Saturday, April 18, 2015

A Venice Apartment to Die For, Part 2: A Home Among the Long Gone

Like ancient underground frescoes, shuttered shops like this serve as traces of vanished Venetian life
In blatant contradiction to what each of the following commonly-used phrases suggests, being swept along by passion, or carried away by desire, usually ends up involving one in a lot of really hard work. 

In Death in Venice, Gustav Aschenbach trudges ever more wearily, ever more futilely, through the maze of Venice's calli in pursuit of his beloved--through infernal summer heat and stench and, finally, the fever that signals his imminent death. 

In our "dream" Venetian apartment near Campo San Tomà, Jen and I labored just as misguidedly as poor old Aschenbach, struggling, like him, to realize our own elusive vision of beauty, in spite of all the concrete obstacles we found in our path. For the first month of our lease we didn't even try to live in (much less enjoy) our new apartment, it was too big a mess. We only cleaned. And cleaned. And cleaned some more.

I've already mentioned some of the countless broken appliances and electronics we found, but there was also a storehouse's worth of broken furniture (for example, half of the six 19th-century dining room chairs turned out to lack part of a leg), and a library's worth of old books. Now, old books are one of my weaknesses, but even I have my limits.

Like the upholstered furniture, the books had once been beautiful things (about 40 years ago)--and in so far as their content could be disembodied from their pages in the act of reading, they still were. But they were all so dust-mite-infested that I couldn't stay close enough to them to read their covers, much less their contents, without my skin and eyes starting to itch, my sinuses swelling and closing up.

And though there were built-in book shelves along one wall of the apartment's good-sized entry, most of what added up to a rather extensive library was squirreled away inside the large nearly floor-to-ceiling custom-built armadi (or cabinets) that appeared in nearly every room, in lieu of the built-in closets that no Venetian apartment has. (And for good reason, as a built-in closet in damp Venice would be a breeding bed of mold.)

Alas, these were not Cabinets of Wonder, but of Dander--or at least dust. Each door of every cabinet in the apartment required a skeleton key to open. And just as the ancient Egyptian tombs of the pharaohs are said to have released deadly fungal spores upon being pried open, so each of these cabinet doors seemed to exhale something foul and unhealthy from their own ancient contents: which typically included not just old ill-kept books, but also fusty wool blankets: enough for a pharaoh's army, and from about the same era.

Perhaps after reading this, Dear Reader, you won't be surprised to learn that the apartment--beautiful as its layout and moldings and paneling and pavimento veneziano and hand-blown Venini hallway lamp and views were--just plain stunk. As a flophouse would, or one of Dickens's dosshouses.

Yet, like Venice itself, what a feast for the eyes the apartment was! And for the imagination! Everyone who saw it thought so, even the perspicacious and trustworthy landlord of our first (and now again current) Venice apartment: he who'd had a long career over-seeing reconstruction projects for Venice and other comuni

We all believed it to be merely a matter of having the landlady's people haul off all the garbage (boatloads of it), repair the broken furniture, install new appliances, fix the water lines, etc. And of Jen and I cleaning--deeply, exhaustively cleaning--what was left.

For all of February the entryway and long hallway of the apartment was cluttered with things to be hauled off or repaired. It seemed every day, and each new cabinet opened, revealed more of them. And as often as we could that month we cleaned, for hours at a time.

I quite literally cleaned with soap and water and a sponge (then dried with cloths) every single millimeter of the apartment that was not painted plaster: all of the many massive armadi--inside and out, top and bottom, front and back and sides, every single surface without exception--and all the paneled walls.

As cleaning the inside of just one armadio would turn the soapy water in my bucket black and silty, you can imagine what the water was like when I cleaned the outside of them. Or when I tackled the greasy tiles of the kitchen. 

And at the end of each bout of intensive cleaning, without exception, Jen and I would return to our old apartment far from the historic center with bright red faces and necks that burned and stung and glowed crimson like fresh 3rd-degree sun burns.

We wore long rubber gloves and bought special protective masks to wear over our mouths and noses, to try to filter the air we breathed as we cleaned. They made no difference. 

It was miserable, it was madness, but such labor was, we believed, the only way to rid the apartment of the very allergens that were plaguing us, and the long built-up filth that made its air so heavy and unpleasant.

Remember, too, as you read this, that we were laboring in, and on behalf of, what we thought would be our home for the next 4 or 8 years. Maybe more. Trying to realize, or reclaim for ourselves the kind of Venetian apartment that it has now become almost impossible for permanent Venetian residents--as opposed to tourists or transitory inhabitants of no more than one year--to rent. (As I explained in a recent post:

Like no other experience I've had in the more than four years we've lived here, this one with this San Tomà apartment underscored the fact that in most ways the very features that people have long identified as essentially or distinctly Venice--its characteristic edifices and apartments and neighborhoods--now exist ever more completely and solely for the benefit and enjoyment of non-residents.

So we worked hard in the knowledge that this was probably our only chance to rent an apartment like this.

But, more broadly, I wonder if we didn't also work so hard in an attempt to deny another fact about the city that our apartment search had kept thrusting before our eyes. The fact that most of those very areas that strike the camera-toting tourist as the epitome of charming picturesque Venetian-ness, can't help but strike the resident as being almost as sterile and empty as if a neutron bomb had been detonated there, leaving the buildings intact but obliterating nearly all Venetian (or residential) life.

I'm talking about those picturesque areas through which tourists stump like zombies, looking for something to consume, and residents flit like ghosts, lacking what would once have been the foundations of their daily lives.... 

Those depopulated neighborhoods with their vacant shops, the faded letters above shuttered windows (or, just as vacantly, above cheap masks and tchotchkes) attesting dimly to the life once there-- panificio, macelleria, latteria [bakery, butcher, dairy]--as traces of frescoes on underground walls attest to civilizations long gone....

As a pubescent Polish boy came to seem to the love-struck and ever-more-feverish Gustav Aschenbach to be a portal to ancient Greece and archaic ideals of beauty, so, perhaps, the dirty San Tomà apartment seemed to me a way to reconnect with a much more recent past. Not the Venice of 300 or 400 years ago, but simply that of, say, 40 years ago: when the population of the city still was above 100,000, when tourists weren't ever likely to outnumber residents on any given day around San Marco or Rialto by the astounding proportion of 600 to 1 (a figure provided in a recent CNN piece here), and when the best of the city's apartments weren't reserved for the invading multitudes.

You could almost feel that old elegant Venice all around you when you stood in the San Tomà apartment--if you held your breath and ignored the irritated tingling of your skin, or had the windows wide open in spite of the winter cold. It was within our reach if we worked hard enough...

Wrong from the start, as a famous past resident of Venice (with reprehensible racial and political views) put it in a poem of his about another pursuit of beauty "out of key with [its] time."

But we'd have to struggle through all of March and stumble upon an unfortunate surprise or two before we realized (or admitted) this. As will be the subject of the next part.

[To go directly to Part 3, click the following link:

Part 1 can be read here:]


  1. Seeing that closed up Panificio makes me sigh and feel sad. But your post about the apartment, now that is a sad tale! However, I can certainly understand your affection and wanting to live in such an old elegant place. And to stop by the Panificio each day. These dreams and places make fade away in reality but certainly not in our desire to enjoy them. Looking forward to Part 3...

    1. I think you put it very well, Bridget, getting at the gap that sometimes (often?) opens up between our desire and what reality offers--and yet our desire keeps us going forward, trying, hoping... What I'm trying to get a sense of, at least for myself, is how much are we (or I) willing to overlook in our attempts to realize our desires? And is Venice one of those places in the world where this kind of thing comes up more often or is felt more keenly?