Lion of Venice, Photo: Didier Descouens. CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0).
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? Read More