Venice in Winter: A tribute to my old muse, Jan Morris

In winter the fog settles over Venice, seeping into every crevice and circling the colonnades with chilly fingers. The tourists have fled, leaving the waterborne city stuporous and hung over, like the morning after a grand party. Through the harsh, oblique light you see Venice for what it really is: A lost, half-deserted empire, left to trade on its glories.

As you wander among Venice's crumbling pink palaces, linger in its empty squares, and bridge its murky green canals, you are at the same time drawn and repulsed. On the Grand Canal, the palace of the Ca' d'Oro looks gray and pretentious. The Piazza San Marco is cold and wet, with a handful of forlorn souvenir stands scattered across the stone pavement. The Basilica has never seemed more gaudy. At Florian's, where the outdoor cafe tables have all been taken in, customers sit dejectedly behind frosted windows, huddling to keep warm over 12,000 lire pots of hot cocoa.

And yet, and yet... as you stride along, lost in melancholy, braced against the winter chill, wondering why you didn't bring your mittens, why you left your scarf back at the hotel--suddenly Venice lifts you up in its stony arms, breathes in your ear, and tells you once again that you are in the most beautiful city on Earth. A mausoleum of past glories, yes, but what glories they were. And what a monument Venice is today, to what was, to what might have been, what might be, if only we built our cities to be beautiful.

In winter, left alone with Venice, you can roam unmolested through the narrow back alleys and dead-end passageways, under graying laundry strung between palaces, alongside decayed villas lapped by the wakes of boats plying the canals. As you look up at the shuttered windows above you, the city seems uninhabited. Yet here, smoke from a gaunt stone chimney wafts up into the fog, and there, from a window three stories up, the head and arms of a woman appear as she pours a bucket of slop into the canal.

Along the quays, the gondoliers shuffle their feet idly beside their swanlike black vessels, waiting for the rare client who will brave the cold. A mustachioed father in his thirties, wearing a red scarf and denim jacket, negotiates a baby carriage up the steps of a narrow, arching bridge, the child sleeping peacefully through each gentle bounce.

It is difficult to imagine that this watery city was once the seat of a voracious empire, the greatest sea power of its time, commanding much of the eastern Mediterranean and stretching as far inland as Milan. It is equally difficult to conceive that there was once nothing here at all, save a clump of marshy islands stranded in the middle of a crescent-shaped lagoon, shaped by the estuaries of three rivers. During the early centuries of Roman rule, the lagoon sat neglected in a corner of the empire. But when the Goths, the Huns, and other northern raiders fell upon the Romans during the fifth and sixth centuries, many inhabitants of the inland cities fled to these islands.

Several more centuries passed before Venetian society coalesced into a city-state. Over the next several hundred years, Venice flourished and then declined, defeated first by the Turks and later by Napoleon.

"The Venetians may still half-mourn their vanished empire," says travel writer Jan Morris, "but to the foreigner the sadness of Venice is a much more nebulous abstraction."

In no place more than in Venice does the tourist desire, impossibly, not to be a tourist. Nowhere do they yearn more to be transported back in time, before Venice became a spectacle to be shared with the merely curious. The souvenir stands, the guides, the high prices on restaurant menus, they are all ciphers burning in dream eyes. Perhaps Venice should be allowed to crumble. Yet when, as happens dozens of times each year, the tides of the Adriatic Sea flood the Piazza San Marco and the world is reminded that Venice is sinking beneath the waters of the lagoon, the cry goes out again to save the city, save it at all cost!

Come to Venice, then, while you still can. If solitude and melancholy are not your favored moods, come on Christmas Eve, when the tourists are still far away and the Venetians pour into the streets, strolling tall and dignified in black fur coats or rushing down passageways carrying ribbon-bedecked plants and flowers.  Though Venice has more churches per square mile than any other city, Christmas is much less a religious than a family affair, as sons and daughters flock home from the Venetian diaspora. The crowds swirl through the piazzas, coagulate suddenly into smaller groups, chatter in loud, animated voices, and then just as quickly dissolve in explosions of laughter and scatter in all directions.

Out at the Trattoria Paradiso Perduto ("Paradise Lost"), on the Fondamenta della Misericordia, artists and writers huddle over long wooden tables drinking beer. A huge family sits laughing before platters piled with fried seafood, while two little boys sneak pieces of calamari and octopus to a grateful cat. A grizzled old tramp wanders in, sits at the fireplace, and carefully examines the stones, while a younger bum expostulates with wide gestures to the Christmas tree next to the bar.

Later, bundled up against the cold and striding briskly back to your hotel, you pause at the top of the Rialto Bridge and look out over the Grand Canal. The palaces seem to float on its edges, lit eerily by the yellow light of the lamps along the quays. Though it is late into the night, the water seems to give off its own suffused glow. It is as if the sun never actually set, but was turned down low with a rheostat, leaving Venice dissolved in a milky, luminous gauze.


The text above is based on two stories I wrote shortly after I moved to Paris in 1988 and my European travels began in earnest. The first was published in a no longer existing magazine called L.A. Style in December 1989, very shortly after my wife and I made this winter trip together; the second was published in the International Herald Tribune soon afterwards, the also defunct newspaper (owned then by the New York Times and the Washington Post) which later became the international edition of the Times. I have combined what I hope is the best of the two articles and made some changes, here and there, to improve the writing.

I was still in my early days as a travel writer, something I eventually gave up in the late 1990s when Science took me on full time and science journalism became my main bread and butter. Of course I read all the great travel writers, from Jan Morris to Lawrence Durrell to Bruce Chatwin to Patrick Leigh Fermor, and I was clearly in my Jan Morris phase when I wrote this (and I had just recently read her own ode to Venice, a great book I highly recommend.) I even corresponded with Morris for a while, although that stopped after I matter-of-factly referred to something she had done when she was still a man.

Depending on the reception to this piece, I may reproduce others of my travel pieces, especially the several dozen shorter ones I wrote for the Herald Tribune. Perhaps, despite their mannered prose, they will find a new audience even among some who were not even born yet when I wrote them.

Art credit: The beautiful illustration above has been kicking around on my computer for years, and I don't know who created it. I am hoping that the artist might see it and either sue me or give me permission to use it; if not, my thanks and apologies are waiting whenever they might be accepted.

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Anonymous said…
Was glad to read some of your more reflexive travel prose. I hope that once this Kurin nonsense is over you can also get back to your scientific journalism. I still think that the Goddess and the Bull is one of the best popular science books I’ve read on any archaeological subject matter.
Michael Balter said…
Thanks for the kind words. I am thinking a lot about the post-Kurin era. Lots of ideas but no sure decisions yet.