I did not know what else to call it but a gift from the Gods – in this case the Roman versions. A fine, life-loving Venetian named Davide, did a much, much better job than I – he called it “the magical side of an exceptional moment”. That moment was an electricity failure. Usually not an event one would categorize as auspicious or a gift from Olympus. That moment was an out door cafe in a broad street of three to four story 16th and 17th Century buildings, green window shutters thrown open to catch even the faintest of breezes on a 93 degree evening with high humidity. The various pastels of the buildings are nicely toned by the soft street lights and ever softening light of day. The cafes all have full tables spread out on either side of the street; one just down the way filled with a family and friends crowd of at least 40. The street is filled with many casual walk-abouts. Everyone is drinking something! The ambient sound is the buzz of laughter and talking, good humored social engagement.
Then, as middle dusk is settling in, the Spritz before me is mellowing my jitters from having just finished a long travel day from Odessa. I remember distinctly my breathing deeply and observing with consciousness yet one more time the deep ambience of Via Garibaldi and thinking about how much I love that particular scene and how much I want to imprint it into my memory. That moment was eliciting a pleasure in my soul that escapes the poet’s best efforts. Then the lights in the long street flickered, flickered and disappeared. All of a sudden, I felt ever so deeply a part of an exceptional out of time moment that returned me to what I believed in my heart Venice of 500 years ago would have been like with her beautiful pastels and greens and marbles highlighted by the fading daylight.
I extricated myself from friends whose interest was in finding artificial light. I wandered abroad in the now early nightfall neighborhoods. Stunned is the only word I have for it. In the last fifteen years or so I utter the word “Wow” when seeing something or hearing something of extraordinary specialness – Titian’s “Assumption of Mary”, Rembrandt’s “Saint Anne”, an exceptional moment where light and flower and shadow combine into absolute beauty. It is not a particularly intelligent expression, but it usually jumps out of my inner self unsolicited, untainted. Occasionally, I will catch myself repeating it because I can find no way of letting the joy loose from my heart. It is a weak, New Age, burned-again hippie kind of word, but it is my way of acknowledging a beautiful Zen moment, of reveling in this beauty that surrounds our daily existence. That street light deprived night was the first time I have ever caught myself saying “Wow” again and again and again and again; the complete sensory overload of antiquity, history, artistic sentiment in marble and mortar and architecture, softness, and ancestral humanity knocked that word out of me over and over again.
This was the Venice experienced by Lord Byron or Albrect Durer or Rousseau or Edward DeVere or Goethe. As I wandered the streets, I felt I was wandering with them, particularly with their sensibilities. Interestingly, our way would be lit by someone with a torch, with a “link boy”, who would be paid a small sum for the task. Shakespeare’s Falstaff makes reference to such a lad when teasing Bardolph about his shining red face: “Thou hast saved me a thousand marks in links and torches, walking with thee in the night betwixt tavern and tavern.” (Henry IV, Pt. 1, Act III, scene 3).
Occasionally people hurry past me, modern link boys, but oblivious to all but their modern torch being used to get to somewhere else. They leave behind them the last twilight showing steps of a bridge inviting one to say “Wow” and to keep walking in the midst of the Ancien Régime or any period when this city was what it has been for so many hundreds of years.
There was also an additional stillness – no air conditioners, refrigerator condensers, a lessening of foot traffic. Restaurant tables now dotted the way with candles. People were subdued, not so much by the lacking but by the magic of antiquity totally unadorned, unaltered, unfiltered, lighted by the last remnants of day. Windows showed the flickering of candles finally able to cast their shadows in complete abandon. A woman sits on a bench in a now near dark Campo. I am totally in the middle of the hundredth “Wow”, so I say, “Fantastico, Non?” “Yes”, she replies in English, “it is extraordinary”. How tempted I was to sit and share with this stranger who understood and who could speak English! But I did not want the apprehension of a strange man to unsettle such a divine moment; on I walked.
While I happen to cherish my own Romanticism, I think it is fair to ask whether this was truly such a unique experience aside from the cries of joy and pleasure in my soul? The first power plant in Italy was built in Milan in 1883 for the purpose of illuminating La Scala, the famous Opera House. Soon after, Molino Stucky coverted his giant flour mill in Venice from gas to electricity. The Arc lights used at La Scalla would have been in the range of 2000-3000 candle power. Modern, ordinary street lights are 250-440 candle power while an “ornamental” street light is around 400 candle power. So, for at least one hundred years my romanticism would be misapplied.
The torch light of reality also shows that romantic misapplication for many hundreds more years. According to one source, the oldest system of street lighting in the world was established in Venice during the 12th century. The Doge declared the lighting of the streets necessary due to the rash of robberies and murders which were easily carried out in the dark and twisting alleyways of the city. At first devotionals to various Saints held candles at each corner, later followed by oil lamps at the state’s expense. Another source has it that the Arabs had street lamps in Cordoba, Al-Andalus in 1000. Neither source noted the Chinese who, of course, beat everyone, and the word lamp is from the Greek meaning torch, so “lighting” by humans certainly predated even my romantic projections of a “natural” evening.
But I think it fair to say that even a few candles or torches here and there would not have rendered my wild imaginings less romantic during that brief twilight time. All in all I guess it just sheds a little light on something I find more and more convincing as I experience this city. It is best expressed in Davide’s final thought, “we don’t have the quality as humans to forget Venice”.
Continued . . .
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