everything they say about venice is true: you can only get there by water. you can only travel by water or by foot. the water is dirty and smells slightly. it is beautiful and enchanting and romantic.
but i did not understand venice at first. i have always loved water but never enjoyed crowds. the banks of the city are extremely crowded with tourists. i did the obligatory gondola ride with friends and it was nice and relaxing although way too short for 80 euros. we looked at souvenir store after store and got lost in the maze of streets and sidewalks and crowds. a shop another shop and another. finally i ran off by myself and stumbled upon the rialto bridge. standing on the rialto looking out at the boats moving in the grand canal i could finally appreciate the grandeur of the city. the boats rearrange themselves continually like a ballet or an exercise in visual composition coming up from the corners becoming diagonal, horizontal lines and shapes everywhere as the sun glimmers on the green water like an impressionist painting reborn and reborn with each moment. venice is a breathing work of art. after the rialto i ducked into a cool quiet alley and the thought of leaving so soon after i had arrived made me want to cry.
the city is a maze. two turns and you are lost. the streets are narrow and in some places it would be inaccurate to call them streets or sidewalks even. they are more like tunnels between buildings and you have to suck in or move your bag to let people pass the way you might on an airplane. in areas dense with shops there are tourists on every corner staring into very tiny maps. there are little photographs waiting to be made everywhere. i saw two crabs scurrying up an algae covered stone wall. the light from the sun plays in blue green streaks on the undersides of bridges. venice is truly magical, mystical even, but functional.
until a few days ago i had always kind of dismissed the venice as a novelty or curiosity because of its extreme uniqueness as a town on water. however, i know now that it was an extremely powerful city in its prime. the fact that it was on the sea and had canals for streets could be seen as an inconvenience now, but at the time the oddity must have provided its citizens with an unparalleled knowledge of boating and water navigation. they literally lived on the water and the city is strategically positioned in a natural mediterranean harbor. this enabled them to travel and to accept ships and seafarers and trade in a way that no other city could do in the quattrocento. spices, jewels, and things came through venice from the east, including the plague. the plague is said to have come into europe through venice on rats. it was especially devastating there.
although venice has traded its past imperial power for tourism, the symbols of its greatness remain and there seems to be plenty of money that still flows through there like the water. tourism keeps some of the ancient pastimes profitable including masquerade mask making and murano glass blowing. renaissance music still floats in the air and red flags with winged lions still fly. in venice, as with many other areas of italian cities, the clothes and florescent yellow nikon camera straps of tourists are the only indicators that it is 2010 and not 1500.
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i am on a study abroad trip with other american art students and some italian culture/language students. my favorite people here are the people who like me are enamored with Italy and do not resist otherness and newness but go deeply into each moment. i have always been a pretty independent traveler, but when i am not exploring on my own, my usual companions and photography subjects are my roommates three incredibly talented artists and adventurers shohei, blake, and nathan, and two girls from tennessee hannah and alyssa, the classiest most well-mannered people on the trip. i have nominated myself the unofficial photographer for everyone and people have begun asking me to take pictures of them. sometimes including a person in these touristy locations is the only way to make the shots feel human, and instead of snapping a bunch of pictures of myself, it is nice to have so many kind beautiful people around who have become accustomed to my camera in their faces.
being with the guys reminds me a great deal of touring with JFK during the swim album era. there is a particular kind of free-spirited openness and rambunctiousness that comes with the early twenties. a lot of the time i just laugh with them and at them. our room often smells like sweat, crap, and tuna fish due to the frequency of all of those things happening. there is no fridge or microwave in the room, so we eat dry goods for one or two meals a day to save money. for a long time i ate only nutella sandwiches and apples and bananas. shohei has since discovered canned tuna and passed along this important knowledge. i added lettuce and tomatos. we are now all on the tuna sandich boat, and nathan has also recently joined the tomato and mayonaise boat. to avoid literally sweating tuna juice the way shohei does when he returns from his morning run, i alternate days between tuna and nutella. today i had a triple decker nutella sandwich, which admittedly was not very satisfying but i am no longer hungry. i have also discovered these incredible strawberry cracker biscuit things at the market. i am considering taking some home with me.
my roommates are conveniently my favorite artists on the trip. so we talk about art and draw and show each other our drawings and images of our work from back home. shohei’s art is very graphic and bold and precise. nathan has been working on his rennaisance cross-hatching with great success. blake’s figures are somewhere between. the four of us have a lot of common interests including mysticism and physics and art of course and we are always sharing our finds throughout the city.
i am running out of deodorant. if i didn’t know better i would assume that deodorant did not exist in Italy. in the morning, the narrow crowded streets of florence are full of the scent of perfume and cologne and flowers. the people smell amazing and wealthy and look amazing and wealthy. by noon, all of these same people smell like armpits. maybe i am being ethnocentric, but deodorant really seems like a product that would sell itself: for three euros, you can not smell like a armpit by noon!