Self-Portrait in Venice


First Person

Lion of Venice, Photo: Didier Descouens. CC BY-SA (

In maps of the brain, the central cortex is shaped like Venice. The amygdale, the locus of emotion and fear, is the quarter of the church of Santi Giovanni e Paolo; the hippocampus, the site of long- and short-term memory, is the entry into Venice via the Grand Canal; the cerebellum, which regulates balance, the lagoon bordered by the Lido; the hypothalamus, which controls circadian rhythms, the Piazza San Marco. The first summer I came to Venice, I was nineteen. I was with a boy I thought I might marry, and we sat on the steps of the baroque basilica of Santa Maria della Salute, which is a short walk from where I am writing now, at the Pensione Accademia, in the quieter environs of Dorsoduro. We ate sandwiches made of pressed veal, and drank cans of aranciata. It was too expensive to stay in Venice; we took the train from Padua, where we had gone to see the Giottos in the Scrovegni Chapel, and stayed in a gimcrack boardinghouse where the walls were paperboard painted to look like wood. The ceiling of the chapel was flecked with gold stars. Now, in Padua, you walk into an air-controlled chamber and have fifteen minutes to look at the frescoes. Then, you stayed as long as you liked. We sat in the pews and read letters that Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote from Italy. It was hot and I argued with the boy—I did not want to hear any more about Savonarola, with whom he had become obsessed. He had written a senior thesis on Jonathan Edwards, about whom I had previously listened. To annoy me, because I would not listen, he was rude to an old friend of mine who had come up for the day from Florence, where she was studying, to meet us.

It has been years since I spoke to either of them. Perhaps it is better for me to come to Venice alone; there is no one with whom I have been to Venice that I am now on speaking terms, as if one caprice of the city is to induce fever dreams from which there is no return. On June 4, 1851, Mrs. Browning wrote to a Miss Mitford:

I have been between heaven and earth since our arrival at Venice. The heaven of it is ineffable. Never had I touched the skirts of so ineffable a place. The beauty of the architecture, the silver trails of water … nothing is like it, not a second Venice in the world … But now comes the earth side: Robert, after sharing the ecstasy, grows uncomfortable and nervous, unable to sleep or eat, and poor Wilson, still worse, in a miserable condition of sickness and headaches.

On the earth side, from the man whose face was like a portrait by Bronzino: “Would like to report something amusing yet I have really overstretched myself and am paying for it … Today high blood pressure, splitting headache, not enough sleep, and all the usual tension.” Perhaps my own instinct for complication, for the rococo, for situations that cannot possibly resolve themselves, can be traced to an inability to keep track of a thought a sensible person would heed—a grain of millet blown over San Marco, which, left to fall into the canal, swells and bursts?

The night before I left for Venice, I was beside myself, turning the bedside lamp on and off as if it were a lighthouse, without which I would founder. Beside myself as beside a fish, snagged from the water, slapping its tail on the dock. In a room downtown where I go every week to talk about the catch in my throat, the man to whom I am speaking, who has close-cut gray hair and the face of a turtle, who does not take his eyes off me once, says: “Why do we saying ‘falling in love’? What does it mean?”

In the morning, before I left, in order to distract myself from nervous tension, I walked from the tall drafty house to Eighty-First Street, to buy some books, and then walked back, a round trip distance of four miles, carrying a new phone I bought in order not to vanish from the earth when the plane touched down at Marco Polo Airport, as if I were a scout going into the woods with only a compass and candy bar, a stick figure teetering on a high bridge. There was a gull on the stoplight at Ninety-Sixth Street. Manhattan is also a city surrounded by water. For months, typing in bed before even the cats woke, the long letter I was writing—the letter that was now shaped like a book, a very bad book, but a book—had threatened to engulf me. I was caught between the present and the past like a fly to flypaper. The past is narrative, Primo Levi says; the present, description.


The best way to approach Venice from the airport is to take the water taxi. It is also the most expensive. Like most things in Venice, there are convolutions before the payoff. There is no transport between the airport proper and the boat dock where the water taxis come in. You pull or carry your luggage down a long pathway, a distance of perhaps a quarter of a mile, following signs put up to encourage the traveler. This is the last direct route in Venice, the last walk on which not to get lost. At the dock, Manolo, the director of water traffic, talks endlessly into his cell phone, gesticulating about what seems to be nothing at all. He is a handsome man, taller than most Venetians, and indeed, he is not from Venice but from Naples.

The company’s logo is a winged gold lion, the symbol of Venice’s patron saint, the apostle Mark, who appears to the prophet Ezekiel as a lion with wings; the lion is often depicted over water, to show dominance over the seas. The story of the winged lion is a fairy tale of gilt and chicanery. In the ninth century, three avid Venetians removed the body of Saint Mark from his tomb, in Alexandria. To hide the body, they put it in a basket and covered it with herbs and pork flesh, which Muslims would not touch. As they set sail for Venice, a great storm blew up, and Saint Mark appeared to the captain, who sailed the boat to safety. The Venetians carved the likeness of the winged lion on their doorways, and kept lions as pets. One was kept in a gilded cage, in the piazza, until it died, poisoned by the gilt paint it licked off the bars. A Venetian story. Lions were then forbidden in the city precincts for a hundred years.

After a long wait, water taxis arrive, and passengers board the boats in no discernible order. My suitcase is handed over. The lagoon straightens itself out briefly to a funnel as it passes San Michele, the island of the dead. The boatman knows everyone on the waterway. He raises his hand in greeting to each boat we pass. He is solicitous; if it is too windy I can go in the cabin. It is windy, but I have wound a scarf around my head. He nods, satisfied. We pass through the fog, and then, all at once, it is there: the Grand Canal, beautiful and absurd. Can there really be gondolas? There are. A little boy waves from the window of a vaporetto, a boy who looks exactly like the son who belongs to the face in the mirror. He keeps waving madly, all the way until the taxi turns into the landing of the hotel on the Rio di San Trovaso, right before the Ponte Accademia. For a moment it is all light and water. At the hotel, the hanging geraniums are violet, red, and pink. There is a little step down to the concierge desk, but despite the warning sign I trip.

Everyone trips. The pensione is like the water taxi, like Venice, beautiful and impossible. In the garden, bougainvillea hangs over a glider, a waiter brings you delicious snacks with your evening drink, and at breakfast there is melon the color of a sunset. But you must log on with a different password every day to use the internet, postage is noted carefully in a book, and the windows in your room, though you have asked to have them left open, are shut up tight against the air from the lagoon, which, the chambermaid says, is not healthy for sleep: “Signora, it will give you nightmares.” Incubi. She makes a strangling gesture with her hands, and rolls her blue eyes like a horror-movie starlet. “You have been here before, yes?” Guido, at the desk, asks, “but with your husband, a man with silver hair?”

In a portrait of the brain made by phrenologists, the cerebral cortex, San Marco, is the location of the sublime. Venice is a city of the unconscious. Joseph Brodsky, who is buried on San Michele, wrote: “I felt I’d stepped into my own self-portrait in the cold air.” And, in the middle of a reverie about the Grand Canal:

I say this here and now to save the reader disillusionment. I am not a moral man (though I try to keep my conscience in balance) or a sage; I am neither an aesthete nor a philosopher. I am but a nervous man, by circumstance and by my own deeds; but I am observant … I have no principles; all I’ve got is nerves. What follows, therefore, has to do with the eye rather than with convictions, including those as to how to run a narrative. One’s eye precedes one’s pen, and I resolve not to let my pen lie about its position.

What is the position of my pen, writing in the garden of the Pensione Accademia, at ten in the morning in the month of June? Venice is a city of nerves, running on harp strings, Carnevale looping into Lent. My own life, too, it seemed to me, veered between impulse and a mania for privacy and restraint, which is one way of saying that I was especially chary with what was the truth. I had many reasons I used to explain this away, none of them good. I slept with the windows open, inviting the incubi. In the middle of the night, a speedboat with the motor idling outside the window, although motorboats after 8 P.M. are forbidden, plays Electric Ladyland loud enough to wake the dead on San Michele. Behind the closed shutters, someone in Dorsoduro turns over, dreaming. A girl walks by on the strada, using her cell phone as a flashlight.

Yesterday, on the way to sit on the steps of Santa Maria della Salute, I window-shopped: velvet, glass, marzapane in the shape of starfish. Outside a shop selling evening clutches made of scored velvet, shining like jam studded with gold beads, a woman in tennis shoes says to another, “Very pretty but will you use it in Portsmouth?” The treasures of Venice are like dreams told before breakfast. When they leave the light of La Serenissima they turn to dross. In another shop, I see a tiny glass goblet, azure and gold. The stem is a snake, the letter s. In the middle of the night, I resolve to return to the shop and find it again—a present for Bronzino. The laptop on which I am typing here in the garden keeps New York time: it is 4:27 A.M. in the tall drafty house and on Seventy-Eighth Street, which is empty because he is sleeping elsewhere. I am awake while almost everyone else is asleep, although an email arrives sent from Christchurch, New Zealand, dated tomorrow, from the voice on the telephone to whom I am not speaking. It does not tell me what to do next.

I have been in many cities on my own before, but not Venice. I write to Bronzino, but for now do not send a message that says, I very much wanted you to come with me but now I think it is better you did not. I say I will explain when I return. At a concert at San Vidal, at the turn of the Accademia bridge, I list all the reasons I must embark on my own into the byways of the lagoon. One: Bronzino understands music deeply, I do not. The first half of the program is Vivaldi, and I resolve to leave at intermission. The church is full of students, it is hot, I am thirsty. Instead, I exit in the interval and buy an aranciata at a bar in the campo, then find myself back in my seat. It is Corelli’s Concerto Grosso in G minor, and I burst into tears, although I do not know why it moves me or when I have heard it last.

The next morning, at Santa Maria dei Miracoli, hemmed so tight in Cannareggio that it might be a white handkerchief in the district’s pocket, I am in tears again. The confectionary marble church, finished in 1490, was built to house Niccolo di Pietro’s icon of the Madonna, which is said to have shed real tears. Perfectly restored, the church is a favorite of Venetian brides. Mermaids and angels are carved into the chancel. When I first saw it, at nineteen, I thought: I will get married here. I have been married twice, neither time in Venice. It is perhaps not adequate to say that the marriages have not lasted, for, after all, they have yielded children, monographs, candlesticks, cabinets, all of which are scattered here and there, lasting.

On the way to the campo, I find a shop where years ago I bought a gold bracelet that I later lost in New York at the movies. The proprietor, older, is seated in exactly the same place, behind the glass counter filled with junk. Is there another bracelet? No. She shows me an extraordinarily ugly opal ring, which I consider buying. The last time I was there, on the steps by the shop was a little girl just out of her pram, with whom I shared a cornetto, while her parents drank un’ombra across the campo, looking at me gratefully. I was married then, and my husband sat nearby at a little table, drinking a coffee. In his pocket was a box containing gold earrings set with jade and pearls he had found while out walking that morning. It was the last trip we made together.

In Venice there are the usual places to go: San Marco; the Frari, where the Madonna soars convincingly up to heaven; the Rialto. These places do not usually include the church of I Gesuiti, on the esplanade of the Fondamente Nove. The way there is along the west flank of the hospital, near the Questura. I ask a young mother pushing a baby, who holds a sticky ice cream, for directions. The sun is so hot that I inch along, looking for shade. Then there is the high arched bridge beyond the vaporetto stands, and the Gesuiti, looming, solemn as an elephant. The first time I came here I was sick, and the sacristan found me a place in the back where there was cool water and I could put my face in my hands. Today heat gleams on the steps. Inside it is quiet. I am the only person on earth in the church. How can it be? The floor, which is made of black-and-white marble, a geometric pattern not quite classifiable, is uneven and undulates beneath the pews. The interior is entirely black and white—Jesuitical. When I look up I am amazed to find that the curtains over the pulpit, which I had always thought were huge swags of black-and-white figured velvet, are in fact marble carved to look like velvet.

In Venice things are and are not what they seem, the strobe light of the imagination is on full-time. It is daunting, the combination of beauty and legerdemain. On the way back to the pensione, after an evening out, the water under the Ponte Accademia is black, then azure, the lights of the vaporetto turning the waves sunset colors until it disappears in the direction of Ca’ Rezzonico, the palazzo where Robert Browning died. It was owned by his son, Pen, and his rich American daughter-in-law, Fannie Coddington Barrett; Browning, whom Venice made nervous but who could not stay away.


Cynthia Zarin is the author of five books of poetry—including, most recently, Orbit (2017)—as well as five books for children and a collection of essays, An Enlarged Heart: A Personal History (2013). Her honors and awards include a Guggenheim Fellowship for Literature, the Ingram Merrill Award, and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Poetry. A longtime contributor to The New Yorker, Zarin teaches at Yale University.

Excerpt from Two Cities, by Cynthia Zarin, published next week by David Zwirner Books. © 2020 Cynthia Zarin.