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Water, Water Everywhere

Venice was, until the building of a railway bridge in the middle of the nineteenth century, a small island, or collection of islands. Venetians were islanders, with all the benefits and burdens that accrue to that especial status. To be insular is to be independent; but it is also to be alone. It secures a measure of safety, but it also attracts attention from those on the larger mainland. It exemplifies vulnerability, even when outward circumstances seem favourable. Yet as an island city Venice survived all the wars and invasions that have beset Italy since the eleventh century; it successfully defied both pope and emperor, French invasion and Spanish incursion, and the continual forays of the other city-states of Italy. If it had not been surrounded by water, it would have been destroyed many centuries ago.

But that separation from the mainland, from Italy and the world, has taken its own toll. Although Venice has been part of Italy since 1866, Italy has largely ignored it. It is considered as somehow extraneous. The Italians do not really think of Venice at all; it belongs to some other realm of fancy or of artifice. On the part of the Venetians the tradition of liberty, and of freedom from the fear of invasion, bred a certain insouciance. The island guaranteed the citizens their self-sufficiency, perhaps, but it also encouraged a certain self-enclosed or self-referential attitude towards the rest of the world. It is still easy, in Venice, to grow indifferent to what is happening elsewhere. Venetians themselves are not particularly concerned with the affairs of what might be called the wider community. From the remoteness, and isolation, can also spring melancholy. Venice is no longer an island, but the island temperament remains.

And of course the islanders must always look out to sea. It is their context. It is their horizon. Where would they be without the sea? The city rests on the silt at the bottom of the sea. It is as much a part of the sea as the tides and the waves. The sea flows between the wooden piles that sustain it. The sea flushes beneath it. There is something innately unsettling about living in Venice. There is salt in the air, and the atmosphere is rendered hazy by evaporation. The haze easily becomes sea mist or sea fog. The air seems to melt above the buildings. The salt and damp leave silvery traces on the whitened walls, as if they were made out of mother-of-pearl. The birds flying above them are the seagulls. And there is seaweed floating along the canals beside them.

So there are images of the sea throughout Venice. The floor of the basilica of Saint Mark gently undulates, as if the congregation were walking upon waves. The area of marble slabs, on the floor of the central crossing of that church, was known in the sixteenth century as il mare. The marble columns of Saint Mark’s are veined or striated like the waves. In the other churches of the city we might note the popularity of “dolphin capitals” and the motif of the shell. Ruskin described the imposing houses along the Grand Canal as “sea-palaces.” In maps of Venice, particularly those from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the shape of the city is reminiscent of a fish or dolphin. The islands and sand-ridges, out of which Venice was made, seemed to the first settlers like the backs or dorsi of slumbering whales; one area of modern Venice is still called Dorsoduro or hard back. On top of one of the two presiding pillars in the piazzetta, Saint Theodore is astride a crocodile. There are crabs and dolphins on the capitals of the ducal palace. It would not be wonderful to meet a leviathan, or what in Moby-Dick Herman Melville calls “strange shapes of the unwarped primal world,” swimming at times of acqua alta in Saint Mark’s Square. It would not be wonderful to see a great polyp or medusa wallowing in the Grand Canal. It is a sea city.

The first impression of Venice may also be one of the sea. Goethe saw the sea for the first time in his life when he came to the city in the autumn of 1786; he glimpsed the Adriatic from the arched window of the campanile in Saint Mark’s Square. Ruskin arrived in Venice some fifty-five years later and, in his autobiography, he writes that “the beginning of everything was in seeing the gondola-beak come actually inside the door at [the hotel] Danieli’s, when the tide was up, and the water two feet deep at the foot of the stairs.” To find the waves of the Adriatic lapping within the city—to find the sea changing the nature of the stone buildings all around him—that was the great enchantment. The moon rules Venice. It is built on ocean shells and ocean ground; it has the aspect of infinity. It is the floating world.

The sea embodies all that is changing and variable and accidental. It is the restless and wilful element. It emerges in endless variations of colour and surface pattern. The paintings of Titian and Tintoretto have been said to manifest a “sea” of light, in which shape is fluid and ambiguous; the Venetian school of painting has been characterised as one of flowing colour rather than of form and outline, a curvilinear impulse that creates its own weight and volume. All is in flux. You glimpse the movement of the sea in Venetian statuary as well as Venetian painting. The mosaics of the city favour the depiction of the various biblical legends of the sea. Thus in the basilica of Saint Mark’s can be found “The Miraculous Draught of Fishes,” “His Walking on the Water” and “The Stilling of the Tempest.” There are certain churches that might have risen out of Neptune’s kingdom. The church of the Gesuiti, or S. Maria Assunta, has a baroque interior in which great cascades of grey and green and white marble are supposed to imitate wall hangings. But they more closely resemble waves, waves flowing and crashing down the sides of the church until arrested in a moment of silence and stillness. The floor of green marble might have furnished some cave beneath the ocean, as rays of light penetrate the marine gloom of the interior.

The rhythmic intelligence of the Venetians has informed much of the architecture of the city. The oncoming sea changes the perception of structure along the Venetian canals, where the buildings seem more delicate and attenuated. The façades of the churches undulate, weightless and unstable, against the surface of the water like shells at the bottom of a rock pool on the seashore. The architecture of Venice is horizontal in mass, like the sea. From a distance, across the lagoon, the impression of the city is of flatness along the horizon. It is perpetually in motion. It is baroque and mannerist rather than classical; it shimmers, as if seen through water; it is encrusted with ornament like a coral reef.

Venetian craftsmen were well known for their work in satin, where the gleamings and shimmerings of a particular fabric were known as “watered silk.” To work in silk was known in Venice as dar’onda all’amuer, or to make waves on the sea. There is an especial type of Venetian risotto, more liquid than elsewhere, that is known as all’onda or with waves. A sponge found in the Aegean is known as enetikos or the Venetian. In the last century you could buy in the tourist shops of Venice small ornaments made from the pearl shells found in the Lido, known as fiori di mare or the flowers of the sea. They are the only flowers indigenous to Venice.

There are other deep correlations between place and spirit. Venetian society has been described as fluid and ever-changing. Of Venetian politics Sir Henry Wotton, the English ambassador to Venice in the early seventeenth century, said that it “fluctuated, like the element of which the city was built.” That is the reason why Venetian historiographers were intent upon emphasising the continuity and stability of their society. They were always aware of the motion and restlessness of the sea within Venetian polity. At the heart of la Serenissima was a horror of transience, like the Venetian sailor’s dread of the sea. As the Venetian poet of the late sixteenth century, Veronica Franco, put it, “the sea itself yearns towards this city.” This may be considered a compliment, as long as the sea does not come too close.

It has been said also that the character of the Venetian people is like the tide, six hours up and six hours down according to the proverb. In fact there is a dialect phrase that the Venetians use to describe themselves—andara alla deriva, to be adrift. The mobility and lightness of the Venetian temperament are well known. The Venetians themselves have songs and proverbs about the sea. Coltivar el mare e lasser star la terra—cultivate the sea and leave the land to itself. There were once many popular songs that opened with the same phrase, in mezo al mar. In the middle of the sea is—what? Not familiar things. Not beautiful things. In the middle of the sea, according to the songs, are strange presentiments and terrifying apparitions. Here is a smoking chimney coming out of the waves. Here is an image of a dead lover. There is no celebration of the charm or poignancy of the sea, but rather a recital of its perils and its strangeness.

There are many legends and superstitions of the sea within popular Venetian lore. It is a shifting city, between sea and land, and thus it becomes the home for liminal fantasies of death and rebirth. According to the English traveller, Fynes Morisson, there was a statue of the Virgin in Venice which was always saluted by passing ships; it was surrounded by wax candles, burning perpetually in gratitude for her saving lives at sea. It is said that the sharp prow of the Venetian gondola was a replica of the shining blade of one of the soldier saints, Saint Theodore. On the approach of a storm Venetian sailors would take up swords and place one against the other in the shape of a cross. It was also recommended that the sailor take out a knife with a black handle and cut the air in the face of the coming storm.

Yet the sea is an intimation of impermanence. All things come from, and dissolve into, the water. It is enveloping. There is no evidence that the Venetians ever really loved the sea. It was essentially the enemy. Byron declared that the Venetians did not know how to swim and were possessed by the fear “of deep or even of shallow water.” The Venetians always prided themselves on having “dominion” over the sea, but that mastery was provisional and fearful. There was a constant fear of inundation. Of course it was the path to wealth, but the consequence was that the preponderance of their trade and power was at the mercy of the sea. The sea represented evil and chaos. It was cruel, and it was also divisive. The terror of complete submersion could also be seen in part as a nervous apprehension of divine anger. That is why there were ceremonies designed to propitiate the god or gods of the water. They may have been nominally directed towards the Christian God, but there was an element of awe and fear within the Venetian state that derived from much older creeds.

The city guarded the water, too. In the ducal palace the seat of the Magistrato alle Acque, or Master of the Waters, was adorned by an inscription stating that “The city of Venice benefiting from divine Providence was founded in water surrounded by water with water for walls. Thus, whoever might dare in whatever way to bring injury to these waters must be judged enemy of his country …” It ended with the declaration that “this law has been reckoned eternal.”

Each spring, on Ascension Day, there was a ritual that became known as “the marriage to the sea”; the spouse was the doge of Venice taking for his bride the turbulent waters. After mass in Saint Mark’s the doge and his retinue rowed into the lagoon in the doge’s own boat, the Bucintoro, followed by the nobles and guilds of the city. The doge halted at the part of the Lido where the waters of the Adriatic and the lagoon meet. The patriarch of Venice then emptied a large flask of holy water into the mingling currents. The waters of the earth and the waters of the spirit became indivisible. The Bucintoro was described by Goethe as “a true monstrance,” which means the receptacle where the holy eucharist may be displayed. So it becomes a holy grail tossing upon the waters, spreading benediction with a ritual of healing.

On the prow of the ship the doge took a marriage ring of gold and threw it into the water with the words “We espouse thee, O sea, as a sign of true and perpetual dominion.” Yet what true dominion could there be in such a union? One of the attributes of the ring is fertility, so the festival can be construed as one of the oldest of all ceremonies. It might also have been an act of supplication, designed to placate the storm-tossed and minatory sea. It could also have been a maritime version of casting the runes; there is a long tradition of rings thrown into the sea as an act of divination. All these meanings converge in this ancient rite of union with the sea, performed in spring at that place where the “inside” and the “outside” embraced. At a later date one of the punishments for heresy was death by drowning, when the condemned were rowed out to sea and despatched into the waters. These maritime executions might in turn be seen as sacrifices to the sea-gods.

At the close of one of these Ascension ceremonies, in 1622, there was a violent earthquake in Venice. Just as the doge and his courtiers returned from their voyage of celebration, a slow and regular thunder beneath the earth lasted for several seconds. Everything trembled but nothing, apart from a chimney, fell. There have been other quakes in the lagoon. It is an unstable area in every sense. An earthquake is recorded in 1084, when the campanile of S. Angelo was dislodged. Towards the end of the twelfth century there were simultaneous upheavals in Saint Mark’s Square and on the island of Torcello, suggesting that there is a “fault” lying between them. There was a great earthquake on Christmas Day 1223, and then again in 1283 when the shock was followed by a great inundation. On 25 January 1384, another earthquake set all the church-bells of Venice pealing at the same time; it was followed by another shock on the following day, and these quakes were repeated at intervals over an entire fortnight. The Grand Canal was empty, but the streets were full of water.

The weather of Venice is sea-weather; the air is damp and salt-laden, conducive to fog and mist. If the climate is equable, that may in part be the position of Venice. Averroes, the twelfth-century philosopher, was the first to calculate that Venice was at a latitude of forty-five degrees, at the middle point between the equinoctial and the northern Pole. It is another example of the extraordinary balance of Venice between the geographical regions of the earth. The climate is mild, compared with much of North Italy, because it is environed by the sea. The spring is delicate and fresh, the energetic wind blowing from the Adriatic. The summer can be sultry and oppressive but, once the sun has gone down behind the Friulian mountains, the air is freshened by the breezes from the sea. The autumn is the true season for Venice. It has an autumnal air, the air of melancholy and departure. The Venetian painters, Carpaccio and Bellini, bathed their canvases in an effulgent autumnal light.

There is, especially in autumn, the possibility of rain. A subdued greyness then haunts the air, and the sky is the colour of pearl. The rain can be persistent and torrential. It soaks through the most protective clothing. It can be blinding. Then the rivers may burst their banks, and the rising waters around Venice turn to a jade green. The best description of the Venetian rain is found in Henry James’s The Wings of the Dove, where he describes “a Venice of cold lashing rain from a low black sky, of wicked wind raging through narrow passes, of general arrest and interruption, with the people engaged in all the water-life huddled, stranded and wageless.…” The city of water is blockaded by water, as if the natural elements were pursuing their vengeance against the most unnatural city.

The “wicked wind” may come from several points. An east wind blows in from the sea, refreshing in the warmer months but crueller in the colder seasons of the year. A wind from the north-east, the bora, brings the colder air from the northern region of the Adriatic. A humid wind comes from the lagoon, known as the salso because of its saltladen content. Some people say that it smells of the algae and seaweed of the surrounding waters. The salt and damp penetrate the houses of Venice; the paint flakes, and patches of plaster fall from the walls. The bricks crack and eventually crumble.

There are gusts of wind that pass very quickly, and eddies or squalls of circulating air. Sir Henry Wotton wrote of “flashing winds.” All this is of the nature of the sea. There is a south-westerly wind, too, once called garbin. It may be of this wind that Saint Bernardino of Siena wrote in 1427. He asked a correspondent, “Were you ever at Venice? Sometimes of an evening, there comes a little wind which goes over the face of the waves and makes a sound upon them, and this is called the voice of the waters. But what it signifies is the grace of God, and the breath breathed forth by Him.” Even the weather of Venice was once deemed sacred.

But the most celebrated wind is the scirocco, the warm wind that comes from the south-east and can persist for three or four days. There is a scirocco di levante and a scirocco di ponente, a hot scirocco and a cool scirocco; there is even an elusive wind called the scirocchetto. The sciroccoitself has been blamed for the Venetian tendency towards sensuality and indolence; it has been accused of instilling passivity and even effeminacy within the citizens. Why should people not be moulded as much by climate as by history and tradition? The outer weather can make or unmake inner weather.

Yet some weeks of the winter can be harsh, a potent reminder of the Alps and the northern snows. The most frequent weather lament concerned the bitter cold. In the winter of 1607–08 those who went fowling in the lagoon were on occasions frozen to death, and there were reports of travellers being surrounded and killed by packs of starving wolves. At the beginning of the eighteenth century came a famous “Year of the Ice” in which provisions were brought to the frozen city by sledge. In other winters the lagoon also froze, and the Venetians could walk over to the mainland. In 1788 great bonfires were lit on the Bacino, the basin of water in front of the piazzetta; stalls and booths were erected on the ice, in the Venetian equivalent of a Frost Fair. In 1863 great sheets of ice went up and down the Grand Canal, flowing with the tide, for a month. Venice was then truly the frozen world, the ice covering the houses and palaces as well as the water. The light was blinding. Venetian houses were not built for the cold; the great windows and the stone floors of the larger dwellings made them almost intolerable during the blizzards of winter. Yet there is still something inexpressibly delightful about Venice in the snow, the whiteness creating an enchanted kingdom where what is fluid has become crystal; the quiet city then becomes wholly silent beneath the panoply of snow.

But there are winter weeks of not quite snow and not quite rain. These may become the weeks or days of fog. The iridescent mist or haze is then enveloped by the myriad fogs that creep in from the sea. The grey Istrian stone becomes an outpost of the fog, a sentinel of consolidated fog looming out of the gloom. As the Esquimaux have many words for ice, so the Venetians have many names for the fog—nebbia, nebbietta, foschia, caligo. In the midst of the nebbia, it is as if heavy rain-clouds had come to rest upon the earth and water. Nothing can be seen or heard. The fog sometimes shrouds the city so that the only sounds are those of bells and muffled footsteps; if you take the vaporetto, or water-bus, that goes around the city you disappear within the white curtain about fifty yards (about 45 m) from the shore; all that is visible of Venice are the posts carrying lights. The city only rises before you when you arrive at the next stage.

There are portents for flood. The air becomes heavy and still; the roar of the sea can be heard breaking against the Lido. The waters in the canals stir uneasily, and become more green with the influx of the sea. The tide is driven forward by the wind. The water rises to the edge of the fondamenta but then, more alarmingly, it begins to well up beneath the city itself. It spouts up through the storm drains and between the paving stones; it seeps through the foundations, rising higher and higher; it washes against the marble steps of the churches. The city is at the mercy of waves that seem to be of its own making. When the sirens sound, Venice prepares for another acqua alta.

This high water, flooding the fondamenta and the campi, making a lake of Saint Mark’s Square, invading houses and hotels, is not unusual in the city. One chronicler gave an account of a great flood in 589, although assuredly there were many before that date. They may have been so common that they deserved little notice. Other floods are recorded in 782 and in 885, when water invaded the entire city. They have been occurring ever since. In 1250 the water rose steadily for four hours and, in the testimony of a contemporary, “many were drowned in their houses or died of the cold.” It was believed that the floods were provoked by demons and bad spirits, while the only protection lay in invocations to the saints who guarded Venice. At a later date there was less recourse to supernatural help. In 1732 the area of the piazzetta, facing the lagoon, was raised by one foot (0.3 m) on a calculation that the sea at Venice rose three inches (76 mm) in every century. This was an underestimate.

The acqua alta is part of a natural cycle, occurring when wind and tide and current converge in what is for Venice a fatal embrace; the bora and the scirocco can both cause surges of storm in the sea. There is also the phenomenon of the seiche, an oscillation or standing wave in the relatively shallow waters of the Adriatic. But if Venice is sinking, it is in some measure due to the removal of water by industry from artesian wells. When the water was taken from the silt and the clay, the water table was lowered—and, with it, Venice. The deepening of waterways within the lagoon, and the reclamation of marsh-land, have also increased the danger of flooding.

There are several inundations in every century, therefore, but in recent years they have been increasing in size and frequency. In the 1920s there were 385; in the 1990s there were 2,464. In November 1966, the flood reached a height of six feet four and a half inches (1.94 m). The sciroccoblew for two days, keeping the murky and polluted water locked within the lagoon. At the time some believed that it would mean the death of Venice.

When the rain came, it was collected within the stone gutters of the churches and houses; it ran through the pipes and then through conduits until it reached the underground cisterns beneath every campo. There the water filtered through a body of sand before penetrating the well shaft. It was fresh and pure. The wells, or pozzi, were ubiquitous. At the middle of the nineteenth century there were still 6,782 remaining in the city, Byzantine or Gothic in construction. An immense well was sunk in the fifteenth century, in the middle of Saint Mark’s Square. Two great public cisterns were built in the courtyard of the ducal palace, from where the water-carriers or bigolanti would carry their precious commodity. They were the peasant women of the Friuli, who wore bright skirts, white stockings and hats of straw or felt; they wandered barefoot through Venice, with their copper buckets, calling out “acqua—acqua fresca.” It was a mournful, as well as a melodious, cry.

For a city built upon water, water itself was sacred. It is what in the gospel of John is called “living water.” The well-heads themselves were highly decorated as a symbol of their significant content. They were embellished by fragments of altars, pieces of religious statuary, and the stones of ancient temples, as a token of their spiritual presence. There were accounts of miracles being performed by or beside the wells. In the plague of 1464 a monk was saved from extinction by a cup of water drawn for him by a knight from a local well. The knight was later identified as Saint Sebastian and, from that time forward, the pozzo became known as Saint Sebastian’s Well. Water is holy. The Byzantine well-heads were sculpted with a range of religious symbols, including the cross and the palm tree; they were cylinders of marble, that might have been glimpsed in any eastern city. The Gothic wellheads, which resembled the capitals of great pillars, displayed figures both naturalistic and grotesque. Yet the wells often ran dry. Venice, on water, was often in need of water. After storms the wells were marred by salt water. It was a general practice for boats to be despatched to the rivers Bottenigo and Brenta in order to pick up fresh supplies. Towards the end of the nineteenth century artesian wells were established on the mainland to guarantee a more bounteous flow.

Water was the staple of life, and so the wells became central to the social routine of each parish. The iron lid that closed the mouth of each well was opened at eight in the morning, so there were always knots of people beside it during the day. It is the most common view in photographs of “old” Venice. The well defined the intimacy and density of the parish. Water has always been the great unifier and leveller, and in many respects Venice was considered to be an egalitarian city. The well was a symbol of public beneficence, a visible token of the wise stewardship of the city.

But of course water is the life and breath of Venice’s being in quite another sense. Venice is like a hydropic body filled with water, where each part is penetrated by another. Water is the sole means of public transport. It is a miracle of fluid life. Everything in Venice is to be seen in relation to its watery form. The water enters the life of the people. They are “fluid”; they seem to resist clarity and precision. When the more affluent Venetians built villas on the mainland, they always chose sites as close as possible to the River Brenta. The Venetian painter, Tintoretto, loved to depict flowing and gushing water; it expressed something of his own spirit. In the work of Giorgione, and of his Venetian school, there are constant allusions to fresh and running water, to wells and pools and lakes. In myth and folklore water has always been associated with eyes, and with the healing of eyes. Is it any wonder, then, that Venice is the most visually seductive of all the cities of the world?

The endless presence of water also breeds anxiety. Water is unsettling. You must be more alert and watchful in your perambulations. Everything shifts. There is a sense of otherness. The often black or viscous dark green water looks cold. It cannot be drunk. It is shapeless. It has depth but no mass. As the Venetian proverb states, “water carries no stains.” This formless water has therefore been used as a metaphor for the human unconscious. In his essay, “The Visions of Zosimos,” Carl Jung relates that the spirit is hidden in water like the fish. Venice has been depicted as a fish. This wondrous water, infused with spirit, represents the cycle of birth and death. But if water is the image of the unconscious life, it thereby harbours strange visions and desires. The close affiliation of Venice and water encourages sexual desire; it has been said to loosen the muscles, by human imitation of its flow, and to enervate the blood.

Yet Venice reflects upon its own reflection in the water. It has been locked in that deep gaze for many centuries. So there has been a continuing association between Venice and the mirror. It was the first city to manufacture mirrors on a commercial scale, and by the seventeenth century was fashioning the largest mirrors in the world. The plate glass for mirrors had been created by the end of the fifteenth century. Two of the greatest of all Venetian artists, Giovanni Bellini and Titian, painted young women in the act of gazing at themselves in a mirror. In both of the paintings there is a mirror poised behind the head, and one raised towards the face. The date of both paintings has been given as 1515, only eight years after the government of Venice licensed the making of mirrors on the island of Murano. The artists were publicising Venetian commodities or, rather, they shared the Venetian preoccupation with luxury goods. Yet at the same time they were contemplating in painterly terms the contrast between the true surface and the glassy surface, a duality of which they were well aware in the world all around them. The young woman might have been Venice herself, sitting and admiring rather pensively her own reflection.

The image in the mirror may in some sense be a guarantee of identity and of wholeness. The root of narcissism lies in anxiety, and the fear of fragmentation, which may be assuaged by the sight of the reflection. The Virgin Mary, in the Book of Wisdom, is lauded as “a spotless mirror of God”; Venice always associated itself with the Virgin. But of course the image in the mirror is a false self; it is hard, abstract and elusive. It has been said that the Venetians are always aware of the image of themselves. They were once masters of the display and the masquerade. They were always acting. One of the favourite pastimes of Venetian audiences in the eighteenth century was the use of opera glasses trained upon each other.

It is a place of doubleness, and perhaps therefore of duplicity and double standards. Travelling on the newly built railway Richard Wagner was intent upon “looking down from the causeway at the image of Venice rising reflected from the waters beneath,” when his companion “suddenly lost his hat out of the railway car window when leaning out in delight.” The reflection is delightful because it seems to be as substantial and as lively as that which is reflected. When you look down upon the water, Venice seems to have no foundations except for reflections. Only its reflections are visible. Venice and Venice’s image are inseparable.

In truth there are two cities, which exist only in the act of being seen.

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