Wednesday, March 11, 2020

Closed City, Open Canals

If you live in Venice and have a boat, whether it's powered by oars or an engine, you're always careful to avoid certain rii (or small canals) which belong exclusively to gondolas, following their fixed routes morning to night as invariably as if attached to underwater tracks.

To stray into one of these routes, whether by inattentiveness or inexperience, is not only to find yourself abruptly in a traffic jam, but to feel rather like a heel--as you would if you'd blundered with your boat into the middle of a Disney theme park's Pirates of the Caribbean ride.

But since the closure of Venice to all outsiders last Sunday, there is no gondola traffic anymore, anywhere, and even the normally much-used traghetto ferrying (mostly) residents across the Grand Canal between the Rialto fish market and Santa Sofia was shut down yesterday afternoon.

The course beneath even the Bridge of Sighs is empty of gondola traffic--as is, unbelievably, its famed vantage point, the Ponte della Paglia, with not a gawker or gaper or photographer or selfie-snapper in sight.

The two images directly below were taken in gondola-route rii I'd always avoided.

The others were taken in canals we knew already--but had never seen like this.

At 7 pm on a weeknight you can now idle through the network of rii and encounter not another boater--your own boat swept along at times by currents that have always flowed along these very routes, even when there was nothing here but mud flats. For Venice's canals, both Grand and minor, still follow the natural rivers and streams found here by its first settlers (though alterations to the lagoon's morphology in the last 120 years, but especially in recent decades, have intensified the force of currents to such an extent that these days one has sometimes to shift one's engine in and out of reverse to avoid being carried along too fast in the smallest rii).

All is still and quiet. If you've ever wished to have Venice all to yourself, here it is, granted (and how!).

All it took was a global pandemic to bring Italy's economy to a shuddering halt.

That's always the problems with wishes, isn't it? Or answered prayers, as Truman Capote entitled his last book, taking its epigraph from a quotation dubiously attributed to St Teresa of Avila about how more tears are shed over appeals that are answered than those that are not. 

And now, having seen what it's like to have the city all to one's self, the day that it can be shared again--wisely, one hopes--with the rest of the world can't get here soon enough. (April 3 is the date when at least the restrictions upon the movement of people within Italy might be lifted.)

A short distance from the Rialto fish market, the Hotel L'Orologio is just one example of a major hotel forced to shut down for the length of the quarantine: behind its front desk (seen above) are an array of clocks, each showing the time in a different international capital--not one of which isn't presently harried by the threat of the coronavirus.

A much too quiet prep area of the hotel


  1. Thank ypu for this solemn beautiful story.

    1. Thanks for your comment, DM, I hope you are well wherever you are right now.

  2. You really do show to us a side of that wonderful city that we fickle tourists, dropping in for a few weeks each year, will never become fully aware of. Hope you and yours are all well, at this difficult time.

    1. I'm happy if anyone thinks these images show them things they haven't seen or things they recognize but haven't had the chance to see in person for a while, whether they saw them during just one day in the city or over a number of visits. In spite of everything, the city is still here.

  3. Had to cancel my April watercolor workshop in Venice. I (and my students) are so sad because I dream about Venice for a whole year before every April. (I secretly wish I had gotten stuck there before the flights were forbidden. Would love to have Venice to myself.) Thank you for being our link to her! Be well, stay well!

    1. I can well understand your disappointment but I'm glad that you and your students weren't here when everything came to a head and lockdown went into effect. Or, at the very least, that you didn't have to worry about students who would have had good reason to worry about what they were going to do, even if you were okay with staying indefinitely. That would have been a nightmare. As for you being here alone--that depends on where you were staying, not to mention how nice the view from it was, as one can only rarely go out these days!