Thursday, January 15, 2015

In the Marketplace of Souls

The above is grander than the properties I looked at last year but, lacking any images of those places, I post this one of a house currently for sale in Dorsoduro
I sometimes think that my most immediate sense of the Past and of Time, which many people arrive in Venice looking to experience, came last winter when, eager to see the interiors of as many Venice apartments as I could, I tagged along with a friend who was looking to find a relatively mid-priced apartment to buy here.

We didn't venture into any palazzi furnished with antiques. That is, with pieces whose value is inflated with connoisseurship and seems to glow with some illustrious past (sometimes largely fictional). The value of the old furniture in the apartments we saw lay entirely in their materials, craftsmanship and utility, and some pieces seemed to echo inaudibly with the voices and lives of those absent from any featured roles in history or romance or coffee table photo books.

All-in-all it was a far different experience from apartment-hunting in New York City, which I'd done rather extensively in the years before real estate prices there--already high--blasted beyond earth's gravitational field.

New Yorkers, like Americans in general, are mobile sorts. They move for work or due to a lack of it. If they make more money or have more children they look to "move up". If they retire they move to "simplify." Or if they simply grow bored they try to change their lives by changing addresses.

Italians, by contrast, still tend to hold onto houses and things--as my own Italian-American family did. As my Italian cousins, both in Piemonte and Sicily, still do. Those in the latter region still using on an almost daily basis to travel between their apartment in town and their organic olive ranch the 70-year-old American Army Jeep they purchased after the 1943 Battle of Troina. 

That the real estate market of the city with the oldest population in Italy (which is, in turn, the country with the oldest population in Europe) would embody a traditional impulse toward a certain rootedness is not surprising. Most of the apartments I saw last winter were put on the market after the death of an aged relative and, as Italians (at least of the oldest generations) are not the compulsive interior re-modelers that Americans tend to be, stepping into these apartments often gave me the vertiginous sense of stepping into another decade. I'd find myself standing, at the latest, in the mid-1980s, but also, sometimes, in the 1970s.

For a couple of the apartments I saw last winter in Venice were still so fully and meticulously furnished in a certain manner that it wasn't hard to imagine that their more obscure corners still contained atoms of oxygen lingering there since the days Aldo Moro last drew breath. I'm tempted to describe them as having the thick brown dormant atmosphere of reliquary cabinets. But this misses the sense I had that the apartment's last inhabitants--even if the very last of them had in fact died two years prior to my visit--had just hurried out a few minutes before I arrived, looking to buy the ingredients they'd need for that evening's dinner before all the shops closed up for the riposo, and due to return home imminently. Though the edicola they'd pass on their way back home would feature headlines on the freshly-signed Camp David Accord between Egypt and Israel rather than anything to do with any "war on terror".   

There was a double pathos in such experiences: a vague but intimate sense, on the one hand, of the departed lives and times that had once passed between these walls, unknown though the inhabitants had been to me, and, on the other, of my own vanished past and previous lives.

That liquor cart in the salotto of a certain apartment in Sant' Elena, for example, the sun glinting on its vast array of bottles, none of which looked to have been purchased more recently than 1982, suggested not just another era and way of life, but seemed to re-animate some sense within myself of a time when such objects represented the as-yet-forbidden mysteries and rites and pleasures of an adulthood I both longed for and slightly feared.

In contrast, even the few old pieces of furniture in any New York apartment I ever saw seemed to hum--as the city itself constantly hums--with the most contemporary and up-to-date of calculations. That is, I knew that even that old heavy sideboard over there, now so prominent a feature of the living room, would occupy its present place only so long as current style validated its position. When a new mode of decoration came to the attention of the apartment's current owner, the piece would be put up for sale on or, at the very least, relegated to an inconspicuous corner.

Breezes of fashion and inevitable change rarely fail to waft through the apartments of even the least style-conscious of New Yorkers, seeming to lighten the mass of all the furniture in a room. Whereas in Venice furnishings can seem to loom in a middle-class apartment's umber air like geological formations: things that took shape in their present locations long ago, and whose arrangement could be altered by only the most determined efforts.   

Of course more frequently in New York apartments what blatantly appeared to be the very oldest pieces of furniture--those with a "simpler time's" style and a picturesque patina of wear--were actually the newest: freshly purchased with their marks of Time factory-made. Replica furnishings recalling some briny fictional family summer home on Martha's Vineyard (not far from the Kennedy's, of course) bought by someone whose own family still lived, as they always had, in land-locked Missouri.

Tasteful new mass-produced evocations of Time and Tradition without any of the actual encumbrances or burden or even trauma of actual lived experience continue to be all the rage in the American home furnishing market. In this way perhaps the contents of many American homes reflect those of the American mind in regards to history. While it seems to me the typical Italian relationship to history is rarely so optional, so commutable, so light.

Certainly no New York apartment I ever looked at made me think about a certain famous passage from Proust's In Search of Lost Time, as certain Venice apartments did. Just before relating his famous experience of the madeleine that will revivify his childhood for him, Proust writes:
I feel that there is much to be said for the Celtic belief that the souls of those we have lost are captive in some inferior being, in an animal, in a plant, in some inanimate thing, and thus effectively lost to us until the day (which to many never comes) when we happen to pass by the tree or to obtain possession of the object which forms their prison. Then they start and tremble, they call us by out name, and as soon as we have recognized their voice the spell is broken. Delivered by us, they have overcome death and return to share our life. And so it is with our own past.
In the quiescent air of certain Venice apartments this Celtic myth attains a certain credibility. It's not hard to imagine--feel?--the souls of the dead former inhabitants dispersed among a select array of furnishings.

Which might explain the evident unease of those relatives who show the apartment to potential buyers themselves rather than leaving it to a realtor. Perhaps it comes mostly from the fact that selling off family property runs counter to their cultural tradition, and is necessitated these days by the more or less embarrassing circumstances of financial need or, just as often, conflict among the heirs. But the unease, or awkwardness, or sheepishness seems to show most when the relative of the deceased admits that, yes, the furniture of the place can also be included in the sale for a reasonable additional cost. Here a certain sacrilegious sense intrudes--as if dealing in family remains.

All of which makes me sometimes wonder if the souls of Venetians are not actually to be found on the cemetery island of San Michele--from which, after all, many of those interred there can be transferred after as little as a decade, depending upon their ability to pay and demand for spaces--but in the mercatini (or flea markets) that temporarily return various campi or squares around the city to something like the function they served long ago, early in the city's history, as burial grounds. There, arrayed upon folding tables, inhabiting various unremarkable items, are the souls of Venetians, awaiting--with ever-less-likelihood in a city of dwindling population--the arrival of someone who might recognize them.

What follows when such an instance of recognition does occur will be the subject of a future post.

[link to the subsequent post:]


  1. I am very familiar with the red house as from my house it was on the way to the hospital, and I used to know someone who lived there but I can't recall now. Selling is considered a tragedy, even more so in Venice, usually done because the heirs can't afford the succession taxes. My dad had to sell an apartment above the one I grew up in, and every time I visit I feel pain for that loss, the loss of memories, the loss of the possibilities the attic could have been if it has stayed in the family. If you entered my dad's house, and I hope we won't be in the position to sell it as it has been in the family for generations, you would see a much older era, remnants of the 18th and 19th centuries, and losing all that would be a tragedy for my sister and me.
    I think that we are attached to things and houses because they keep reminding us of the people who are gone, even if they have no monetary value, and getting rid of them means losing a part of our memories, a part of us. In the US, things and houses are seen more for their monetary value, which makes it easier to get rid of things with no value.

    1. I understand your way of looking at property, Laura, it's the one with which I was raised, but circumstances have sometimes forced me out of it. It's not easy. Of course when (and in those places where) money is the only measure of value, things become simpler--and empty. I find it interesting in that the more traditional way of looking at things can, at times, become oppressive, while the newer tends toward, for me at least, the nihilistic. In any case, I hope you and your family will never find yourself forced to sell anything you want to hold onto.

  2. I took my time savoring your words today. My husband and I have always loved old homes although we don't have the right to call our homes in the U.S. "old". But he and I do treat them with respect for what came before us. Will look forward to your teaser post!

    1. Thank you, HKB, you raise an interesting question about our relation to a past that was not ours or directly known to us. According to what Proust wrote, if we dimly generally sense the previous possessor of an object or old house, is the soul set free to have their afterlife in our living (if vague) memory of them or does one really need to have known them? I know it may be different in certain African cultures which have a somewhat similar sense of the the afterlife persisting insofar as the deceased is remembered by the living, but from my reading of Proust's entire novel I actually think he's more concerned with what the living gain by incorporating (or maybe even imagining) past lives. These objects become spurs to our own self-creation. Which might sound a bit self-centered, but the Proust was unapologetically so.

  3. it must be very difficult to buy property. renting is a big enough hassle. but i would love to do it.

    1. I think it is complicated, Jeanne,even for Italians, but can seem even more so depending on what you are used to. It's why I think living in New York City is good preparation for living in Italy: the kinds of efficiency and directness that many other places in the US pride themselves on are largely absent in NYC, as they are in Italy. Having already found oneself entangled in red tape in NYC, all the sticking points one runs into trying to do things in Italy aren't so surprising.