Photo Essay

Deaths in Venice: A Centenary Tourist Experience

All holidays are fabrications. The fact of moving through a place we won't remain in means we don't put down foundations, but instead invent brief possible selves that we never become.

By Mark Fenton
Published July 10, 2011

Earlier this year I stood behind a large group of people in the Louvre who were in turn standing before a painting by Leonardo da Vinci called the Mona Lisa (a.k.a. La Gioconda, a.k.a. Portrait of Lisa Gherardini, wife of Francesco del Giocondo.) I'm fairly sure this painting is available on Google Images if you want to have a look at it.

At this particular stage of my museum fatigue I was less interested in the Mona Lisa as an artwork than in what she gets to look at. In her gaze I saw the tired eyes of "The Panther" in Rainer Maria Rilke's famous poem.

It seems to him there are
A thousand bars; and behind the bars, no world.


Only at times, the curtain of the pupils
Lifts, quietly-. An image enters in,
Rushes down through the tensed, arrested muscles,
Plunges into the heart and is gone.

(excerpt from "The Panther" in The Selected Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke, edited and translated by Stephen Mitchell, Vintage International, New York, 1989, p.25. I'm going to do more than just reference it, I'm also going to give a shout out not only to Mr. Mitchell's translations of European poetry but also to his stellar translations of classic Taoist literature, which translations include what is, for me, the definitive Tao Te Ching, so don't get uptight, Steve, about what I'm pretty sure is fair dealing.)

Swap male pronoun for female, substitute tourists for bars and you have the daily grind of Ms. Lisa in a country that's not even her own.

However, at some point the crowd goes home, leaving only a few security guards. And what interests me is what she gets to look at after hours.

The Louvre favours density of hanging. Few walls display only a single painting. Mona Lisa is one, and significantly, so is the wall they have her looking at, which displays "The Wedding at Cana" by Veronese, and nothing else.

Obviously the above photo was taken after hours. Here's how it looks to Mona who sees it not only through a layer of bullet proof glass, but through a screen of visitors whom I suspect some days she wouldn't mind putting bullets through.

As you can see, the dimensions of the painting about equal the footprint of a house in downtown Hamilton.

It's easy to flee past a thousand artworks a minute in the Louvre, and after 20 minutes there in peak season even the most passionate art enthusiast wants to. If you find yourself in that situation, remind yourself that Veronese spent 15 months on this painting, completing it in 1563 for the monastery of San Giorgio Maggiore in Venice, Italy.

It remained there for a little over two centuries until a foreign dictator, by the authority of his own greatness, took it for himself. That's

right, in 1797, a few years before crowning himself Emperor, the painting was appropriated by Napoleon who had to have in cut in half for the journey back to Paris, and from what I can see the curators at the Louvre have done a real good job of keeping it stitched together.

I'm guessing that the same bouncers who keep tourists from getting into Mona's personal space also keep needle and thread in a uniform pocket in case "Wedding at Cana" starts to come in half. "A stitch in time..." as the saying goes.

When, I looked up Veronese on the Internet I learned that he got into some trouble with the Inquisition because his pictures didn't exactly fit with the description of the wedding at Cana in the New Testament. In fact the Inquisitors asked him about a whole bunch of things he'd painted.

(So as not to interrupt the flow of this anecdote, should it have the good fortune to hit some kind of stride, I'm going to cite my source for the interrogation up front: La obra pictórica completa de Paolo Caliari, el Veronés, Rizzoli Editore, Milan, 1968. Biographical notes, pp. 84-85, by Remigio Marini, these excerpts from the original interrogation transcript. Translated and posted by I want to do more than just reference this page, though, since this is such an elegant and useful translation that I'm kind of stunned by the anonymity of it just being out there on a website. I'm sure 100swallows has his/her/their reasons for putting it out this way, and it all suggests the question: "If Dante had had the internet, would he have just gone incognito and blogged The Divine Comedy out of some cottage in Tuscany rather than wearing out square-yards-worth of shoe-leather on dirt roads, humping stacks of drafts on his back, and getting ink all over his tunic?" Let's make a bit of noise not only for 100swallows, but also for the spirit of Dante.)

Detail of Dante from Parnassus by Raphael, Apostolic Palace, Vatican City. I can't wear that colour. Great on him.
Detail of Dante from Parnassus by Raphael, Apostolic Palace, Vatican City. I can't wear that colour. Great on him.

Here are excerpts from what the Inquisitors asked him (um...Veronese).

"Do you know why you have been called here?"

"No, but I can imagine. [The proactive approach. Always a good tactic for the defense] The Prior of San Zanipolo told me that the Inquisition officials had ordered me to paint a Mary Magdalene in my painting instead of a dog; and I answered that I would gladly have done so for my own honor and that of the monastery but that I just didn't feel that such a figure would be right in that place; for many reasons, which I will explain whenever the occasion is given me to do so." [I think that last bit verges on being passive-aggressive and smug, but he's still earning more points than he's losing.]

Here's how it goes when they ask him about the Wedding at Cana.

"This one, dressed as a buffoon, with the parrot on his fist,

now for what purpose did you paint him?"

"As an adornment, as is usually done." [Read: "It's S.O.P. as men of your distinction would, of course, know."]

Is this not dangerously close to the Monte Python sketch where the Pope censures Michelangelo for painting a last supper that has 28 disciples three Christs and a Kangaroo? And to which Michelangelo answers "I wanted to give the impression of a real mother of a blowout...what you want is a bloody photographer." (I found this sketch from Live at the Hollywood Bowl on Youtube and watched it for the first time in 30 years and was delighted to find it had grown less stale than I feared it would have.)

Except that unlike Python's Michelangelo, Veronese gets away with it! "Dude, this is year zero you're depicting!" I ran 'parrot' through an on-line Bible concordance and it doesn't come up with the word anywhere in the book in any translation.

I always thought the Inquisition was hardass about this stuff. "TORTURE HIM UNTIL HE CHANGES HIS ATTITUDE AND THEN BURN HIM AT THE STAKE." Not at all. They're more like a bunch half-committed tax auditors watching the clock for coffee break. It's all about maintaining a level gaze and a reverent expression and keeping the answers short.

I will learn from Veronese and put these techniques into practice next time I get taken down by the Port Authority for shooting photos at Hamilton harbour.

I can only imagine what I'd have gotten stuck doing if I'd lived half a millennium before digital cameras and the internet and hadn't been able to find a non-paying job doing photo essays. How easy it is for me to lose the plot! I would've been far more interested in what was in my head that week than sticking to the Biblical text. I would have gone way beyond morphing Mary Magdalene into a dog. I'd have dressed the disciples in Versace and replaced horses with Harley Davidsons.

Would it be going too far to say that my reader response functions as a kind of Inquisition? Particularly when I get comments such as "This is the kind of article I don't like to see here," and "A complete waste of bandwidth" and "Stay the hell away from trains."

Sometimes I awake in a sweat at 3:00 am and imagine unimpressed readers gathered round my bed in crimson robes, irate and demanding I rectify my moral and aesthetic transgressions or be exiled to the mountains of North Italy (which is probably, I know, not the gig you'd get as penance in the 21st century, since people now make long term sacrifices and accumulate major debt for a few days in Tuscany.)

Being so deeply affected by Venetian painting, and being already in Europe, I travelled immediately to Venice. One might say I was driven there in much the same way that Gustav von Aschenbach is driven in Death in Venice. "When one wanted to arrive overnight at the incomparable, the fabulous, the like-nothing-else-in-the-world, where was it one went?

(Here once again I have to add the required source reference so that I or RTH won't a) be sued or b) look like rank amateurs who don't know the template for citing sources. Those of you who've endured a humanities degree will recall how the fear of god was put into you by professors should you ever fail to, for example, write an essay on Hamlet and not cite the edition you used, as though you were obviously some literary grifter trying to pass off Shakespeare's lines as your own. I'm going to do it because I have to, but I'm sure as hell going to more than fill the requirement. Let's get the dull part over with. Deep breath. "Death in Venice" by Thomas Mann, translated by H.T. Lowe-Porter, from Stories of Three Decades, 1930, 1936, p.17.

Here's what I mean by "more than fill the requirement." I purchased all three volumes of the recent translation of The Divine Comedy by Robert Hollander and Jean Hollander who have done a truly ass-kicking job on all that medieval Italian. But when I initially flipped through the book I was horrified to discover that there are about as many pages of reference notes as there are of poetry, complete with meticulously notated citations and I wanted to drop the book immediately in my "to sell" box and go out and rent every season of Friends and never look at scholarly editions again.

But on closer scrutiny I saw that interspersed with the citations and criminally dry stuff, there were some real insightful and humourous passages. E.G.: in a note about Francesca's monologue in the famous Paolo and Francesca section of Canto V, Inferno the authors write, "We now realize that during the entire episode we have not heard a word from Paolo [...] We can try to imagine what an eternity of silence in the company of the voluble being who shares the culpability for one's damnation might be like."

When you return to reading Canto V now, what you previously read as a grim adultery tragedy becomes sitcom hilarious and maybe even better than several days watching Friends. But you guessed it, I've painted myself into a corner again and now have to cite, Dante, The Inferno, A verse Translation by Robert Hollander and Jean Hollander, Random House, New York, 2000, p. 110. There's a circle of hell for essayists and I'll be in it, and all day every day we'll have to do stuff like this.)

The answer to the question - if you can cast your mind back to life before the above citation - is, of course: Venice. Aschenbach immediately buys a ticket and goes there.

If you haven't read "Death in Venice" (spoiler alert) here's what happens. Aschenbach is a celebrated author, married to his work (i.e. he's a bachelor). He needs a vacation. After a few false starts he arrives in Venice. Once there he discovers a homoerotic passion for a teen boy named Tadzio who's there with his family and who frolics daily on the water in skimpy beachwear.

Aschenbach has never experienced a passion like this (one senses from the dry summary of his career in the early pages that he's never experienced a passion period.) This passion gets Aschenbach into an angst-ridden, sweaty and generally creepy loop of pursuit and denial and self-loathing and we watch in an uneasy mixture of fascination, empathy and disgust as Aschenbach stalks Tadzio though the labyrinth of Venice streets, occasionally working up the courage to flirt from a distance and then recoiling from the flirting in denial and self-loathing. I know. He's not well.

Add to this that Aschenbach starts to smell disinfectant all over the city. This is pre-WWI Europe and epidemics are not unheard of. He confronts officials about the disinfectant and they tell him. 'Don't worry. Don't frighten the guests. It's all good. The disinfectant is the merest precaution.' Finally he bullies an official into confessing that indeed people are dying of cholera everywhere in Venice. Conflicted about whether he should tell Tadzio's family to flee Venice immediately (and so lose Tadzio forever) he himself dies while watching Tadzio, though we're not sure if it's cholera or just inner conflicts that kill him.

I have no predilection for stalking teen boys or getting cholera (which I imagine Venetian public health has more or less gotten under control in the last 100 years) but the book has long captivated me and in addition to my new found interest in Venetian painting I'm keen to walk the same streets as Aschenbach.

I understand the mirage-like quality of the city now I've been there, or believe I have. (Indeed, it's so hard to believe one has been to this ethereal city. Even with the photos I seem to have taken and the photos that I seem to be in.) The effect of the city is similar to reports of a "mirage" over Huanshang, China, which got delivered as news on June 26, 2011, in an ITN broadcast,

and about the validity of which responsible journalists seem equally split. Some claim there's nothing out there other than water and the image is being refracted here through a silvery mist, while others claim it's just low-lying cloud that makes it look like a mirage and if you'd ever been to Huanshang you'd know that those buildings are right there, they just look like they're floating because of the low cloud, and I wouldn't have thought that in the age of Google Street View this would be that hard to fact-check, but I'm leaving it open-ended as the ambiguity suits what I'm trying to communicate here.

For the sake of this essay I will assume that I went to Venice. Barely knowing how I came to be on it, I was aboard a vaporetto (Venetian waterbus)

and then, just as magically, I was walking across the Piazza San Marco

feeling uncannily like Aschenbach, as his body and soul start to disintegrate and he begins to smell the disinfectant. (There are so many smells in Venice you can imagine anything, Aschenbach may have just thought he smelled disinfectant, and the officials may eventually have humoured him and confirmed an epidemic just to make him leave.)

If you think my identification with Aschenbach is forced, here's a progression that haunts me ever more vividly as I key these words. In Mann's "Death in Venice", Aschenbach is a literary writer. Luchino Visconti's 1971 film Death in Venice adjusted the story so that Aschenbach became a composer. (There was some reason for this. Mann was vacationing in Venice when he learned of the death of Gustav Mahler, the great Austrian composer and an artist Mann admired enormously, and he was deeply affected by the news.)

And if you keep reading (thanks in advance) you'll see me taking on the role of a visual artist, a logical progression I think you'll agree. It gets better though. Mahler died on May 18, 1911 and here was I in Venice in mid-May 2011! (It strikes me as odd now that there wasn't a lot of tourist stuff geared to the centenary of these convergences but I may just not have run into it.) In any case, I'm glad I didn't figure all this out at the time or I'd be writing this from a Venetian sanatorium wherein I'd be having daily interviews like this one.

"Signore Fenton, there is nothing wrong with you. We can find no cause for your malaise and despair and the slightly weird fact that you perspire continuously."

"No physical explanation, perhaps," I reply, "but what of the spirits that haunt this city? Did you think of that? What of the pestilence that Venice is and has been, for every hypersensitive soul? What of the legacy of persecution of... Veronese...of...of the glass blowers of Murano?"

The Medico has been nodding calmly through this, his expression giving nothing away. "Perhaps, Signore Fenton, we might have more success in psychiat-" he clears his throat "-Pardon me, Signore Fenton. My apologies for speaking English imperfectly. What I mean to say is perhaps we might have more success if we were to transfer you to our ward for...for the clinically digressive."

As fate would have it, my friend Lelde had recently been in Venice, California, a municipality built with canals to emulate the great Italian city. Like me, she takes photos when she travels. Though I've never been to Venice, California, I regained some of my equilibrium by thinking of the correlations, between Venice, Italy and Venice, California, as though, to paraphrase Lewis Carroll, a looking-glass might melt away and I might go from one Venice to the other "through a bright silvery mist."

I stood for some time in my rather spare hotel room. You can see me contemplating the tiny looking-glass in the corner, as though I might leap right through it and onto the beach of Venice, CA.

And I note now that in the looking-glass my hands are crossed with the reverence one would naturally affect in advance of any metaphysical border crossing. Leaving the hotel I was impressed that the concierge was decked out in a dark suit and tails and wouldn't have been out of place a century earlier when Aschenbach checked in. I love, at the slightest provocation, to riff on my favourite scenes in books and movies. It was, therefore, all I could do to resist the urge to pound the desk between us, and demand of the officious looking man, "Why in the world are they forever disinfecting the city of Venice?" quoting Aschenbach exactly. In an ideal world the manager would realize I was indulging a nerdy fantasy and would play along, since indulging nerdy fantasies is what people in the tourist industry do. In an ideal world he would know the book intimately, and be prepared with the response-in the mother tongue of the tourist, which the tourist, of course, would expect him to speak perfectly-:

Dirk Bogarde in Death in Venice, 1971, capturing - I would say effectively, if not masterfully - Aschenbach's increasing uptightness about the disinfectant
Dirk Bogarde in Death in Venice, 1971, capturing - I would say effectively, if not masterfully - Aschenbach's increasing uptightness about the disinfectant

"A police regulation, a precautionary measure, intended to protect the health of the public during this unseasonably warm and sultry weather."

"Very praiseworthy of the police," I would respond "gravely" as Aschenbach is said to have responded. (Ibid. Page 47 is a best guess as my copy of Mann's stories was mildewed when I bought it used for $2.00 and the pages in question have been in basement storage for several decades now and rotted away at the bottom and the whole book, appropriately enough, looks like something you could contract cholera from by just handling.)

Sad to say, as I walked out into a Venice on which night had now almost fully fallen, it was not Mann's novella but Visconti's somewhat insipid film that haunted my exploration of Venice. I hadn't seen the film since I lied about my age to dodge its R rating, for homoerotic suggestiveness, at a Rep Theatre in Edmonton when I was only 17.

I didn't rewatch the film, but I did watch the trailer for the film on Youtube and it's a revealing product of an era when audiences could be convinced that a blockbuster film of a literary masterpiece might be a masterpiece of similar magnitude. To this end the Death in Venice trailer is augmented by a very earnest voice-over assuring us - in case we're tempted to mistake the production for the Eurokitsch it is - that the adaptation of Thomas Mann's work by Luchino Visconti is a marriage of two great artists. Additionally the trailer seems to have been partially bankrolled by Turismo Veneto, as it promotes Venice itself - in prose beyond the purple of a Venetian sunset - as

"...a magical city they say is doomed to sink back into the seas from which, like Venus, it rose..."

Marketing like this is laughable now which means that audiences have grown more sophisticated, or more cynical, or just don't care to experience great works of art.

The silence of Venice, particularly at night, is unreal. No cars. No horses. No bicycles. Nothing put footfalls. And while I was there, the fact that it was crisp and cloudless and the same temperature indoors and out made it feel less like the thing itself than a Venice-themed section of a megamall, albeit a megamall with a very real moon pasted on a ceiling some 380,000 kms above.

You lose yourself willfully in its labyrinth, and find yourself circling the same stones, the same signs, the same corridors. The empty streets aren't a way back home but rather the infinite bars that Rilke's sedated panther scans during his rounds.

the curtain of the pupils
Lifts, quietly-.

An image enters in,
Rushes down through the tensed, arrested muscles,
Plunges into the heart and is gone.

Clichés become clichés when they accumulate a weight so great that finally they topple. There are more clichés of Venice than I care to think of and "...a magical city they say is doomed to sink back into the seas from which, like Venus, it rose..." however cringe-inducing, is as descriptive as any. Like the gondolier who tips his entire body forward and aft to propel his craft at an astounding velocity, the street-wall is pitched at multifarious angles, and as the sea washes against it the buildings look ready to topple.

Photographing the city doesn't make it any more real and it seems impossible now that I did a location sketch of Venice as market vendors tossed fish remnants on the ground around me to the ecstasy of obese gulls (I no longer even have the sketch to prove it, only a photo of the sketch). I recall that I felt the ghost of Aschenbach observing me intently and knowingly, but the photo - that either my wife or one of my daughters must have taken - indicates that it was not the ghost of a fictitious author, but a youth, intent and very much alive.

Was I drawing what I saw, or an idea of Venice from what I had read?

Or better yet, was I simply photoshopped into Venice, the way Veronese had plunked a parrot into the Wedding at Cana.

Venice: by Mark Fenton, private collection, Rome
Venice: by Mark Fenton, private collection, Rome

I'm not making this up. I left the drawing with the people I was staying with in Rome, and if you don't believe me here's a picture of the Roman IKEA

which I made a special trip out to for a frame to put it in.

All holidays are fabrications. The fact of moving through a place we won't remain in means we don't put down foundations, but instead invent brief possible selves that we never become. I think of holidays as days on the other side of the looking-glass; as ways of reversing my quotidian assumptions. Like many travellers, as soon as I've gone through the first looking glass I begin to search for another one.

To this end, I carefully scrutinized Lelde's pictures of Venice, California when they arrived in my E-mail, to see if we had plotted similar or even identical courses through mirror cities. Perhaps, I thought, a mirage of Venice, California sometimes appears to residents of Venice, Italy over the Mediterranean and perhaps too, I continued logically, a mirage of Venice, Italy sometimes appears to residents of Venice, California over the Pacific.

Photos courtesy of Lelde Muehlenbachs (which I'm guessing should be self evident but, as mentioned above, I'm working harder than ever to cite things properly.)

Evocative though they were, I didn't make an immediate connection between these images and my pictures of Venice, and so I filed them with everything else I look at, in the soiled cardboard box of my subconscious, (a cardboard box I've long given up the delusion I once had of organizing or even just throwing out).

While in Venice I traveled to Murano by vaporetto. Murano is only a few minutes journey from the core islands of Venice, and, as you probably know, is famed for its blown glass which has been zoned for production in Murano, and in Murano only, since 1291, when all the Venetian glass makers were exiled to Murano for fear of fire consuming the whole city.

I assume that when Murano catches fire, the glass blowers swim like rats from a sinking ship towards Venetians gathered on the North shore watching the island burn as though from the wrath of a god driven to destroy those who dedicate their lives to the vain production of baubles and gewgaws. I've looked for info on how often Murano has combusted over the last seven centuries but haven't been able to find a number.

Murano boasts some glass public sculpture too, and here's a sculpture of Venus, perhaps inspired by the lines of the Death in Venice trailer, which I'll refrain from quoting a third time. Isn't it fitting that this C-3P0-like Venus is made from a material so fragile as to be a correlative for the city itself?

Something struck me about the pose. I returned to Lelde's photographs and was stunned to discover that a fragment from the mirror world of Venice California so exactly emulated the glass Venus of Murano.

But a Venus did not manage to transport me from Venice, Italy to Venice, California. Instead, a building in Murano - Murano's single incongruous building - transported me from Venice, Italy back to Hamilton, Canada. It was as though Murano's single incongruous building had been put there so that I might enter it and in so doing step through the bright silvery mist, and pass from the unreality of tourism to authenticity of home.

At the risk of sounding self-promoting or even just annoyingly intertextual, an article I wrote in the fall of 2007, published in this magazine, documented a phenomenon I named the "Hammer Walk-Up" examples of which adorn Mohawk Road East.

And I feel that the Venice walk up could easily be embedded on Mohawk Road and not look out of place. Conversely, it might be an idea to make Hamilton Mountain a traffic free zone and just dig canals here and rename Hamilton Mountain "Venice, Ontario."

The roads are more than wide enough to park gondolas on. It might be slower to get around, but just think what the city could make off of tourism, indulging nerdy fantasies that I can't imagine and don't want to. The owners of these already striking Hammer walkups could make a tidy profit when they get converted into hotels.

Afterword on the distribution of Luchino Visconti's Death in Venice

On seeing the finished product, Warner Brothers wanted to suppress US distribution of Visconti's Death in Venice due to its, then, controversial subject matter. However, the Warner executives relented when they discovered that in England it had been screened at a Gala event to raise money to save Venice from "[sinking]... back into the seas from which, like Venus, it rose, " and the Queen of England had been in attendance and appeared not to have had a seizure.

As Napoleon Bonaparte

had proclaimed "Wedding at Cana" not just the rightful property of France, but an artwork fitting and proper for French museum goers, despite the embellishments of tropical birds on a biblical document; so had Elizabeth Regina, by shuffling into a theatre, proclaimed Visconti's Death and Venice an entertainment fit for the mature adult English movie-goer, and by extension had struck a small victory for gay rights.

Not only is this evidence that Monarchs forge their culture's morality, but it's a stirring argument for the enduring value of Britain's Royal Family as legislators of progressive global attitudes.

Mark Fenton lives in Hamilton and works in transportation logistics. He is the author Pim, a children's book for all ages. The eponymous Pim tweets daily @PIMSLIM_. A physical copy of Pim will be published soon and in the meantime Pim is available as a Kindle e-book which you can buy. Mark maintains a website at


View Comments: Nested | Flat

Read Comments

[ - ]

By James (registered) | Posted July 11, 2011 at 09:02:13

I wasn't aware that RTH did gonzo journalism.

Permalink | Context

By Gonzo (anonymous) | Posted July 11, 2011 at 11:08:15 in reply to Comment 65954

I'm glad they do, Marks essays are a real highlight!

Permalink | Context

[ - ]

By monicaV (anonymous) | Posted July 12, 2011 at 01:16:24

Oh...what you could do with Cairo and Cairo, pronounced Kay-row, Illinois.

Swell essay, feel like I went for a gondola ride !!!!!!!!

Permalink | Context

[ - ]

By monicaV (anonymous) | Posted July 12, 2011 at 01:22:04

From Wikipedia......He (Bill Cardoso) also claimed that it was a corruption of the French Canadian word "gonzeaux," which means "shining path,"

Permalink | Context

View Comments: Nested | Flat

Post a Comment

You must be logged in to comment.

Events Calendar

There are no upcoming events right now.
Why not post one?

Recent Articles

Article Archives

Blog Archives

Site Tools