Tuesday, 23 August 2011

Just back from the most beautiful city on earth - and feeling grateful

Since returning from my eighth holiday in Venice a few days’ ago, I’ve been trying to think of anything original to say about the place. But it’s pointless. You know that every thought or impression that pops into your head while you’re there has occurred to at least a million people before you. Instead, I’ll content myself with a series of deeply unoriginal observations .

Since I first arrived in what has proved to be my favourite city as a 19 year old student late one evening 39 years and one month ago I’ve often wondered why Venice affects those of us who love it so instantly, and why one’s enthusiasm never seems to wane. For me, at least, the answer is architecture and transport. Ruskin was right: the world has never produced a more pleasing architectural style than Venetian Gothic. It manages to be, at the same time, exuberant and restrained; magnificent and opulent yet always on an intimate, human scale; European and Arabic; built to a template and yet individual and quirky; correct and pleased with itself, it is nevertheless warm and inviting, friendly and playful. But above all it is beautiful – transcendentally, shimmeringly, heart-squeezingly beautiful. 

And the beauty isn’t only skin deep - i.e. confined to the Grand Canal or the main tourist areas. The scruffiest little square in the most remote region of the city invariably yields at least one architectural gem - usually several. The meanest alleys and narrowest back-water canals lead to buildings that make you feel glad to be alive: all this poised, elegant perfection seems to have been hidden away in the unlikeliest spots simply to delight generations of foot-sore passers-by.

As if that wasn’t enough, there’s the city’s waterbuses, the Venetian Vaporetto that stand alongside the Routemaster Bus as the most identifiable, enjoyable and practical form of public transport on the globe. Like every tourist, I prefer the old-fashioned sort with a big, open deck for standing in the middle and a banquette of seats in the open air at the back. I’ve often thought that there are few greater pleasures in life than sitting in the back of a London taxi at someone else’s expense, but I think managing to bag one of those privileged seats at the back (or sides) of a vaporetto on a sultry summer’s evening or a freezing winter’s day is an even greater treat (an 8pm curfew on exhausted, fractious children under the age of ten would make it perfect).

Then there’s the paintings – the Bellinis and Carpaccios, Titians and Veroneses, the Tiepolos and the Giorgiones. And the churches (the Miracoli, the Frari, the San Zanipolo, the Gesuiti to the north and the Gesuati in the south, the bulgingly muscular Salute,  and the glorious arc of three Palladian churches visible from the Zattere – and dozens and dozens of others). And the interiors of palaces on the Grand Canal – the Ca’ D’Oro and the Ca’ Rezzonico in particular. And the Doge’s Palace and St Mark’s (if you can ever get in) and the endless squares and the gardens where they hold the Biennale and the austere beauty of the Fondamenta Nuove and the cemetery island of San Michele and the multicoloured houses on the island of Burano and the astonishing Byzantine mosaics in Santa Maria Assunta Cathedral on Torcello - never has so much soul-delighting beauty been created in one place. 

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