Essays & Images on Cities, Travel and Contemporary Culture. A web journal of James A. Clapp, Ph.D., an UrbisMedia Ltd. Production


Daughter Laura sent me a bunch of photos she found of the aqua alta in Venice these days—the highest in over 30 years. It is a preview of what global warming will do to this city that is only two feet off the Adriatic lagoon at its lowest point, near Piazza San Marco. Laura wrote “look what is happening to our lovely city!” I know what she meant. She spent a lot of time there as a Guggenheim fellow years ago, learning curatorship in the Guggenheim gallery there. She had fallen in love with the city when we visited as a family several years before.

Aqua alta in Piazza San Marco (2008)

Aqua alta in Piazza San Marco (2008)

rehearsal on stage (1979)

rehearsal on stage (1979)

I have probably visited Venice at least a dozen times in the years since 1975 and 2000. No city I ever visited had the initial impact upon me as the first time I exited the Stazione into what felt like the 12th century. My first thought was “Oh, shit, I didn’t bring nearly enough film!” (I don’t think that digital cameras were even imagined in 1975.) For an urbanist, this was equivalent to what it would be for a photographer to be asked to do a nude layout of Angelina Jolie.

On that first visit, with Patty, I was never quite sure what time period I was in. We stayed in a cheap hotel in the Lista de Spagna, just down from the Stazione. Below our room, a street vender was selling model gondolas that played O Sole Mio (really a song from Naples); the window on the side of our room was touching distance from the kitchen window of a local family. They greeted us unabashedly while they sugared up their morning coffee.

That day Patty had discovered that there was a Giacometti exhibit at an old palazzo not far from the hotel. Off we went and turned out being the only viewers of a beautiful exhibition in the spacious rooms of the grand old palazzo. The Giacomettis had plenty of space between each other, standing and striding tall on their pedestals, as though we were in a piazza full of bulimics. When we were about to leave, the sole custodian approached me, in Italian, and asked me if I would “something special” for another couple mille lire. I thought it odd to be approached about what I figured would be some porn, but then my Italian isn’t very good. He took my hesitancy as possible interest and steered me to a plain door. When he opened it I could see that there was a dark staircase leading up. “Ascendere,” he said.

I hesitated. Patty was still looking at the Giacomettis. Something looked strange in the gloom of the narrow staircase. “Non pericolo,” he said. “Molto interessante, you will like.” Then he reached past me and flipped on a light switch. A forty-Watt bulb neat the top of the staircase barely illuminated what I saw to be life-size figures lining both sides of the staircase. Warriors. “Giapponese,” he said, “Ascendere.”

I was one of those “calls” you encounter when traveling; am I going to be mugged, or is this going to be a positive unforgettable travel experience. I called Patty over. “Oh, my God,” she exclaimed when her eyes adjusted to he gloom, “what’s at the top?”

“Ascendere, non pericolo, signora,” the guide encouraged. He didn’t have to with Patty. She was “into” things Japanese, just having written a paper on Jomon pottery in ancient Japan. I reached for my wallet, but the guide gestured and said, “Dopo, if the signora likes. Ascendere.”

Patty, fearless, went first, and I slowly followed her as we climb past what were fully-dressed warriors with fierce face masks, beneath ornamented helmets, standing at attention in breast armor, with greaves and battle boots, with spears and bows and fully loaded quivers. It was like being in a Kurosawa movie. The little bulb cast ominous shadows that seemed to quicken the warriors as we passed them. “They are scary,” Patty said, “but I’m taller than all of them.” She was.

At the top was a large room with a low ceiling that seemed to be the attic of the palazzo. A little light was admitted by small windows of what appeared to be blown glass formed in a rough circular pattern. It made it all the more shadowy and ominous. Filling nearly the entire room that was about the size of a tennis court were more warriors—all standing at attention with spears and bows, their fierce masks staring at us, in ranks and files. We walked along, as if reviewing the troops, as shafts a sepia light from the windows filled with dust motes flashed between them. There must have been at least a hundred of them!

“I wonder how long they have been here?” Patty wondered aloud. We speculated that they might have been here as long as the palazzo, and it probably dated from the 12th or 13th century. How did they get here? Marco Polo, was our first guess, the Polo house was not far from where we were. But the Polos never went to Japan. But the Jesuits did. They were there making money and coverts around the time that hoards warriors in this sort of battle array were going at it in sifting power alliances during the shogunate. But they were mostly Portuguese Jesuits. It was a mystery, but the warriors had to extend as far back as the earliest connections between Italian traders and Japan. They might have been standing in this attic, at attention, for as long as five centuries.

“These have to be authentic,” I said. “They must be worth a fortune today.” There was no doubt of their authenticity. Covered as they were with dust, it was clear that the breast pates were made of lacquered bamboo finely woven together with silk, the Darth Vader shaped helmets, each with different top adornments, were metal and also lacquered. There was no doubt about the weapons.

“Probably more than those Giacomettis down stairs,” Patty offered. “Amazing that they have not ended up on some art black market after all this time.” There was certainly a story there. Perhaps some enterprising Italian trader thought he could get a great price for these in Europe, or maybe some financial backer behind a trading expedition ended up with them as loan collateral. Then, maybe he was just holding onto them for speculation and then he died and this curious army ended up standing at attention through the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, revolutions and world wars, waiting for the call to battle.

I doubled the “tip” for the custodian (I think he expected I would do that after what we saw), and we stepped out into who knows what time period, having experienced the closest one can get to actual time travel. No other city quite gives one that sensation as does Venice. In fact, Venice is a city that is in many ways constrained from changing, a circumstance that is both its blessing and its curse.

Back in the 4th century the founders of Venice escaped the barbarian hoards descending to pick over the remnants of the Roman Empire by pounding some three million larch piles into the clay of the lagoon and building their city on top of them. The architecture of the city was deliberately lightened—hence the lacey appearance of Venetian Gothic as expressed in the Palazzo Ducale’s signature quatrefoils—to reduce the pressure on what is, essentially, a floating city. Perhaps that reality is why Venice long ago ingratiated itself to its watery surroundings by calling itself the “Bride of the Adriatic” and re-celebrates its marriage in an annual event. But the Bride is now a dowager, and less than a meter off the sea vulnerable not only to sinking, but to global warming’s effects on rising seas and storm surges. This time the aqua alta invaded Piazza San Marco, the city’s lowest point, to nearly five feet, one of the highest floodings in many years, and perhaps a harbinger of a more imminent grim future.

I remember two occasions in the great piazza that have been highlights among all my travel experiences, both of them unplanned coincidence of my being in Venice. In 1979 the middle of the great square had a large wooden stage constructed with sloping sides that gave it a modern form that contrasted with its surroundings. The stage was for Danza Europe and troop that, on the evening of its performance, came down the Grand Canal on barges performing ballets. They then occupied the stage and emerged from trap doors in its surface to perform ballets that, it being late into the evening, projects shadows of their dances on the façade of the cathedral of San Marco. Among the dancers was the great ballerina, Carla Fracci.

Several years later, I happened into the square on the evening of my arrival in June to encounter Venice in the midst of its feast of the Redentore, of the city’s deliverance from the plague of 1576, and which is also the name of the church by Palladio near the tip of the Giudecca. Huge speakers around the square played Vivaldi, and the longest, most spectacular fireworks display I have ever witnessed took place out over the lagoon. It was well worth it to take as seat at a table at Florian’s Café and enjoy the festivities over a couple of over-priced cappuccinos.

The great square is no stranger to grand spectaculars; one can see those of old commemorated in the paintings of Bellini, Carpaccio and Canaletto, among other great Venetian artists. One day the aqua alta might come and not recede, leaving only the memories that this unique city and its special piazza have given me, and so many others. It is a painful prospect to consider, but Nature cares little for our grandest creations or our precious memories.
© 2008, James A. Clapp (UrbisMedia Ltd. Pub. 12.15.2008)