The two cities I know best in the world are New York , where I live, and Venice. As a frequent visitor to Venice over the years, I have acquired specialized knowledge of the city. Many visitors know the paintings of Giovanni Bellini, Vittore Carpaccio, Titian, Paolo Veronese, Giovanni Battista Cima da Conegliano, and Jacopo Tintoretto. But I also have come to learn the names of the tugboats proudly guiding arriving and departing Mediterranean cruise ships along the Giudecca Canal. My favorites are Hippos, Maximus, Strenuus, Squalus, and Emilio Panfido.
From Room 10 at the pension where I stay, overlooking the choppy waters of the Giudecca Canal (about as wide as New York's East River), I spend hours watching the procession of tugboats; water buses (vaporetti and motoscafi); boats carrying vegetables, fruit, ice cream (gelato), laundry, cement, and everything else imaginable; and, gliding over the water, ferries transporting cars between the mainland and the Lido.
I learned at a "Turner and Venice" exhibition that Turner annotated the backs of several watercolor studies with notes conveying the excitement he felt in being the temporary possessor of the Venice views he had from his hotel room. I feel the same, as I gaze from the windows of my room at the pension.
I keep binoculars by the bedside. About 6:45 each morning, the tugboats head out to the lagoon entrance to meet arriving cruise ships. Among the many boat sounds on the canal, I recognize theirs. Tugs are deep-throated, as befits their size, strength, and responsibility. They are my Venetian alarm clock, reinforced by ringing church bells at 7.
Soon the tugs return, guiding cruise ships to their piers.
A few years ago, my role in Venice changed from that of tourist to civic participant. Upon arriving, I was dismayed to find that Palladio's wonderful church, the Redentore (Redeemer), which I see from my windows, no longer was illuminated at night.
A joy of Venice in the evening is to walk on the Zattere, the promenade running along the Giudecca Canal from the maritime station to the custom house (Dogana di Mare). From there I gaze across the dark waters of the canal at the well-lighted Redentore on the island of Giudecca. Now this joy had been snatched away from me - but far worse, from every Venetian.
On returning to New York, I set to work on a letter comparing the misdeed to extinguishing the illumination of the Empire State Building, Brooklyn Bridge, or Statue of Liberty. We New Yorkers would never tolerate this, nor should Venetians with regard to the Redentore. Landmarks such as these deserve to be seen every hour of the day and night.
Asking a friend to translate the letter into Italian for me, I mailed it to Il Gazzettino, the leading Venice newspaper.
The editor did not toss my letter into the wastebasket. Nor was it put in the Letters to the Editor section. No, the editor placed it in the center of the front page, supplemented by interviews on the subject with church and city officials. (None of their justifications for turning the lights off made any sense to me.)
The Redentore is again illuminated. If I lived in Venice, this might have been the start of a brilliant career for me in local politics, although first I would need to learn Italian, and then Italian in the Venetian dialect.
But coming from faraway New York, I derive full satisfaction each time I am in Venice by gazing from the Zattere on the illuminated facade and dome of Palladio's magnificent church, and then once again looking at it from Room 10 before falling asleep.