Venice. Italy’s Venice. Not California’s Venice. Of all the cities on earth, this is the one that owns my heart. Each time I visit, I have a reaction unlike anything I can recall--a near-gasp, an ache. Although year after year I have no concrete geographical sense of where precisely I am going in this magical city, I am never really lost. It is all oddly familiar, as though I had dreamed it all in sensual detail. My first visit was at the tail end of a trip to Italy, a month in a car with two friends and one special friend, when I fell in love with all of Italy and the Italians, once and forever. But Venice: As our water-taxi approached the city from the airport at precisely sundown, there appeared the essence of every Canaletto and Turner painting of Venice that I had ever seen. I wanted to weep. I still do. Every time. The color, the light, is unlike anything seen elsewhere--the shimmering, gilded, aquamarine sky, pale peach clouds softening the twilight edges, great puffs of white punctuating the brilliant blue of midday, the golden gray pushing down upon the city before it rains. It never really matters if thousands of tourists clog the Piazza San Marco, or whether the canals in midsummer do indeed reek of garbage. My senses forgive these intrusions; I see, I feel beyond them and deliver myself into another time.
So many civilizations have left their mark on this city in the past thousand years that it is possible for an escapist (like myself) to fantasize a whole lifetime into another century.
While there is the inevitable presence of the Renaissance everywhere, it is layered over and over with the centuries, before and after--so that one walks from square to square, building to building, in a sort of sensual trance. I love the Piazza San Marco, the magnificent facades of which are a reflection of almost every major event in the history of Venice. I have spent hours sipping coffee, watching people from the world over feed the pigeons; I listen to the strange loud hum of their voices reverberating against the walls of the Basilica and the Doges’ Palace. Two orchestras, at opposite sides of the Piazza, play Strauss waltzes, each slightly out of sync with the other. I dream of waltzing across that whole square, empty at last, as the sun begins to rise over the city.
In my imagination, I am asked to spend carnival nights with half a dozen artist friends, exotic men in tuxedos; I must wear a tuxedo and slick my hair back like a man, and we drink coffee at the Cafe Florian and watch the revelers in slow motion, their fantastic masks crowding the winter-fogged alleyways. In this fantasy I pretend that it is the 19th Century.
I visit the museum of the artist Mariano Fortuny, and quickly I am back at the beginning of this century, waiting to catch a glimpse of Isadora Duncan or Peggy Guggenheim as they wait in the mysterious and dark palazzo for their specially made dresses. In the corner is a heap of vegetable-dyed, knife-pleated silks the colors of the Renaissance, made with a formula so secret that to date it has never been copied. I choose an inky bottle-green velvet cloak, stamped over with platinum and bronze swans; I am ready to disappear into another time.
I go to the beach at the Lido, particularly in winter, when the grand hotels of days gone by are all shuttered against the Adriatic wind and cold. The Grand Hotel des Bains reminds me always of Visconti, but the Excelsior, with its Turkish minarets and ocher tiles, seems more personal. Years ago I bought my son his first pair of shoes in a little shop near this hotel. They were red-and-blue canvas-and-rubber sandals, and I still have them.
There is a profound melancholy about the Lido in winter that whispers of times in the ‘20s, when Diaghilev and his entourage would come and the world was filled with the art of the Ballet Russe. In the summer the beaches are packed with noisy tourists, languishing in palapa -roofed cabanas--or daring to swim in the now-filthy sea. I prefer it in winter, when I can fill in the colors of my mind’s eye--the long, silk scarfs and white trousers and the bicycles of another time, when vacationers moved soundlessly into the casino, slow motion. Time stands still in the eternal summer.
I take a long boat ride through the lagoon, past huge pylons crowned with lamps and sea gulls. We pass Murano and Burano--those islands of fishermen, lace makers and glass blowers--and arrive at the little island of Torcello, where I stop for the night in the little hotel owned by the famous Cipriani family of Harry’s Bar fame. I can sleep in the room where Queen Elizabeth slept, or dine in the country garden of one of my favorite restaurants. But everywhere there is the mystery of the Byzantine era, when this little island was far more important than even Venice. The monolithic stone throne still stands in a grassy field near the 7th-Century cathedral, flower-decked gondolas; Venice is murmurs and the dull muffle of thousands of feet on stone cobble centuries old. But above all, Venice is mystery and romance. Venice shows me something unexpected each time I visit. Once, with my son, I suggested that I would be happy to buy an ancient palazzo , put on one of my old Fortuny dresses and hold forth with my dogs and cats and special friends. He replied, “Please Mom, can you wait until I go away to college before I have to explain to my friends just what it is that my mother does?”
Yes. But any minute now . . .