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Behind the Mask

In approaching the City of Bridges by our small private ferry, I knew it was going to be breathtaking. From the water, it appears the buildings are born straight from the waves. Once you actually reach the island, you feel compelled to stop to admire and take pictures of every last canal, gondola, winged lion, and street corner. You venture further and behold the Doge’s Palace, done in rose and white marble, adorned with a series of clover shaped holes along its top, and supported by columns depicting sculpted stories. The library is topped with graceful figures of gods. The Campanile shoots high into the sky and is topped with a turning gold Gabriel who functions as a weather vane. The clock tower has the symbols of the zodiac in gold on a background of deep blue. St. Mark’s Square itself is expansive and pigeons frolic in the water that rises through its stones at high tide.

Having been awed by all this, you turn to St. Mark’s Basilica. The arches outside and the walls and ceiling inside are decorated in mosaics of vivid color set against sparkling gold. In looking at them, the work put in is simply unfathomable. The effect is such that inside of the church reflects a truly unique sheen even in the dimmest light. The floors, too, are amazing, creating three dimensional illusions and eye boggling designs. I feel I could have spent a good deal of time just sitting in the basilica, reveling in its magnitude in every respect.

Moving on from the basilica, the spiral staircase of the Bovolo family, the Rialto Bridge, and Mozart’s house are also sights to see. You’ll find that in going to Venice, however, you’ll be quite satisfied getting your “sightseeing” done in the vast multitude of Murano glass, mask, costume, and lace shops. I am not a shopper by any stretch, but I feel that looking in these shops is akin to peeking inside a living art gallery. While you’re gawking at a pristine mask decorated with the tiniest of hand painted flowers or trying to get your head around how thin the legs of that glass giraffe are, there is a shop owner over in the corner working on another piece. On Murano Island itself, we were able to observe a couple glass working demonstrations. The willingness of the glass to bend to the will of the master and heat of the flame is mind bending, and so is the speed at which sculptures are produced. I ended up purchasing two small pendants of glass as souvenirs, but the sheer aesthetic tempts you to procure endlessly. As I watched other tourists laden with bulging bags head to their respective ferries at day’s end, I thanked my strong will and general reluctance to shop.

While most of the shops in Venice are remarkable, one in particular earned its place as my favorite with no discernible runner up. Libreria Acqua Alta is perhaps the most interesting and brilliant bookstore in the world. Its name literally translates to “bookstore of high water.” This is because Venice floods for portions of the year, and during these times the bookstore does as well. Fear not for the books, though; they are kept in full sized gondolas, bathtubs, and other small boats and simply float in safety when the waters rise. In summer, when the waters are in the canals as they should be, you can explore the shop without the aid of boots. There are piles and piles and piles of every type of book you can imagine. As you sift through Locke, Shakespeare, cookbooks, handwritten journals, and children’s books (thankfully sorted into vague sections), the bookstore’s resident cats wander across the shelves, sleep atop dusty volumes, and watch you with curiosity. There is a door to the canal labeled “fire escape” and a beautiful staircase of books in the back, both of which are excellent photo opportunities. This place made my heart smile. I ended up buying an old copy of Dante’s Divine Comedy, in Italian, of course. As the owner helped me make my purchase, he smiled from ear to ear and said that my friends’ and my enthusiasm for books and his store made him very happy. I walked away from that store glowing. It was certainly the highlight of my Venice experience.

Despite the lovely time I had in Venice and the beauty I witnessed, I left the island feeling a bit sad. The Venice of the very distant past was its own independent nation, a powerful Mediterranean maritime power in its prime and leader of the Western world. Today, more and more Venetians move from the island while more and more tourists arrive, fodder for what’s left of their economy. Whereas in some Italian cities it’s difficult to find an English speaker, the case is the opposite in Venice. Carnival has lost its spirit; it too has degraded into empty hearted spectacle. Venice has essentially become a type of amusement park, boasting beautiful aesthetics but hollow behind its many masks. The island is quite literally sinking into the mud, its buildings and streets bending and bowing as its people lose their cultural identity.

Not all hope is lost, though. Walk a few minutes from the city center and you’ll find streets so quiet you’d think you were the only one in the entire city. Here are small restaurants, people coming from grocery shopping, and just generally far fewer tourists. On Murano, there was a darling residential area where people were walking their dogs, picking up pizza, and leading lives outside the tourist bubble. Our tour guide recommended a restaurant to us that only served typical Venetian cuisine. Over the couple days we visited, I had sinfully delicious crema fritta, a fried mozzarella and prosciutto pocket, baccala mantecato (creamed cod), and seppie nere all Veneziana (squid in ink sauce) with polenta. It seemed mostly Venetians were chowing down with us, and we enjoyed the atmosphere of authenticity.

I sincerely hope Venice doesn’t sink into the sea anytime soon, and I hope the hearts of its people don’t sink either. It really is a lovely place, but there’s certainly more to it than meets the eye. You have to take the time to peek behind the mask.

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