VENICE IN REAL LIFE
In 2007, my husband, Andrea Ortona, and I decided it was high time we introduced our children properly to the other, Italian, half of their cultural inheritance. They were already familiar with a holiday Italy—the family gatherings on Easter Sunday in Genova with the grandparents; summer in the hills of Piemonte or Alto Adige; the special trips to special places of interest—but neither they, nor I, for that matter, knew anything about what it means to live in Italy all the time, and Andrea, who had been in England for many years, was decidedly out of practice.
We went back to Venice. Andrea and I had met there 15 years earlier when he had a violin-making workshop, smelling of linseed oil and wood, on a wide, unshaded fondamenta that got very hot indeed in the summer months and was, appropriately enough, named Fondamenta Rossa. We were returning to the city under radically different circumstances: this time we were setting up life with four children, aged between 6 and 12.
Modern life in an antique environment
Sometimes, living in Italy is like skating on a thin ice of civil life (or civil life as my more northern sensibility might formulate it). There are frequently odd, apparently anachronistic moments when I glimpse, through the surface, the habits and expectations of a third-world economy, a medieval infrastructure. Sometimes it feels as though those are the current reality of the place; at others, they seem like the last lights from a dead star. Nowhere is this paradox more strongly present than in daily life in Venice, since here modern life must unfold, by necessity, in an entirely antique environment.
On one occasion, soon after our arrival, I went to the music conservatory to deliver a letter for the principal. (A brief digression here, to point out that the system there still requires a supplicant to arrive on foot, with a paper letter in a paper envelope in a fleshly hand.) The Palazzo Pisani is the nearest thing to an Escher drawing I have ever seen in three dimensions: twin, mirroring courtyards, with galleries (some open, some closed) running round at every level. Though stonily monumental, the weeds sprouting from the crumbling masonry give a feeling of gothic decay or of one of Piranesi’s fantastical, menacing architectural drawings.
I went into the vast, gloomy androne, or ground-floor hall, and turned left into the secretary’s office. Electricity did not yet appear to have been installed in the palazzo; it was a gloomy, monochrome space, with a large desk and a number of chairs lined around the walls. Milling about, apparently with nothing to do, were a number of people, galvanized into excited action as soon as I entered.
“A letter for the principal. Ah, yes. Who’ll take it?’
“No, I will.”
“Who should we say is calling?”
For these people—is it too cruel to say flunkies?—taking a letter into the presence of their leader was evidently the high spot of their day. I was reminded, and not for the last time, of being in India, when three separate people might appear to need to clip your ticket at the entrance to a historical site.
Going to extremes
In this land where the prime minister has for years been given licence to rampage more or less unchecked in his devastating petty megalomania, like some 14th-century robber princeling, there is enormous potential for all extremes of behaviour—from the very worst to the very best. This was certainly reflected in my experience of life in Venice.
During my time in the city, I made the best of friends, the worst of enemies. I encountered an intellectual and social vitality that was both sustaining and exhilarating. I also met a chilling capacity to harm. Fairness is neither consistent nor comprehensive, and bureaucracy, more often than not, is seen as a justification in itself. I have been flagrantly robbed by an arrogant landlord; I have been lied to and publicly abused by a head teacher; I have been criminally neglected by the police. But I have also made lifelong friends, people who welcomed me into their lives with a noisily spontaneous generosity so very different from the cautious warmth of the British. I have sat and eaten wonderful food with lively, imaginative, hospitable individuals.
In Britain, we spend far too much of our time talking about new kitchens and the school system. We talk a lot about how much everything is worth. In Italy, where I think there is often a deep cynicism about worth, all that’s really left is to enjoy what you can of life—drinking, discussing, laughing, litigating with gusto and gumption. Like all generalizations, these are clumsy tools, but my experience is that they hold a kind of truth.
The universal and the comically particular
My book The Politics of Washing: Real Life in Venice (published on March 29 by Robert Hale) was born days after we arrived in the city. Our fourth-floor flat in a vast, fortresslike and rather gloomy palazzo had a washing line that extended from outside our kitchen window across the courtyard below and was attached to the wall of the building opposite. It worked on a pulley principle, and several times a day I found myself leaning out to peg the family washing along it. That’s when I began thinking about the dynamics of a community that is so very much packed in together, one on top of the other in such a very public way. I wondered what rituals and conventions of space I, a newcomer, was ignorant of, and began wondering how people in this most peculiar of cities lay claim to the space around them.
From this banal, repeated domestic task and others like it (shopping, the school run, the postal delivery), my book of observations, vignettes and meditations on life in Venice began to take shape. For every story I tell in the book, there are three more standing in the wings. Ordinary life in Venice is a bizarre combination of the universal and the comically particular. One year, for example, just before Christmas, I found myself shopping for books in my local bookshop, knee-high in water. The owner had raised all the stock to the higher shelves and surreal as it was, there was a peculiar kind of peace in browsing in this quiet, watery atmosphere alongside the other quietly reading customers.
On another occasion, I left a party on the top floor of an ancient palace and was walking down the back stairs when I found, tacked to the wall, a huge family tree. It was written on a piece of parchment straight out of central casting—curling edges, cracked surface, fading ink, the lot. The first name on the tree, nestling in the roots, was dated A.D. 934. That was a seriously long time ago, but what left me astonished was the last added family member. Not only was the name the same as that of the 10th-century founding father; it also belonged to the man whose party I had just left.
A blueprint for the good society
I became increasingly fascinated by this world of enduring, living antiquity. There were times when I felt I was moving among a species previously thought extinct, and this did not apply only to the aristocrats. Venetians of all backgrounds measure their Venetian-ness in terms of how long their families have been in the city. Plenty of apparently DOC Venetians of my acquaintance would never describe themselves as Venetian—or at least they would tell me, almost apologetically, that their grandparents or great-grandparents were from Friuli or Toscana or Liguria.
I have many anecdotes as well as fond and furious memories of my four years living in Venice, but what matters to me now are not the rich literary pickings (another, more genteel, form of exploitation?), but the city itself. As I wrote my book, I began to wonder if we couldn’t see Venice, not as a clapped-out has-been, but as blueprint for the good society, a future model: a place without cars, a community that circulates through its city on foot, where you can go only as far as you can walk, can buy only as much as you can carry.
We all know that the stones of Venice are in peril; what is rarely mentioned is the community of people who live there, the rapidly dwindling, passionately tenacious population who know that their city is not only unique because it is so extraordinarily beautiful, so unfeasibly lodged in water, but because it is one of the few places left on earth where a rich cultural heritage, a creative cosmopolitanism, can be lived on a human scale.
“Venezia è un paese,” its residents say over and over again. “Venice is a village.” My passionate hope is that we can still save this wonderful village, the Venice of Venetians, from the insatiable greed of those who know that the easy money lies in making the city into a theme park. This book is a cri de coeur for a precious and fragile community, as threatened as any Amazonian tribe, by unregulated tourism and individual greed.