’s anybody’s guess. I might step out into brittle wintry sunshine or into a mournfully grey city that’s more than a little forbidding.

In the vivid sunlight, Venice is colorful and dreamy like a watercolor in a gilded frame. In the rain, the color seems to drain from the faces of the buildings and run off into the lagoon waters as they rise and flood the piazza. When the high waters come, together with the wind and sleet that assail you sideways, it can be hard to see anything at all. It’s like you’re the paparazzo and Venice the pugnacious quarry looking to smack you around a little. It doesn’t want its picture taken, even in your mind's eye. It wants you and other nosey parkers like you to go away and let it lie in its gloomy memories of once-upon-a-time glory.

{One of my Florentine language instructors years ago told me that people in Italy who decide to commit suicide often travel to Venice to do it, presumably in homage to the once-mighty Republic’s tragic fate or maybe to the bleak Death in Venice or to underscore that the city itself is today in mortal danger. I suppose it makes sense as a final poetic flourish, and would appeal particularly to the Italian soul and sense of life as art.}

What’s more, after the devastating October storm in Italy that flooded the Basilica San Marco and badly damaged its marble and mosaic floors, will the Piazza San Marco be glittering and glutted with hardy tourists or brooding, self-absorbed, and empty, its famous winged lion silently licking its wounds?

I’m not even sure which Venice to wish for: welcoming or blustery, crowded or desolate. Good weather would make getting around easier and much more pleasant, obviously. Bad weather would lend itself well to moody photos, which I'd like to get, but would also probably seep into my skin and make me feel a little sad and lonely — though possibly in a satisfyingly cathartic way.

My mind is filled with Venice now. I even dreamed last night that I was a character in a classic Venetian marionette drama. Whichever Venice I find, I hope to take pictures of its moods and neighborhoods and people and of details I’d never noticed before, and to post them from across the ocean.

I also want to revisit some of my favorite spots, shops, and restaurants to see if they still top my list.

In the meantime, since I'm wallowing now, I’ll mention three great movies set (and shot) in Venice that show three very different faces of the city:

Death in Venice Eerie, disturbing, very short on dialogue. Not for viewing if you're already feeling a little dark of mood. I just watched it again and was surprised to see that it was shot in color. The lingering impression I had from having seen it years ago was of black and white. Funny how the mind tricks you.

Summertime The bittersweet Katherine Hepburn-Rossano Brazzi romance classic is a wonderful choice for evocative scenes of a Venice flooded in technicolor. Though it was filmed in 1955, the city looks and feels much the same to me on sunny days, if a bit less crowded.

Don’t Look Now A thriller from 1973. Warning: Don’t look now or ever at this movie with your parents or kids. My sister and I made the mistake of watching it with our father and are still recovering. There’s a very, very, very long sex scene between Donald Sutherland and the irritatingly beautiful Julie Christie that made us want to mace ourselves. We might have done so, or searched for some sharp thing to sink into our eyeballs, had it not been for our reluctance to look right or left at all. We just stared at the screen and played dead.


And for symmetry’s sake, three great books on Venice. Beyond masterfully written, these all give fascinating historical context to the Venice we wander around today.

Death in Venice Well, after all. The 1912 classic by Thomas Mann belongs on the must-read-before-you-die list. Always nice to read the book before watching the movie, too.

The City of Falling Angels From the author of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, a great read about the city’s picturesque and picaresque characters and modern-day intrigues, with a glimpse of what goes on behind the drapes of those opulent canal-side palaces.

Venetian Life Written in that 19th-century style that makes you reread some sentences three times, Howells’ often-poetic description of 1860s Venice still applies in many ways, but also makes you nostalgic for the Venice you’ll never know.

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