Rio della Crea, Venice, May 24, 2011—NOT THAT MANY changes here in Venice, apart from that Calatrava bridge mentioned yesterday. There is the occasional new building — or new façade, perhaps — and I've noticed a new shop here and there where it seems to me there used to be something else. There's a section down on the Strada Nuova, I think, where there's a number of chain shops: a Disney store, a United Colors of Benneton, a couple of others. I don't recall them being there before.
It's our first visit in ten years, near as we can figure it out. We haven't yet quite got our bearings. It's famously easy to get lost here, and my iPhone often loses its place because the narrow streets are urban canyons, the poor thing can't see enough satellites to get its own bearings until we come to a campo.
Yesterday, for example, we decided after lunch to walk over to the Peggy Guggenheim Collection. The map app made this out to be a fairly straightforward trip: across the Canale Grande in front of the railroad station, straight through San Polo on Rio Marin to the Campo dei Frari, out along the Calle Largo Foscari and behind San Barnaba, through the warren of streets at Toletta, around the Accademia and along the Fondamenta Ospedaleto, and there you are, Bob's your uncle.
(I write all this out in detail here to fix it in mind: it's a route we'll surely be taking again. Today, for example, we'll continue our exploration of gelaterie; one of the first I'll want to confirm is Il Doge over on the Campo S. Margherita, behind Frari; and no one wants to get lost on his way to a gelato.)
Not much has changed, but the Guggenheim has changed, a little. There's a fancy new ticket-booth lobby. Duchamp's Sad Young Man on a Train was not to be seen, which made this young man sad as well: it's a favorite painting, and one the mind's eye — or at least mine — doesn't hold as well as, say, Max Ernst's unforgettable La Toilette de la mariée, which needs little more than a glance to bring it back into terrifying life.
I feel a little guilty about the way I enjoy visiting familiar museums. It's not only a matter of revisiting the objects, or even the buildings and the installations: it is perhaps more a matter of confirmation of past visits, of reassuring myself that, yes indeed, I have been here before, I am that sophisticated. Let's set that to one side for the moment, though: there is in fact something about the revisited painting. Here's one of my very favorite paintings, I tell F___, down at the end of the corridor. (It's Picabia's Très rare tableau sur la terre.)
We approach it, and as I contemplate it I realize we're seeing two different paintings, the one I've seen several times and studied many more, the one she's seeing for the first time. Same thing with many other favorites, not all of which the pedant in me insists on mentioning. Pollack, Picasso, Picabia; Klee, Kandinsky; Duchamp-Villon. Marino Marini, of course, the "handle" of whose equestrian seems ever more schematic — how many times has it been replaced?
Contemplating a familiar painting — in the flesh, so to speak, not in a reproduction — is a little like hearing a familiar symphony in a fine performance. The experience reinforces pathways already present, already imprinted, in the synapses of the brain. Simply recalling it, however accurately, leaves out the gateway apparatus, the involvement of eye or ear. Even renewed experience via reproduction — whether photograph or recording — renews the gateway's involvement, but omits the prime external stimulus, which I think anchors the experience in reality. So perhaps one need only glance at the remembered painting in situ, or overhear a live performance of a piece of music, or confront once again a favorite landscape, to confirm and reaffirm one's original exposure. This must be what Melville, I think it was, called "the shock of recognition"; what Proust described when writing about his famous madeleine.
To the extent that things have changed, to the extent that Calatrava's come between the Piazzale Roma and S. Lucia, these confirmations are disarranged, deranged even; the assurance of continuity is damaged; one feels a bit threatened. Of course to an extent such a derangement is pleasant, is itself a new experience; and I tell myself it's a folly and a flaw to expect to live in a steady state; life is change; fixity is a form of death. But as I grow older I enjoy the more the vast and very slow. A Bruckner symphony, an extensive landscape offer both detail and scope, reminder of the possibility of life in long measure.
I suppose this is a reason we — I, I mean; I shouldn't involve L____ in all this — like to revisit Venice. The city is rich with detail; it is fine-grained. The tourists and the shops catering to them, with their improbable clothing and accoutrements, anchor the city to the mutable present moment; but the city itself continues to offer the illusion of — not permanence, God knows, but the very long scale, the dozen centuries of perdurance. (I look forward to an early return to Torcello, founded in 639.) Crazed Hitler dreamed of a thousand-year reich; Venice has actually achieved it; and if its decay is a caution against aspiration to eternity, it also offers its key to serenity.
• Online photos from Venice this month