The Marble Lion, when I was 18 years old
I stood in front of a marble lion statue and licked my lemon ice cream. Although, I’ve been to Venice countless of times by now, I have never walked the little streets on my own, only ever with my family. But here I was, my parents and my sister had already taken a Vaporetto to the Lido. They wanted to enjoy the last afternoon in Italy by the beach. I, on the other hand, wanted to walk the ancient streets of Venice a little while longer.
I inspected the marble lion a bit closer. This one had its mouth slightly open, its eyes were alert, staring right out at the Laguna. I touched it and felt the smooth cool stone, white and beautiful. Some parts of it were grey but in the sunlight, it glittered white, almost like a pearl. It stood by the door of a cream red building on the Riva Ca di’ Dio. It was a busy street and right next to it the Vaporetti chugged along. Here was the main water street between the Lido, the south eastern side of Venice and of course, if you would follow the street and the water street up north, you would reach the heart of the city, the Piazza di San Marco and the Canal Grande. I stroked the lion’s head and wished him goodbye. I did that with all the lions and winged lions of Venice. You never knew when you would need their help. You better be nice to them, I thought. Afterall, this city on the water did not belong to the humans but to the figures living between all the worlds Venice connected, to the lions with wings, the Poseidon statues and of course the mermaids. And there were so many. Venice had an army of lions and statues. Every Venetian, every Italian, every visitor and every tourist walked in the shadows of the sculptures. We were all being watched by the ancient lions and the other marble and bronze figures. It was their city.
I looked at the cream red house one more time. It appeared to be very old. The window frames were white and dark green. The door was massive and made of dark brown wood. There was a bronze doorknob and its head was of course a lion. It was this typical mixture of architecture one encountered in Venice everywhere. Oriental, remnants of the Ottoman Empire, a style you could find in Istanbul as well. Yet, it was also European. There were baroque elements of Roman and Old-Greek within, mixed up, a hybrid form, a house on the water, something that should be on land but was built here out at sea. It was of two worlds. The world of humans and the world of nature within the ocean. Half human and half fish, a mermaid house.
I continued my walk along the street and the canal. There were more red cream houses, yellow ones, beige ones and some green ones. All of them built within the architectural mixture of orient and occident. Here was more space. There were yachts and motorboats floating in the water, waiting to return to the open sea. They looked out of place next to these ancient and beautiful houses. They were steel, shiny and clean. Nothing like Venice. She was stone, marble, rough and dirty. She was beautiful.
In the distance, I could see a gigantic cruise ship approaching. It was like the black dragon Drogon in the penultimate episode of Game of Thrones, his shadow rose above the doomed city, above the terracotta coloured roofs. And so, did the long shadow of the ship. But the cruise liner and its shadow would not rain down a destructive fire storm over the city and zeal the citizens’ fates like it did for King’s Landing. This white dragon, slowly moving on the water would work in a different way. One by one, every day, every new steel monster visiting this city, would eventually lead to the Serenissima fading away. This ancient place was not made for the craziness and the hustle of 21st century life. Everything within her was old and precious. She was like an endangered animal living in the wild, soon to be extinct.
I looked away from the ship and turned around to the lion statue again. I waved goodbye, and, as if the stone lion could read my thoughts, the lion shook its head disapprovingly towards the ship, then looked at me and waved goodbye with one white paw. In any other city I would not have believed it. A stone statue waving at me? But here in Venice, the city of dualities, a place of land and sea, meeting spot of worlds, histories and cultures, reality could fade into magic and dreams turned into truths.
Santa Maria dei Miraculi, when I was 14 years old
I looked at the shining altar of the church Santa Maria dei Miraculi. It glowed golden from the sunlight that glittered through the high Roman windows of the church. On the walls there was hardly any decoration but there was none needed as the patterns within the marble created natural decorations by itself. Nature was the best designer there was. The beautiful contrast between light beige marble and the darker marble within the stone looked like a network of stone blood vessels that stretched everywhere along the walls. With the light that was reflected by the canal from outside, the marble appeared to be alive, breathing, almost like leaves of a tree waving in the wind. I took a few steps up the staircase to the altar and looked through the round window of the choir high above me. Golden light shone through the round window. Then my gaze wondered to the right wall and there they were after all: Some decorations, carvings, human made, were always to be found in a church. Or were they human made? The carvings within the stone depicted mermaids, their fishtails delicately interwoven with each other and passed over into waves. Someone had created this over 500 years ago. I touched the carving to make sure the merpeople were really there. The carving felt icy cold, white marble on a warm hand. I wondered, maybe, within the moonlight, a mermaid had left the safety of the waters and came into this church to remind humans that she was here first. The city might be built on water but any time, whenever the mermaids wished, this city, this church, this carving could join the mermaids in the deep blue below.
‘Looks like the architect Lombardo had similar ideas about mermaids in Venice as you have.’ My dad said behind me.
I turned around and smiled at him.
‘Come, there is something you have to see. It’s about the symmetry of the church and its choir.’
I followed my dad, back to the middle of the church.
San Giorgio, when I was 18 years old
We stood in a beautiful garden on the Isola di San Giorgio, south of the Canal Grande. My mum and my sister sat on a bench in the shade already tired from visiting two churches, the library of San Giorgio and walking up San Giorgio’s tower. My dad was somewhere by the other end of the garden, photographing the old walls and the church next to it. I strolled along the herb and flower patches of this green space. There was thyme, lavender and roses. The thyme shone dark green and there was a little spider web woven between the delicate branches. The lavender was filled with life. There were bees and two white green butterflies with black dots flying around the purple flowers. The roses, red like blood sparkled within the sunshine. There was a bright green praying mantis holding onto a rose’s thorns. I breathed in the Italian air and felt the warm sun on my skin. Somewhere behind the quiet garden, beyond the walls, I could hear the Vaporetti. This place, this secret garden was almost like the centre of the maze. The commotion was all around it but in here time stood still. Here, the priests and the nuns of San Giorgio cultivated the garden like they did 200 years ago. Everything seemed harmonic, only broken when the great buzzing of the monstrous cruise liner interrupted this idyllic spot. And then, nature and the people of San Giorgio were reminded that the 21st century has long found its way within their paradise garden. Nothing could stop time. Even I was an intruder. Although, most of the tourists did not know about this garden, some tourists, like me, still found this place here. And if only for a moment, I still interrupted this picture of a Venice that belonged to a different time.
I looked up at the red brick tower we had climbed an hour ago. That red- brown colour of Italian churches that was so typical and always to be found somewhere in Italy. Up there I could smell all the salt water, that fresh wind coming from the sea and down below was the Piazza di San Marco, the Palladio church, the Canal Grande and further up glittered the white Rialto bridge in the sun. There were people everywhere. But here in this green garden, I could almost feel alone.
Peggy Guggenheim Museum, when I was 13 years old
The shadows of the leaves filtered the sunlight and played a pretty game on the marble throne in the green courtyard that once belonged to Peggy Guggenheim. My mum and my friends were sitting in the museum café while my dad was still somewhere in the museum, probably analysing a Picasso painting. Every time we came here, I looked at the same paintings. I’ve been here so many times I knew exactly where my favourites were. Sometimes of course, the people who worked at the museum moved the paintings around, but I would always find them in some room or another. The paintings were almost like old friends. You just had to visit them and say hello from time to time. It was strange though. Every couple of years, whenever I looked at the paintings, I was older, changed. Yet, they remained the same, immortal beings on the wall waiting to see a different version of me.
One of those paintings was actually not that great of a painting, in terms of concept, imagery and artistic skill. But while writing this now and while you are reading in this very moment, I have it in my mind as clearly as if I were standing right in front of it now. The frame was brown, and it didn’t cast a shadow on the actual painting which meant it was good lighting. It is called The Sea and the Dancers by Gino Severini, painted in 1914. He was not a ground-breaking artist or painter. He wanted to combine pointillism with cubism and failed trying to do so. Yet, most of his paintings were quite pretty and among most art historians considered worthy enough to become part of the canon.
It is funny, I don’t know how it happened but whenever I am not in the Laguna city and have to think about Venice, I just have to think about this not so important painting as well. To be honest, if you would stand in front of it, you would for sure remember the colours of this bright painting. Like in pointillism the figures and movements within the painting were broken apart into countless colourful dots. Yet with this one, it had lost all form and was only a combination of shapes. There was no sense and realisation of foreground and background. There were blue and purple points, creating shapes that represented the sea. And green, yellow and red ones that represented the dancers in between. Maybe it was the other way round though. But if you wouldn’t know about the painting’s title, it would be impossible to know it was supposed to represent dancers by the sea. And that was the thing the painter did not quite managed to do. The painting was unable to exist on its own, without the title, the original idea was lost for the spectator.
Despite knowing all of that, it was still within my mind and has somehow always inspired me because the colours worked so beautifully. And like an old friend it always felt good to come back to it.
The other painting, I always had to think about too, and had to revisit every time, was a Picasso which my dad would approve of as well. I remembered one of the first times I came to the Guggenheim, it was actually my sister who had pointed out that particular Picasso painting to me. I remembered her exact words: ‘I like this one. It just works.’
It was that one big Picasso painting on the ground floor, two children playing with a boat by the sea. It is called On the Beach. Its colours were blue and grey and when you saw it, you just knew it was a Picasso. Every form, every shape and every colour had its purpose and worked on its own, within the painting and as a whole. There were lines connecting each other like a circular narrative that made sense. Like one dot speaking to the other and so on. The foreground connected to the background and the other way round. No note by an art historian or a title was actually needed because when you looked at it for a while, put your mind to it, you could understand how this painting worked. It would not even need a little description when and where Picasso had painted this artwork because it was not about that but simply about the painting itself. Good art was that good when it could exist on its own without the story of who painted it, where it came from and what time period it belonged to. It must speak to humanity and its history throughout time. And that was the case with a lot of Picasso paintings. And On the Beach was one of them.
I was pulled out of my thoughts when I heard a cat meow by the bushes of the marble throne. It was a white and black cat purring, probably a frequent visitor to the garden courtyard and maybe the only one who knew all the secret ways around the Peggy Guggenheim museum. I stroked the cat. Like all Italian cats her fur was very short. Her green eyes looked at me for a moment, the eyes of a cat, her expression, interested for a second, and then not anymore because she had something better to do. She disappeared behind the green bushes again, strolling, like she owned the place. And in her opinion, she most likely did. I was just a visitor who was allowed to stroke her for a moment. I realised, she was as much a part of the Guggenheim Museum as every Picasso inside.