The Invisible City


Just below the surface of consciousness I am hanging in suspension, occasional muffled sounds and flashes of dappled light reaching me. I can hear people’s voices – a crowd, all talking. There’s a cry of a vendor in a three-bar song, distant laughter, a child’s fluting call. It is the sound of a street full of people, all going about their business, and there’s something timeless in it – we could be anywhere, at any period in history. I do not recognise the language, but there’s a rhythm to it, vaguely discernible above the babble. There comes the rattle of shutters, somebody whistling, a softly muted glassy chime – some instrument, perhaps – and the patter of quickly running feet. I could swim upwards towards it, or drift down again into unconsciousness. Caught somewhere in between I become aware of the clamour going on in my own inner world – an endless cycle of conversations, sounds, people and imagery: the faces of strangers, so familiar somehow and yet unknown to me as individuals – and simultaneously I can hear the world outside. Treading water, suspended, slowly I begin to float upwards, detaching from one world and heading towards another, until I break through the surface, opening my eyes.

On the wall before me is an enormous picture – a drawing, an ancient map. In each corner are the heads of four gods emerging from the clouds, each one captured in the action of blowing: Septentrio, god of the north wind, bringer of winter, is wild-haired and angry looking, a chilling blast emanating from his mouth which scuds the waters into a malevolent chop. To the west Favonious is a youthful god, half-smiling as he ushers in spring and the light breezes of summer, lips pursed as if to bestow a kiss. Auster, from the south, is forceful – head back and cushioned by waves he brings the gales of autumn. And Subsolanus, looking on benevolently to the east, fans his breath softly across the map. Four lesser ‘venti’, or wind gods, occupy the north-east, south-east, north-west and south-west winds respectively, as back-up. The distant mainland towers with boiling cumulus clouds… or are they mountains? Land merges with sky, city with water.

The map across which these gods waft their zephyrous airs was created by Jacopo de Barbari in the year 1500. It is of an ancient fantasy city set upon a shallow littoral, ringed about with smaller islands, guarded by a forest of masts and spars belonging to sailing ships that lie at anchor festooned with rigging. It is bisected by the sinous twist of a grand waterway through its heart, along which progresses a fleet of smaller vessels. The houses are densely packed together in crooked streets overlooking canals, a hump-backed bridge joining the two halves, domes and spires of dozens of churches punctuating the skyline. In the foreground a triton straddles a gigantic fish, a sea monster, having just speared it. And right in the centre of the map is a large piazza, surmounted by an enormous clocktower, measuring out the pace of the inhabitants’ lives in a timescale of centuries. But this is no fantasy city, no dream-island of the imagination. This is Venice.


It is a floating city, blurred at the edges with liquefaction, the wash of watercolours fading as the palette runs together. A mackerel sky with a sheen of bluish-silver fish scales, houses picked out in shades of sea-pink and lemon. The green sea mutters to itself, jostling its waves together, becoming calmer at the edges as it turns over, softly respiring. The suck and gurgle of water heavy with sediment around the dark pontoons causes the prows of gondolas, etched like hatchets in black and gold, to nod in mute agreement, tossing their heads like horses. The babble and ripple of wavelets, lapping the edge of an ancient stairway, sipping at beige-grey stones which descend in darkening shades of green, stepping carefully downwards into the depths as currents swirl across them. A sparkling, iridescent, Canaletto morning marked by the low growl of marine diesels as small white craft nose into the jetties, then raise their voices in a snarl as they bound away across the waves like excitable dogs.

Down the zig-zagging cobbled alleys in the dark, through small windswept piazzas – tiny squares with shuttered houses, following the quick clip of heels from two girls ahead of us. As we turn a corner they come briefly into sight before disappearing round the next one. Lost in the Venetian labyrinth. Pools of light from streetlamps overhead fading into the night, glowing orbs with halos of golden mist that seem to visibly fizz in the air. The distant sound of a violin – a lone busker in a square. Echoing laughter and the rattle of shutters descending. Fallen leaves chase each other round in circles, then are suddenly swept away by the wind – a cool hand placed upon a brow, smoothing worries away. In the background the endless sigh of the rise and fall of the sea.

We arrive at a junction that we recognise – the yellow sign high on the wall indicates San Marco and Rialto with a thin, straight arrow. Turning into another narrow alley, just wide enough for two abreast, we meet groups of people coming the other way, and all smile apologetically while passing; in Venice pedestrians unthinkingly drive on the right. Then suddenly there is the canal before us, and Accademia bridge. Lights are winking into life along the water, the sky a thin glimmer behind the blue underwash of clouds. There is the cafe where we had lunch a couple of days ago. Together we stand at the rail of the bridge looking along the canal, shivering in the wind. I imagine myself being here alone, and it feels like the loneliest place in the world. We have become used to distance, you and I, have we not? Some lines of Rilke come to mind – Rilke who loved Venice and visited many times:

You must not be frightened if a sadness rises up before you larger than any you have ever seen; if a restiveness, like light and cloudshadows, passes over your hands and over all you do. You must think that something is happening with you, that life has not forgotten you, that it holds you in its hand; it will not let you fall. Why do you want to shut out of your life any uneasiness, any miseries, or any depressions? For after all, you do not know what work these conditions are doing inside you.

Rainer Maria Rilke – Letters to a Young Poet

I could inhabit this dreamscape until the end of time and you would still be with me. This city is suffused with a beautiful melancholy, elegiac as a shift to minor key, notes falling like tears.

When Luchino Visconti chose the Adagietto of Mahler’s 5th Symphony as the soundtrack for his 1971 film Death in Venice, he captured that atmosphere perfectly: the shimmering strings of reflections on the water, the tremulous longing that beauty can inspire. Thomas Mann, who wrote the novel upon which the film was based, modelled the physical description of the lead character Von Aschenbach on that of Mahler, also giving him the first name of Gustav. The two had met in Munich previously and Mahler had made a strong impression on the novelist; Mann is said to have been deeply moved on seeing Mahler break down in tears when departing Venice by train.

In the novel Von Aschenbach is a writer himself who, suffering terribly from writer’s block, takes a holiday to Venice in search of curing it. Observing a Polish family at dinner one night in the hotel, he finds himself mesmerised by the beauty of their son, a youth of around 14 dressed in a sailor suit, called Tadzio. In his mind he likens Tadzio to a Greek sculpture, and feels a rekindling of, as he sees it, artistic passion. Gradually, over the following days, he finds himself seeking out the family in order to catch a glimpse of him, transfixed by the boy’s looks. When, one evening, Tadzio glances at Von Aschenbach and smiles openly, he is so discomfited by the ensuing emotional turmoil that he rushes outside into the garden, and furiously whispers to himself under his breath, in a mixture of reproach and astonishment, “I love you!” For the hitherto ascetic and repressed von Aschenbach, locked into a state of tension where he is unable to create, this sudden allowance of sensuality begins to spin out of control, and he becomes enslaved by beauty and desire.

Increasingly besotted and tormented by erotic dreams, he takes to obsessively following the boy – who seems aware of the admiration and even flattered by it, but without perhaps fully realising its form, nor indeed its danger. The culmination is when von Aschenbach takes to a deck chair to watch Tadzio standing by the sea, gazing out at the sparkling water, and as the music swells Tadzio turns, extending an arm, seeming to beckon to von Aschenbach. He attempts to rise, to join Tadzio at the water’s edge, but collapses into the chair and dies. Tadzio, standing in the waves, is blissfully unaware, and turns to look out to sea once more.

Von Aschenbach had justified his interest in Tadzio to himself in the Platonic ideal of beauty, taking refuge in the cerebral coolness of Apollo – god of restraint, form and the intellect. If there was love, it was a rationalised appreciation of aesthetic beauty to him – nothing so base as an erotic charge that would threaten the idealised, internalised romance. But it is Dionysus, god of passion and unreason, who takes over and dictates a destructive obsession. In Von Aschenbach’s attempts to dye his hair and use make up lies a clumsy vanity to compensate for the total loss of dignity in the throes of his hapless love; in his adoration of a boy he never speaks to we see the timeless story of age mesmerised by the beauty of youth, confronted by its own inevitable decrepitude.

The novel had its genesis in actual events. In a 1974 book, Mann’s wife Katia revealed that they had travelled to Venice together in 1911, and that there had been a family of Polish aristocrats at the next table, whose young son was wearing a sailor suit:

On the very first day, we saw the Polish family, which looked exactly the way my husband described them: the girls were dressed rather stiffly and severely, and the very charming, beautiful boy of about 13 was wearing a sailor suit with an open collar and very pretty lacings. He caught my husband’s attention immediately. This boy was tremendously attractive, and my husband was always watching him with his companions on the beach. He didn’t pursue him through all of Venice – that he didn’t do – but the boy did fascinate him, and he thought of him often.

Katia Mann – Unwritten Memories

The young Polish boy was the Baron Wladyslaw Moes. Just nine years after the Venice holiday with his family he volunteered in an Uhlan regiment in the 1920 Polish-Soviet war, taking part in a cavalry charge at the Battle of Komarow against Soviet troops on horseback – the last entirely mounted engagement of the 20th century. Captured by the Germans in the Second World War, Moes was held prisoner for six years, and on his return to Poland found that the Communist regime had stripped his family of all its estates. He became a translator at the Iranian Embassy in Warsaw, and died in 1986.

In Venice I found I had some sympathy for Evelyn Waugh, who in an uncharacteristic moment of self-effacement, felt himself utterly unequal to the task of describing it:

What can I possibly write, now, at this stage of the world’s culture, about two days in Venice, that would not be an impertinence to every reader of this book? Perhaps if I made my home in Venice for twenty years and attained a perfect command over its language, history, art and culture, I might decently contribute a chapter here to what has already been written by those who have mastered those accomplishments. Meanwhile, since there seems no probablility of my ever becoming anything more considerable than one of a hundred globe-trotting novelists, I will pass on to Ragusa.

Evelyn Waugh – Labels

Ragusa seemed drastic. After weeks of not writing anything at all because there was too much to say and I couldn’t choose what to leave out, I close my eyes briefly and see the invisible city, offer up a plea for literary mitigation and turn to the keyboard once more.

In the Piazza San Marco at dusk, rival orchestras competed – one outside the Grand Cafe, and another outside Florian’s, both establishments boasting countless luminaries that have patronised them over the years, too tedious to list here. Tonight most of the clientele were Chinese tourists photographing themselves with selfie sticks over €10 coffees. Out in the main square little green lasers flickered over the stones, and occasional glowing parachutes fell to earth: the vendors from Goa’s Anjuna beach had moved in to colonise St Mark’s – this, the heart of the loveliest city on earth, which Napoleon once described as “the drawing room of Europe”, turned into some tawdry parody of a tripped out tropical beach.

We stopped at a small bar for cicheti – a kind of Venetian tapas of small, bite-sized snacks usually involving fish. There was smoked eel, hard-boiled egg decorated with anchovies (the Italian word “acciughe” somehow conveyed K’s expression at the prospect of eating one), fresh tuna and baccalà – dried and salted cod, which I’d seen hanging on wooden drying racks in Norway’s Lofoten Islands. I’d tried it there – one revolting mouthful from a packet labelled “Fisksnaks” which was proffered to me by a local with a dark sense of humour. It was disgusting – like a lump of wood which slowly softened and became slimy, while releasing a powerfully fishy flavour tinged with ammonia. Happily the Italians, as always, had made a much better job of creating something edible out of such inauspicious material – the baccalà was delicious, if powerfully salty.

These different sestieri, six distinct districts, had their own individual mood and atmosphere. San Marco was busy, armies of tourists endlessly streaming past designer boutiques, the outlets of global chains with these flagship stores in this, the most exclusive of addresses. In one monstrous act of consumerist vandalism, the exquisite outline of the Rialto bridge was hidden by an enormous billboard for a brand of jeans which was draped over its parapets. To the north, across the Grand Canal, lay San Polo and Santa Croce – smart neighbourhoods with hidden pockets of local colour, where tourists tended to stick to well trodden routes. Castello felt poorer, more lived-in – small convenience stores and kebab shops, housing estates, and the functional outline of the Arsenale naval base. Dorsoduro was narrow and crooked, authentic and more solid underfoot – its very name means “hardback”. Cannareggio was quieter, prettier and residential, and from its Fondamente Nuove small craft set sail across the lagoon to their final destination – the cemetery island of San Michele, Isle of the Dead.

As a birthday treat I bought two tickets to the opera. Not the famed La Fenice – it was sold out – but a smaller production to be held in a palazzo overlooking the Grand Canal. Given the labyrinthine nature of Venetian navigation, we decided to do a reconnaisance that afternoon, and found ourselves repeatedly coming back to a small junction marked by a little bridge. According to the map it was just here. We nosed speculatively along a kind of wharf which appeared to be nothing but the backs of warehouses. There was the streetname, however. Spotting an elderly gentleman with shopping bags fumbling with his keys at a doorway nearby, I approached him for directions. He was tall and slightly stooped, with a patrician mane of swept-back silver hair.

“Scuzi Signor, dov e Palazzo Barbarigo-Minotto?”

He looked round and blinked. “Il palazzo?” he replied. “Ecco!” he gestured with his chin to the building next door.

I looked up at the blank wall along which we had walked several times. A small alley appeared to lead off to one side of it. “Down there?”

“Si, si. Musica! Musica a palazzo!”

“Yes, that’s the one. Molto grazie.”

We followed the alley, which was dingy and lined with old wooden pillars. It didn’t look terribly promising. But then, on a door set into the wall, I saw a small flyer advertising that evening’s performance. This was the place alright. Retracing our steps we headed back towards Dorsoduro, mentally marking the turns. Right at the cafe, left at the church, over the bridge and along the canal.

That evening we dressed up as best we could in a mixture of ethnic chic left over from the wedding in Sardinia. I wanted to be in plenty of time, and we arrived back at the junction with half an hour to spare. A glowing doorway nearby advertised itself as the American Bar, so we decided to have a drink beforehand. Despite my forays into the medicinal powers of brandy in Sardinia, I didn’t intend to make a habit of it, and ordered a non-alcoholic cocktail called a Shirley Temple, which was aptly named: genderisation aside, it was the kind of thing a young girl might enjoy, being bright pink and sweet and fizzy and bedecked with clusters of berries. K ordered a double Jameson’s, no ice. The barman, entirely understandably, placed the whiskey in front of me and the Shirley Temple in front of her. There you go dear, your first grown-up drink. The sweetness of it made my teeth jangle, but a sniff of her whiskey gave me the shudders, so I sucked at the elaborately curling straw while keeping a gimlet eye on the clientele.

I was trying to spot fellow opera-goers. I recalled an entry from The Road to Oxiana by Robert Byron: “After inspecting two palaces, the Labiena, containing Tiepolo’s fresco of Cleopatra’s Banquet, and the Pappadopoli, a stifling labyrinth of plush and royal photographs, we took sanctuary from culture in Harry’s Bar. There was an ominous chatter, a quickfire of greetings: the English are arriving.” They were arriving in the American Bar too – respectable pensioners in cords, beige anoraks and shoes like calzone, treating themselves to a small sherry or a G&T.

Heading back out over the little crooked bridge we made our way back along the darkened wharf, past the spot where the old man had given us directions, followed by a small platoon of Home Counties retirees. Turning once more into the alley we saw that the doorway we had noticed earlier was now open, and a line of candles marked out a path across a courtyard and up a flight of stairs. There were other people there already, smartly attired in dinner jackets and evening dress. We queued on the stairs, everyone speaking in low, reverential voices – it’s not every day one gains admission to a 15th century palazzo by candlelight.

The opera – The Barber of Seville – was organised by Musica a Palazzo, a club which one became a temporary member of in order to attend a performance. We duly filled out forms at a low table and were presented with our membership cards by a young man in black tie. Taking our places on small wooden chairs in a long, gilded room, the lights dimmed, the four-piece orchestra struck up, led by a large, bearded figure who was so enthusiastic in his playing that he had trouble remaining in his seat, and then, suddenly, from behind us, a powerful baritone voice. Coming down the aisle was Figaro. He passed within feet of us, making his way toward the front of the room, singing all the while. The effect was extraordinary – to hear these voices in a relatively small room gave them a power and resonance entirely absent from larger performances. It was magnificent.

Each act was in a different room, and for the next we made our way into a small drawing room, taking our places around the edges. In front of a tall rococo mirror Rosina laced her corset an arm’s length from where I sat, the vibration of the high soprano notes creating an extraordinary fluttering sensation in the room, like the wingbeats of a trapped bird. Paintings lined the walls, and my eyes were continually drawn upward towards a vast painting across the ceiling – The Triumph of Virtue over Ignorance, by Tiepolo, who had decorated the entire room. We moved again, to a baroque boudoir for the finale. Cherubs cavorted overhead upon ornate plasterwork that exhaled the cool damps of the Grand Canal outside, the room heady with the scent of powder and perfume. And then suddenly it was all over, and we all filed out, back down the candlelit path of the stairway, and out into the alley, only to find ourselves in another stage set of moonlit canals and spires, with soft voices passing in the darkness and the endless, lapping water. Serenissima.

On a thin, grey day spattered with flecks of rain blowing in from the Adriatic, the ferry across the lagoon to the airport was full, the passengers all slightly subdued, clutching their luggage, smiling grimly or looking sombre, trying to put a brave face on things as they headed back to other, less lovely destinations and lives. Off to the right lay San Michele, and it felt appropriate; take this channel to the airport and the world of the living, that one past the line of buoys and the mournfully clanging bell that leads to the Isle of the Dead. The narrowest of lines separated the two. Behind us, beyond the corkscrew of the white wake, the crooked rooftops and spires began to sink slowly beneath the waterline. Say goodbye to Venice as she is leaving, as Cavafy might have said.

I knew that part of me would somehow always return to inhabit those same narrow alleys, those small windswept squares, and that various scenes would repeat themselves in my mind: a girl in a white lace dress sitting on the parapet of a bridge as she brushed out her long red hair; the nodding gondolas beneath a lighted window full of music and laughter; and you would always be standing beneath the last lamppost on the promontory of the Salute, lost in wonder at the view. The lights would still spring up along the Grand Canal at dusk, the paintings would hang in Ca’ Rezzonico and Accademia for centuries yet to come, only the crowd that swirled before them like the tide changing slightly in manner or appearance, and operas would continue to be sung in the old palazzo by candlelight before a rapt audience. Others would come to discover the invisible city, and it would be a different city for each of them, but I knew that it had become one of those places that had established itself in the vast gallery of my dreams, to be revisited over and over again.

Isn’t it time to free ourselves, with love,
– from the one we love, and,
trembling, endure…?
For to stay is to be nowhere at all.

Rainer Maria Rilke – Duino Elegies