Tuesday 10 March 2009

The loveliest city in the world

It has been a week of abandoned principles. Jaws apparently dropped as I took to the dance floor on the evening of my wedding, in defiance of one of my strictest precepts, and since then I have also done flying and abroad.

In the last 25 years only three places have enticed me out of the British Isles: Venice, Paris and Rome. But it is Venice that keeps drawing me back. It seems to exert a peculiar fascination for the educated English, whose accents may not predominate among the day trippers thronging the piazza of St Mark’s even now, in what is surely the ultimate off season; but they certainly vie with Italian for pre-eminence everywhere else, including the most obscure churches, palaces and restaurants.

This could simply be because Venice is the loveliest city in the world. But it is also the perfect place to fulfil that deep-rooted middle class need to spend holidays doing something “improving”, wandering around with guidebook in hand, nodding knowledgeably. The only snag being that the art and architecture are so utterly overwhelming that one could spend a lifetime here and never hope to take it all in.

Then again, it could be because of the lessons the place as a whole can teach us. In its day Venice was the heart of an empire, and the greatest naval power on earth. The weather can be dismal, the people rude, and it is not renowned for its cuisine. It all sounds very familiar, does it not?

Like any other self-respecting world class tourist attraction, Venice has its greatest buildings swathed in scaffolding, but the predominant impression as one strolls along the quieter back canals, or through its narrow alleyways and courtyards, is of elegant decay. This is an ancient dowager, who was a renowned beauty in her youth, but is now battling against hopeless odds to present an acceptable face to the world. If the global warming enthusiasts are correct, rising sea levels will soon do for her as surely as they will for low-lying island nations like the Maldives and Kiribati.

Apart from the moveable treasures, what will be left to us is countless billions of photographs, for everywhere one hears the click of lenses and blinks at the flash of bulbs. Whole generations have grown up seemingly unable to experience anything unless they interpose a camera between themselves and whatever they have supposedly come to see. I have even gone to pay my respects at funeral processions where I found myself almost the only person not trying frantically to photograph the coffin as it passed by.

On Saturday evening my wife (ah, the joy of writing that!) and I attended a concert of popular operatic arias and were surrounded by men eagerly videoing the performance rather than watching it. For what conceivable purpose?

It is very hard indeed to establish what happens to all the digital images that are so carefully squirreled away. Two weekends ago we were the unaccustomed centre of attention at our wedding, yet despite numerous requests we have yet to be sent one decent picture of ourselves, though at least we have not received any indecent ones, either.

The lesson I take home from this dying city is that life is short and for living, not for capturing on film. Venice was created by refugees, who took shelter on the marshy islands of the lagoon as the barbarian hordes descended on the crumbling Roman empire. Perhaps, in 1,500 years time, our descendants will be able to visit something equally beautiful created by the survivors of climate change in what is now the Siberian or Canadian Arctic. I would not bet on it, but just this once I feel minded to end on a hopeful note; and an urgent reminder to experience Venice while you still can.


Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

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