Venice: Reflecting on a Reflection

Imagine viewing a portrait of a uniquely beautiful person. The model is nude, hiding nothing, displaying supple skin and curls of hair that play with the light. As your eyes move from one quadrant to another, the shadows also move, revealing new details — when did those cracks appear near the eyes and mouth? Looking closer, you discover areas around the face and neck where a conservator tried to cover up damage and you realize: What was visible at the start of this encounter was an illusion. It’s still pleasing to look at, still arresting, but when did this painting begin… showing its age?

St. Mark’s Bell Tower 1902

This is what it’s like looking everywhere in Venice, Italy. Sure, craftsmen constantly repair and replace the Byzantine facades and triumphal monuments. The bell tower of St. Mark’s Basilica still looks like it did in 1514, even though it collapsed in 1902. The stone walls and walkways lack any sign of occupation by Napoleon’s and Hitler’s armies. But rising sea levels scoff at all this restoration. As I write this, I’m looking at a 2019 video of tourists wading knee-deep through an acqua alta. It looks bad, but other cities recover from floods, right? Well, not if they’re sitting on seawater. Engineers managed to keep the floods away for two years now, but not the corrosion; scratch a brick wall or ceiling timber and you’ll find salt crystals. The moment brine first seeped into her bones, the Queen of the Adriatic was doomed.

St. Mark’s Square (1966)

That is, unless you count all the other times doom came, and stayed — all the way back to the Roman refugee who, fleeing barbarians, drove that first timber into the muddy lagoon a thousand years ago. Venezia has been dying longer than perhaps any other city.

This is why artists and photographers anxiously try to capture her canals, bridges, and cathedrals. And even some tourists will admit they’re here to “see it before there’s nothing left to see.” But longtime pursuers of beauty know it takes two for an object to exist — something hard to grasp when you’re rushing across the Bridge of Sighs with your tour group. Only those who sit, and listen, might hear the walls whisper what I thought I heard last time I visited:

Go ahead, gawk as I slowly sink and my population shrinks. I’m aware the cost of preserving my centuries-old glory keeps going up. And, yes, the day will come when I won’t be worth saving anymore. Until then, watch, record each moment, and understand that fading beauty is a truth not perceived but missed. And what you’re missing is the mirror I’ve been holding up for you.

If you hear this, and the sting is too much to bear, you’ll be more than just a traveler. You’ll suffer the eternal disquiet of a conoscitore. Look for me in a nearby café. I’ll be ordering grappa which we can both drink in silence.

Bridge of Sighs

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