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In memory reborn

Part 6 of a 2007 Italian travelogue

by Thor Iverson

Heart of glass

At long last, my wife is truly on vacation. She’s back from her quick business jaunt to London, stepping off the boat from the airport full of energy and excitement. All of Venice is at our feet, and I actually feel much recovered from my illness. Our options are endless. So what will we do?

Get on another boat.

Island-hopping is the order of the day. To be sure, Venice is nothing but islands – or, to be precise, a long series of archipelagos – but there’s more to the city’s rich history than just the one well-known cluster of tightly-developed flotillae.

Most tourists, if they manage to leave San Marco at all, make their way to one of two alternate destinations. The first is the Lido, and while that’s an intermediate stop on our Alilaguna journey, we don’t disembark. For me, there’s something atmospherically wrong about a Venice with cars, streets, and traffic lights, and in any case it’s October…the wrong season for visiting a beachfront playground for the rich and the filmic.

And the second? Murano, where boatloads of unwitting tourists are given the opportunity to buy “artisan” glass hand-crafted in China, slapped with a “made in Murano” label, and fobbed off at a rather frightening profit. Authentic glass, some of it virtually without peer, is still made here and can be purchased (though for truly princely sums), and many of the largest of the remaining factories can be visited. But like so much else in Venice, Murano has become a museum of its past, a memory of a dying art, an encomium to a time that shall no longer be.


Square deal
[murano glass]

Vase to vase
[santa maria e san donato]

Duomo arigato
[canal buildings]

Murano pass

This doesn’t mean that the island is without its charms. The church of Santa Maria e San Donato is stunning and thoroughly seafaring, like a Venetian barge beached, anchored, and given a richly Byzantine mosaic floor. But for all its appeal, it’s the least of the two houses of worship we’ll visit on this day.

After exploring the church, we wander streets and canals, stopping for an occasional glance inside a factory or to peruse the wares at shops and outlets. It’s hard to know what’s authentic and what’s not shy of a rather elevated price barrier for true flights of molten fancy (though even then…), and in any case hauling delicate blown glass across Italy and onto several planes between Milan and home seems fraught with peril, so we buy only a few inexpensive trinkets, determined to ignore the likelihood that they’re from another continent.

The authenticity of lunch, however, cannot be questioned. Busa alla Torre (Campo San Stefano, 3, Murano) comes highly recommended, and judging by the rapid influx of locals and tourists alike, this recommendation is no secret. In a lovely courtyard next to a rough stone wall and under a stylized Middle Eastern campanile, with warm sun beaming from a bright blue sky, we enjoy a lovely meal of fried seppiolini, black spaghetti draped with squid, and a second round of those crisp, crabby little explosions known as moleche. It’s a fun restaurant, with solid, relaxed service, and a relative bargain for Venice.

Santa Sofia 2006 Soave Classico Montefoscarino (Veneto) – Clear and light, with a perfumed nose that veers a little too close to grandmother-ish bath soap for my tastes. The core is also a little watery. It’s pleasant, and it washes down a wide range of foods with unobtrusive aplomb, but it makes no clear statement of its own. Not even a whispered one.

Entropic isles

From Murano, we hop a vaporetto in the direction of Burano. At least, so we hope. Dockside directions are rarely clear, schedules (in the classic Italian manner) are eminently mutable, and ACTV employees are all too often actively hostile to anything that breaks their routine, including answering questions (though attempting a query in Italian usually helps get the desired information, even if it’s still delivered in a sullen mumble). Judging by our map, we’re headed in the right direction, so we cross our fingers and prop our eyes open.

If the heart of Venice is busily reliving itself, the more remote islands of the lagoon seem to linger in their decay. Abandoned fortresses and villas, some quite elaborate, fall into a ruin of tangled weeds and grasping vines. A twisted, weather-beaten dock to which is tethered a small boat juts outward from a tiny stone shack on an island little larger than the structure; still occupied, but part of a lifestyle that, almost, can no longer be. Even where habitation persists, it’s often amongst wind-ravaged, salt-faded shreds of paint and eroded wood along a morose quay, perhaps with a stooped and sullen figure in the black shroud of her final decade peering from an half-opened shutter. There are no slums in Venice itself, but these half-desolate settlements bear the desperate, almost pleading air of one; a feeling that while people may remain, life is slowly fading away.

[abandoned island]

Road to ruin


Shell game

Grave danger

It is onto one of these islands that we, by mistake, debark our transport. Thankfully, our mistake comes without cost, for the festive and riotous colors of Burano are only a long sidewalk and a connecting bridge away from the seemingly lonely houses of Mazzorbo. Yet the contrast could not be more striking; the latter seems resigned to a slow, sad submission to fate, while the former is teeming with modernistic, commercialized avarice ill-concealed by a toothy, tutti-frutti grin.

But we’ll return to Burano shortly. For now, it’s no more than a transfer point. A change that will bring us as far into the past as Venice can take us.

Two cathedrals

Venice may be a façade, its heart no more than that which its visitors bring to it, but Torcello is, in comparison, an ancient fossil perfectly preserved in amber; its façade stripped away, its naked skeleton exposed, but its indomitable soul fully intact.

The oldest continuously populated island in the lagoon, Torcello was once home to many thousands of people and a powerful commercial empire that dwarfed even burgeoning Venice. But the lagoon that sheltered it from invasion and gave it both life and scope was also the source of its betrayal, fading into a fetid swamp that strangled navigation and, then, released the inevitable ravages of malaria. Today, fewer than two dozen inhabitants remain. Twenty people, a microscopic tourist infrastructure…and an incomparable cathedral.

Santa Maria Assunta bears additions as recent as the 14th century, but its heart is much older, dating from the 7th through the 11th centuries. Careful preservation and restoration have brought this memory to life, with its architecture beautifully and powerfully intact. I’m awestruck into silence by the Byzantine mosaics of the interior and the meditative air of the building…which, in truth, pervades the entire island.

I’m infused with a sort of breathless wonder none of Venice’s many beautiful houses of worship have yet provided, and so I’m thankful for a stretch of quiet, inactive time before the boat arrives to take us back to Burano. We take the opportunity to sit and reflect at Locanda Cipriani, one of Ernest Hemingway’s many local haunts, which provides the best coffee we’ll have over the entire course of our Italian journey; rich, dark, and flawlessly balanced. That it’s taken on the peaceful patio of the restaurant, which sits aside a quiet vineyard (growing what, I wonder?) and amidst the reverent peace of its island, only adds to the experience. The cathedral is majestic, to be sure, but Torcello itself is a sort of open-air monastery, one that is passing into its vow of nightly silence even as we drain our cups to their dregs.


How to get a head in wine
[torcello church]


Root canal

Blue lagoon

Our scenic & old lace

After Torcello, Burano is a kaleidoscopic assault on the senses. It has a character all its own, with vivid multicolored houses everywhere. Legend has it that these colors were intended to help those returning from long sea voyages identify their nearly-forgotten homes, but these days the colors are preserved by governmental fiat. Lace, for which it is almost as well known as Murano is for its glass, seems monochromatically out of place in this setting, its delicate traceries and threaded flounces precise, close-up details that pale in contrast to the broad, bold strokes of the island’s palette.

No street is without its circus of color, though to the observant there’s a peek into an inner core of calculation and coldness too, as if a dark cynicism lurks at the heart of this brightest of islands. Strangely, it’s not repellent; instead it adds to the enticement. But then, as we wander, a new series of frames descend upon the city. Along one otherwise quiet canal, a team of gondolieri in training for some sort of race skim by, their poles angling in aggressive tandem. Their backdrop is the low but populous horizon of the central islands, a reminder that pace proceeds apace in that seemingly distant cluster of humanity and power.

And on the other side of the island, where tourists collect and disperse with each arriving and departing boat, the descending sun is wielding its own brush, painting vivid swaths of shifting hue above Torcello and its solemn cathedral, but also setting a fire atop the snowy peaks of the distant Dolomites. What a sight this must have been in the centuries before a haze of pollution overtook the horizon: mighty mountains to the northwest, the low spread of the lagoon to the south, the unbroken stretch of the Adriatic to the southeast! And beyond the horizon, the as-yet unbroken promise of the future ahead.



In the pink

Race relations
[burano & torcello]

Sunset empire


The trip back to our apartment is incredibly slow – we’re on some sort of double-decker commuter boat – and as we traverse the lagoon’s murky waters, night falls with a darkening chill. Passengers are discharged at the morose docks of Punta Sabbioni, a car-surrounded connection to the northern mainland, and again at the Lido, which in contrast now seems far less of an intrusion of the outside world than it did this morning. Still, it’s a welcome relief to return to the bustling pedestrian quays of the Castello, which seem so familiar after a day full of breathtaking new experiences. The city is alive with evening strollers returning from their evening meal, pausing to marvel at the busy crisscross of lagoon traffic. Venice remains alive and alight, but this is a city that goes to its rest early, and we know than in a few short hours, all will be dark and quiet.

Le Vigne di Zamò 2004 Colli Orientali del Friuli Rosazzo Ribolla Gialla (Friuli-Venezia Giulia) – Our lightest ribolla yet, showing waxed melon on a dry bed of river gravel. Austere but pleasant, with a solid structure despite its light-bodied nature. The finish is surprisingly long, though it fails to reveal additional complexity. This could just be a little young, but while it appears to have the skeleton to age, it may lack the flesh.

With a plate of large white langoustines, their meat sweet and smoky even without the assistance of a grill, we serve delicate little bundles of a cabbage variant that, as it turns out, were grown in a place where the future seemed abandoned: the islet of Mazzorbo. And so, where there once was life, there remains only sacred memory…but where hope has seemingly departed, life begins anew.

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Copyright © Thor Iverson