Saturday, March 7, 2015

Renting an Apartment in Venice, Part 2

A quiet residential canal in the historic center--though not the one visible from our new apartment

The mezzanine floor of the 16th-century palazzo that I wrote about in my last post was the most blatantly Romantic of the various apartments for rent to residents that we saw. For aside from its promising features it was, all in all, a dusty sepulchral ruin--and Romantic writers were all about dusty sepulchral ruins.

It lacked neither a certain character, nor its fair share of quirks, but it's important to remember that those two terms can be applied in one way or another to pretty much any apartment in the city center. In fact quirkiness of layout might be considered a defining feature of a Venice apartment in such areas. Which probably isn't surprising given how old the buildings are and how many times they've been altered over the centuries to accommodate changing uses, needs, and tastes.

For example, a friend once rented an apartment not far from the Rialto that meandered over at least four dramatically different levels. The entrance to his apartment was on the ground floor, where you were immediately confronted with a set of narrow stairs that you climbed to a cramped landing and an only slightly less cramped room off of it: his bedroom. You then continued up two more flights of steep narrow stairs--making a sharp right turn midway--to a door leading outside to a small altana (or wood platform terrace). If you continued climbing the stairs you'd reach his salotto, or small combination living and dining room with its corner kitchen. I believe the bathroom was on yet another level off the stairs, between the salotto and bedroom.

As all of these stairs belonged exclusively to the apartment--not to common areas used by other tenants--it's no exaggeration to say that the majority of the apartment's square footage consisted of just them. You might think an 800 square foot apartment (74 square meters) would give you plenty of room to pace about, but in roughly 500 square feet (46 sq meters) of it you'd be either climbing or descending. Which I suppose would be a great workout for your thigh and gluteal muscles, if that's what you look for in a home.   

The chief architectural quirk of the apartment we decided to rent was that not a single one of its rooms has more than two right angles: there's not a simple square or rectangle among them. At least half the walls of any given room don't meet on equal terms, in a tidy perpendicular. Either they conspire acutely, making it hard for any piece of furniture to really fit in, or happen upon each other obtusely, almost indifferently, leaving the furnishings to feel a bit adrift.

This, too, is Romantic in its own way, as the poet William Blake famously railed against right angles as the very symbol and symptom of oppressive Rationality.

We, however, were looking for just the right balance of Romance and Rationality. The stygian floor-through apartment of the palazzo offered only the former. But in the apartment we decided to rent we believed we'd found the perfect mix of both.

For one thing, it's just a four minute walk from Sandro's elementary school. For another, it has, unlike our old apartment, enough room for us to host overnight guests. For a third, there is no odd unusable space, such as the random dank windowless little rooms that sometimes persist like phantom limbs in Venice apartments. And, most important of all, it seemed warm and dry, with no hint of the mold or dampness issues that plague many residences here, even the most grand.

A quiet canal runs below its windows, two small hump-backed bridges arch just beyond either end of the apartment's length. The floor is real pavimento veneziano, the ceilings high, the window shutters are the traditional dark green, creaky and thickly peeling.

In contrast to the efficient, contemporary and much-appreciated double panes of our former apartment, the window glass here seems thin as the ice that films over a puddle on a barely-freezing day, and in some cases the panes are old enough to be just as imperfectly transparent as a sheet of such ice. They rattle in their frames as one walks across the floor near them.

A white monumental head on the palazzo across the calle gazes blankly in the window of our salotto.

There are pieces of old dark wood furniture, dressers and desks, a large hand-blown glass light in the hallway, and another hand-blown glass chandelier in the center of the bedroom. The latter is large and ungainly and everything about it recalls the seas across which Venetian traders returned with their fortunes: from the strands of hollow hand-blown glass beads, shaped and sized exactly like bulbs of kelp, festooned around its center; to all its sinuous arms, extending as if from a pair of piggy-backed octupi; to, not least of all, the brown corrosion of its iron frame, so profound as to suggest the chandelier spent a good half century on the bottom of the sea before being discovered.

Unlike so many Venetian apartments, including our old one (which had two), this apartment is all on one level. But, then again, not quite.

For though the apartment occupies just one floor, the pavimento itself has shifted so much with the irregularly-shifting building (just as pavimento veneziano was designed so long ago to do in buildings built on the lagoon's sandy soil), that one is almost always walking either up- or downhill.

This is especially noticeable in the apartment's long hallway, whose slope is severe enough to resemble the novice run at a ski resort. Severe enough, in fact, that Sandro has taken to referring to the bathroom to which it leads as the "upstairs bathroom". 

Just walking across our bedroom can call to mind clichèd images of the bonny rolling hills of Scotland: up, then down, then up, then down you go, trudging or almost trotting in turn.

A topographical map, not a blueprint, is what's need to depict such a room. And if such a map existed it would show the highest of the room's various hillocks near the center of the room, where one has no choice (because of the room's built-in features) but to place the foot of one's bed. Alas, the lowest of its various troughs is near the wall where one must put the head of one's bed.

Which makes for the perfect set-up if you're a bat, or some other mammal who likes to sleep with the blood pooling in your head. But we'll have to prop up the head of our bed with pieces of wood to make it tolerable.

All of these things, Jen, Sandro and I all agreed, added up to a distinctly Venetian experience. One we couldn't wait to begin.

So why, five weeks after our lease officially began, are we only just now starting to move in? And why do I type this in our old apartment?

That will be the subject of Part 3 of these posts on renting an apartment in Venice.

Go to Part 3:

Go to Part 1:


  1. Get Sandro to place a glass marble in the centre of the bedroom and see where it ends up. Glad you have found somewhere.

    1. We have to try that, Andrew. I'd like to imagine it will never stop rolling...