I have been told that you hesitate to come to Venice, so I am writing to you to dispel some of the evil things you may have heard said of my pisans — yes, pisans because Venice is more of a village than a city. Most people hurry through in a few hours, they see San Marco and they run away again, but if you stay, even just a couple of days and you will see what I mean. Walk with me in mind’s eye for a moment. Yes, that’s the same man you saw walking his dog this morning and that woman was ahead of you at the alimentare. She’s the one who took forever making the exact change. I’ll tell you a secret. She is sure, every day since we changed from the lira to euros that she is being cheated and it is eating away at her, shortening her life by, well, months, so perhaps it is no matter.
Venetians are merchants first, make no mistake. That much of what you have heard is true. They would collect each glint of silver off their canals if they could and charge you for them. You think I am joking? Let me tell you the tale of a real merchant of Venice.
Angelo Malvaise was already a rich man when it came time to find his daughter a husband, but he saw nothing wrong with being richer, so he betrothed his daughter Catherine to the only son of an even wealthier merchant, Pietro Di’Giambasta, who had made his fortune like so many other Venetians, trading in spices and silks from the east. In the wall of his old house you can still see a bas-relief of a camel, laden with goods being led in a caravan by a turbaned boy. When you come, I will show you.
Angelo was a doting father. Why, his neighbors and his servants said that he loved Catherine almost as much as he loved money and the wine that both made his family’s fortune and gave them their name — malvaise. The English loved it also. They call it malmsey. They use it to drown their royalty I understand, but that is another story and not mine. I will show you the bas-relief in Angelo’s house too when you come. It depicts a man emptying an amphora of wine, as it were into the viewer’s space, but of course the Malvaise were never so profligate – but my thoughts are wandering, just as I wander the streets and campos of my beloved Venice. Angelo so loved his daughter that he often begged the Di’Giambastas to share her with him for visits, sometimes for weeks at a time. He said he wanted to enjoy her company before she made him a grandfather and could not spare him any time. She was all of fourteen, and her husband Jacopo only eleven, and more interested in his dogs and fencing lessons than in his wife so he and his father happily consented to Catherine’s extended visits to her father’s house, while he waited until he would become a grandfather.
These were terrible times, understand, people married young – Juliet in your Mr. Shakespeare’s play, she is fourteen, and lives in fair Verona which, by the way is part of the Veneto. Verona took her orders from La Serenissima’s velvet gloved hands for centuries. Young girls and women often died in childbed and anyone might die of one of the plagues that stealthily entered Venice, staying sometimes for months, before slipping inexplicably away in the company of the many souls they had taken. Were these plagues stowaways on the many ships from many lands that brought Venice wealth? Or, did they alight in Venice from the fog and lurk along the calles and in the dark sotoportegos, waiting like many a cutpurse? Were they, as many feared, judgments? I do not know.
Angelo waited. Catherine spent happy hours with her mother perfecting her already considerable skills in embroidery. When at last a watchman in one of Angelo’s warehouses succumbed — quickly, mind — to the plague one damp November, he sent his son-in-law, Jacopo a puppy wrapped in the dead man’s blanket. The boy was delighted, as was Angelo when his daughter was left the only survivor and heir to the Di’Giambasta fortune. He was proud too when she renounced the world (and all her worldly goods) and entered a convent.
Remind me when you come to take you to Salute, the huge church we built to the Virgin to thank her for taking the plague away. Or perhaps you would rather visit the plague pit, the Campo Dei Morti, with me? If we go at night, you may hear, as I do, the long dead murmuring beneath the paving stones.
At the same time we will stop in at the nearby church — it’s been re-consecrated many times following, well, acts unbefitting a church. For instance — you will no doubt have seen pictures of the magnificent clock in the Piazza of San Marco? The one with two huge sculptures of men that toll the hours by striking the bells with hammers. That clock was and is a matter of great pride, and so jealous is Venice that when the craftsmen who built it finished it, the Council of Ten grew concerned that those two men would be tempted to create a timepiece for a rival city that would surpass their clock. This was surely a just suspicion. Those men were no doubt prideful. It is said that those bronze giants are self-portraits. Orders were given. Those two talented men, who were already immortalized, after all, were caught at last though they sought refuge in the church I mentioned and blinded. No clock rivals that of Venice. I do beg your pardon. I take a childish delight in such tales. Venice is not a very good sanctuary I’m afraid. Never forget that her symbol is a lion, not a lamb.
She is a whore and you must pay for her comforts. She overcharges you for less than she promised, ah caveat emptor – but you will buy eagerly, because of who she is, and what you’ve heard and because you may not pass this way again. Well. I am proud of her. She is like so many women I have known whose vitality strikes you immediately, bella figura, certainly, but much more – something a great painter can capture, but not a photographer. They know they are not beautiful, but they know how to carry themselves, how to dress, to style their hair, where to sit in a restaurant or theatre where the light will suit them best. They know they are not beautiful, but you do not until it is too late of course, and your pocket has been picked, it’s dawn and your head is pounding.
Yes, let us talk of light, the light of Venice that so delighted Turner it made him impatient for dawn so he could paint it. (I think there must be many congruencies between the English and Venetian soul – how else can you explain that an Englishman is the only one who could truly paint Venice?)
Of the seven deadly sins, as I have said, avarice is the Venetian favorite and we have built many temples to it. Go to Padua my friend. It too was part of the Veneto and for centuries took its direction from Serenissima. In Padua you will find the Scrovengio Chapel which was built to make amends for the family’s appalling avarice. But I ask you, does a man who is truly ashamed of his profits use them to commission the greatest artist of his age, Giotto, to decorate his chapel (and paint himself as one of the elect?) I call that conspicuous consumption in celestial style. And it makes me laugh. I’m sorry, but it does. After all I’ve seen over the years it seems to me only small souls begrudge such things.
After all, in the end it’s the artist who wins. Walk through the Accademia. When you stumble on a portrait among the Madonnas with their bambini most often you will see it is “a portrait of a man,” or of a woman — no name — in spite of having had the money to commission the paint spattered wretch who limned them — see here, “An Unknown Gentleman” by Bellini — and so Bellini wins, however many gentlemanly sneers he may have had to endure. People wonder at the clock — what tour guide knows the name of a single member of the Council of Ten, though over the centuries they were legion?
After all I’ve told you of her avarice, of her cruelty, you will be surprised that I am the only tenant in a large palazzo on the busy, profitable Strada Nuova that funnels the unsuspecting and their predators from the train station into the city. The garden is a mess and the shutters are always closed. Only very late at night you might see a knife-edge of light from my flat on the third floor on the corner. Surely, you would think, I would be evicted, the piano nobile turned into stores to sell, what else? Carnival masks, marbled papers, lace and glass purportedly from Murano across the lagoon, and my flat and its empty neighbors into self-catering holiday apartments. It will never happen, and I’ll tell you why.
For all its sins, this is a city that abhors loneliness. Among the many people that I have met and guided there was a lovely Mexican lady. She recognized me instantly and accepted me as a friend. She told me that where she came from, on the Day of the Dead each year, the departed are invited back to earth. Altars are built to them in the graveyards to welcome them back to earth. They are heaped with the things they enjoyed in life. Always they build one special altar for the anima sola, the souls alone with no one to welcome them back to earth, with no one to walk with them. I told her, this is very Venetian. Look how we promenade every evening, not just to display the latest fashion, or to ensure that those furs we never need to keep us warm don’t get the moth. When a man attained our highest office and became doge, he was never alone again, never allowed to leave his palace without permission or unaccompanied. Solitude is anathema here, and in this we are sincerely devout. I will never be forced from my palazzo, however dangerously decayed it may become, however, temptingly profitable its location. My pisans know and they respect that I must be here to ensure that no traveler spends his or her time here alone. As I always have.
So never fear, when you come to Venice, I will keep you company, however short or long your stay.
BIO: Sandra Glaze is a Canadian writer and editor. When You Come to Venice is one of a collection of ghost stories. The Resident Guest appeared in On Spec and was chosen for their 25th anniversary anthology, Casserole Diplomacy and other Stories. Gemma’s Inferno and Dust appeared in Ambit Magazine and Tears in the Fence respectively, both UK publications. She is also the author of a children’s book, Willobe of Wuzz. She lives in a little town with a small but ferocious dachshund.