Friday, 28 October 2016

Letter from Venice (21) 28-10-16

I stand at the Ospedale landing stage in the dark. I can make out large white birds hurtling high up across an inky sky. Lights are on in some offices in the hospital and I can see white-clothed nurses on duty. This is the morning of my first ever trip out of Santa Lucia station and the train is soon pulling tentatively across the road bridge to the port of Marghera and then on towards Treviso. A few stops along the line in the comfortable and punctual Regionale Trenitalia train the guard angrily turns a young female beggar off the train. He is extremely vexed and points to notices on the windows. On my return journey later another young female beggar is doing the rounds.

Treviso is a well-heeled, gentle town. The centre is surrounded and traversed by a river and several canals. In these times when ascendant Italian rugby is challenging seriously the other five nations it is home to one of the top Italian rugby clubs. It is also home to United Colours of Benetton although the company is now more invested in motorway toll concessions than in fashion. In spite of this there is a large shop in the Piazza dell'Indipendenza which is decorated with standing hoardings bearing multiple photographs of smiling Italians giving succour to black African refugees.

I visit a few frescoed churches, a process which takes in most of the centre's streets and canals and takes me to the encircling city walls. From these walls at one point I look down on an island between two canals which is peopled with rabbits. A sign warns me not to feed them from my position high above them. As I travel around I notice the name 'Francis Bacon' written in coloured pen on the windows of many of the expensive boutiques and organic bakeries and assume that this has something to do with an event concerning the English Renaissance scientist. When I eventually return to the station I see a large poster from which the face of the 20th century artist Francis Bacon stares out at me. I make the decision to head back into town to see the exhibition which is housed in the classy Casa dei Carraresi which, behind the modern pictures, has walls bearing fractured frescoes of its own. The exhibition is a series of Bacon's crayoned cutouts of Popes inspired by Velasquez's revealing Pope Innocent X, a contemporary copy of which is provided for comparison. There is another series of crucifixions inspired by a Cimabue crucifix and a Rembrandt painting of a butchered ox. As usual I find Bacon's evocation of real human presence and pain in his dangerous, distorted, resigned faces arresting and powerful. He seems to put modern reality on paper.

Stepping out of Santa Lucia on my return the scene which meets me brings a broad smile to my face. There is a hubbub on the Fondamenta where pedlars sell selfie sticks to tourists, porters hawk for business, whole classes of school children sit on the steps of the station and those arriving in and departing from Venice swerve around each other with their suitcases on wheels. The backdrop is the ceaseless traffic on the Grand Canal and the Scalzi Bridge where Escher-like figures rise to the top and descend. I go down to the 5.2 boat station and find I have 15 minutes to wait. I return to sit also on the steps. This is a magical and unreal city which should not exist. I am reassured that it has unexpectedly and tangibly continued to do so while I have been away on the mainland.

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