Saturday, 1 October 2016

Letter from Venice (5) 1-10-16

It feels like a discretion and a gentleness that, in Venice, where bells ring often and sometimes with insistence and proximity, they seldom seem strident or jarring. There is always a pleasingly muffled quality about them. Similarly, if one has turned in early on a Saturday night and excited Italian voices and accelerating footsteps pass close to one’s ground floor windows the voices never feel coarse or abrasive. In no way do they seem to invade or assault semi-waking figures stretched in sleep. Why this should be is certainly debatable. One is tempted to think that it is simply due to the benign genius of the place and the people and that there is calculation in such benignity. Perhaps, though, there is a more scientific explanation. Perhaps the pealings of the bells, striking the hours or calling to prayer, are diminished and absorbed by the water below or by the volume of buildings, which dampen the sounds with softly ricocheting echoes or, yet again, by the surrounding atmosphere, so laden with moisture is it. Perhaps the language that the people are speaking has a fluid kindness to it. Whatever the explanation the effect is one of understatement and consideration and one feels grateful that it is so.

Opposite the front door of my flat and across the yard or two of paved alleyway, which passes it is a long mesh fence. This is succeeded by a few feet of vegetation and, then, the wall of a long, high building. Two floors up, where this building meets the intersecting Calle San Francesco there is an enclosed wooden walkway traversing the gap to the side of the building opposite. This building then continues for a hundred yards along the canal-side Fondamenta in the direction of the sea at the Northern edge of town. After a few days, emerging at the same time as hundreds of adolescents converge on the Fondamenta I realise that I am living in a school district. Arriving on the first day I had noticed from the bridge a section of building with a battered baroque fa├žade bearing the anciently stenciled words – Liceo Scientifico. I had simply assumed that these represented a function long past as with so many other buildings in Venice. It hadn’t crossed my mind that that function might be extant. Some days later, one or two streets away, I notice a hidden doorway surmounted by the words Liceo Linguistico and, then, a day after that, returning from the Vaporetto stop, I see a mother speaking to a nun in a doorway and, from the babble of the many voices behind the nun, I realise that there is also a primary school in the district.

If you turn right by the massive church of San Francesco you pass under another longer walkway liking buildings held aloft at the level of the first floor by large, round columns. If you cross the next canal you soon find yourself in shopping streets with a distinctly local feel. There is a pet shop, an old-fashioned hardware shop and a shop which conceals and does not advertise its depths which, on entering, you find to be full of artists’ supplies, including packets of the solid, coloured glass pipes and fragments used in the flamework which you see on Murano, together with a large selection of paintbrushes and tubes of paint. This area serves the quiet district in which I find myself and seems a secret hidden in the back streets.

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