Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Off the Beaten Track

"I've never seen that palazzo," my wife declared when I showed her the two images posted here, and I replied that she never will, unless she comes with our son and I the next time we take a boat ride through certain rii in the historic center.

For this is one of those facades whose splendor--weathered enchantingly by time and tide, and almost impossible to capture, even with a wide angle lens--glimmers upon a narrow high-walled canal, completely out of sight of any foot traffic.

It is quite literally off the beaten track, as that phrase refers to a path pounded smooth by pedestrians, and it's doubtful that anyone's ever been able to stump past this facade.  

I think there is a gondola route that passes by this place but, based upon years of casual observation, it seems a good many passengers on gondole would be too absorbed in taking selfies to notice it, as the narrowness of the canal means that even motoring or rowing at the slowest rate you come upon it suddenly--and just as suddenly it's out of sight. You really need to be watching for it.

To get even these two images required the aid of a skilled 10-year-old boat driver, who kept our sandolo-sanpierota idling in place against the wall opposite this facade, while I stood upon the highest point of our low boat, stretched the camera as far above my head as I could reach (to minimize converging vertical lines) and snapped.

Whenever I think of posting an image like this, one visible only from a boat, I think of those who will take it as evidence of the need for kayak rentals or kayak tours in the historic center, so that such views can be open to everyone.

But whoever said that every part of any city--even every public part of every city--should be readily available to all?

After all, it's not like Venice is lacking for sights readily seen on foot, is it?

In his preface to A Portrait of a Lady, which he completed while staying in a pensione on the Riva degli Schiavoni, Henry James wrote how the sight of Venice outside his window was always calling him away from his work: that Venice was one of those places that simply refused to remain merely background.

But James was writing this preface over 100 years ago, and recalling a period of composition from two decades before that. Much has changed: the selfie stick--and the mindset from which it sprang, and which it now exacerbates--can reduce even a Leonardo or Michelangelo to stage set or prop.

It's too bad, as it really is hard to go anywhere in Venice without finding some place or scene more than worthy of attention. The city bristles with what James would have called subjects: they fall at your feet, they fall into your lap, they fall upon you hard like hail. Or maybe that's the way to describe objects of attention.

Subjects perhaps, in contrast, don't so much fall upon you, passively, as call upon you. They assert themselves, demanding your attention, overwhelming your own sense of self, interfering with your plans and whatever sense of purpose you might have had the minute before. And nowhere, James suggested, do they do this more frequently or thickly than in Venice. They're everywhere.

So, as much as I marvel at these off-the-beaten-track water doors, I don't post them to suggest that people who've never seen them are missing something, as missing something--actually, missing a countless number of somethings--is also, inevitably, part of the Venice experience, whether on land or water, and even for the most attentive of visitors, or residents. The interesting question, in the midst of such overwhelming sensory abundance, is not of what one's missing, but of what manages to stick--and, luckily, contrary to the suggestions of guide books and tour guides, there's no predicting that for each person.