The visibility of beggars
On the subject of beggars in Venice, I came across this offering in Javier Marías’ essay Venice: An Interior, which is also available in a new collection of essays, Between Eternities.
‘There is in Venice a beggar (oddly enough, despite all those tourists, you don’t see many, which is why they’re easy to recognise) who begs for alms in all six sestieri. He’s rather chubby and getting on in years; he wears a hat that is a tad too small for him, plays the panpipes – an instrument that betrays his southern origins – and displays to the compassionate gaze of passers-by a pale, plump plastic calf that emerges from a very short white sock. It is the cleanest leg I have ever seen, and I always stop to look at it. I give him a few coins to reward such cleanliness as well as the pleasant sound of his pipes. This eminently recognizable man, however, is quite different depending on whether he’s in San Marco, San Polo, Cannaregio, Santa Croce, Dorsoduro or Castello. In the first of these sestieri, he seems like a fraud or local con man preying on tourists; in the second, his ‘foreign’ terrone aspect seems more pronounced and he looks out of place; in the third he blends in so well that no one even notices that he’s begging for alms with his impeccable leg. It’s the setting that dictates how things appear, and so it isn’t the same seeing a tourist crossing the Rialto Bridge as it is seeing him cross one of the various Ponte delle Tette.’
The essay was first published in the late 1980s, but Venice is still not overpopulated with beggars. There is a growing number of single young African males, who tend to do their begging away from the main tourist centre (presumably to avoid the police), but as for the other, more traditional kind, they tend to be found near churches, and adopt the classical, abject kneeling stance, arm outstretched, a pose intended to arouse the deepest feelings of Christian shame and, hopefully, charity, and one which is shocking to witness in the twenty-first century.
I would argue that, contrary to Marías’ presumption, tourist zones are not good begging zones in general. Ask any indigent about this, or take my word for it. TOURISTS ARE NOT GIVERS. Beggars are far more likely to receive generosity from locals than from tourists in almost any of the tourist centres of Europe. The only exceptions to this rule are performers – and I am not talking about the bog-standard buskers or ‘perroflautas’ as the charming Spanish term has it (which can be translated literally as ‘dog and flute’, i.e. those beggars accompanied almost everywhere by a penny whistle and a mangy hound) – but magicians and jugglers and tightrope-walkers and fire-eaters (if there are any of these last remaining).
Marías’ second point, about setting being all, is worth picking up on. His itinerant beggar, who appears in slightly differing guises in different locations, is one I have met in various cities across Europe. But on reflection, doesn’t this mutability apply not only to beggars, or to tourists (on the Rialto or one of the Ponte delle tette), but to all who fit in between? That is, everyone? We all have the capacity for self-reinvention or re-assembly, of appearing in different guises, speaking in different voices, of being someone else depending on the place and context. Beggars such as the one Marías encountered in Venice, do not have a monopoly on this, they are just more easily noticed than the rest of us.
All of this must have seeped in on at some deep level, as I dream of a post-apocalyptic world, in which each group or family is allocated a space or island of the Venetian lagoon to settle: my group was allocated an islet, or part of a section of Cannaregio, which pleased me. But this pleasure was short-lived. When we landed there, all the alleyways and squares were empty, and we had to choose a house to live in, and once we broke in we had remove the bodies of the owners, who had perished during the disaster. There were no beggars in my dream. After the apocalypse, we will all be beggars.
Here in the city of water, our hotel has a sign in the bathroom: ‘Water is a very scarce natural resource of immense value.’ No doubt this is true, but how strange that we should be reminded of it here, of all places.
An afternoon spent visiting islands. On returning from the sad island, Torcello, we sail past Murano in the dark, the bells tolling across the water from a church tower, the swash of the water against the hull as we pass, a sense of departure foreshadowing that of the definitive journey, and I am reminded that – as Peter Ackroyd notes in his book Venice: Pure City – ‘the endless presence of water breeds anxiety. Water is unsettling. You must be more alert and watchful in your perambulations. Everything shifts. There is a sense of otherness . . . it is shapeless. It has depth but no mass.’
Venice is a place of doubleness and of inversions. The watery essence of the city seeps into every thought, every perception, and then replicates it in a reflection. Stone and water; water and stone. Ackroyd again: ‘When you look down upon the water, Venice seems to have no foundations except for reflections. Only its reflections are visible. Venice and Venice’s image are inseparable.’
The inversion of one world in another: if you get to visit below the Doge’s Palace you can see how the reflection of the upper world in the lower finds expression in inscriptions outside the prison cells set at canal level, which are numbered in inverted Roman numerals: Λ, ΛΙ, etc. Apparently this was done to remind the prisoners that they were now in a shadow zone, a place in which the normal rules of the surface no longer held sway; that they had entered another, upside down world – had themselves become other.
It is cold in Venice. I arrive late at night and go straight to bed. In the morning a mist hangs over the city when I go for my coffee at the corner café. Outside, a small white dog chases a blue ball around in circles. I see a derelict man, sitting hunched over on the bench in the nearby square. There are not many rough sleepers in Venice, in fact there is not normally a vast number of beggars. I sit down on the bench. The man asks me for money. He has a somewhat battered appearance. I give him some coins. He gets up and leaves, but returns a few minutes later with a bottle. He offers me a drink, which I decline. It occurs to me that he is a character in a story I didn’t write, about a man who achieves most of the things that matter to him, then loses interest in them and goes to Venice and is reduced to sleeping rough: I could even tell him – if he were interested, which I rather doubt – that he is living my life in reverse. But I think better of it. He might not take it well. Besides, the morning mist is beginning to lift and the man is telling me an incredibly long and convoluted story about how he once achieved almost everything he set out to achieve, but then lost interest in his life, and came to Venice, but he tells the story in such a drab and uninteresting way that I drift off, begin thinking of other things, such as what I might do with the day now that the mist has lifted, and then he says something about living my life in reverse – ‘it’s as though I were living your life in reverse,’ he says, or I think he says, as I stare at some graffiti on a wall facing me: ‘Rose is a Rose is a Rose’ – and when I turn to reply to the man on the bench next to me, he is gone.
Something we cannot see
I have never been a great rummager, but perhaps that is changing. Last Sunday I was passing a second-hand bookshop in a quiet corner of Dorsoduro, Venice. In among the boxes of old photographs, no doubt excavated from house clearances, I come across this image. Among hundreds of pictures of Venetian wedding parties, fisherwomen on the Lido, grandees posing before their canal palaces, and ordinary family snaps of forgotten events, my eye selects this one, and for some reason I have to have it. Why has this photograph found its way into a box outside this rundown emporium of old books and discarded objects on the Fondamenta Briati?
Who are these men and what are they doing? Both are looking down, perhaps at a long trench that has been dug out of the hillside, or at something on the ground that we cannot see. A stick or branch protrudes from the ground beneath them at an angle of 45 degrees, but the men’s gaze appears to be fixed on something just the other side of this. Behind them stretches a line of buildings, and a church suggestive to me of the South Tyrol or Alto Adige. The man on the left carries a cane or walking stick, but he is not leaning on it. His companion, who wears a hat, is entirely occupied by the sight beneath him. His posture suggests a slight buckling or sagging, as though in reaction to the thing he has identified that cannot ever be communicated beyond this stolen moment in time. Perhaps it is the future he sees, emerging from beneath him like Walter Benjamin’s Angel of History, back turned towards the future. Perhaps it is an aleph, hidden among the shards and pebbles. Perhaps it is nothing of the kind, just a few bones, or a piece of broken mirror reflecting light. Behind them the mountains rise like a tsunami.
I have long admired the poetry of Joseph Brodsky – although with reservations – since hearing him read at Cardiff’s County Hall alongside Derek Walcott (a veritable pairing of poetic satyrs). Before travelling to Venice last Friday I purchased his Watermark, to see what he had to say about the city, where he spent a four-week vacation from his job as a U.S. college professor every winter for seventeen years. In the past I have read Jan Morris’ famous book on Venice, which I could not get on with, and Peter Ackroyd’s Venice: Pure City, which by contrast I enjoyed very much, and I approached Brodsky’s essay with trepidation. One hundred and thirty pages of large double spaced print, it is published as Penguin Modern Classic, though how it qualifies for this status is quite beyond my comprehension. It is a minor work by a once significant poet, who was the youngest ever recipient of a Nobel Prize (he was 47), perhaps awarded as much for his status as political opponent to the USSR – this was 1987 – as for his literary achievements. Early in the book, we accompany the young Brodsky on his first arrival at the city’s railway station, where he is to be met by a woman for whom he harbours amorous thoughts (his sentiments are not reciprocated). Then this: ‘The boat’s slow progress through the night was like the passage of a coherent thought through the subconscious.’
When I first read that line I thought it sounded interesting, but something nagged at me, because a thought does not really become coherent until after it has passed through the ‘subconscious’. But I didn’t wish to be unnecessarily antagonistic, so let it go. It sounds pretty, after all. Then some pages on, another nice passage: ‘The fog is thick, blinding, and immobile. The latter aspect, however, is of advantage to you if you go out on a short errand, say, to get a pack of cigarettes, for you can find your way back via the tunnel your body has burrowed in the fog; the tunnel is likely to stay open for half an hour.’ A nice conceit, I thought, which complements the earlier line well – but why spoil it with the literalism of that ‘likely to stay open for half an hour’, which sounds like the answer to a request made of a pub landlord. And here: ‘Every surface craves dust, for dust is the flesh of time, as a poet says, time’s very flesh and blood.’ My response to ‘Every surface craves dust’ was one of admiration, even if it is what “a poet” says (irritating, as we want to know which poet), but why ‘flesh and blood’? Dust is flesh, but not blood. Dust is decidedly bloodless, and dry. Dried, desiccated flesh.
The essay is self-regarding and repetitive (not a woman enters these pages without Brodsky’s lecherous gaze resting on her, however peripheral her appearance). Then there is the prose: I realise English was not Brodsky’s first language, but there is too much in this short essay that is merely confusing: describing unenthusiastic meetings with the ex-pats he comes across in the city, he begins to fantasise about ‘some local solicitor’, and inevitably, as it is Brodsky, ‘his secretary’ (yawn): “Disparity of pursuits compromised by tautology of net results, if one needs a formula, that is.” Pardon me?
And this, of Pasiphaë, the mother of Ariadne and Phaedra, who famously enjoyed the attentions of a bull while sheathed in a cow-outfit: “perhaps she yielded to those dark urges and did it with the bull precisely to prove that nature neglects the majority principle, since the bull’s horns suggest the moon. Perhaps she was interested in chiaroscuro rather than in bestiality and eclipsed the bull for purely optical reasons?” What?!
And so on. I don’t wish to disparage the dead, but this is a very meagre piece of work, and is by no means a ‘Modern Classic.’ As a book set in Venice it comes ahead of Hemingway’s catastrophic Across the River and into the Trees, but not by a long way.
Perhaps it is a warning though. If you travel to Venice, be careful what you read. I have been to the city six or seven times, but it is only in the past few years that I have become interested in the literature about the city, from Casanova, who spent a while locked in upper reaches of the Doges’ Palace, to Régis Debray, who loathed the place and saw in it a reflection (and the source) of all the evils of Western Capitalism. On this last visit I dipped into Hugo Pratts’ Secret Venice of Corto Maltese, which came highly recommended from a friend. I was not familiar with the graphic stories, but you don’t really have to be to enjoy the itineraries around the city’s less visited corners that this anti-guide book offers, describing seven walks that lead you off the beaten track, into hidden nooks and across secret portals. Don’t take it with you around the city, but jot down a few notes first, otherwise you will end up like the perennial Venice tourist, leaning on the parapet of a bridge, trying to figure out why the map of the city you hold in your hands does not correspond to the physical actuality of the place around you.
Perhaps the best book about Venice is Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, which does not set out to be a guide at all, except for the imagination.
Note, 2022. Some time after publishing this piece, in December 2014, I received a message from Jan Morris, which read: ‘So sorry you didn’t enjoy my book. I’ll keep trying, anyway.’ I realised then that I could have been considerably more critical of Morris’ Venice, but don’t much enjoy doing hatchet jobs, especially of people I know, if only a little.
Since then I have enjoyed other books on Venice, notably John Julius Norwich’s A History of Venice, and two little gems: the late Javier Marías’ Venice: An Interior (translated by Margaret Jull Costa) and Tiziano Scarpa’s Venice is a Fish (translated by Shaun Whiteside). Both are highly recommended.