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A literary approach to Venice

Travel Writing

This article was first publishing in the Times Online, on  January 25, 2006

Sarah Anderson wanders the streets of Venice with only literary greats as her guide

So much has been written about Venice – what is there to add? But of course there is always something new and for me, initially at least, it was the rain. It poured. “The vice in the air, otherwise, was too much like the breath of fate. The weather had changed, the rain was ugly, the wind wicked, the sea impossible” (Henry James The Wings of the Dove).

Not wanting to wait in a long queue to get into the Accademia we decided to go to the well-known Locanda Montin (Fondamenta di Borgo 1147, Dorsoduro 1147) for a glass of prosecco and a plate of warming pasta. Although in the past Montin’s hosted Ezra Pound, Hemingway and Peggy Guggenheim and continues to attract the famous – Robert de Niro, Brad Pitt, Yoko Ono and Mick Jagger, that wet Sunday there were few other lunchers.

By the time we had finished lunch there was no queue at the Accademia and so we went to look at Carpaccio’s Story of St Ursula. The American poet Amy Lowell (1874-1925) referred to by T.S. Eliot as ‘the demon saleswoman of poetry’, wrote a poem about the series of paintings called The Dream of St Ursula:


“Swept, clean, and still, across the polished floor

From some unshuttered casement, hid from sight,

The level sunshine slants, its greater light

Quenching the little lamp which pallid, poor,

Flickering, unreplenished, at the door

Has striven against darkness the long night.

Dawn fills the room, and penetrating, bright,

The silent sunbeams through the window pour.

And she lies sleeping, ignorant of Fate,

Enmeshed in listless dreams, her soul not yet

Ripened to bear the purport of this day.

The morning breeze scarce stirs the coverlet,

A shadow falls across the sunlight; wait!

A lark is singing as he flies away”.


The Ghetto is an interesting place in which to wander and one of the many places where it’s easy to get lost: “Despite the maps, they frequently became lost, and could spend an hour or so doubling back and around, consulting (Colin’s trick) the position of the sun, to find themselves approaching a familiar landmark from an unexpected direction, and still lost” (Ian McEwan The Comfort of Strangers).

Although Shylock from Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice made his famous speech about being a Jew in Venice, the reality was that Venice was one of the few states to tolerate the Jewish religion: “I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions, fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as a Christian is?” Many of the buildings in the Ghetto look different from those in the rest of Venice; there are on average seven stories crammed into a building with a low overall height.

A crowded, touristy but nevertheless fun place to eat near the Rialto Bridge is Alla Madonna (Calle della Madonna 594). Famous for its fish, both the seafood risotto and the grilled sole were delicious. An excellent but slightly out-of-the-way place to buy leatherbound books is Il Mercante Veneziano in Castello 2139. But since nothing is very far in Venice and jumping on a vaporetto is easy, we were soon there.

We planned a weather-dependent trip to Torcello and were blessed with the most glorious November day: “Seven miles to the north of Venice, the banks of sand, which nearer the city rise little above low-water mark, attain by degrees a higher level, and knit themselves at last into fields of salt morass, raised here and there into shapeless mounds, and intercepted by narrow creeks of sea” (Ruskin The Stones of Venice).

We lunched on zuccini and bacon pasta in the garden at the Al Ponte del Diavolo (041.730.401) before going on to see the calm and serene Santa Fosca – beating the hoards from a cruise ship by minutes. The Cathedral of Santa Maria dell’Assunta “ … is simple and sophisticated at the same time, bold and tremulous too”, (Jan Morris Venice) The apse has a magnificent mosaic of the Madonna and Child who stand alone in a field of gold above a frieze of the Apostles. The windows outside the Cathedral have 11th century stone shutters and the bell tower dominates the area:

“On this mound is built a rude brick campanile, of the commonest Lombardic type, which if we ascend towards evening (and there are none to hinder us, the door of its ruinous staircase swinging idly on its hinges), we may command from it one of the most notable scenes in this wide world of ours. Far as the eye can reach, a waste of wild sea moor, of a lurid ashen grey; not like our northern moors with their jet-black pools and purple heath, but lifeless, the colour of sackcloth, with the corrupted sea-water soaking through the roots of its acrid weeds, and gleaming hither and thither through its snaky channels. No gathering of fantastic mists, nor coursing of clouds across it; but melancholy clearness of space in the warm sunset, oppressive, reaching to the horizon of its level gloom” (Ruskin The Stones of Venice).

I left Venice with a mixture of feelings and emotions – at many times it feels like a giant museum – yet it is endlessly captivating and I knew that I would be back: “Yes, this was Venice, this the fair frailty that fawned and that betrayed, half fairy-tale, half snare” (Thomas Mann Death in Venice).