Love in the Time of Gondolas

By Patricia E. Dempsey
Sunday, March 25, 2007

I AM HUNCHED IN A FIVE-FOOT-HIGH PRISON CELL THAT'S HOT ENOUGH TO MELT WAX. At the urging of my 15-year-old son James, we've hiked, on a tour, up to the attic of the Palazzo Ducale, a Gothic architectural marvel whose sculpted facade was a cunning veil for the Venetian republic. Behind palace walls, a dance of power played out in passageways and chambers where Venice's notorious Council of Ten could denounce a man with a whispered accusation that sent him to the torture chamber, the gallows or, as in the case of one Venetian -- the swashbuckling libertine Giacomo Casanova -- to this prison cell.

A father and daughter from Lisbon squeeze in near the doorway. The father has his hand protectively on his daughter's shoulder, and with good reason: At maybe 15, she's a goddess with wide, green eyes, size double-zero jeans with a cuff turned up just so above her tanned ankle, revealing a tiny chain with a heart. Our guide, a petite brunette, is a university student who describes in sultry, heavy-lidded English how no one escaped from the dreaded I Piombi -- "The Leads"-- so called because the roof above us was laid with lead plates to ensure the misery of inferno heat in the summer and frigid air in the winter. She pauses, "until Cahz-ahh-NOH-vahh."

"One can imagine," the guide says, "Cassanova squatted in this cell, using a tiny metal spike to chip, chip, chip a splintered tunnel through the huge timber beam," she taps her foot, "right here." We gaze down at her pointed toe -- except James, who has a look of dazed wonder. He's looking at the girl. He edges near the teenage beauty to get on her radar. She looks over her shoulder, more than once, curious about this tall, blond American boy. Until her father tilts his shoulder forward and cuts in.

Our guide tells us that Casanova's captors, believing he was a model prisoner, moved him from this squatty cell -- just hours before he would have finished the tunnel hidden beneath his straw mattress. His new digs had books, a high ceiling and a view of the sea. Casanova persuaded a monk, Father Balbi, in the cell above him, to make the next tunnel; he did this by writing notes in Latin, which his guard could not read, in books delivered among prisoners with privileges. Casanova had the wit to have his guard deliver to Father Balbi his precious tunneling tool -- a metal spike -- hidden in the spine of a Bible; weeks later the monk tunneled through to Casanova's ceiling. As Casanova tells it in his memoirs, he hoisted himself into the monk's cell and used the spike to pry aside a lead plate. He scaled the roof, then reentered the palace far from the prisons, and a guard who mistook him for a high-ranking official let him walk out. His next stop? Paris.

As our guide herds us along, James manages to be a few paces behind or beside the girl. Bronzed skin, a profile that could have graced a Roman coin, sun-touched hair. She starts to inch closer to James, but her father's stern glance stops her. She smiles, holding back a laugh.

"Legend has it," our guide tells us, "that Ca-sanova stopped for coffee at Cafe Florian in the Piazza San Marco before hailing a gondola -- to the mainland, then Paris, where his published account of his escape from I Piombi, hugely flattering to himself, of course, became something of a bestseller."

As tall as he is, James is forced to hunch under the low ceilings as we walk, then he shyly -- accidentally? -- bumps into the girl. "Excuse me, Maria." He knows her name!

"Casanova was imprisoned for witchcraft," the guide continues, "probably to get him out of circulation, because his political contacts posed a threat to the republic. Venice the city-state did not concern itself with his many, over 100, amours, even a liaison with a nun."

James turns around, eyeballs two nuns in our entourage, then Maria, with a goofy grin. She starts to giggle, and James says, "Wow, he sounds like a real swinger."

As James and I walk down the wide slab steps where Casanova hitched a ride with a gondolier, he waves to Maria, blissfully unaware, as fresh and new as he is to crushes and romance, of what it means to say goodbye forever. Back at sea level, I'm happy to be outside, near this shimmering turquoise lagoon off the Adriatic, as gulls circle and caw. I'm done with dizzying heat and heights -- especially romantic ones. Yet I have come to Venice to rediscover romance. Perhaps this trip will help renew my belief in it.

THE IDEA FOR THIS JOURNEY BEGAN MORE THAN A YEAR AGO. I was standing in a mom-and-pop bookstore at Bethany Beach, surveying paperbacks and coffee-table tomes laid out like a rummage sale. I'm drawn to tales of life-changing wanderings and was captivated by yet another book by an American divorcee who makes an ecstatic conversion to all things Italian, especially food and love. In her memoir, A Thousand Days in Venice, chef Marlena de Blasi describes a brief encounter -- eye contact -- in the Piazza San Marco when she was in Venice for work; when this same man spots her again by chance a year later, he tells her, "I have been loving you since I laid eyes on you a year ago." Blasi moved to Venice and married this man whom she calls "the stranger." In another story I found later in one of those juicy, ubiquitous women's magazines, a single mom with two boys the ages of mine (14 and 16 at the time) described how she fell in love with her tour guide in Rome and then moved there with loads of baggage to live happily ever after, or so she says.

I was divorced more than a decade ago and have never remarried. There have been romances, yes, but nothing has restored my belief in a romance that lasts. I've been engaged and disengaged; I've learned about the exact stages of a romantic relationship, the 12 steps to happiness, how to decode online profiles, how to detect a toupee from 10 feet. And I've found other inventive ways of beating the soulful mystery of romance like a broken drum: I've walked a labyrinth, meditated, shared mantras, danced salsa and tango, and practiced aromatherapy to temporarily stir my soul.

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