Venice Is a Fish
A Sensual Guide
One of Italy’s brightest literary lights reinvents travel writing with a seductive, intoxicating celebration of the magical saltwater city
“Venice is a fish,” writes Tiziano Scarpa. “It’s like a vast sole stretched out against the deep. How did this marvelous beast make its way up the Adriatic and fetch up here, of all places?” Paying homage to his native city in a lyrical and evocative style, he guides readers down tiny alleys, over bridges, and through squares, daring us to lose ourselves, forget the guidebooks, and experience Venice as Venetians do.
Venice Is a Fish provides no hotel ratings or museum hours. Instead, in a delightful initiation, Scarpa tells us how to balance while standing on a gondola; where lovers will find the best secret hiding places; the finer points of etiquette and navigation during an agua alta; and how best to defend ourselves from the pitiless beauty of one of the world’s most stimulating cities. Open Venice Is a Fish, and Scarpa’s magnificent images, secret history, and hidden lore unfold like a treasure map of the senses.
One of Italy's brightest literary lights reinvents travel writing with a seductive, intoxicating celebration of the magical saltwater city "Venice is a fish," writes Tiziano Scarpa. "It's like a vast sole stretched out against the deep. How did this marvelous beast make its way up the Adriatic and fetch up here, of all places?"
Paying homage to his native city in a lyrical and evocative style, Venice Is A Fish: A Sensual Guide by Tiziano Scarpa guides readers down tiny alleys, over bridges, and through squares, daring us to lose ourselves, forget the guidebooks, and experience Venice as Venetians do.
Venice Is A Fish provides no hotel ratings or museum hours. Instead, in a delightful initiation, Scarpa tells us how to balance while standing on a gondola; where lovers will find the best secret hiding places; the finer points of etiquette and navigation during a auga alta; and how to best defend ourselves from the pitiless beauty of one of the world's most stimulating cities. Open Venice Is A Fish, and Scarpa's magnificent images, secret history and hidden lore unfold like a treasure map of the senses.
On the map, the bridge connecting it to terra firma looks like a fishing-line: Venice looks as if it's swallowed the bait. It's doubly bound: a steel platform and a strip of tarmac; but that happened afterwards, just a century ago. We were worried that Venice might one day change its mind and go off travelling again; we fastened it to the lagoon so that it wouldn't suddenly get it into its head to weigh anchor and leave, this time forever. We tell everyone else we did it for its own protection, because after all those years in its moorings, it's lost the knack of swimming: it would be caught straight away, it would end up on some Japanese whaling ship, or on display in a Disneyland aquarium. The truth is that we can no longer do without it. We're jealous. And even sadistic and violent, when it comes to keeping someone we love. We've done something worse than tying it to terra firma: we've literally nailed it to the sea bed.
In a novel by Bohumil Hrabal there's a child who's obsessed with nails. He constantly hammers them into the floor: at home, in a hotel, when visiting other people's houses. All the parquet floors that come within his reach are hammered away at from dawn till dusk. As though the child wanted to fix the houses to the ground, as a way of feeling more secure. Venice is made just like that; except that the nails are made not of iron but of wood, and they're enormous, between two and ten metres in length, with a diameter of twenty or thirty centimetres. They're planted in the slime of the seabed.
These buildings that you see, the marble palazzi, the brick houses, couldn't have been built on water, they would have sunk into the mud. How do you lay solid foundations on slime? The Venetians thrust hundreds of thousands, millions of poles into the lagoon. Underneath the Basilica della Salute there are at least a hundred thousand; and also at the feet of the Rialto Bridge, to support the thrust of the stone arch. St Mark's Basilica rests on big oaken rafts, supported by elm-wood stilts. The trunks were floated down to the lagoon along the River Piave, from the Selva di Cadore on the slopes of the Venetian Alps. There are larches, elms, alders, pines and oaks. La Serenissima was very shrewd, she always kept a close eye on her wooden possessions; the forests were protected by laws of draconian severity.
Upside-down trees, hammered in with a kind of anvil hoisted on pulleys. I had the chance to see them as a child: I heard the songs of the pile-drivers, sung to the rhythm of the slow and powerful percussion of those cylindrical mallets suspended in the air, running on vertical rails, slowly rising and then crashing back down again. The trunks are mineralised precisely because of the mud, which has wrapped them in its protective sheath, preventing them from rotting in contact with oxygen: breathless for centuries, the wood has been turned almost to stone.
You're walking on a vast upside-down forest, strolling above an incredible inverted wood. It's like something dreamed up by a mediocre science-fiction writer, and yet it's true. Let me tell you what happens to your body in Venice, starting with your feet.
Venice is a tortoise: its stone shell is made of grey trachite boulders (maségni in Venetian), which pave the streets. All the stone comes from elsewhere: as Paolo Barbaro has written, almost everything you see in Venice comes from somewhere else, it's been imported or traded, if not actually plundered. The surface you are treading on is smooth, although many of the stones have been beaten with a small milled hammer to keep you from slipping when it rains.
Where are you going? Throw away your map! Why do you so desperately need to know where you are right now? OK: in all cities, in the commercial centres, at bus stops or underground stations, you're used to having signs that hold you by the hand; there's almost always a big map with a coloured dot, an arrow to bellow at you, 'You are here'. In Venice, too, you need only look up to see lots of yellow signs with arrows telling you: you've got to go this way, don't get confused, To the Railway Station, To San Marco, To the Accademia. Forget it, just ignore them. Why fight the labyrinth? Follow it, for once. Don't worry, let the streets decide your journey for you, rather than the other way round. Learn to wander, to dawdle. Lose your bearings. Just drift.
Do what we call 'acting Venetian': after the war the phrase alluded to our football team, 'doing the Venetian', 'doing a Venice'. Our footballers had an exasperating, selfish style of play, always with the ball at their feet, loads of dribbling and hardly any passing, a limited vision of the game. Of course they did: they'd grown up in that varicose whirlpool of alleyways, little streets, sharp turns, bottlenecks. So obviously, even when they took to the field in shorts and jerseys, they went on seeing calli and campielli — streets and squares — everywhere, and struggled to disentangle themselves from a private labyrinthine hallucination between the midfield and the penalty area.
Imagine you're a red blood cell running along some veins: you follow the heartbeat, you allow yourself to be pumped by that invisible heart. Or else you're a mouthful of food being carried along by the intestine: the oesophagus of an extremely narrow calle squeezes you between brick walls until they are practically grinding you, then pushes you out, sends you slipping through the valve of a bridge that flows to the other side of the water and deposits you in a wide stomach, a campo from which you can't continue without first having paused for a while, forced to stop because the façade of a church holds you back, chemically transforms you to your very depths, digests you.
The first and only itinerary I suggest to you has a name. It's called: at random. Subtitle: aimlessly. Venice is small, you can afford to get lost without ever really leaving it. At the very worst, you'll always end up at the water's edge, looking out over the lagoon. There is no Minotaur in this labyrinth, no aquatic monster waiting to devour its victims. An American friend of mine came to Venice for the first time one winter night. She couldn't find her hotel, and with mounting anxiety she roamed the whole of the deserted city, clutching a pointless piece of paper bearing its address. The more minutes that passed, the more convinced she became that she was bound to be raped. She was astonished to have spent three hours in a strange city without being attacked, without anybody running off with her luggage. This was a girl from Los Angeles! Keep an eye out for pickpockets, particularly around St Mark's Square, and on crowded jetties. If you can't find your way you'll always meet a Venetian who'll be happy to show you how to double back. That is, if you really want to.
Getting lost is the only place worth going to.
You can wander confidently around, anywhere, at any hour of the day or night. There are no rough parts of town, or rather there aren't any left: the only possible nuisance might be the occasional drunk. Incidentally, start familiarising yourself with the words of Venice: the districts aren't called quartieri, as in other Italian cities, but sestieri, because there are six rather than four districts in the historic centre: each one of them is a sixth of Venice, not a quarter like the four groups of buildings that form in cities thrown up at the crossing of two major roads, in the four slices of earth cut by a crossroads. Santa Croce, Cannaregio, Dorsoduro, San Polo, San Marco, Castello. The house numbers on the doorposts don't start at 1 on each street, but continue to count the whole sestiere. The sestier de Castello reaches the record number of 6828, in Fondamenta Dandolo, at the foot of the Ponte Rosso. On the other side of the same bridge, at the end of Calle delle Erbe, the sestier de Cannaregio begins, with its quota of 6426.
The paving stones are set one behind the other, in long segmented lines. They mark the direction of the calli, emphasising their lines of perspective. The city planners clearly designed them especially for children, who like to walk without standing on the dividing lines between one stone and the next. 'Don't cross the line!' said Salvador Dalí, summing up the compositional laws of his painting, so formally reactionary, and so insane in the content of its vision. Did being a child in Venice mean getting used to not crossing the lines, respecting the outlines of forms, while upsetting their contents? Do Venetian feet pretend to bow to the status quo while at the same time giving it a visionary distortion? Do we have dazed big toes, elated heels? Look at how much surrealist delirium, what an absurd, oneiric city we have managed to produce by insanely arranging a billion perfectly perpendicular parallelepipeds! Each maségno is an emblem, reproducing in miniature the whole of Venice, a city stuffed into its own outline, inexorably segregated from the water, prevented from expanding, from going beyond itself, driven mad by too much meditation, too much introspection. Look how many churches you come across with every step you take. A city that is seemingly pious, in fact theologically anarchic, devoted to a plethora of major and minor saints, adherents of an exploded, disseminated, utterly lunatic religion. Each maségno is a coat of arms without heraldic figures, a blazon consisting solely of a grey background, a blank slate, obtuse, unmarked: the only design on this vacant escutcheon is its perimeter. But tread on them, the rows of maségni: you'll notice the differences in height (a few millimetres only) through the soles of your feet. One French gentleman walked on them as a child and remembered them for the rest of his life.
On the twenty-first of November, the feast of the Madonna della Salute, place yourself at the exact centre of the octagonal church, beneath the lead chandelier that plunges tens of metres from the dome; drag the sole of your foot across the bronze disc set into the floor, as tradition decrees, touch with the tip of your shoe the words unde origo inde salus cast into the metal: from the origin comes salvation, the origin is the earth, walking on it brings you luck, does you good; salvation rises up from the feet. You should learn to make the sign of the devil with your toes, to discharge the gesture into the earth, letting it run the whole length of your body.
Apart from the inevitable mess left by man's best friend, it's only at the Zattere, in the springtime, that you need to watch where you put your feet: some Venetians go there to fish at night, using lamps and torches to attract enamoured cuttlefish and catch them in a kind of big butterfly net. From the bottom of their buckets, the captured cuttlefish catch you unawares by spurting ink on to the stones of the shore, staining socks and trousers.
Feel how your toes turn prehensile on the steps of the bridges, clutching at worn or squared edges as you climb; your soles brake you on the way down, your heels halt you. Wear light shoes, soft-soled, not post-punk boots or trainers with rubbery air-pockets, no spongy inner padding. I suggest this spiritual exercise: become a foot.
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