Sunday, January 3, 2010

The Weight of Venice

This vacation presented a heavy contrast: the historical splendor of Venice, the lively lovely mountain culture of Slovenia. I found our transition to the mountains a tremendous relief, and just as I was mulling over why that might be, I came across the following passage from one of Rainer Maria Rilke's letters. Though it's about Rome, and written over one hundred years ago, this idea of the "tiny present" living on the relic of a vast past expresses some of the weight I felt in visiting Venice, a city now fighting its own floodwaters mainly for the sake of tourism.

"In addition, Rome (if one has not yet become acquainted with it) makes one feel stifled with sadness for the first few days: through the gloomy and lifeless museum-atmosphere that it exhales, through the abundance of its pasts, which are brought forth and laboriously held up (pasts on which a tiny present subsists), through the terrible overvaluing, sustained by scholars and philologists and imitated by the ordinary tourist in Italy, of all these disfigured and decaying Things, which, after all, are essentially nothing more than the accidental remains from another time and from a life that is not and should not be ours."

Yet I don't want to say Venice is a dead city, or that I didn't find it magical when the sun hit the reds and oranges of the lanes and the gondolas bobbed over their mirror images in the water. But it was strange living for five days in a city most tourists visit only for one or two, taking photos in a line of cameras, realizing that a gondola ride is now a hundred dollar affair instead of a means of transportation. The tales of history I read in Jan Morris's Venice stayed with me as we explored, reminding me of a Venice that once ruled an empire instead of an industry.

Rilke eventually found his beauty in Rome, but he had to shake away history first.

"...but there is much beauty here, because everywhere there is much beauty. Waters infinitely full of life move along the ancient aqueducts into the great city and dance in the many city squares over white basins of stone and spread out in large, spacious pools and murmur by day and lift up their murmuring to the night, which is vast here and starry and soft with winds."

In Venice, the night is full of high water and sirens, but soft light and kind citizens hold up the weight of history as best they can.


Anonymous said...

another six stars out of 4

Brett said...