It seems to be have been the pattern of my adult life that I go back to Venice, pretty much on the nail, every five years. On a couple of occasions, I’ve managed to get back there even more quickly (in all, I’ve been there 6 times) but I’ve never managed to stay away for any longer than that because – come that fifth year – its as though an alarm goes off somewhere deep in my psyche, I start to suffer from profound pangs of Venice-longing and, in every way possible, it starts to haunts my thoughts and my dreams until – lo and behold – I’m suddenly booking those flights!
I seem to have arrived at that stage once again and – yes, when I work it out – it will have been 5 years this July since my last visit to Venice. It has a strange way of creeping its way into my consciousness, much like the mists that creep in off the lagoon; thoughts of Venice start to occur quite subtly as almost imperceptible drifts of the mind that gradually build up momentum until, suddenly, there seems to be a deluge of Venice-related subject-matter in all directions – I see it depicted on TV when I flick the channels, in old batches of photos when I’m searching for something else, I pick-up on Facebook posts and Tweets announcing that people I know are there or about to go, we find ourselves reminiscing about Venetian holidays over dinner and – BAM – suddenly I really miss the place and long to go back. Its a bit like when you are pregnant and all you can see is pregnant people, or you want to buy a certain car and see them being driven around wherever you go. Really, I’m not making it up – my five-year Venetian alarm clock goes off every half-decade, exactly on cue!
So Venice-related have my thoughts been these past weeks that (oh dear, I’ve got it bad!) I dragged out my most-favourite of vintage films from 1955 – “Summertime” (not an overly inspired title), staring Katherine Hepburn and the delectable Rossano Brazzi – for a Sunday evening screening accompanied by a bottle of Chianti last weekend. In vintage Technicolor and with the unmistakable artistry that is the trademark of David Lean, this film has weathered the years well and I love it dearly – and less for its plot of eleventh-hour romance between a “middle-aged” (heavens, she’s my age!) American and an irresistible silver-haired Venetian than for the feeling of the place that it captures on film in a way that I have yet to see bettered by any of the more recent screenplays set in that most photogenic of locations. The Venice of Hepburn and Brazzi is, very much, my Venice and that, in itself, is a marvel because, after all, what other city in the world looks in any way even slightly like its 1950s self as depicted in a movie that is now more than half a century old? The very fact that the place remains unaltered and unalterable (well, apart from the fact its sinking!) is the characteristic that instills the visitor with an eerie sensation of having arrived in a place that has stepped back in time or, even, to have halted time altogether. Perhaps that’s why I always feel so compelled to return; to experience that certain something that Venice has to offer and to check that it wasn’t a figment of my imagination.
From the very moment that Katherine Hepburn steps out of the polished Santa Lucia railway station to confront the befuddlement of water taxis and queues for vaporetti, the holloring and honking, the glistening water, the mini tidal waves caused by waterborne motor traffic, the porticos and window shutters, the chaos and noise that is normality along this stretch of the Grand Canal, it could be my own first moments in the dazzle of Venice, as I stepped out of the very same railway station 23 years ago.
My very first arrival was by train and so – just three weeks later – was my second! I loved Venice so very much, on first sighting, that I managed to make two several-day-long trips there in the course of a month of travelling around Europe. On the first occasion, my own disembarkment coincided with the arrival of the Orient Express and, as I peered into its curtained windows and at its liveried paintwork, it was all too easy to imagine a bygone era and a different kind of journey that had Venice as its destination. On the second visit to Venice later that month I had, in fact, travelled there by steam train myself…well, as far as Thessaloniki, having come all the way from Istanbul (Turkey still operated a number of steam trains during the 1980s). However, my steam train was far from pristine and, having spent the night sleeping on a Greek railway platform awaiting a 5am connection to Venice, I was feeling more than a little bedraggled, all of which detracted from any imaginings that I was Katherine Hepburn (although the old-fashioned train compartments with pictures of the Dolomites above the seats looked much the same as hers). Minor discomforts aside, there is always a certain amount of romance to be savoured from an experience of arriving somewhere like Venice after a long journey by train through mountains and across wide expanses -that very real sense of journeying somewhere and of taking in all the subtle alterations in terrain, climate and culture that we miss entirely when we plane-hop – and I look forward to a return to this kind of travel in the future when the practicalities of family holidays no longer dictate that speed and convenience are all.
So, is this post about my personal experience of Venice or is it really all about my love of a classic film that has become part of the very fabric of my experience of the place? Do you know, I’m not sure any more as the two things are so knitted together as to be inseparable. I’d seen the film so many times before my first visit that it fed my very desire to go there and then, afterwards, became synonymous with all my happiest memories of the place so that I would routinely watch the DVD whenever I was experiencing a Venice-longing and always at least once in the days or weeks before going back there.
After a promising start which – for me – generates an almost involuntary sigh as I relax down into familiar sights and sounds, this absolute gem of a film goes on to depict several other “key” sensory experiences that I would have to include in any serious attempt to capture the essence of the Venice that I know and love. David Lean (think “Doctor Zhivago” and “A Passage to India”) was ever the master of the atmospheric scene, conjouring sight, sound and ambiance into a compositional whole with all the same adept skill of an artist playing with the colours on his palette. While “Summertime” was early enough in his career for him to be, in effect, cutting his teeth (although he already had the superb and, in some ways, similar “Brief Encounter” behind him), it shows all the hallmarks of the cinematic genius to come and, in fact Lean declared the film to be his own personal favourite at the end of an auspicious career (he loved Venice so much that he kept a second home there for many years).
Key atmospheric moments that resonate for me include: The echoing dankness and endless sound of lapping water that accompany any stroll around the back canals of Venice at night. The sound (yes, sound) of a deserted piazza during siesta when it is empty of all but a cat and a sheer intensity of quiet that is only ever broken by the splash of water from a fountain. The dramatic switch from dark enclosure to immense open space and intensity of light as you reach the end of a narrow calle leading into the Piazza San Marco so that you are confronted all-at-once by space, sky and buildings on an immense scale; all accompanied by a gun-shot burst upwards of a`thousand pigeon wings. Most of all, bless him, he captures in 1950s Technicolor the very same colourful vegetable barge (see my picture below) that is still there next to my favourite Campo San Barnaba; the setting, in the film, of the cringeworthy moment that Katherine Hepburn’s character steps backwards into the canal while taking photographs, a scene that never fails to give rise to an uneasy premonition that I will inevitably do the same myself one day, so involved do I get in the process of taking photographs when I am there!
Which is why, given I can’t even begin to put into words all that Venice means to me, I feel I should hand it over to this tiny portion of the hundreds of photos that I have taken of the place over the years. By sharing just these few thoughts today, I hope to have got some of the Venice-longing out of my system – although I realise (if I’m honest) that all I have done is press the “snooze button” on my five-yearly alarm and that another visit will be – inevitably – in the pipeline before very long.