Updated on May 24, 2015
Forgetting Venice – Part 3
Forgetting Venice – Part Three
I am walking the streets now. I know where I am going, but I do not know how I am getting myself there. My feet remember the flagstones and I follow them, trustingly. Past versions of me stalk these streets and I think they are leading the way. At one corner I see myself, fresh-faced at nineteen, taking my old woman’s hand and pulling me on, before abandoning me on a street I do not recognise. Then a slightly older version of me, probably mid-twenties, appears from a shop doorway, smiling – I can tell by her eyes that she is amused to find herself back in this illuminated city – and she lightly grasps my wrist and guides me wearily over the Accademia Bridge. Walking and winding the images crowd in again and I seem to lose the connection to where I am. There are walls and shadows and people hurrying by, but I am old through and through, and scared. I burst out of a street as cramped and dank as a coffin into bustling light; it ricochets off polished marble and bursts from reflective glass window panes. It fills my eyes and I am overcome. Again I am forced to sit down, as with the light come the memories, which overpower me and bowl me over in their incessant, glowing stampede.
I forget how old I was exactly when I returned to Venice after graduating in England. I know I worked in a bank for a while to earn enough money to buy brushes and pots of paint, while I lived at home again with my parents. The time I had spent living in the city and learning its streets had also opened up to me the world of painting – my temporary home was a work of art, brimming with galleries and permeated by the echoing footsteps of the masters who had walked these stones before me. By the time I had returned home to complete my Fine Art degree, I had a sense of purpose that I had never experienced before. I continued to develop my natural talent for sketching and nurtured the blossoming painter inside me. It was with elated surprise that I found myself back in Venice some time later, opening my arms to the two wondrous years which lay ahead of me, glistening with promise and luxurious ambition.
Those years were filled with inspiration. I painted portraits when I had to still lifes when I was instructed to, but my heart lay in landscapes. Of course they were mainly paintings of Venice – I would take my canvas and my paints and set out into the city, without a map trying to get deliberately lost, so that my sense of helplessness when confronted with the watery maze would radiate from behind the paint and inhabit the world of the painting. Once, not far away from a street that I knew well, I came across an expanse of walls which were covered in murals – somebody had painted fish, birds and people in splashes and whirls of vivid colour, and I could not help but reproduce it. I felt as though I was standing inside a cartoon, painting it from the inside out. During my time at the academy I created views across the lagoon, claustrophobic daubings of broken streets and even some English landscapes, when I felt particularly flooded with homesickness. I walked past thousands of people in that time, holding cameras, labouring under the false illusion that they could capture the brilliant of light, water and air with an instantaneous click of a button. It was soulless and I felt that I was above them all, revelling in a city that they were permitted to pass through, but which only I could see.
In late February I witnessed the splendour and stuffiness of Carnevale. There were ten people here now for every one tourist who visited Venice in the summer. Never before had I seen the widest streets so rammed with people; never before had my daily walk taken three times as long as it should; never before had I felt so sure that Venice would sink under the weight of so much crowding, shouting, laughing, shoving, loitering human matter.
Yet dotted amongst the crowd in the Piazza di San Marco were little pockets of breathing space, around the people who dressed up for the occasion. I wished that there was the time and space to paint the costumes – I attempted to make many pictures from memory, but they fell frustratingly short of the portraits in my mind – for they were spectacular. The women wore dresses as wide as a small street, so the massing people were forced to walk slowly behind them as their skirts brushed the walls of the buildings on both sides. Men and women decorated themselves with tall feathers, ribbons, bows, medallions and shining brass buttons; they wore colours I recognised from ornamental mosaics, restored church frescoes and the depths of the lagoon; and of course they all wore florid masks, which gave them sparkling, flamboyantly painted papier mache skin, frozen in expressions of neutral anonymity.
One evening I was walking back to my room – I lived in a number of different places during those years but none of them held the same permanent affection in my heart as number 3624 – and I passed through the Piazza di San Marco. I had become used to the infestation of tourists and was not surprised to find that the square was full. A bright light caught my eye and as I turned there was a booming crackle from speakers spread around the perimeter of the square. A loud, slightly static crash of drums and violins filled the square, as a large white balloon, lit by spotlights, ascended from the paving and hung in the ebony air. Underneath the balloon a woman was suspended, wearing a skin-tight, white costume, which coated her from head to toe and clung to her scalp and forehead like a swimming hat.
As the music built and waned, peaking in wild crescendos and lulling into near silence so many times that it became apparent it was playing on a loop, the balloon moved higher and lower above the crowd. All the while the woman underneath spun in her harness, sideways, forwards and backwards, pointing her toes balletically and reaching her fingers down to the outstretched hands of tourists, who reached and jumped but could never quite touch her. It went on for so long that I had to leave, but I returned and saw her again the next night. No, perhaps not; now that I think about I seem to remember going back again and finding the piazza practically deserted.
It was at the festival of Redentore just before my second year that I met Carl. He was from London, also studying at the academy, but he was specialising in sculpture and he had never been to Venice before. It was July, the summer before he was due to start his course and he had come to see the festival and learn more about the city he was going to live in. My friends and I were sitting on the waterfront at Zattere, eating a vast picnic on the one stolen hotel sheet I had kept out of sentimentality, which we had laid out on the street. It hung over the edge and almost reached the surface of the nearby, lapping water. People flowed past us in a constant stream, heading in the direction of San Marco and the temporary floating bridge that was constructed for the festival, joining Zattere to the island of Giudecca. The vast Giudecca Canal, at least four times wider than the central Canal Grande, was packed with boats of every shape and size; they were all illuminated with multi-coloured lights and filled with people eating, drinking and belatedly celebrating the end of a terrible plague that had ravaged the city several centuries earlier.
Carl was lost and alone. I saw him out of the corner of my eye, sauntering slowly along the waterfront, following the crowd at his own unsure pace, gazing out over the water and running his hand along the uneven stone wall. As he came closer our eyes connected and, smiling as if he was greeting an old friend, he came over and asked me if I knew when the fireworks would start. We fell deep into conversation and I invited him to eat with us. Not long after the sky was spattered with long ropes and explosions of colour, and golden sparks rained down into the water as their reflections streamed up to the surface to meet them.
Over the course of my final year Carl and I met more often. The first time it was accidental: we were both watching a street performer near the academy, who ran the moistened tips of his fingers around the rims of thin glasses to make music. I noticed him in the crowd, attentive and still, and shortly after he noticed me. We smiled at each other across the murmuring glasses, and I saw how the sunlight clung to him like it was in love.
Read part four.