“I have sometimes thought that, were I to receive a diagnosis of, say, two months to live, my first response would be to buy a one-way ticket to Venice . ” –Lynne Sebastian
We decided to walk back to the hotel rather than take a vaporetto. For one thing, it was a lovely spring evening, and besides, no place in Venice is really all that far from any other place in Venice. Once the mobs of day-visitors return to their hotels and caravans on the mainland in the late afternoon, Venice becomes a different place – quiet, elegant, sophisticated, ancient, and haunted. Straight-line routes are nonexistent here, so we wove a circuitous path along the narrow passageways that serve as streets and over some of the multitude of footbridges that arch across the narrow canals.
We walked beneath iron-railed balconies overflowing with flowers, the air hinting of roses, lilies, and geraniums. We admired the melancholy, shabby splendor of the ancient palazzos where wealthy Venetian families long ago abandoned their ground floors to the implacable floods of autumn. Ancient brocade, satin, and lace draperies billowed gently through the open windows, for current generations of those families still live in the high-ceilinged, genteel rooms of the upper floors, above the damp and decay of earlier centuries. Tiny trattorias and tavernas tucked into narrow alleys or perched above derelict ground floor rooms filled the soft night air with murmured conversations, clinking silver and glassware, and the aromas of garlic and fish and fresh bread.
Just when we had begun to think we were lost in the labyrinth, we came around a corner and there was the Patriarchal Palace with the great domes of San Marco rising behind it, silhouetted against the last light of the sunset. We made our way around the palace and into the great piazza that fronts the basilica. From mid-morning until late afternoon, this vast space is filled with masses of tourists and clouds of pigeons; the claustrophobic and the avian-averse should plan to be elsewhere. But when evening falls, the true piazza re-emerges. Bermuda shorts, fanny packs, and selfie sticks are replaced by well-dressed families strolling in the evening air. Elderly women, painfully thin and dressed with faded elegance, walk tiny dogs. Middle-aged couples pass by arm in arm with the effortless camaraderie of a decades-long marriage.
As the sun sets, the ristorantes around the edges of the piazza reset their outdoor tables with white linen and china, candles and wine glasses. And several of these establishments set up small orchestras of musicians wearing dinner jackets and evening gowns, who play classical music, pop, or show tunes for the diners and strollers. As you make your way across the piazza and past the campanile, the different strains of music cheer your passage through that immense, now nearly empty space.
It was well after dark by the time we sought out the low-ceilinged passageway that connects the Piazza San Marco with the Campo San Moisé, which lay behind our hotel. This tiny campo or plaza is bounded on one side by the back of the Hotel Bauer and on the opposite side by a line of small shops – all closed at this hour – which sell Murano glass and lace and handmade papers and carnevale masks and a wealth of other venetian standards. On the third side of the campo is the church of San Moisé. Originally built in the 900s, it was remodeled in the mid-1600s, creating the most ornate baroque façade in all of Venice. Centuries of winter rains and spring winds have blurred the features and draperies of the saints and prophets along the roof-line and softened the edges of the façade’s swags and medallions, cherubs and camels, and endless other embellishments. But this sense of worn old age only adds to the church’s dominance of the tiny campo. The fourth side of the square is formed by the small canal known as Rio di San Moisé.
As we walked along the side of the church toward the campo, we could again hear music, and as we came into the square we found a young man – perhaps a music student – standing in front of the closed shops playing the violin. He had long dark hair and wore a coat and trousers too big for his thin body. The violin case lay open at his feet with a few Euro coins and bills scattered in it, and a small CD player set on the cobble stones beside him produced a quiet accompaniment to his performance.
Just as we reached the back of the hotel, he began to play “Ave Maria.” We stood in the small, tranquil square transfixed by the power and beauty of his playing. Gondolas were passing back and forth along the canal, the soft golden glow of the lanterns hung from their graceful prows reflecting on the water, the dark forms of the standing gondoliers mere shadows against the night. The young man’s violin sang on, “Benedicta tu in mulieribus.” The powerful stream of sweet pure sound floated up the face of that ancient white baroque church into the dim, star-lit sky above La Serenissima, and I wept for the sheer beauty of the place and the moment.
Lynne Sebastian is a guest writer for OLLI Connects. Her own OLLI experience is at the University of New Mexico. But we knew her in a previous life and persuaded her to share this story and another that will appear later on. — Editor
Lynne Sebastian is a retired Southwestern archaeologist who received her PhD from the University of New Mexico in 1988. In addition to carrying out fieldwork and research on the archaeology of the Four Corners region, she has served as New Mexico’s State Archaeologist and State Historic Preservation Officer and as a historic preservation consultant for the SRI Foundation in Rio Rancho, New Mexico. After retiring, Dr. Sebastian began taking OLLI courses through the UNM Continuing Education program. A chance meeting in an OLLI course on Writing Memoir sent her retirement into a whole new direction when she was invited to join a creative writing critique group. She recently completed the draft of her first novel and is working on a volume of short stories.