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Venice - A City Lost in Time

by Jennifer Garner

October 9,2010

We wander down a small alleyway headed towards the sliver of light at the end, hoping it will lead us back to the sunny plaza. Geraniums in red and pink cascade from flower boxes in the windows. A blue shutter hangs precariously from its hinge. We negotiate the centuries-old uneven stones under our feet while a line of laundry stretches above our heads. The breeze carries with it a waft of sewage from the nearby canal, a busy watery street full of sputtering boats. We reach the end of the dark alley and find our path cut short by a set of crumbling stone steps leading down to the murky water of another thoroughfare. The water laps at the moss covered steps, worn smooth by generations alighting from their boats. It is June 2010 in Venice, but it just as easily could have been 1710.

As the night falls it hides the crumbling plaster, the rotting windows, and the sagging jetties. As the fog settles in across the city, you don’t notice in the cracks in the palazzos and the general dirt and shabbiness that cling to every run down warehouse, artist’s studio and home across the whole slowly sinking island. You only hear the violin music as it carries across the canal from the grand palazzo with the glittering Murano chandelier where the costumed guests dance in pairs across the marble floor. Your eyes find only the lovers embraced in a kiss on a bridge or the dashing gentleman in an opera cape that sweeps around the corner and whispers a throaty “S’cuze” to you as his hand brushes down your arm. This is the dark, mysterious love affair that is Venice.

As you ride down the Grand Canal at night you can imagine Casanova bewitching the ladies with his Italian charm and dark curly hair. The gondoliers in St. Mark’s Square still smolder with the same raw masculinity. It is though I am here in the 18th century – there are no cars, no pollution, no noise of traffic or the glare of streetlights – it is easy to get lost in the timelessness of the city.

In 1630 the Venetian Senate decreed that if the city was saved from the plague that had already ravaged the city of one third of its population, it would build a church in thanksgiving to the Blessed Virgin – what became the Basilica de Santa Maria della Salute. The annual Feast of the Presentation of the Virgin on November 21 still sees the procession of the city’s officials from San Marco to La Salute for a service of thanksgiving for deliverance from the plague. Just as they have done for the last 400 years, they cross the Grand Canal on a specially constructed pontoon bridge and bring gifts of flowers and offerings to the poor. Even while the threat of plague is long gone, the tradition still continues and the generations still take life and land seriously in Venice.

That evening over a steaming bowl of pasta we watch four little boys in shorts and black socks kick a ball in a16th century church square. When the littlest one misses the goal, the ball rolls into the canal and floats just out of his reach. Unfazed, the boys wait for a passing boat and a young man in a tight black shirt catches the eye of his girlfriend draped across the bow and gallantly throws the ball back to the boys. The game continues as it has been going on forever, boys kicking a ball in a church square ignoring the calls of their mothers.

As we walk back to our hotel, we cross St. Mark’s Square again. The tourists have all cleared out and a silence settles over the pigeons. As I walk through a city that is over a thousand years old, it is hard for my American psyche to grasp a place with that much history. I remember tourists in Charlotte flocking to see the quaint streets of 19th century houses in Fourth Ward. In Venice those cobblestones have been walked over by 20 generations of people, preserving within them the knowledge of lives lost, lovers gone, and past suffering. Unlike the entrepenurial upstarts in shiny, new American cities, Venice sits quietly suspended in the lagoon, floating untouched by time, while the stones, spires and frescos hold her secrets of the past.

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