NEW YORK and Venice. Both island cities. New Yorkers and Venetians. Both talented, parochial, pushy, and boastful. Venice, writes Mary McCarthy in ``Venice Observed,'' was obliged by its physical situation to be inventive and improvise. ``Cleverness and adaptivity were imposed by the original situation, and the get-up-and-go of the early Venetian businessmen was typical of a self-made society.'' She could be describing New York.
Boston is a Puritan city. (While at college, I was made to feel dissolute by New England classmates because of my New Yorker's weakness for restaurants and the theater.) Florence can be puritanical on occasion. Venice and New York, never.
Moscow and Venice. Present-day Moscow and Venice at the height of its power (1000-1508) share a passion for secrecy. The arsenal in Venice once employed 16,000 men to construct and maintain the Venetian galleys, central to the military and commercial success of the state. The secrets of the arsenal were as closely guarded as the secrets of the Kremlin are today. (There may be advantages to losing major power status. Now vaporetto No. 5 carries commuters and tourists en route to San Marco through the heart of this once- secretive shipyard.)
Restrictions on the movement of foreigners is another similarity. The German merchants in Venice, for example, lived in the Fondaco dei Tedeschi, or German factory, on the Grand Canal near the Rialto Bridge. (It is the present main post office.) This building contained offices, warehouses, and apartments provided by the republic. The merchants' servants all were appointed by the state. Security, not hospitality, were uppermost in the minds of the authorities making these arrangements.
Dolce far niente. ``Sweet it is to do nothing.'' Some observers consider this to be the ultimate statement on Italian life. In Venice I did nothing, except put in 12 hours a day in an orgy of sightseeing. There are 90 miles of walkways in this splendid urban environment where, in Le Corbusier's words, ``the pedestrian is master.'' I covered many of these miles as well as additional miles on the numerous waterways of Venice.
Being in Venice is like being on board a ship, but without any of the discomforts. There are no throbbing engines, no swaying in a rough sea, no sense of confinement.
In ``Remembrance of Things Past,'' Proust writes of awakening in Venice for the first time: ``When at ten o`clock in the morning my shutters were thrown open, I saw ablaze in the sunlight ... the Golden Angel on the Campanile of San Marco.''
My awakenings were more aural than visual, hearing these sounds of Venice: water lapping against the canal embankment; bells summoning the faithful to church; birds chattering gaily in a garden, the caged canaries, so popular with Venetians, contributing to the merriment.
From my window I saw, not Proust's Golden Angel, but wash drying in the warm rays of the sun, hanging out on poles from open windows as the wash has been drying in Venice since earliest times. Cats slinking about, as they do in each district of Venice. Gondolas passing. Motorized launches conveying daily essentials, the skipper in the stern steering from a deck chair, as pleased with himself as Niarchos on his yacht.
My favorite view of Venice, day or night, is from the Punta della Dogana, where the Grand Canal opens into the lagoon. From here, looking toward the Piazzetta, you see the domes of San Marco, the Campanile, and the Doge's Palace, resembling more a confection, with its fanciful design, than the nerve center of a once powerful state.
Directly across the water is the breathtaking view (no other expression will do, for your breath is literally taken away) of the island of San Giorgio Maggiore, with its magnificent Palladian church.
By day, the sun, palaces, and churches are reflected in the waters of the lagoon. By night, the lights of Venice dance upon the water. Day or night, cruise ships and smaller craft ply the waters. The total effect is an unrivaled spectacle.
The satisfaction of making a unique discovery does not come easily in a city as well explored as Venice. Thus after following a tortuous route through dark passages and narrow alleyways, I arrive in the Corte Prima del Milion, where Marco Polo lived. (His book is known to Italians as ``Il Milione,'' on account of the million marvels it contains.) While I stand there trying to connect the drab courtyard with the fabled court of Kublai Khan, other travelers arrive under the same ancient archway Marco Polo must have passed, with its carvings of mythological Asian beasts. They come, as I had, with guidebook and mouth agape. I presume the Great Explorer gazes with mockery in his eyes at these spiritual descendants who travel the world in a comfort he never knew.
I fared better at Othello's house, No. 2615, near the Campo dei Carmini. No other tourists were present. From here, with torches lighting the way, Othello may have gone by gondola to the house of Desdemona to relate to her his life's adventures. My story being done, She gave me for my pains a world of sighs. She swore, in faith, 'twas strange, 'twas
passing strange; 'Twas pitiful, 'twas wondrous pitiful.
Eventually one must return to terra firma. I leave Venice early in the morning. A white luxury liner glides down the Giudecca Canal with the assistance of tugs. Vaporetti and launches weave in and out of the stately procession against a backdrop of church domes and bell towers. As the train crosses the causeway linking the lagoon to the mainland, I take a last look at the city.
This is my third visit to Venice. I have seen the city in the fever heat of August and the drizzle and fog of November. I have seen the Piazza San Marco overflowing with tourists and I have seen it utterly deserted, under many inches of water. I have walked the city's walkways, climbed the bell towers, traveled along the waterways. Venice is now a part of me.