The last stop on my Europe ’22 tour brought me back to Venice, where I sang my blue humanities song to the very lively students and community at NiCHE, the New Institute Centre for the Environmental Humanities at Ca’ Foscari University that my fellow Shakespearean Shaul Bassi has been deeply involved with since its founding. It was great to see Shaul again and co-conspire about future watery possibilities. I also loved meeting Francesca Tarocco, the director of the program, as well as a pair of marine biologists from Cal Tech who were there to present their research about symbiosis in a small squid-like creature that lives in the Pacific. (Similar creatures, they assured me, are also present in the Mediterranean.) We all had lunch together at the Ca’ Foscari café, and the conversation reminded me how much I enjoy the company of marine scientists. Lots of people love the water!
Giving my talk, which relies on what feels now like a familiar contrast between green terrestrial ideas and blue watery dynamism, I felt a twinge of uncertainty. What is Venice, after all, but a human environment built on the refusal of the distinction between land and sea? Walking through the city’s narrow alleys and crossing water over its curving bridges, I kept noticing moments of intersection that challenge any simple contrast between the blue and the green. It’s not just that the water of Venice’s canals is itself green, as green is also the color that Shakespeare most often uses to describe the sea. More than that, It’s the portal-like qualities of so many points of access in the city – steps that lead directly down into the canal, or small framed doorways that open from buildings straight onto water. One noticeable opening framed, at this time of year at least, a lovely Christmas tree. ‘Tis the season to be … close to water?
So much has been written about Venice’s paradoxical history, its function as gateway between Europe and the Ottoman Empire and Byzantium, its ongoing struggle with high water, even its modern function as a center of experimental contemporary art. The last time I visited, in November, I saw Anselm Keifer’s overwhelmingly brilliant installation at the Palazzo Ducale. Beyond the genius of the art itself, I was amazed by the willingness of Venice to give over two of the galleries inside its Renaissance palace to a contemporary figure whose aggression and iconoclasm contrast sharply with the allegorical celebrations of the city that populate the palace. But thinking again about it as I wandered the bridges, alleys, and campos of Venice, I wonder if the city’s combination of ancient and modern, which in the Ducal Palace mean combining the gorgeous allegories of Tintoretto and Veronese alongside Keifer’s towering but opaque symbolic register, might indicate a kind of belief in itself. The juxtaposition seems to say – we’ve been doing allegorical art that celebrates a floating city for centuries. The city’s wet feet speak of perpetual evanescence, a way of living in constant contact with dynamism and dissolution. I had not been to Venice in more than 30 years since this fall. Now I’ve been twice in two months. And I can’t wait to go back!
It would take a lifetime, or perhaps generations, to know Venice. I spent my few December days wandering through an idiosyncratic lineup of places, including the soccer stadium on the far end of the island, the Naval Museum, the statue of the Monument to the Partisan Woman that lies prone in the water near the edge of the Biennale Garden, the currently-empty Ocean Space gallery which was formerly the church of San Lorenzo, and the lovely Querini Stampalia, a small museum near my hotel in the Campo Santa Maria Formosa. What has it felt like to live so close to water for so long? What does Venice mean, in time and in tempest?
In addition to a toy gondola for my nephew, I’m taking away the hitideVenice app, which gives me a daily read of the ebbs and floods of the city’s fluid substrate. It’ll be reassuring, as I think about the city from far-away Connecticut or elsewhere, to be able to open the app and see what that water’s up to.
I’m looking forward to my next visit already!