Venice – Lost in an Enchanted Dream

Excerpts from the book “Inspiration Venice”

Venice stirs admiration and wonder and exerts a strange power over the imagination. At times its appearance resembles a theater production, at times a mirage from 1001 Nights. Strolling through it feels like sliding into a daydream – shimmering like mother-of-pearl, everything solid dissolves into water and colors. For centuries, the poetic melancholy of the lagoon city has been challenging artists and poets with its magic. Even its name stirs up associations with “Venus” who sprang from the foam of the sea. As Goethe’s “Venetian Epigrams”, this book also features artworks that lack any direct connection with Venice because inspiration may be expressed in the most diverse facets.

In this spirit, 63 artists from 29 countries have come together on the occasion of the 700th anniversary of Venice-born traveler Marco Polo’s death, to celebrate the miracle of “La Serenissima” with contemporary imagery. The editor of this book has divided the artworks from around the world into chapters and added selected haiku poems, exquisite quotes, descriptive statements, and photo images. The result is a multifaceted homage from their imaginative perspective.

An Homage to Venice and Marco Polo

The text and the poems in this post are excerpts from the book “Inspiration Venice“.

Video: Venedig zum Träumen (Venice to dream)

In the Middle Ages, the trade connections of the wealthy Italian maritime city of commerce called Venice took a completely different path than the political relations between Europe and the powerful Mongol Empire. Merchants were granted relative safety on its mailing and trading routes – their rate of return was one hundred percent. Back then, Asia was highly superior to Europe in many ways. Marco Polo`s travelogue must have been an informative non-fiction book about the legendary riches of the East and their countries of origin. With the conquest of Constantinople in 1204, the Venetians had secured their passage to the Black Sea. On the northern Silk Road, China could be reached via Bukhara and Samarkand, its southern route led all the way to Persia and India. In 1275, Marco Polo reached Beijing and stayed there till 1292 as an envoy, governor, and interpreter to Kublai Khan. After the barbaric power struggles of Genghis Khan and his successors, Kublai had emerged as the first culture loving Mongol ruler and consequently became the central hero of his faithful servant Marco Polo’s report. By the end of the 15th century, the book had been translated into almost all European languages. In today’s Venice, not a trace remains of Marco Polo’s stay. His description of Asian luxury goods, however, piling up in big bundles at the quay of Venice, must not only have had an effect on potential customers, but also on the imagination of artists worldwide: rugs from Alexandria, spices from the Moluccas, camphor from Borneo, pearls and sapphires from Ceylon, shawls from Cashmere, musk from Tibet, ivory from Zanzibar, brocade fabrics from Bengal, saffron, silk, and gems.

Taking a walk through Venice has something surreal about it

In the 13th century, the number of trading houses in Constantinople was hardly lower than the one in Venice itself. Not only was “La Serenissima” an outpost of the Byzantine Empire for a long time, during the Sack of Constantinople in 1204, everything of value was also brought to Venice from one of the world’s wealthiest cities, including the large bronze horses above the entrance of St. Mark’s Basilica. Venice acquired major parts of Eastern Europe and the Near East. In the 15th century, the weakened Byzantium was an easy victim for the Ottomans who promptly granted the Venetians trade freedom in all parts of their empire. Venice saw itself as Byzantium’s heir. In the 16th century, it became the center of the world economy. In exchange for Asian goods, the Venetians exported mainly luxury items and glass.

The tight connection with Byzantine and Oriental culture noticeably influenced the city’s architecture. The focus is on rounded cupolas and arches, shimmering mosaics, and variety rather than uniformity. The admiration of distant cultures has led to oriental borrowings even in the facade of the Doge’s Palace. St. Mark’s Basilica, too, was based on the model of Constantine’s Apostoleion. Weightlessly balanced, Venice brims with traces of “the other”. Whether it is owed to the city’s strict policy of neutrality, its former lagoon location, or simply the respect people have always had for its incomparable beauty – Venice has never been destroyed and ended up being the stage for a flourishing intercultural life. The sea opened its passage to wealth and riches. The tolerance that dominated the city’s culture was unknown elsewhere. The city-state became a model for the intellectuals of the Enlightenment, for England, and the New World.

To Petrarch on the other hand, Venice was the “city of the sailors”, where he lost his fame. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, too, saw something other than the beauty of “La Serenissima”. During his second trip to Italy, he worked on a collection of historical observations called “The Venetian Epigrams”. Bocaccio mentioned the city’s depravity in his „Decameron“. Not only the combination of orient and occident made Venice so stimulating, but also that of beauty and decadence. In his brilliant poem “The Courtesan”, Rilke compares the eyebrows of a seductive woman with the bridges of Venice. The famous adventure of the legendary Venetian Casanova tells about his escape from the lead chambers at the Bridge of the Sighs. Goethe referred to the gondolas as “spacious biers”, Byron used the term “coffin”. Although millions of visitors crowd the city during the day, at night, it appears strangely abandoned. In E.T.A. Hoffmann’s story “Doge and Dogaress”, readers can virtually grasp the city’s aura of the mysterious, scheming, cryptic, and threatening. Daphne du Maurier’s psycho-horror thriller “Don’t Look Now”, and the crime fiction classics by Patricia Highsmith and Donna Leon, also feature the labyrinthine beauty of the city by the water.

The novelist Franz Werfel has Giuseppe Verdi travel to Venice for the carnival. When he wants to visit Richard Wagner, who is also staying there, he realizes that Wagner has died during the night. The dominating water intensifies the impression of fog and haze, in which only the beating of the oars, the sound of the bells, and the muted thuds of steps can be heard. Venice is ruled by the tide – and thus by the moon. Monet, Manet, and Turner found light there, and flowing movement. Albrecht Dürer studied the Venetian artists Titian, Giorgione, and Bellini. His portrait of a Venetian woman was painted in 1505. The city’s painters were known for their skill to depict hues of gold, and the texture of velvet and satin. The typical sheen of the city’s oriental interiors can also be found in their paintings. Tintoretto’s work was famous as a majestic theater. As Venetian visual art, the music of Monteverdi and Vivaldi also reflects the rhythm of the sea in the form of a melodious flooding. Mozart, Scarlatti, and Gluck were also inspired by Venice.

Naturally, all great artists have been to Venice, only to confirm with a single voice that “La Serenissima” is a dream come true. The Caffé Florian’s record of visitors features Lord Byron, the brothers Gozzi, Henri Rousseau, Dumas père, Alfred de Musset and George Sand, Arthur Schopenhauer, and Henry James. Mark Twain, Charles Dickens, Auguste Renoir, Marcel Proust, Gerhart Hauptmann, Edgar Allan Poe, Friedrich Nietzsche, Felix Mendelssohn, and Igor Strawinsky – all of them felt like they were walking through a fantastic dream. Lord Byron and Alberto Moravia delved into Venetian culture by visiting the Carnival. Henry James stayed at the Palazzo Barbaro and used it as a setting in his novel “The Wings of the Dove”. Ernest Hemingway usually spent the night at Gritti Palace and made the city unforgettable in his novel “Across the River and Into the Trees”. In 1911, Thomas Mann stayed at the Grand Hotel de Bains on the Lido. He processed his stay in “Death in Venice” whose protagonist Gustav Aschenbach resembles the composer Gustav Mahler. Through Luchino Visconti’s film adaptation featuring Mahler’s music, the novel acquired an even larger readership.

Venice’s vedutisti (Canaletto, Bellotto, and Guardi) would have no trouble finding their way around the alleys of the city by the lagoon today. Seemingly cut off from the modern industrial age, it consists of 117 islands connected by about 450 beautiful bridges leading across 170 jade-colored canals. It belongs less to Italy than to the world of the imagination. Being inside St. Mark’s Basilica feels like walking across the shimmering waves of the sea. With its multiple window shapes, color hues, and surface structures, the architecture of Venice sprawls out horizontally like the ocean, whose rhythm is colorfully and luminously reflected in its canals. The foundation of the city seems to be its own reflection making everything dance. Venice does not embody upward ambition but balance and the harmony of differences. In combination with the high salt content in the air, this unusual sense of balance makes the place perfectly suited to self-discovery and healing. Not only as a gathering place for the artworld but also as a place of longing, Venice tries to sell itself today, and in doing so, is the most successful city in the world. The gondoliers are part of the large-scale manner in which it presents itself. In Carlo Goldoni’s comedies, the heart of a gondolier is always in the right place, and his “O sole mio“ can be heard everywhere in the city. Goldoni’s pigeon-circled monument tells a story of a theatrical passion whose humor may at times be cheeky but is never evil. Its connection with splendor, ritual and melodrama has also helped the city of carnival masks and festivals achieve great popularity for the opera.

Strolling and Imagination

San Marco: marble
Like Sultan‘s oyster robe
In dreamy shell pink.

A sea blue wooden
Door crowned with a pointed arch
Just like an old boat.

As beautiful as
A flower – pillar fountain
On the Piazza.

Silent gondola
Reflected in an arched bridge.

Mother-of-pearl beach
The blue of the sickle moon
Lido di Venecia.

Chugging and whooshing
Its breath can be heard at night.
La Serenissima.

Honored by silence
As the red sun sinks into
The church’s turban.

Sources: Please see the authors, poet and bibliography in the above link to the online book (imprint at the end of the book)!