“You should choose the finest day of the month and have yourself rowed far away across the lagoon….”
—Henry James, Italian Hours, 1909
It’s five a.m. in Milan and my alarm rings. Outside I hear rain beating on my windows. I mute the clock and sling a leg out of bed. I’m going to Venice on the 6:30 train even though the entire Italian peninsula sloshes like an overflowing bathtub.
I stumble for the shower—some hot water to wake me up. And then for the espresso maker. Soon I’m ready and out the door. Dark clouds spit raindrops like shrill warnings. The wind upends my umbrella.
On the train, map open, I review my Venetian attack. So many have been to Venice, photographed Venice, written about Venice—from Michel de Montaigne to Byron and Dickens and Browning and Ruskin and Henry James and Mark Twain and Hemingway (and many in between and afterward) and I’m following in their footsteps.
Cà d’Oro — “A noble pile of very quaint Gothic, once superb in general effect.”
—John Ruskin, Stones of Venice.
- Santa Maria della Salute — “…the grace of the whole building being chiefly dependent on the inequality of size in its cupolas, and pretty grouping of the two campaniles behind them….”
—John Ruskin, Stones of Venice.
Today I’m on the trail of Henry James and John Ruskin. Both men loved Venice and visited it often. Ruskin documented his passion for the city in several tomes, most notably the Stones of Venice, a three-volume best-seller when it was published mid-century (1851-1853). In the later part of the 19th century, James wrote a series of essays for journals about his stays in Venice (as well as other Italian cities) which were compiled into the 1909 Italian Hours.
I plan to take pictures of the palaces and churches and squares both men loved as well as those they abhorred, and accompany the photos with their words. I locate the Cà d’Oro, a palazzo Ruskin liked, and circle it on the map for easy reference later. I find Santa Maria Formosa, a church whose architectural flights disgusted him, and circle that too. And I star the location of the Ducal Palace, a building both men loved. I plan to chug along the Grand Canal in a vaporetto, not an elegant vessel, but serviceable and cheap when compared to the eternally classic gondola. From a perch in the prow I’ll take photos. I’ll have more than ten hours; I arrive in Venice at 9:30 am and my return won’t be until 7:50 pm. With so much time at my disposal I’ll be sure to get my shots right. And while I’m shooting, I’ll spend a marvelous day like others I’ve spent in the city. I’ll revel in the light, the merging of sea and sky, the shining domes, the golden lions glinting from columns, from lintels, from façades.
Although. From the sound of the reverb on the roof of the train—fortissimo like Ligeti’s The Devil’s Staircase—the rain doesn’t seem to be abating. And we’re in Padua with just one more stop to Venice. But I won’t worry yet. A lot can happen in a few kilometers. And no doubt the rain won’t hold too long in Venice. After all, this is the city that James said was mutable “like a nervous woman whom you know only when you know all aspects of her beauty. She has high spirits or low, she is pale or red, grey or pink, cold or warm, fresh or wan….” [Italian Hours.] So if flighty, changeable Venice starts out wet, she’ll soon turn dry. Right?