Venice Light and Dark

By on November 22, 2013

Crowded, expensive, decaying and flood-prone, Venice still manages to be the world’s most beautiful city. And it’s even lovelier in winter gloom than summer sun. Fleur Kinson muses on the capital of paradoxes.

As we begin to descend, the plane window frames views of a sodden, misty-grey landscape. It’s a world half land and half water, the boundaries between the two constantly blurred and broken. Sinking lower, wheels clunking out from their sockets in readiness, the wide lagoon that holds the magic island grows distinct. I trace the sinuous lines of its underwater channels and shallows – the wayward wriggles that put this extraordinary city out here in the first place.

Venice began life when mainland dwellers needed to hide from Attila the Hun. They fled into the navigationally-treacherous lagoon to remote islets and sand-bars that only they knew how to safely reach. Living off fish and seaweed and rainwater, these mainland refugees set up their amphibious society. They drove wooden posts into the silt to create more land, and began fashioning streets out of water. From this odd and unpromising arrangement, they founded a city that would become for a thousand years the world’s greatest trading state. And later one of its most loved tourist destinations.


From the airport, I board a fast water-taxi and sit outside in the cold, sea-smelling air, clinging on tight as we buck and bounce high across the wakes of oncoming craft. Overhead, a full moon hangs like a broken egg yolk, its orange circle smudged by the watery veils of November sky. We drop speed as we reach the city and inch quietly through its deserted back alleys, past ancient palazzi with damp-rotted walls. The eerie silence is broken only by the drip of water and the imagined whispering of ghosts.

I see straight away that Venice is its most beautiful at the cold tapering end of the year. The damp and dark make more stark its graceful lines and its romantic melancholy. Crumbling plaster, tilting belltowers – decay is nowhere in the world more attractive. And the sympathetic decay of November itself exaggerates the city’s strange, implied immortality. This impossible project, a city built on water, was surely doomed to fail, yet somehow it miraculously persists. It makes you wonder what other crazy dreams might be made real, and made to last.


From my hotel I follow darkened alleys to Piazza San Marco, the grandest of grand squares – now fantastically spacious without its summer hordes. The basilica is ghostly grey and asleep, all its magnificent gilded fizz put to bed for the night. Pale arcaded buildings stand handsome and serene, hushed by the wintry night. It’s like catching a flamboyant actress asleep. Come here in warmer months and this square is a blaring whirl of crowds and cameras.

Twelve million people visit Venice every year. It’s ironic that a city originally built to elude outsiders now entices them in such abundance. The problem is that Venice is just so gorgeous. For centuries, it spent much of its fabulous trading wealth on beautifying itself – building palaces, carving statues, slapping on the gold. When its riches and power began to decline, the city acquired a new reputation as a place of fun and frivolity, of casinos and carnival. Aristocratic young men making the Grand Tour across Europe couldn’t resist a fun-filled stop here. And so began a tradition of visiting which endures.

The modern tourists who clutter up the city are generally regarded as an irritant by other tourists. It’s often said that Venice is ‘ruined by tourists’. But in fact, it has been saved by them. Not only have tourists sustained the Venetian economy, they’ve preserved the physical existence of the place. Without its value to visitors, Venice would long ago have slipped into the mud of the lagoon. Why go to all the trouble and expense of propping the place up if there weren’t a fortune to be made from it?


Happily, thanks to Venice’s unfailing gift for conundrum, even in the height of summer it’s still possible to stray onto a deserted back alley. The liquid streets follow the old watercourses of the lagoon, and their dense, mazy intricacies mean that some are only ever found by the most dedicated explorer. Aimlessly wandering higgledy-piggledy canalsides is an important part of the whole Venetian experience. But you’re almost certain to get lost eventually. Enjoy it as just another part of the city’s mystery and romance.

The next day, I’m out on the streets at an ungodly hour, knocking back cappuccino at a pavement café. Early morning Venice is ragged and beautiful, its decay even more apparent in the cold morning light. Rotting wooden stumps and striped poles bristle from the water, rubbish bins overflow onto the streets, and the canals are chugging with service-boats. I linger on a narrow landing stage and watch stout barges roaring past laden with supplies. They’re bringing all the day’s unglamorous goods into the city – crates of food, cases of beer, plastic utensils. The boatmen standing alone at each helm, sternly shepherding the cargo, seem to me like the unsung stage managers and prop assistants who enable the grand theatre of each Venetian day.

Out in its lagoon, rising dream-like from its winter mists and its summer heat-hazes, sometimes it’s easy to believe that Venice is nothing but theatre and illusion. Adding to the sense of unreality are the city’s many paradoxes. It’s falling apart yet faultlessly beautiful. Its native population is dwindling, yet it’s crowded to discomfort. It’s a city but not really – more a living museum, largely existing for visitors. The land isn’t land and the streets are the sea. It’s a topsy-turvy place that forever outwits you. You think you’ve grasped it, you think you know where you are, then you turn a corner and… yes, you’re lost again.

Venice casually juxtaposes things you think couldn’t go together. If there’s one view that most sums up this city’s natural ease with contradiction, perhaps it’s the vista you get looking west in the evening. Beyond the fine belltowers and ornate frontages, above the arabesque windows and delicate roof tiles, the sunset sky glows apocalyptic orange behind the industrial majesty of Venice’s suburb Marghera on the nearby mainland. Towering steel cranes rend the sky with harsh diagonals, storage tanks and processing plants glower over the shoreline and rusty cargo ships drag their black burden through the waves. Improbably, these austere modern shapes harmonize perfectly with the frilly historic buildings in the foreground, and enhance the dramatic beauty of the whole scene. In Venice, it seems, anything is possible.

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