|Detail of a small-scale model of Venice, each building made by a different student in Sandro's second grade class|
Now he can't imagine ever leaving it. Though whether that's because the city's famed beauty has engraved itself upon his soul, as upon so many other souls over the centuries, is uncertain. For when asked by visitors what he likes best about living here, his answer is always the same: the fact that he can drive boats here, sometimes even large work boats (mototopi). Whereas every other place we might live, on land where people travel in cars, he'd have to wait until he was sixteen to be able to tool around town.
|Sandro's first effort at cataloging some of Venice's windows|
I could imagine a fable in which the beauty of a city was such that its inhabitants refused to develop or use any system of two-dimensional representation, neither art nor writing, as traditionally it's said that both of those systems of representation are predicated upon, or inspired by, the absence of the thing represented. The prehistoric animal shapes on some cave wall were created to represent animals not there, just as the first mythical artist, we are told, was inspired by the absence of his or her beloved to paint the world's first rudimentary portrait. The residents of the city in my fable would refuse to denigrate the marvels of their beautiful home by representing them, by ever conceiving of them as anything other than fully, abundantly present all around them.
But that's a topic for another post.
|A small sample of John Ruskin's catalog of Venetian arches|
While Lord Byron, and visitors like him, had derived a gratifying melancholy from the city's deliquescence and seemingly inevitable collapse, Ruskin sounded an international alarm, warning the world of what it was about to lose.
And his alarm has continued to echo--quite softly at some periods, very loudly at others--pretty much ever since.
Though John Julius Norwich has reminded us that Venice, for all its serious current problems, is still in far better shape than it was at Ruskin's time, how many visitors to it can't help but think of it as a sinking city, a dying city? Even a dead city--or merely a museum? Or as the toothless old Queen of the Adriatic, bedridden and always a bit more crass and desperate and maybe even hopeless, but still working whatever she's got left for all it's worth? You know the images, the constant undercurrents...
I've actually met visitors to the city who were amazed to find out that things like elementary schools still exist at all in Venice!
Sandro's drawings of arches, however, turned all of this upside down for me. They weren't mournful or melancholy images of a world's end, souvenirs of something disappearing, or symbols of some imminent cultural or environmental collapse, but of a world's beginnings.
They are, quite literally, the starting points for his second grade class on their journey out into the broader world.
|Detail of a large poster made by Sandro's class|
So that last year in first grade, for example, the class began to think about and represent how they live not just on paper with drawings, but by constructing a model of a house that was actually large enough for them to go inside. When it comes to minimizing the leap between actual experience and its conscious representation, that's about as small as you can, practically-speaking, make it. (Short of representing one's own house or school by building an exact scale replica of it.)
This year the students are well into reading and writing, and out in the world around them, sketching what they have seen from their earliest years but probably rarely ever tried to represent in a conscious way.
Of course what's nice about representing things in two-dimensions (or in small models) is that it not only gives you a way to record what you see, to re-present it as best you can, but also to manipulate and re-imagine those things in a way that's not so easy to do with the things themselves. The distance between the system of representation and the thing itself represented is not, in other words, only an indication of some loss or absence but of possibility: it is the space of conceptualization, of thought, of imagination, and, potentially, of creation and change.
In Sandro's case it marks a third stage in his relationship with the city of Venice. His initial emphatic rejection of its alien otherness was followed by an even stronger and more complete immersion in it. For Venice, with its absence of cars, is a uniquely hospitable urban space for children, offering even the youngest of them the chance to run free as kings and queens of its calli and campi (see, for example, http://veneziablog.blogspot.it/2012/03/wild-in-streets-or-calli.html).
Now, with his class, through writing and drawing, he's begun the process of learning of the city as not just given and lived in and immediate, but as something that can be regarded from a certain distance, as an object of thought. Learning about the city and its past becomes for them a model for learning about the broader world and a past beyond one's own personal past.
It's an amazing process to watch and participate in, this one of education, and immensely under-appreciated it seems to me in the two countries of which I'm a citizen, America and Italy, except as a means to a career, to money-making. It can, of course, be that--though not always, as more and more college graduates in both countries are discovering. But more essentially it is a process of awakening that's perhaps even more striking when it takes place in a city often said to be "dead," like Venice.
Moreover, there are people here who argue that this process of taking Venice as a model from which to start thinking about the larger world (and, specifically, many of its most serious challenges, such as climate change) could prove beneficial to more than just local students. But that, too, is a topic for another post.