Monday, June 18, 2012

The Scent of Paradise, or Days of Dead Saints

You can't photograph a fragrance, but I hope this suggests the proportion of scent to sight in Venice these days
The problem with stealing the body of a saint, the legends tell us, is the smell. For the body of a saint reeks of flowers, of sanctified springtime, of paradise.

Which makes me wonder if, during those centuries when the market in relics flourished throughout Europe, a few vain wealthy irreverent folks didn't use a spare finger bone or toe from a minor saint as a sachet in their lingerie drawer.

In any case, along with all the other challenges faced by the two intrepid Venetian thieves of the body of St Mark from Alexandria, the problem of how to transport their fragrant prize to their waiting boat must have been one of the more vexing.

I find myself thinking of this all the time these days when the entire eastern end of Venice, from Via Garibaldi to the church of Sant' Elena is like--well,  like one vast cemetery of saints.

There have been flowers everywhere you look around here since at least April: blazing on window ledges and concealing entire balconies behind their blooms as behind cascades of silk damask; altane and terraze draped in the regal purple of wisteria; and various trees and bushes and flowerbeds (acacia, camelia, tulips, respectively) and I don't know what else. All of which were predominantly visual experiences.

In June, even in this most visually captivating of cities, the sense of smell comes into its own. If the sights of the city ever prove too much for you, you can always close your eyes. Short of becoming a mouth breather--and how unpleasant that can be--there's no escape from the floral barrage of June: of lindens (dozens of them lining Via 4 Novembre in Sant' Elena alone) and the long fence of what my Italian neighbor calls "false jasmine" (and I have no name for) running the full length of the Giardini Pubblici.

It really is what we are told paradise must be like: an unchanging all-pervasive atmosphere of sweetness. The rarest and most precious of enduring otherworldly atmospheres: the very atmosphere, in fact, that the old Byzantine artists sought to evoke with vast fields of gold in the great mosaics of Torcello, San Marco, and Murano's Basilica dei Santi Maria e Donato.

The greenery of eastern Castello seems to bring this otherworldiness into being without the least effort, and not even the flowering almond orchards of my boyhood spread so much scent over so vast an area so unrelentingly.

Ever since last June when I first experienced the eastern end of Venice in full olfactory bloom, I've looked forward to experiencing it again. And now that it's here again, and I've lived in it for two weeks, I'm reminded by my allergies that we pay for our paradises in one way or another. At least in this world.

There's only so much uninterrupted sensation--however glorious--we can bear.

Then it's time for the next thing in our turning world.  


  1. I've never been to Venice in summer - trying to avoid the heat and the crowds. This makes me want to experience it at least once!

    1. The heat and especially the crowds are very good things to avoid but, well, though there are better & worse times to be here, there's no truly bad time. The other good things about June are the feste, such as Giovanni in Bragora and San Piero de Casteo...