The collection of stones that form the city of Venice has been in place for a long time. Its tired fabric is the familiar Italian backdrop: flaking walls, stripped facades, stone railing on bridges rubbed smooth as marble from millions of eager hands, proud coats of arms worn almost to indistinction by the centuries, usually with an overlay of angry political graffiti (‘Russia! Ukraine!’, was one such topical statement). Space is scarce. Every dwelling is pockmarked by rotten metal frames and lined with cords for drying the laundry, a practice which, as we could see in Canaletto’s Rio dei Mendicanti, has long distinguished ordinary residential households. The medieval opulence – Venice was Europe’s wealthiest city in the 13th century – has been steadily decaying down to the present day.
Venetians speak a peculiarly undulating Italian. Here the language, shorn of the lurching, clichéd melodrama that echoes around the piazze elsewhere in the peninsula, appears reasonable, measured, Germanic.
This is an ancient world. The roads are waterways, plied by vessels that pass by with a modest regularity. The only traffic jam we noticed had been occasioned by a surfeit of Japanese-bearing gondolas. Venice is thus spared the reckless impetuosity that defines streets in the country’s other cities. Nevertheless, the klaxon remains indispensable for these waterbound wayfarers. We even heard from our hotel room a passing motorboat blasting out dance music, briefly sending synthetic reverberations between the high damp walls of the canal.
Walking is the principal means of transport however. Amidst the compressed spaces, you acquire an altered sense of dimension. Tenements are clustered economically, with none of the usual intervening urban expanses – roundabouts, parks, office blocks – but only the humps of diminutive bridges linking the now indiscernible islands in the lagoon. Each turn opens up a new and serene vista. The calli are so narrow that you don’t notice side streets until you cross them, frequently startled to encounter another pedestrian scurrying around the corner.
I imagine the city seen from above as a labyrinth traversed by busy human dots trying their best to avoid collision, gravitating towards one of a handful of nodes – Piazza San Marco, Ponte Rialto, the railway station.
On a windless night you can savour the air, salty and stagnant, in the eerie, pre-industrial silence.