The Man Who Loved Venice

Fifteen years ago Nancy and I visited Venice. We stayed at the Pensione Seguso on the Zaterre in a sestiere of Venice called the Dorsoduro. Dorsoduro literally means “hard backbone.” It is probably a folk-etymological distortion of osso duro ‘hard bone,’ a reference to the soil. This part of Venice is less swampy. The terra is firmer, as it were. Here com­pacted clay lies beneath the swamp Venice was built on in the 5th century when the Venetians-to-be took refuge from the marauding Goths.

Santa Maria della Salute by Claude Monet (1908) 
Just a few minutes walk from the pensione was Santa Marie della Salute, a church built to thank God for ending the bubonic plague of 1630. The plague took 100,000 Venetians, over half the island's popula­tion, Titian among them. The architect, Baldassare Longhena, designed a massive stone structure whose bulk by rights ought to have submerged the entire island. Of course, it didn’t. His first step was to sink a million pilings through the swampy ground into the compacted clay beneath, into the dorsoduro. Longhena never saw his masterpiece to its completion. He died in 1682 at the age of 84, five years before the church was finished.

Our bedroom in the pensione was on the fifth floor in a corner of the building. We could see the canal beside us out of one of the windows. If you leaned way out, you could see the Chiesa del Santissimo Redentore across the Giudecca canal. I remember the curtains you had to part to gain the view. They were heavy and purple. They reminded me of the line from Edgar Allan Poe’s The Raven: “And the silken, sad uncertain rustling of each purple curtain.”

Chiesa del Santissimo Redentore
Breakfast in Pensione Seguso consisted of cof­fee, crackers and little squares of bel paese in aluminum wrappers. Dinner was more extravagant but for that you paid extra. It didn’t matter, those extra dollars. The food was execrable. The location, however, was great. The pensione was bookended by Santa Maria on one side and John Ruskin on the other. He had lived next door while writing The Stones of Venice. The stage was set for something remarkable.

What was remarkable happened in the person of a lodger, an elegant old man in his late eighties. We met him on our second evening in the dining room. He was dressed for dinner despite the slightly down in the mouth feel of the room, to say nothing of the food. He wore a trim blue blazer, an ascot and carried a cane.  His gold-grey hair was long and overran the collar at the back. He was alone as, indeed, he had been whenever we saw him. He had been coming to the pensione for years.

“How long will you stay?” I asked.

“Half a year,” he said, maybe longer.

It was the maybe longer that made me look at him twice. Despite his elegance he was showing his years. He looked tired, maybe worse. I was curious. But there are conversational boundaries, even for strangers.

He told us that he was a Shakespearean actor, that he had appeared in a number of films and stage plays, that he had children who lived in Great Britain but that he was essentially here on his own.

When I asked him why, he merely said, “I love Venice.”

Both Nancy and I had the same reaction to him, an old man of considerable style who ought not be spending nights talking to strangers he will never see again. There was something very sad about him and it was that sadness that I think kept us from trying to know him any better than a good morning or a good evening. Instead, we thought, though we never said so aloud, that he might very well die in Venice, alone, estranged if only by distance, from his family, his homeland, his memorabilia. Here was Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice in the flesh.

Recently, two of my friends have lost their wives. In both instances the wives were seriously maimed, either by a deep dementia or a crippling disease that made life cost more than it was worth. When news of their deaths came, I was relieved. Soon enough I realized that I was the only one who was relieved. In each case the widower, the one who bore the sadness of watching his wife die, now bore the sadness of not having a partner to look after even in sickness.

These recent deaths have brought back to me the memory of that old man in Venice, the one in the Pensione Seguso. I realize now that while I was sad, he wasn’t. I think I know why. He would never be bereaved because his partner would never die. I’m thinking, of course, of Venice.