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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Sunday, February 13, 2005

Inhabitants celebrate the timeless beauty of Venice

Gondolas are moored along Venice's Grand Canal. Fees are negotiable, depending on how good or bad business has been, but expect to pay $12 to $20 an hour.

Photos by Guy A. Sibilla • Special to The Advertiser

Story and photos by Guy A. Sibilla
Special to The Advertiser

The plague!" declared Lorenza Lian through her puffy, Venetian lips, "We were, how do you say ... relieved of the plague by Santa Maria, and so every Nov. 20th, we light the candles at the Chiesa Santa Maria della Salute in gratitude." She beamed as she talked, as if her Venice had been delivered from the deadly scourge just last week. But the Black Death she was speaking of that killed more than 25 million people across Europe occurred nearly 700 years ago.

Venice is known for its handmade masks, used at masked balls at carnival time; these are by Rico Pinzan.
Venetians, like their little city, have memories that go way back. Outside, there was no end in sight to the line of faithful who inched across a temporary pontoon bridge that reached across the Grand Canal to the church. Well-dressed Venetian women in fur coats and couture shoes and stylishly appointed men crept along a typically narrow calle, or street. It was so narrow in one place that I was sure it was named Calle Thermopylae.

While standing motionless within the crush of worshippers, I concluded that every one of the 30,000 residents of Venice were coming to the church to light votive candles in thanks to Saint Mary. Their devotion reveals a lot about how Venetians view time. In a city as ancient as this, time is relative. To speak of Genghis Khan, Marco Polo, or Cristoforo Columbo is not so much ancient history as it is gossip.

The entryway to the luxurious San Clemente Palace hotel, an island idyll that was once a monastery.
Not all things are as transient as a lifetime. The priest at the central altar recited the Mass while gazing up into 400-year-old billowy marble domes. For today, Venice was the center of the world because for everyone here, the plague was finally over.

On this morning, the Venetians recall the darkness but rejoice in the light.

Then it was time to wander. One learns quickly that the Venetians live their lives close to you. The narrow streets force you to walk within inches of the doors to their homes that spill directly onto cobbled stone streets. There are no great green expanses of lawns or fences or sidewalks to establish some kind of a zone of privacy between you and them. With almost no effort at all, you might overhear a heated discussion on politics or a family talk over dinner or lovers at play. The Venetians live out in the open.

It is no different when it comes to matters of love. Perhaps it is especially Italian to make out in public. Pick a city in Italy, and on the sidewalks and in the piazzas and next to train tracks, Italians engage in the dance of love. And Venice is particularly special because it seems to bring out amore regardless of nationality.

I watched some tourists watching a young couple wrapped in each other's arms under the Ponte Rialto. They hugged and kissed and laughed as if they were home on their couch. Across the North Atlantic Ocean, the phrase "behind closed doors" has meaning. But not here. In Venice, life takes place in the sun or rain. In the heat or cold. Friends stand at coffee bars and talk heatedly of taxes and fashion and the high cost of fruit. Their hands move up and down for punctuation. If Venice is anything, it is a passionate life lived in the light of day.

"To-day weel be veeeery emozional xpeer-eeance forrr you!" purred Gianluca, a handsome concierge at the majestic San Clemente Palace. (See accompanying story.) A pretty young lady had just admitted to him that this was her first visit to this fabled floating city. "Vayneece weel take yourrr heart!" he said in that charming way Italians have of effortlessly causing women to swoon.

At a service celebrating the city's escape from the plague hundreds of years ago, Venetians light candles at Santa Maria della Salute church.
She listened as Gianluca spoke of the buildings whose hues of ochre and mustard and maroon have been faded by the sun and salty air. He spoke of the bounty of the Adriatic Sea upon which Venetians build their proud cuisine, and the fearless history of a people that once fought Genoa for control of the seaports along the coasts of Africa, and those in the Adriatic, Aegean and Black Seas.

Laundry flash

I had more modest goals. On a gloriously sunny day, I was in search of Venetian food. I followed Calle del Forno until it emptied into Campo Santa Margherita. Before it did, I glanced up to catch a flash of white movement overhead, only to discover a clothesline onto which were strung undergarments — T-shirts, bras, panties and shorts. I swung my camera upward and composed a shot of what I considered to be an unusual and interesting sight. I released the shutter, recalling Gianluca's words to the girl: Venice will take your heart! A day later it occurred to me that I had taken a photograph of ... well, laundry. Venice casts a spell.

Instant photos

And millions of visitors yearly succumb to it. Venice now receives more than 12 million visitors yearly, and everyone buys a map from one of the carts near the Rialto Bridge. But one soon discovers that wandering the winding walkways is no different with a map or without one. As far as reckoning goes, it seems to make little difference either way. Then the epiphany. I realized that what I was searching for didn't really exist. It wasn't a place I was after. It was a feeling. This was what I saw in the eyes of that pretty young woman in the San Clemente Palace.

On a narrow back canal, a gondolier in traditional garb rows past ancient buildings.
But you can feel Venice elsewhere. For the first time in all of the years I have been coming here, I stared in disbelief at the majestic facade of the Palazzo Ducale. Behind those walls, the once powerful doges of Venice planned wars, tried criminals and commissioned works of art. I laughed, wondering how the doges would greet the news that an exact, scale copy of this structure now adorned the American desert, calling itself the Venetian Hotel on the Las Vegas Strip. Decadence made new to look old is a sign of wealth without depth.

Unlike facades, the light in Venice cannot be duplicated. "La luce," I say to myself, "che bella!" as if saying how beautiful the light is in Italian would give me the inspiration I must have to find a vision never before captured on film by any of the millions of people with their millions of Nikons and Canons and Minoltas and Pentaxs and now, telephones equipped with digital cameras. In Venice, it is apparent that it is not enough anymore simply to take a photograph of someone in the most beautiful city in the world. The personal telephone has completely changed the focus (pun intended) of picture-taking.

Venice is no longer the center of attention. It has become a setting, a venue in front of which someone stands to have their picture taken. And in the age of I-must-have-it-now, it has become necessary to take a telephoto — a digital photograph with your telephone — for the purpose of instantly (if not sooner) transmitting it to someone in place of conversation. The joy of photography is now so immediate. Instead of telling a friend where you are, you can now show them. A picture is worth a-cellular-plan-with-free-calls-on-weekends.

Harry's bar

A week before my fall visit, Venice had been drowning under three feet of water. But today, there was sunshine and pigeons and giddy lovers everywhere. Harry's Bar, famous for its Hemingway martinis and just off the main piazza, was serving delicate cocktails to habitual clientele and tourists alike. Dark green opaque water slapped against the docks and vaporettos (motorboats) crisscrossed the channels that separated Venice from the tiny islands scattered in the lagoon of the same name.

A cold wind from Austria sent a chill as people pulled their scarves and coats a little closer. As gondoliers shouted for business, it came to me that Venice is many things. But most of all, Venice is life at play.