No city in the world – none that I know of – stimulates the imagination the way Venice does. With no motorized vehicles on the island, with no modern buildings stepping on the toes of old buildings, the city remains as it has been for centuries.
To walk through Venice is to fall through a time tunnel into the Venice that was the queen of the Western world, when her sailors plied the high seas and sailed 'round the globe, when Venetian merchants brought home spices and silks and tales of monsters of the deep, when the merchant class was burgeoning with new wealth and the aristocracy was flouting its superior status in their grand houses and rich clothes from the fabrics and embroideries the merchants provided, when the world's boundaries were being extended into new worlds of geography, art, and science.
I could easily imagine myself in the Venice of 1269, catching sight of a young girl watching from a black-rail balcony while 16-year-old Marco Polo strode through the crowds with his father and uncle, Niccoló and Maffeo, to board their ship headed for Asia, where Niccoló and Maffeo had met Kublai Khan nine years before.
It's easy to imagine Bassanio stepping from a gondola to knock on Shylock's door to negotiate for a loan so he could marry Portia from Belmont. Perhaps the canals weren’t quite so crowded with gondolas then – or maybe they were. The Venice of old was a vibrant, crowded place; the roads were just as narrow then, the houses just as close together, the church squares just as much communal gatherings then as now, even if for different reasons.
Even today the Grand Canal is the major roadway, bearing (as I saw while Lasse and I waited for a vaporetto – water bus – to take us to St. Mark’s square) taxis and buses and even an ambulance, the blare of its siren sending all other boats careening to one side of the canal or the other. I’m sorry for the people whose emergency called out the ambulance boat, but seeing it reminded me – as did the boy I saw walking through the streets bouncing a basketball, dodging tourists without noticing them, into a deserted little square and then disappearing down another narrow street – as did the laundry hanging out the window of a house on a narrow canal above the heads of a gondolier and the
tourists he was poling through the waterways of Venice – that Venice is a real town with ordinary people living ordinary lives, not just a setting for one's imagination about the past. (Admittedly, the laundry could have belonged to tourists in a bed-and-breakfast, but I'll assume not. I guess the boy could also have been a tourist, but I don't think so. I think he was on his way home from school.)
The arched bridges and elegant houses; the Renaissance symmetry of St. Mark's Square;
the church towers; the architectural details giving expression to the deepest aesthetic sense everywhere I looked; the sidewalk displays, today as of old, of Venetian merchants and craftsmen;
the occasional emptiness of a side street or a beautiful little church square where a trio of musicians were just setting up to busk, the guitarist already sending sweet melodies into the open space – if I redressed the tourists into Italian Renaissance clothes, I could have been walking in the ancient city. In Venice, that’s easy work for the imagination.