The Venetian light, ethereal and translucent as it shimmers off the shallow waters of the lagoon, has been the focus of much praise in literature and art. In ‘Death in Venice,’ Thomas Mann describes a ‘vaulted sky of delicate azure and utter purity,’ light like ‘dazzling crystals dancing;’ while Turner’s famous Venetian watercolours depict the city always through a veil of golden mist, sparkling evaporate blurring the skyline of distantly visible spires and campaniles. This trip however, after the fete days of Christmas have passed, and the fireworks and festivities of New Year’s have given way to the inevitable hangover, we encounter La Bella Venezia in an altogether different mood...
With clouds drawn in like heavy drapes, the light low and air damp, the city appears to turn back in upon itself, and, as though taking advantage of the brief lull afforded by the beginning of another year, returned to pay quiet homage to the element that has always most ruled her fortunes – not air, but water.
Creeping over the cobbles of the piazzetta, lapping up and over the edge of the Riva Schiavoni, the acqua alta, or high tide, has stealthily taken the city in its watery grasp. Persistently leaking skies and an atmosphere of chilly damp mean that all but the bravest of tourists are hiding indoors, first in the shops, galleries, and museums, and then later, in thickly carpeted hotel dining rooms, or in the more well-advertised restaurants. The famous gondole, forlorn and dripping, are temporarily abandoned to float high on their wooden tethering stakes and wait out the deluge, ‘closed for business’ tacitly indicated by their faded cloth covers.
The Piazza di San Marco is an eerie place on such a night. No crowded outdoor café tables, not a soul in sight in fact, even the famous pigeons adjourned to their hidden roosts in the tiled roof tops. Just two sombre rows of lighted hollow arches and an expanse of empty space to see. But listen carefully, and you’ll hear the distant but distinct sound of heels against cobble. Follow the sound across the square if you are game, and out its farthest side – in the darkest days of a Venetian winter, it is necessary to depart from the better trodden tourist tracks to find a little nightlife!
Weave through the darkened lanes of San Marco, and cross the Grand Canal at the Accademia to arrive in the less-frequented Sestiere di Dorsoduro. Here, a quick right at the end of the bridge, and then the very next right again will lead you to a peaceful canal crossed by a single arched ponte – the Rio di San Trovaso.
Stop and take a look, between rain showers the opaque green waters of the canal are pond-still and darkly reflective in the night. Where the water becomes shallow though, like on the stone steps that lead down into the canal itself, it is perfectly clear and clean, beckoning almost. As though to suggest that if you were to descend the stairs into the water, and submerge yourself below, there might be more to see down there than just foggy darkness. As though, perhaps, and just perhaps, you might instead see miraculously clearly through the ancient depths, and in doing so, somehow be witness to all of the magnificent history of the city at once, as well as to all her darkest secrets.
But don’t stare too long, lest this urge translate into action! Onwards, south along the canal, listening still for signs of life – just by the ponte and tucked away on the left. A small sign that reads ‘Vini al Bottegon,’ windows fogged thick from the inside, and soft yellow light casting a small arc on the cobbles outside – Cantinone Gia' Schiavi the little bacaro we’ve set out to find…