Beauty and its double


During this week in Venice I have been trying to work out why I (and countless writers, painters and composers) love the place so much. Well, there is water of course. I have a thing for cities on water (Stockholm being another favourite city), perhaps because movement invariably slows. Brodsky said  that there is something ‘primordial about traveling on water’. In London we look at the river – some of my favourite aspects of the city are from the Thames – we cross it back and forth over bridges constantly, but we are seldom on it. Although the underground is a necessary means for navigating London, it removes us from the city by taking us below it, and so we miss the engagement with the street and what is happening there in real time (which is why I favour the bus, when I’m not in a hurry!).   

To get back to Brodsky, a long-time resident of Venice, he talks about the way that water unsettles the principle of horizontality, especially at night, when its surface resembles pavement. No matter how solid its substitute – the deck – under your feet, on water you are somewhat more alert than ashore, your faculties are more poised. On water, for instance, you never get absent-minded the way you do in the street: your legs keep you and your wits in constant check, as if you were some kind of compass. Well, perhaps what sharpens your wits while traveling on water is indeed a distant, roundabout echo of the good old chordates. At any rate, your sense of the other on water gets keener, as though heightened by a common as well as a mutual danger. The loss of direction is a psychological category as much as it is a navigational one.


This idea of being unsettled and alert is perhaps another reason I keep returning here. Nowhere else in the world feels so unreal (partly because of the efforts of tourists and those who cater to them to turn the place into Disneyworld); Venice has not been allowed to come into the modern age. Apart from the odd modern Scarpa-designed building, it remains firmly in its past (which is why so many poets have compared it to a graceful dowager). Its past is its glory.

Despite that, so much has been created here in the last hundred-odd years. James’s late novels, Wagner’s Tristan, and poems by Byron and Shelly, Browning, Brodsky, Merrill and Hecht, and of course, Pound’s Cantos. This city attracts those from other places who arrive, often in exile from where they started. It feels a final destination. Peter Ackroyd wrote ‘the perpetual sound of bells is a rehearsal for death’, especially when you think of those who have come here to die (fictional as well as actual).


Which brings me to death, decay, ruin. Venice is frail, crumbling. Water degrades its marble and stone, there is a delicate patina of rust and algae over its surface. James said ‘Venice is the most beautiful sepulchre in the world.’ And so it is. You are nowhere more reminded of demise anywhere else.

So I am here, with a group of poets (some visiting for the first time), exploring and thinking and writing. Trying to find something new to say about this place which has been written about thousands of times. I’ll end on something which has been said before, but for me captures the feeling of coming back, and the mixed sensations of this place – the first stanza of Amy Clampitt’s ‘Venice Revisited’:

Guise and disguise, the mirrorings and masquerades,
brocaded wallowings, ascensions, levitations:
glimmering interiors, beaked motley; the hide-
and-seek of Tintoretto and Carpaccio. From within
walled gardens’ green enclave, a blackbird’s warble —
gypsy non sequitur out of root-cumbered
terra firma, a mainland stepped from
to this shored-up barge, this Bucintoro
of mirage, of artifice. Outside the noon-dim
dining room, the all-these-years-uninterrupted
sloshing of canals; bagged refuse, ungathered
filth; the unfed cats, still waiting.

The knotted rope


A funny thing, memory. The mind plays tricks, gives you back a replica of what was really there. But of course, what was there is not what is here; places, situations, people do not remain static. Only in memory, and over time, even memory becomes unreliable.

Back in Venice, I return to the Guggenheim, my first visit since I wrote about Jackson Pollock’s great painting Alchemy. The painting is darker than I’d remembered, larger. I found it oddly comforting the last time I saw it, but this time it is frightening as well. Vast and impenetrable. The image in my poem that conjures ‘a man stranded in space’ feels accurate. But it’s another Pollock that catches me this time: Enchanted Forest. Alchemy is a landscape, the sky at night swirling with galaxies, but Enchanted Forest is vertical, human-scale, like a door you could walk through. But, if you could walk into the painting, you would be immediately barred by the thick tangle of … branches? Thorns? Entry is impossible. The twisting mass of black is interrupted by flecks of red, like blood, just to enforce the idea that this is not a forest for mortals.

In another room, Joseph Cornell’s Setting for a Fairy Tale. A classical façade in the foreground, but clearly two-dimensional, like a stage set. What is behind is dense forest, real branches resembling trees looming over the house. The branches are painted silver; ghostly, but somehow they are more real than the cut-out mansion, the play house that they frame. The windows in the house are actually mirrors; another illusion. The whole construction is behind glass, boxed, framed. It’s only when you stand back from it do you notice the tiny figures in the foreground, almost blending into the façade. The mansion is a wall which will prevent them from entering the forest behind, as it has no proper doors or windows. The branches arch over the flimsy façade, as if they might break the glass and escape the box. For me, it has the same effect as Enchanted Forest, but on a miniature scale. The trees, the real three-dimensional trees, shrunk to fit their box, suggest that this fairy tale is grim(m). There could never be a happy ending.


And in another room, Arthur Duff’s Black Stars. Strands of vertical rope, like the kind of rope you see on boats along the canals, but not quite so thick; black, and knotted at intervals, so when you stand back, there is a dense cluster of knots at its centre. Like both the Pollock and the Cornell, Duff is playing with dimensionality. From a distance, the rope looks like a flattened surface, just paint on a canvas; it’s only when you approach do you realise. Are the stars knotty problems for us to understand (like alchemic equations)? Is this what we might call ‘dark matter’? Are we so small in the great scheme of things? Are we so easy to fool with simple tricks of perspective that any magician could perform? Do we find we get tied up in knots when we seek explanations? Is memory a dark clot in the brain, a thick tangle of trees we can’t penetrate?

Outside, the cold winter light of the canal.