“In Esmeralda, city of water, a network of canals and a network of streets span and intersect each other. To go from one place to another you have always the choice between land and boat: and since the shortest distance between two points in Esmeralda is not a straight line but a zigzag that ramifies in tortuous optional routes, the ways that open to each passerby are never two, but many, and they increase further for those who alternate a stretch by boat with one on dry land.And so Esmeralda’s inhabitants are spared the boredom of following the same streets every day. And that is not all: the network of streets is not arranged on one level, but follows instead an up-and-down course of steps, landings, cambered bridges, hanging streets. Combining segments of the various routes, elevated or on ground level, each inhabitant can enjoy every day the pleasure of a new itinerary to reach the same places. The most fixed and calm lives in Esmeralda are spent without repetition.“
This is Marco Polo speaking to Kublai Khan in Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, describing Esmeralda while thinking of Venice, the city Marco Polo grew up in.
Last year, during this first week of April, I was roaming the streets of Venice. The twelve months since then have not diluted my memories or lessened my longing to spend a small portion of my life in that city.
I spent some time today going through those photos again: the gondolas, the bridges, the systems, the people. And memories of my visit spread through the mind like canals criss-crossing the streets of Venice.
There are, as Italo Calvino writes, two cities in Venice: one above water, and one below:
“Thus the traveller, arriving, sees two cities: one erect above the lake, and the other reflected, upside down. Nothing exists or happens in the one Valdrada that the other Valdrada does not repeat, because the city was so constructed that its every point would be reflected in its mirror, and the Valdrada down in the water contains not only all the flutings and juttings of the facades that rise above the lake, but also the rooms’ interiors with ceilings and floors, the perspective of the halls, the mirrors of the wardrobes. Valdrada’s inhabitants know that each of their actions is, at once, that action and its mirror image …”
Earth and Water were not the only elements of duality I found in Venice. There were streets where one half was stuck in the 13th century, while the other half had progressed into the 21st; there were other streets where antiquity and modernity were so intertwined that you couldn’t decide if the new had draped itself upon the old, trying to hide it, or the old had been used to decorate and enhance the new.
“A description of Zaira as it is today should contain all Zaira’s past. The city, however, does not tell its past, but contains it like the lines of a hand, written in the corners of the streets, the gratings of the windows, the banisters of the steps, the antennae of the lightning rods, the poles of the flags, every segment marked in turn with scratches, indentations, scrolls.”
I had a strange dream one of those nights in Venice: I dreamed of a city that had been hit by a flood, a city where streets that once separated buildings across each other were now overflowing with water, a flood that spread from one street to another through the entire city so that what was left was a collection of half-submerged buildings. Yet – and this I found baffling in the panic of my dream – the city’s inhabitants went on with their tasks as if nothing catastrophic had happened: in place of cars I saw people using boats; bridges had sprung up to carry people over the water; and women hung clothes on lines thrown across the other side unmindful of the water below.
After I awakened, I sat thinking for a long time whether this was how Venice evolved into its present form: water had once entered the city, and its inhabitants gradually built their life in and around it.
It wasn’t true, the history books said, but I thought it was a good story. Perhaps an old woman in Venice remembered this story passed on to her over generations, like a legend the historians had ignored. I intend to find out when I go there next.