Chimerical and indulgent, the light of Venice spreads a seductive net over the lagoon and its inhabitants.Constantly changing, unvarying only in its transience, it will range in an afternoon through all the hues in the spectrum.
The world, however, seems to change reluctantly here. Stone upon wood upon water, the city is medieval in appearance and byzantine in complexity. The streets wind and wander; the alleys often end abruptly in canals. An hour's determined walk can leave you around the corner from your starting place.
And everywhere is the disintegration brought by tides and pollution. Apartments crumble discreetly, the bell towers lean awkwardly, and the palaces are blackened. While eventually likely to prove the city's doom, this slow decomposition meanwhile lends Venice an uneasy charm, delight mixed with a slice of foreboding.
That attraction is cause enough for a visit, and the crowds descend regularly and in force. But as popular as the Most Serene Republic has always been, it still has worthy corners that many visitors miss. Three places in particular remain relatively unappreciated: San Lazzaro, an Armenian monastery so cleverly hidden in the lagoon that some maps fail even to list it; the Ghetto, birthplace of the word and the idea, but also once one of the great centers of Jewish civilization in Europe; and Torcello, the island that gave birth to Venice and now is a perfect companion to it, unpopulated and unspoiled.
Their connecting thread is the lagoon, Laguna Ve'neta. Always, around every corner and at the end of every street, there is water. Dirty and murky up close, glimmering and iridescent in the distance, the liquid enfolds the city, drawing it into itself, making it tighter, cozier. You might be on a ship, letting the tides drift you wherever they pleased.
"The Venice of today is a vast museum where the little wicket that admits you is perpetually turning and creaking, and you march through the institution with a herd of fellow-gazers. There is nothing left to discover or describe, and originality of attitude is completely impossible."
Such might be the grievance of any contemporary tourist, but these particular words belong to Henry James, writing more than a hundred years ago. Venice might be overexposed and overcrowded, but it's always been that way.
It doesn't matter. Everything said about the city -- that the gondolas are like hearses, that the lagoon looks like bath water left in the tub too long, or that when the Piazza San Marco is lit up at night, it resembles a vast stage set -- may have been said before, but visitors, if they care, can still make fresh discoveries.
On the Riva degli Schiavoni, near the Piazza San Marco, there is a multitude of stops for the vaporetti, the diesel boats that regularly and efficiently carry natives and tourists to all points in Venice and the lagoon.
Line No. 20 is different. It sails to the women's hospital of La Grazia and to San Servolo, a former asylum for "noble maniacs" that is now a hospital for the mentally ill. These are two of Le Isole del Dolore, the Isles of Sadness. On this vaporetto run are nurses, old men with flowers, distant relatives of the mentally ill here for their annual visit. Only a handful of passengers travel to the final stop, the Armenian monastery of San Lazzaro.
The island is small, and once was even smaller. It has been enlarged to the point where it holds a rambling cloister, a ring of cypress trees, several terraces and a small park that looks back toward Venice. A more exotic tinge is lent by the rounded, oriental bell tower. It's a restful place, an easy spot to imagine chucking it all and diving in to a life of monastic meditation.
While it welcomes visitors, San Lazzaro nevertheless tries to keep a low profile. It's a hybrid of several things: museum, seminary, cultural center, shrine of Armenian memories and, for items ranging from menus to "Mon Premier Livre d'Histoire d'Armenia," a printing plant. It's been called a Dickensian place, and there is still something Victorian about these monks in their dark cassocks, although now they're equipped with walkie-talkies, and some wear sneakers.
If San Lazzaro has a guiding spirit, it's Lord Byron. The poet spent three years in Venice, and "by way of divertisement" visited the monastery to study Armenian. If his ambition was honorable -- his mind, he said, "wanted something craggy to break upon" -- the results were mixed; but the Armenian alphabet, with its 38 characters, is not easy to learn, and Byron, who had more than 200 romances during his Venetian interlude, had lots else to do.
Nevertheless, the monks took him to heart. Arrive on the 3:05 boat and they will be waiting to take you around, proudly showing you the poet's relics: the room where he wrote, his desk, his pen, his portrait, the chair inlaid with ivory where he sat. And they will quote with approval his comment that San Lazzaro "appears to unite all the advantages of the monastic institution, without any of its vices."
There are other treasures on the tour: an ornate gothic church, a manuscript page from a Koran printed in 715, copies of illuminated "Lives of the Saints," a 1647 gold-leaf Armenian Bible, paintings by minor masters, 15th-century tapestries, intricate needlepoint, wooden carvings, Chinese ivories, thousands upon thousands of books and ancient manuscripts, and, what is revealed as the pie ce de re'sistance, the 3,000-year-old mummy and sarcophagus of the Egyptian prince Nechmeklet. Its head is unwrapped and looks like burnt wood; nearby are a pile of its blackened teeth.
Not many of these items appear to bear any relationship to one another, or to have any specific reason for having been given to the island. It's as if an exceptionally high tide washed them ashore and the monks simply dried them off and put them on shelves. Nevertheless, it's pleasant to wander around in the cool corridors: San Lazzaro's atmosphere of easygoing contemplation -- in which the past isn't so much recaptured as never lost -- is very much in the Venetian tradition.
In the shadow of the rose-ringed central courtyard I found Father Basil, an elderly monk who had been on San Lazzaro for 12 years. The monastery, he said, was established in 1717 by an Armenian Catholic monk called Mechitar, meaning the consoler. The island, which had previously been a shelter for lepers and suspected lepers, became a cultural refuge for the Armenians, who then as always were on uneasy terms with their neighbors in what is the present-day Soviet Union and Turkey.
Was there really, as I had heard, a box of manna -- the Biblical food miraculously provided for the Israelites in the wilderness -- in the keeping of the monks?
"No manna," he said, dismissing the stories with a wave. "We do have a mummy, though. Perhaps you'd like to see it?"
Another of the lost wonders of the monastery was a banana tree, which, I discovered, had been washed away in the record flood of Nov. 4, 1966. On the side of the cloister is a plaque that gives the flood's high-water mark. It's three feet off the ground; essentially, the whole island was at least briefly underwater.
For Basil, it is a constant reminder of the instability of earthly life.
"Who can tell what will happen to us?" he asked. "There may be an earthquake, like in Mexico, and then we will have nothing. One more good flood will wipe out this island."
Salvation, he made clear, lay in the monk's efforts to preserve the past and educate the future. "We have our work to do," he said. "But if you want to learn something, you can come here too, and we will let you in."
With this spirit of amiability -- not to mention its acquisitive instinct -- San Lazzaro is a miniature Venice. The founders of the city 15 centuries ago were exiles, and visitors ever since have been made welcome. It's a place of coexistence, where even a casual stroll reveals multiple strategies of companionship. Sons and mothers wait patiently for the Scuola di San Giorgio degli Schiavoni museum to reopen in the afternoon, while old poets sit and eat plates of whipped cream at Florian's cafe' and couples walking along the quays lean heavily on each other, as if they were wounded soldiers.
Venice is designed for walking. In the pale light before sunrise, when the tourists are sleeping off the museums and the natives planning their escape, the city presents its best face to the pedestrian. Yellow light glimmers through the shutters of the early risers; the alley cats stalk regally in the squares. The canals are at their most placid, quietly licking at the palaces. In any other city there would be the roar of traffic. Here there are only the wheeling, squawking pigeons. And the far-off murmur of the sea.
Most visitors to Venice arrive by train, and for them the Lista di Spagna and the Rio Terra San Leonardo exist to trap the unwary. These adjoining streets are full of shops touting "Io Venezia" T-shirts in six different languages, greasy frites and stale sandwiches, overpriced clothes and exquisitely ugly glassware. But step away from this tacky reminder of the decline of Venetian merchandising and walk a few blocks to the north, and the crowds and glitz will quickly fall away.
This is the Cannaregio. One of the poorer districts of Venice, it is full of quiet apartments and deserted canals. The alleyways have the sadness and the stench of poverty; the only sign of life is an abundance of laundry hung out to dry. On a small island at the heart of this nondescript area, however, lie the remnants of a once-fabled community: the Venetian Ghetto.
For generations this was a center of Jewish learning, a place of refuge, a bustling trading post and a well-known stop on the Grand Tour. "Happy, indeed, is the Jewish community that has no history," says historian Cecil Roth, and for long stretches the Venetian Ghetto had no history.
Surrounded by a tranquil canal of pale green water, the island was originally the site of the city's new foundry, the Ghetto Nuovo. When the Venetian Jews were rounded up and confined here on April 10, 1516, the name remained. A quarter-century later, the neighborhood was expanded to encompass the site of an older foundry, the Ghetto Vecchio. By 1633, when the Newest Ghetto was added, the label had become generic and the notion was being exported. Soon there were ghettos everywhere.
If a community can't grow outward, it must grow upward, and the buildings in the Ghetto reach to six and seven stories, much the highest in Venice. There are few Jews living in them now, and not much to see: a small museum, a Holocaust memorial, a Jewish rest home and a few shops, one of which sells a $5,000 glass chess set that once again pits the Christians against the Jews. But the historical evocation of a teeming community of 5,000 souls is its own reward, as is All' Antica Mola, an unpresumptuous neighborhood trattoria across the Ponte dei Ormesini from the Ghetto -- a suitable place for mulling over all matters Jewish and Venetian.
If you consider the history of the Venetian Ghetto, it's possible to see two sides. On the one hand, the Venetians found the Jews to be kindred spirits, perhaps realizing that here was another people who had been set apart. And they did more than sympathize: They defended. Until the Nazis, no pogrom or riot ever touched the Jews of Venice.
Such security had its literal price, however. Money was the speediest way to a Venetian's heart, and the citizens loved the Jews for their ducats. The Jews were forced to pay huge sums just for the right to remain in the city, and even had to pay the salaries of the Christian guards who secured the Ghetto gates at nightfall.
The response of the Jews to these and other humiliations was to increase the emphasis on their own community life, at the heart of which was the synagogue. There are five in Venice -- the Canton, Spanish, Italian and German and Levantine. Only the last of these is regularly open for services, and even it isn't particularly easy to get into. Before being allowed into ceremonies for sukkoth, the festival of thanksgiving, I was thoroughly frisked and questioned by two young doormen.
The hall of worship in the 450-year-old Levantine synagogue is richly furnished but shows its age, like the musty apartment of an elderly aunt. The red tapestries are faded and cracked; the chandeliers tarnished; the lavishly intricate wooden bimah -- the platform for the rabbi -- is also showing signs of wear.
Services in the Venetian synagogues have a tradition of being spirited. One English visitor noted in 1608 that prayers were conducted "not by a sober, distinct, and orderly reading, but by an exceeding loud yaling, undecent roaring, and as it were a beastly bellowing of it forth." My experience wasn't quite so wild, but it had its own vigor.
As the women watched from their gallery above, a lively young rabbi led 11 elderly men through the harvest ritual. The congregation displayed a sprightly sense of enthusiasm, and the pure, sweet tones of a resurgent spirit came through in their chants. Strong sunlight raised the dust on the tapestries, mingling with pleasing smells from the nearby kosher bakery.
For all the noise, it was a peaceful scene. If guards are still necessary, at least they're no longer being used to pen the Jews in.
Ascend to the top of the San Marco campanile, and a trick of perspective will render all the canals invisible. The eye is instead drawn to the other bell towers, which, oddly enough, seem to lean. But perhaps this was only the wine at lunch?
No, they do lean. Nearly all the city's 170 campaniles are settling unevenly and uncertainly into the soggy mudbanks. And not only do they lean, they have a habit of falling, as, most spectacularly, the San Marco campanile did at 9:55 a.m. on July 14, 1902. That collapse, luckily, was foreseen. The only casualty was the campanile's cat, who had unwisely returned to finish its breakfast.
On the edge of the northern horizon is a bell tower so distant the unaided eye can't even tell if it's crooked. It is the campanile of Torcello, and you are glimpsing the spot where, 1,565 years ago, Venice was born. Now given over to agriculture and two marvelous restaurants, the island is -- like the Ghetto was and San Lazzaro still is -- a refuge, in this case from the buildings and bustle of Venice.
It was here that the inhabitants of several coastal towns, fleeing from barbarian invaders, sought refuge. What could offer more security than an island in the lagoon, which an army would need ships and extensive knowledge of the treacherous tides to threaten?
At its peak, Torcello held 20,000 citizens. But in the 12th century, the canals silted up and bred malaria, and the people fled south to the collection of islands that mark the present city. Fewer than a hundred people live on Torcello now. There aren't even any ruins -- they were carted away to help build the new city.
The island is a spot for relaxing. While the mosaics in the 11th-century cathedral are famous enough to make at least a glimpse mandatory, the greatest pleasure to be had is from wandering the fields. The lone farmhouses seem invitingly empty, and acres of sea lavender blossom across the marshes.
Even John Ruskin -- the grim Victorian art critic who took Venice more seriously than few before or any since -- loosened up on Torcello. In "Effie in Venice" his wife wrote of eating "cold fowls, Parmesan cheese, beef, cakes, Muscat & Champagne wines," after which Ruskin and a friend raced around "to show us that the Champagne had not gone into their heads."
A Torcello picnic is still a good idea, although any food must be brought from Venice. A much better idea is lunch at the Ponte del Diavolo, one of the two superb restaurants on the island (the more famous Locanda Cipriani is the other).
To say that you will have a better meal here than anywhere else in Venice isn't too impressive a claim, considering the city's most famous dish is fegato alla Veneziana -- fried liver and onions. But the Ponte del Diavolo is pleasant for more than its food. On a warm day, a lunch on the shaded terrace is an affordable excursion reminiscent of a relaxed, luxurious life style hardly possible anymore.
The food is simple, fresh, gracefully prepared. There is a warm seafood salad that is so light it seems possible to inhale it; a thick, painstakingly stirred risotto; succulently broiled monkfish and sole -- all prepared in a manner that separates a memorable meal from a merely good one. But it is the raspberries that sum the restaurant up best. Here is how you must eat them:
Balance a berry on your spoon. Pour the lemon juice into its well and sprinkle very lightly with sugar. Pop into mouth. Smile and repeat.
After a meal like this, how can you believe Venice will sink?
Never. If it is a city in danger of collapse, an exalted edifice that is living on borrowed time and may not be here tomorrow . . . Well, the comparisons with western culture are inevitable. Surely, it won't disappear before we do.
It's always Sunday afternoon on Torcello. It's a hard island to leave, and in fact there's a tiny hotel attached to the Locanda Cipriani where you can stay overnight. But for everyone else, the last boat back to Venice leaves at dusk.
This is the hour that the Venetian sky comes into its own, separating itself into layers as simply as a rainbow -- from blue directly overhead to a whitish-pink in front of you to smoke gray on the horizon. The water goes through its own changes, fading from a daytime sickly green to a murky blue.
The passengers on the ferry are tired but content. Amateur fishermen puzzle over the day's catch, sure they had caught more than this; mothers straighten the brambles out of their children's hair; diners from the Ponte au Diavolo pat their stomachs contentedly and wonder what supper will bring.
Directly ahead, Venice rises out of the water: safe, secure, still a refuge. The ship glides noisily across the lagoon. The sky gleams and a breeze blows. It's as if you are arriving for the first time all over again.