The first thing that struck me about Venice was the extraordinary quality of the light. We had arrived some way out of town at Treviso airport where the so-called “no-frills” airlines operate. Lack of frills would be more accurately rendered as lack of service so my mood was not good: a nasty Ryanair flight redeemed only by breathtaking views of the Alps followed by a seemingly interminable coach journey along the causeway that links Venice to the mainland had taken its toll on happiness.
The city proved to be up to the challenge of improving my humour: a short ride on a “vaporetto” (the waterborne Venetian equivalent of a bus) along the Grand Canal proved to be as delightful a trip as the flight had been unpleasant. We had come in mid-October and the worst of both legendary downsides to Venice – the heat and the crowds – had largely ebbed away and a gentle opalescent haze of autumn light had settled upon the city. The sun shone gently diffused upon an architecture quite unlike any I had seen before.
And that, I think, is a particular quality that Venice possesses: that of being unique, a city that is of the sea yet not, in the main, a coastal port, above all a city of the greatest improbability. Common sense suggests that a large-scale urban structure founded almost entirely upon wooden poles rammed into the mud of coastal lagoon of uncertain stability or consistency is unlikely to endure long enough to be remembered as anything other than a questionable judgement, let alone become one of the greatest seafaring and trading powers ever seen. But that’s what Venice does best: it surprises you at every turn with eccentricities and paradoxes such as its lengendary water shortage. At the same time, it charms, delights and seduces the visitor. Who could not be delighted with an entire city free from traffic and fronted by architecture that blends together hundreds of years of diverse cultures – not only of Venice itself but of its many trading partners? More prosaically, how could one resist the idea of a theatre (La Fenice) whose scenery dock is an actual dock at which boats arrive and depart?
Admittedly, the height of summer is just about unbearable with the excess of both heat and tourists: by autumn, however, both have ebbed and the pearly sea haze diffuses everything. To make a pin-sharp, modern-looking photograph seems almost impossible for Venice itself is neither modern nor, in its autumnal cloak, pin-sharp. Unlike so many cities, Venice simply states its uniqueness quietly and requires that you take it or leave it: nothing is negotiable. No late night bars, no large coffees, just promenading locals in the cool of evening and then early to bed. If you can’t see something clearly for the mist, you may have to believe that its very existence is uncertain, undefined and, like the rest of Venice, take it on trust.