Updated on May 24, 2015
Forgetting Venice – Part Five
Forgetting Venice – Part Five
The next time Carl and I walked along that street we were each holding the hand of a child. I gave birth to twins, two boys, at our home in England and as soon as we thought they were old enough to travel abroad we brought them straight to Venice. Of course, for the first few visits we stayed almost exclusively on the Lido – galleries, museums and churches held no interest for two boisterous five year olds – but as the years passed we encouraged them into the city. We wanted the crooked skyline of rooftops and bell towers to be as deeply ingrained in their pasts as they were in ours.
On one holiday, when they were both fourteen, we woke the boys up at three o’clock in the morning and told them that they must go out and see Venice at night. We walked the familiar streets, transformed into eerie puzzles by the darkness, and led them into the empty expanse of San Marco. It was around the time of Carnevale and a stage had been erected at one end of the square. Ducking under the feeble rope barriers they climbed onto the stage and paraded around in front of their audience of two. We heard somebody shout from under the bell tower and, mutually guilty in our complicity, all four of us took each other’s hands and ran.
On another occasion Carl had gone out with the boys alone. When they returned they sat on the end of our hotel bed and told us in tumbling voices how they had climbed along a row of gondolas, lashed together for the night, and lain down in the bottom of one when they saw somebody through the illuminated ground floor windows of a hotel close by.
One of our most memorable family trips to Venice happened on the week that ended with my forty-seventh birthday. If I get the boat back from the Lido – and I will, in a minute, when I have got my breath back – it will pass by the site of the Biennale di Venezia, one of the biggest international art exhibitions in the world. Every two years the Biennale is dedicated to art, and each featured country chooses prominent native artists to represent them in their individually designed pavilions. The year of that holiday my work was on display in the British pavilion.
This was the pinnacle of my career. For all my working life in England I had strived to bring together my two biggest passions – painting and this city – and finally my status at home had allowed me to bring my creations back to their source. They were not paintings of the city – I had stopped painting Venice as soon as I left it – but the play of light on the canvas and the nostalgic bent of the brushstrokes were powerfully influenced by the years I had spent in its timeless glow. The paintings were meeting their creator’s muse for the first time.
I met Carl, Luke and Robert at the entrance of the leafy park and guided them up a tree-lined promenade to the square, pointy-roofed building at the end. I led them up the steps, between two pillars to the door, above which Gran Bretagna was carved into the stone. A few people who recognised me took photographs of us, as our backs disappeared into the cooling gloom.
I have just disembarked from a long, flat boat full of standing people and I do not know where I am. I think I have been sitting down for a while and dreaming, but I do not think I fell asleep. The light is too bright here and I am very hot, so I duck into a shaded little street to escape it and before long I am hopelessly lost.
Every turn mocks me by throwing me mercilessly into another, identical stony street. The walls close in around me, pressing me forward and twisting me round, but they are empty and all I want is to get back to where there are people so I do not have to worry about being along any more. There is a silver chain around my neck and as I clutch it and feel how cool it is between my fingers, I catch sight of the corner of a dress disappearing around a corner.
As quickly as I can manage I stumble towards it, bracing myself against the close walls with the palms of my hands. Turning the corner I see a long street, streaked with drying puddles, and at the far end there is a young woman. She pauses, half turns towards me and then carries on. I call out to her but she does not hear me and I am forced to follow in a shuffling, creaking run.
Street after impossible street disappears behind me, but for every inch I cover a thousand more rear themselves up in front of me, laughing at my useless legs. The woman is moving even faster now and when I lose sight of her completely as the street splits in two I have to take a wild guess at which way she has gone. Luckily, further on, I see her again: she is wearing a knee-length blue dress, a little like one I used to own, and the colour of it seems unrealistically luminous in the darkness of the alleys.
Suddenly, at the next turn, the walls on either side of me fall away and I falter forwards into an explosion of bright, consuming light. For a moment I stand transfixed, my arm thrown across my eyes to protect myself from the instant onslaught of the sun. Slowly I am able to lower my arm and look around. I am in…there is a name for this place and I know that I know it…I am in…the Piazza San Marco.
A sea of stone paving slabs, woven in an angular pattern with seams of polished marble, undulates away from my shaking feet and crumples up at the edges as steps, like petrified waves. At one end is the Basilica, a patchwork of stolen marble and sculpture built to house a stolen saint. Casting its short early afternoon shadow across the people littered at its base is the bell tower, which begins to ring as I look at it, scattering a flurry of pigeons in the wake of its reverberations.
I step back a little way into the alley from which I emerged and rest my wrinkled hand against the rough brick wall. At one time my future was carved into these stones; now it my past that is etched into the fabric of this city. Slowly I begin to rub away the weathered outer surface of the brick. Maybe if I stand here long enough I will be able to scratch my present into these walls as well.