Sunday, August 30, 2015

The Mountains of Venice

Moon-rise over the Dolomites, taken last week near the village of Unterinn (aka, Auna di Sotto) above Bolzano
Venice is, as everyone has long known, such a distinctive place that I have sometimes had a hard time imagining that real Venetians can thrive outside it. They are creatures of the lagoon, and in the lagoon--or at least in the wider aquatic environment of the Adriatic and Mediterranean--they must stay. After all, they are infamously--and admittedly--awful drivers of anything other than boats.

And yet a native Venetian friend, an agonista (competitive rower) who will compete once again in next week's Regata Storica, and who's rowed since the age of five, is also an avid and excellent skier.

For as much as this surprised me, for as much as I'd assumed a Venetian with generations of saltwater coursing through his bloodlines would be as ill at ease on a ski slope as a lion in the arctic, the Dolomites and South Tyrol actually play an integral part in many if not most Venetians' lives. They ski them in the winter, they flee to them in the summer from the hot heavy air of their native city. Indeed, one of the things that stamped us most indelibly as non-Venetians is the infrequency with which we took to the hills.

Last week we tried to rectify that. The area around Cortina--just 2 hours by car from Venice or over 3 hours by a combination of train and bus--is the obvious destination. And for any visitor to Venice intent on getting a sense of what it might actually be like to live here as a Venetian I'd suggest that a short jaunt in that direction is almost as important as getting out into the lagoon in some kind of boat. 

But we went slightly further afield, taking a train one hour to Verona, then transferring there to another one for the 90 minute ride to Bolzano. From Bolzano's city center, where the station is, it's just a 10 minute ride in a cable car, or a 25 minute car or bus ride--all hairpin turns and terraced vineyards--into the mountains.

Even before we'd reached Bolzano, though, a glimpse of a young man getting into the next train car wearing mustard-colored pants and a deep cranberry shirt signaled to me we were leaving the Italian peninsula behind. German colors, I thought--which is a bit hard to explain, and probably not worth the effort, aside from noting, in general, that one of the things by which you can identify the origin of a visitor to Venice is the color palette of their clothing. In every other feature (including the cut and style of their clothing) they may look as if they could be the resident of any Western country, but the colors they're wearing can sometimes place them as clearly as their passport.

A friend recently explained why this might be the case by telling me about a designer friend of hers who says the quality of light is so different between, say, Venice and Amsterdam, that each requires a whole different range of colors. The colors she uses in designs destined for northern Europe are entirely different from those she designs for sale in the south, and to mix up the palettes and their destinations would be, for the designer (and her clients), a disaster. For the very same azure and pale rose and saffron cloths, for example, that glow beneath the Mediterranean sun with all the subtlety of Giovanni Bellini's San Zaccaria altar piece supposedly take on a garish Barnum and Bailey circus look in the light of Amsterdam or London.

(Which, parenthetically, makes me wonder if some of those foreign pilgrims traveling to, say, India or Rome or Assisi might not confuse the particular quality of light in these places with enlightenment, muddling the spiritual with the aesthetic and sensual, mistaking as otherworldly a roseate glow having more to do with physics and optics and meteorology than any sacred text.)

Another difference between the South Tyrol and Venice is that food in the former region is much better than that in the latter--though no less expensive. Sandro, who after spending the last 5 of his 7 1/2 years of life in Venice is easily the most Venetian of us--with a Venetian's appetite for Venetian dishes that I find barely edible (for example, the briny, fishy pasta dish bigoli in salsa)--loved canerdli, the speck(ham)-flecked dumplings typical of the mountains.

And then, of course, there are the mountains themselves, which in their solid imposing immanence provide, perhaps, something of an existential respite for Venetians from the flat fluid glitter of their lagoon. For as much as the water of the lagoon protected Venetians for centuries from foreign invaders, the very flatness of their surroundings left them entirely exposed, with no forests or groves or hillocks or gullies for cover, beneath the vast dome of the sky, the unblinking eye of the heavens. Their response, ultimately was to brazen it up: if they had no choice but to be seen, they would create in their exposed position one of civilization's great spectacles--determined to dazzle and overwhelm the eye that they could, in any case, not avoid. Their architectural gestures tended to the grand and defiant, the theatrical, the haughty--even as, on the simplest level, they gave them something to hide within.

What a relief, then, must the mountains be to people with such a history! A region where questions of ascendancy and dominance are, quite literally, ones of elevation and topography. Situate your castle--or, as the case may be, your vacation home--atop just this particular strategic rise, well above the marauding hordes (of barbarians or tourists), open to the southern sun, sheltered from the north wind, and, most of all, with a lordly vantage point on all that lies open before and below you.

At least this is one way of looking at the relation between Venetians and the mountains that mean so much to them. I'll spare you any others for the time being. 

In any case, Sandro was impressed. So much so that he's begun a new campaign with unsettling similarities to one he waged (successfully) a few years back. As he once bemoaned our lack of a boat, he has now, since our return to Venice, taken up the following refrain: "We really need a house in the mountains. A lot of my friends have houses in the mountains..."

To him, a house in the mountains--like the boat before it--has now become an essential requirement of Venezianità, or Venetian-ness. He can't believe we don't have one: how can we bear with the deprivation? How can we show our faces in public here?

I try to explain to him a few things about the cost of houses as compared to that of small boats, as well as about the great rise in property value since the time most of his friends' forebears bought their mountain homes. I tell him he can buy a mountain home himself after he gets old enough to earn the money he plans on making with his mototopo trasporti business (a fleet of delivery boats for which he's already decided upon a name).

He half-listens, then returns to his campaign. 

And so it goes. Foreign parents sometimes like to imagine that a child brought up amid all the celebrated art and architectural splendors of Venice is bound to be a refined creature, full of the loftiest cultural aspirations, native to rarefied air. The realities of Venetian life, however, tend to be--as they have always been--much more earth-bound and material. 


  1. Thank you the these interesting comments on Venitian-ness. You raised a number of very interesting points.
    The Ritten in particular and Südtirol in general are my absolute favorites as holiday destinations. Again I side with Sandro.

    1. Thank you, Rosalind. I can understand your enthusiasm for the area, even though I was never really a "mountain" kind of person before (I preferred the sea). We were all rather crestfallen when we had to leave, wishing we could stay at least a little longer.

  2. I'm intrigued by your comment that you can tell the origin of a person in Venice by the colours they wear. Would you care to explain that further? How would you tell the difference between a Venetian and a North American visitor, for instance?

    1. I'm not sure I can explain it too much further, Anon, but the difference between a Venetian and the typical North American can be pretty easy to see. For example, I'm not surprised to see a kind of typical retired Venetian man wearing red trousers with an orange shirt. Not the red and orange of the old Barnum and Bailey Circus, but the red and orange you might see in a 16th-century Venetian painting; Veronese tones, and quite pleasing together. Whereas, having just returned from the US, I think that such a color combination would only be undertaken by the most adventurous or whimsical of Americans: perhaps a certain kind of guy at a certain kind of golf and country club. North Americans can sometimes go for bold colors--a certain range of bold colors is part of the whole "preppy" aesthetic--but they aren't typically combined with the kind of Renaissance sense of painterliness to which Italian men of all classes can seem to aspire. And, generally, the average American man--whether retired or otherwise--has a pretty strong aversion to bold colors, and certainly to potentially disastrous combinations of them. But perhaps this is because, as one person suggests in the post, the light in North America is so different from that of Italy, and certain colors that might look beautiful in the latter look ugly in the former.

    2. But if you'll excuse the generalization, the classic American look for a man over, say, 30 in a button-front shirt is a small checked shirt in some subdued color (often blue). The boxier cut and color and pattern of such shirts are distinct from any that I've seen Venetians wear.