Imagine painting a portrait of a uniquely beautiful person. Your model is nude, hiding nothing, displaying supple skin and curls of hair that absorb the light. As you sketch and fill in, the sun and shadows keep moving – revealing new details. Now you add tiny lines you didn’t notice around the eyes and mouth. As the sun begins descending, you become aware that the hair is two shades darker and seems to be uncurling. Now the flesh appears a little looser, and you realize: What you tried to capture at the start of this encounter no longer exists, and what existed five minutes ago also is gone. Your subject is still pleasing to look at, still distinctive, but when did this person begin… showing their age? Anxiety sets in as you imagine finishing your painting, not as a portrait, but a still life of ashes.
This is what it’s like looking everywhere in Venice, Italy. Sure, craftsmen constantly repair and replace the Byzantine facades and triumphal monuments. The bell tower of St. Mark’s Basilica still looks like it did in 1514, even though it collapsed in 1902. The stone walls and walkways lack any sign of occupation by Napoleon’s and Hitler’s armies. But increasing floods from climate change scoff at all this restoration. As I write this, I’m looking at a day-old photo of people wading through knee-deep water near the Vallaresso Vaporetto stop. It looks bad, but other cities recover from floods, right? Well, yes, if they’re not sitting on saltwater. The moment the brine started seeping into her brick and timber bones, the Queen of the Adriatic was doomed.
That is, unless you count all the other times doom came, and stayed — all the way back to the Roman refugee who, fleeing barbarians, drove that first timber into the muddy lagoon a thousand years ago. Venezia has been dying longer than perhaps any other city.
This must be why artists and those who chase beauty obsess over her canals, bridges, and cathedrals. The main attractions, such as the Bridge of Sighs and Doges Palace, reveal some if you’re not hurried along by the crowd. But those who sit, and listen, might hear the walls whisper what I thought I heard two years ago:
Go ahead, gawk as I slowly sink, and my population shrinks. I’m aware the cost of preserving my 14th Century glory keeps going up. And, yes, the day will come when I won’t be worth saving anymore. Until then, watch, record each moment, and understand that beauty breaks the flow of time, compelling you to look now, and now, and now again – bearing witness to that fleeting space between what was and is.
If you hear this, and your heart breaks, you’ll be more than just a traveler. You’ll suffer the eternal disquiet of a conoscitore. Hopefully, I’ll be in a nearby café, ordering grappa for you and me to mourn in silence.