Thursday, January 29, 2015

In the Marketplace of Souls, Part 2

A few months ago, when the weather was warm and mercatini (or flea markets) bloomed regularly in various campi around Venice, I asked the co-proprietor of a certain antique shop I often find myself wandering into if they set up their own table at such events. She said they did, and were about to participate in another one the following weekend, but she looked far from pleased at the prospect.

A couple of weeks ago I posted a piece about some differences between looking to buy an apartment in Venice and in New York City: differences stemming from, and underlining, the very different relationship that many Venetians and many New Yorkers have with their objects and property ( The differences, however, show up in more than just the Venetian real estate market.

In that post I quoted Marcel Proust's description of the Celtic belief that the souls of the dying become, at death, "captive" in some object, in which each awaits the slim chance that one of us among the living who knew them in life will happen to pass the object that now imprisons them and, in the act of recognizing them, set them free to share in our own life. In Proust this possibility is presented as nothing less than a miracle, a resurrection. For those merchants displaying their wares on the tables of a mercatini it is a nightmare. 

"There!" someone in the straggling stream of passersby suddenly bursts out, "that lamp is my Uncle Alvise's!"

And before the merchant knows it, the relative has gathered up the lamp (with perhaps the soul of her uncle inside it) and is ready to walk off with it.

"Signora," the merchant interjects as politely and firmly as possible, "that lamp is for sale."

"For sale? Why would I pay you for something that belongs to my family?"

"Because it does not belong to your family anymore. It now belongs to us, and we are offering it for sale."

Nothing about this interaction has been pleasant to this point, but now it only gets worse. This is when the merchant may be accused of being a thief. "Please, Signora," the merchant assures her, "we do not deal in stolen property."

Or it is when the relative demands to know exactly from whom the lamp was purchased. "I'm sorry," our merchant says, "I don't know the answer to that. My partner, who is not here, finds all of our merchandise." 

Or, worst of all, it is when the relative embarks on a long, painful, and often quite bitter account of how she (or he), the relative, suspects the item came into the possession of the merchant. It's not unusual for an inter-generational drama to be conjured up on the spot. Like that old illustration of Charles Dickens surrounded by his characters while he sits at his writing desk, so the air of the mercatino becomes thickly peopled with aggrieved and suffering family members, some long dead, some still living, all usually quite quarrelsome. "His first wife, my mother's sister," says the relative, "was the kindest woman you could ever meet, but when she died, the second wife...  A pig! She would sell the gold fillings from his mouth while he lived"

And so it goes.

The air around a mercatino table can become as thickly-populated with characters and stories as the writing desk of Charles Dickens in this illustration by Robert William Buss (wikipedia commons)
To put an end to the exhaustive narrative, the merchant might be tempted to let her take the damn lamp. But Venice, as visitors may not fully appreciate, is a very small town, in which nearly everyone knows everyone, and as her partner obtains all of his merchandise from estate sales within the city, there could very well be no end to the relatives (near or distant) claiming the right to walk away with this or that item from the merchant's table or shop.

No less unpleasant, though, are those encounters when the merchant knows exactly how the object came into the shop's possession. Knows, in fact, much more about the relationship between the object, its former owner, and her current interlocutor, than the latter knows.

The merchant told me about one afternoon when a passerby pulled up abruptly at her mercatino table looking as if he had seen a ghost. Though in this case, alas, the former owner of the object in question was still very much alive.

It was an art object that was at issue, a very particular one, which the man now standing on the other side of her table looking utterly flummoxed, had especially commissioned to be made for a friend. Why, it was unbelievable, utterly incomprehensible, that this particular piece, this beautiful made-to-his-exact-specifications art object, should be sitting for sale on this table among all the bric-a-brac!
How could it possibly have ever ended up here? His friend had not died. Nothing had, as far as he knew, changed in their relationship.

Perhaps it had been stolen!

The merchant knew very well it had not been stolen, but this was one instance in which she didn't emphasize this point so much as usual. In which she tried, in fact, to say as little as possible, limiting herself, instead, to her maximum capacity of wordless commiseration. For she knew first-hand that the former owner herself had sold the piece to the shop, eager to be finally rid of it after holding on to it, out of friendship or pity or guilt, for as long as she could bear it.

In truth, whatever the intentions or sentiment that motivated its commissioned creation, and in spite of the abundant skill of the artisan who crafted it, it was, the merchant said, really quite a hideous piece. It had value because of its maker, but she said few people would blame the recipient of such a gift for wanting it out of sight, or to be rid of it completely. 

And yet to watch the originator of this gift agonizing on the other side of the table, struggling to avoid the implications of this chance encounter with an object he'd commissioned to embody what he  thought of as the spirit of his relationship with his friend, was, really, much worse than dealing with those relatives who simply wanted to walk away with objects that had once belonged to some dead member of their family.

In the latter case, the sight of the object reawakened in the relatives a feeling of kinship, of affiliation (with the deceased owner of the piece, if not with the despised family member(s) who had sold it off). The ugly art object, though, seemed to awaken in the man who'd stumbled upon it a dim (but growing) hint of some distance he'd never imagined before in his relationship to his friend. That she would not hold onto this piece he'd had especially made for her suggested limits to her affection that he'd never imagined before.

The way my merchant friend looked after she had recalled these experiences to me as she sat in her own shop made me say, using a word often used by Italians (which could itself be the subject of a post) and gesturing to the items around us, "All of these objects are heavy (pesante) with history, aren't they?"

"Very heavy (molto pesante)," she replied, looking weary at the thought of it all.

Just after the new year I stopped by the shop again and asked if they'd participated in any of the mercatini before Christmas.

"No," she said.

"Too cold, right?" I replied. "Better to wait for warmer weather."

But she said that she and her partner had decided not to do any more mercatini at all. Her relief in this decision was obvious. I told her I remembered what she'd told me months ago of her more difficult experiences at mercatini. She nodded, said she was happy to be escaping from that.

Of course when I then walked around the shop I felt, as I have before, that such a place is not exactly a carefree environment in which to spend one's days, dense as it is with the past, with the spirits of those whose unrecorded lives seem to be off-gassed from the last commonplace traces of their daily existence (an old iron, a set of glasses, of dishes), all clamoring for some vague acknowledgement, by anyone, before vanishing completely forever. But as abundant as such spirits may or may not be in such places, I suppose it's really the living, and their relationships with both the dead and the quick, that ultimately weigh (and wear) most heavily upon us. 

[link to Part I on this theme:]


  1. Fascinating post. I'd never thought about the weight of the past carried by second-hand objects but more about my pleasure in the mystery of their previous life.

    1. I know what you mean, Anonymous, and I'd never thought about the hazards of selling second-hand objects in a small place like Venice. Thanks for taking the time to leave a comment.

  2. Danke für den wunderbaren bericht...thankes for the beautyful information and greetings from cologne(germany)..from dagmar axer