I think everyone has a particular image of Venice: The sparkling waterways, couples on romantic gondola rides, flowers and ivy crawling up the lattice work on the sides of the river. So, that is what I was expecting, and that is exactly what I saw while I was there. However, in my opinion the best part of travel is getting to know the people who live there. For them, the city is normal, the city is just “home.” I was standing in front of the Bridge of Sighs when this story played out in my mind. A dark story of a man who was corruptible and as human as any of us can be, even in a place as romantic as Venice:
In the Doge’s Palace men in impossibly clean robes speak about me as if I do not exist; I am already a ghost. They speak of my guilt, and they speak of the man that I erased. They speak of the woman I love, the woman who loved another man, the woman who did not know that I existed for her. I placed my hands around his broad, drunk shoulders and I threw him into the inky night waters. The lights of Venezia stretched my long, thin shadow until I was with him when Venezia splashed and covered him and became still once more. The river took him and then only I existed in that place. Another shadow appeared and then many more until I could not escape the shadows that surrounded my own.
Now, I stand in the Doge’s Palace, and men speak about me as if I should not exist. Bound in shackles I’m shuffled from the courthouse to the prison beyond. The covered, ivory-colored bridge is the only separation between myself and my new eternity. The men that flank my sides with swords upon their belts stop upon the bridge and urge me to look out the window; one final look at the wretched city, one final look at the city of my scorned love…one more look at the Venezia I still love. The water dances with the movement of gondolas upon the grand canal and my mind dances with it.
My father, a sullen and pragmatic merchant, made his fortune on selling woolens and Balkan slaves to the Egyptian Turks in return for spices. When the Ottomans shut down the trade route to Egypt, he simply turned his business ambitions to Flanders. If the whole world had burned around him, he would have found a way to sell the rialto of Venezia itself. When my love for art eclipsed any trace of business acumen my father hoped to see grow in me, my father pushed me from his mind. However, his wealth became my freedom. I spent my mornings in the piazza del Marco painting lively couples and merchants with pinched faces. My favorite, however, was the Triumphal Quadriga, the four chariot horses brought here from the sack of the Byzantine Empire. They dance in unison, a lithe trot forever captured in time. Art spoke to me through it’s timelessness; an artist exists forever through his work. I painted thousands of pieces each year, but none of them captured me as the statues had; none of my works were timeless. In the quiet hours of the night, long after the grand canal had lost it’s fire, I would take my paintings and vanish them beneath the water, and in that way, they would become timeless within the canal itself; beauty from mediocrity.
The streets of Venezia were full of traders, their boats and carts full of woolen garments, spices, and sugar. Each man desperate to make a fortune in the ever-growing market. As I painted, women walked by speaking to each other of trivialities and giggling. Men shouted and bartered with less than a modicum or decorum. It was there in those busy streets that I often lost focus and the paintbrush failed in my hands. And yet, the tranquility of Venezia is the close neighbor to it’s chaotic business. The floating city fades into a soft murmur just a few walkways and bridges away. I often would set my easel in one of these alleys, where the only sound would be the emerald water folding upon itself as it hit the edge of the stone walkways. It was there that I created art, it was there in the quiet alleys along the canal that I existed.
It was in my 18th year that I saw her reflection within the water. Yellow danced across the surface as it gently moved, blurring her image into soft edges. I feared that if I raised my eyes she would vanish. I feared that raising my eyes would transform the soft edges of her reflection into a rigid and grotesque physical form. And yet, I looked and she was magnificent. Her brown hair curled and draped around her shoulders, her smile was the cool summer breeze, and her eyes were the first light of day. Perhaps you might think that I am being melodramatic, but I only mean to say that she was everything to me in that moment, and I knew I must have her, and also that I must never have her. I spent the summer scouring the side streets and canals for a sight of her, and when I found her I would watch. I could never have spoken to her, to speak to her would have been to ruin her, to ruin the immaculate visage of my muse. In the evenings I painted her by the light of lamps. No medium could depict her, no canvas could capture her grace. One by one, the grand canal took her. Venezia had taken her down below into its cool embrace a thousand times over, and it desired a thousand times more.
The cool nights of October set upon Venezia in an instant, and Venezia hid itself behind unmoving faces. Masks covered countenances and falsified equality for every man and woman. My own mask felt rigid against my cheekbones as I walked into the stiff night air. I had seen her there in a moonlit alley, her golden mask was the sun; she wore metaphor upon her face. Her mask fell away from her face as a man stole a kiss. My mask smiled on as my face contorted with rage beneath. I watched, unable to break the unbreakable hold that she had over me. The night faded into the morning hours that belong to dreams, and I found him there by the canal. I found him and I pushed him and I rid that kiss from existence as he sunk down to thousands of visions of her below the water. He must have known then, he must have seen her looking back at him through thousands of eyes that held the first light of day.
The guards stand in silence, they do not push me onward, they do not hurry me along. They wait patiently as I take my last view of the canal. Perhaps they know, perhaps they know that I wish that I had not let him sink beneath the night waters of the canal. Perhaps as they watch me look at the small barred window they know that I wish it had been her. I wish I had grabbed her on that night and sunk her into the depth. Now, I shall never see the light of day, I shall never see the river, and when she dies, and when I die, she will be forgotten. The river will forget her, it will forget the yellow dress, it will forget her smile, it will forget her eyes, and she will have not existed. No. She will exist, she will exist in the thousands of falsities I gave to the waters, and I will exist in that place with her.