Like a skillful lover, Dream of Venice stirs the imagination, exposes irresistible eye candy and cultivated charms, then leaves you chomping at the bit for a go at it. So before you pack up your masks, lacey underthings and unmentionable paraphernalia (TMI!) for a caper in the Serenissima, BETWEEN THE COVERS recommends you take a ramble through this guide to getting lost in love – of an entrancing city, yourself, and/or the one you’re with. Trust The Sultanette! The only other itinerary you need is your fantasies.
By now worldly reader, you’ve correctly deduced that this is no Travel Guide 101. It is Venice experienced at its best – aimlessly, sensually, and open to enigma. A true cognoscente, editor JoAnn Locktov offers no table of contents or page numbers to mark your way. Just excellent companions like Peggy Guggenheim, Marcella Hazan, Woody Allen, Claire Bloom, Julie Christie, Patricia Highsmith, and Erica Jong.
Writers and poets, architects and anthropologists, sommeliers, sopranos, and glass masters share personal experiences of Venice. Each literary nugget, provocatively paired with photographer, Charles Christopher’s luscious images, creates a visceral flash of déjà vu.
Open the book to a random couplet: Christopher’s image looks up from a gondola through the windows of a façade dulled by centuries, to a patch of luscious, painted ceiling where putti dance bathed in golden light. “I looked up at these rooms illuminated by enormous chandeliers made centuries earlier in this very city,” says interior designer, Matthew White. “They didn’t sparkle like the crystal chandeliers of Paris – the Venetian chandeliers glimmered with a dim luster like the inky water that held us aloft … “
I was there! A not-so-blushing young bride, not yet The Sultanette. I was in that gondola, looking up into those rooms, wondering what plot was unfolding there. A cabal of ancestral Venetians sipping Grappa? A clandestine interlude between two desperate lovers? Surely there could be no normal in these monuments to exquisite decadence.
We had just moved to Paris – brand new husband, the Good Ex, and I. No one was more in love. He’d had the brilliant scheme of spending our first Christmas in Venice at the Hotel Danieli. Looking back on the crooked line of impressions and images – there is no straight and narrow in Venice – the memories vibrate: A late afternoon lunch at Harry’s Bar – the woman at the table in the window wraps herself in a mink-lined trench before making her dramatic exit. The trickery of passages ending in reward – a fresco encrusted scuola, a plate of freshly cut pasta, a tiny shop of handmade soaps. Every moment shared in the glow of togetherness, like putti dancing in the glimmer of romance.
“Many people consider [Venice] the city of love,” says Alberto Toso Fei, descendent of an ancient family of Murano glass masters, “for others it represents a place of mystery and magic. His words in Dream, accompany an image that teases the wanderer to stray to a place that “becomes visible only as it moves into another dimension, free of constraints of space and time … “
I returned to Venice a lifetime later – after the Good Ex and I had gone back to New York, gone our separate ways, and One&Only had stepped in to fill the togetherness gap. A woman I’d met through a couple we double-dated with had invited me to visit her there – just us girls. I jumped at the chance to revisit heady memories.
Fuzzy from the all-night flight, I managed to find my way to her door through an ancient stone archway at the end of a narrow calle, past a neglected garden, down a dark passage and up a steep flight of stairs that opened into a vast room of sprawling couches and curtained windows looking out on the Grand Canal.
Every morning I woke up to the gentle slosh-slosh of Venice outside my shuttered bedroom. Every day, armed with my friend’s crib notes, I invaded a new corner of hidden pleasures. Every night I took my place at her dining room table. We talked of my day’s discoveries, our past marriages, and life in New York City, as her smiling housegirl served tortellini and her cats looked on.
I was on the other side of the windows now but what I found was a side of Venice that couldn’t have touched me with the Good Ex when I was intoxicated in romance. There was a melancholy I sensed now, more shrewd than sad. A bittersweet understanding that it’s not love but surviving life gracefully that gives a city, and a woman, her poetry. When I returned to New York I began to know that the fifteen-year love with One&Only was over. I also knew the singular pleasure of losing myself, alone in Venice.
“The ghosts are restless,” murmurs Erica Jong’s poem Dream of Venice where Lord Byron and Tintoretto make appearances along with the pickpockets dancing at San Marco. “It is all a stage set for our dreams as we wheel and turn thrashing up our pasts.”
On one of my last mornings in Venice, I stepped out onto my friend’s veranda to dry my hair. Leaving the hushed, dim interior, I was met with a feast of sound and light. The grumble of boat engines and ripples of laughter mixed with the bright haze deflected from a million tangled streets of water. As a gondola drifted by, the couple in it looked up and smiled. Leaning over the veranda, wet-haired in the sun, I waved back at them.
“… I am laying bets on love again,” Jong’s poem concludes, “at least for now. Temporary, permanent, Who can say? I cast my dice for life. & the ghosts reel backward – & are gone.”
I continue to love men – my male harem. I revel in their attentions and am seduced by their deceptions. I learn from their intelligence, take joy in their wit, strength in their mettle, and am beguiled by their mercenary charms. But I don’t want to belong to one. And I still dream of Venice – the city that cloaks its mist around you yet remains always just beyond reach.
Dream of Venice, photography by Charles Christopher, edited by JoAnn Locktov. A portion of the proceeds will be donated to Save Venice Inc. to support vital art and architecture restorations in Venice.
This is one in a series of book reviews for BETWEEN THE COVERS. For the true tale of an 18C Venetian love affair see The Male Harem post, What Happens In Venice Stays in Venice.