Fragments of Venetian Discourse / Polska Sztuka Ludowa - Konteksty 2014 Special Issue

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Fragments of Venetian Discourse / Polska Sztuka Ludowa - Konteksty 2014 Special Issue


antropologia miasta


Polska Sztuka Ludowa - Konteksty 2014 Special Issue s.120-143


Czaja, Dariusz


Instytut Sztuki PAN




Licencja PIA









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Fragments of the
Venetian Discourse

I. Hieroglyph
It was probably Henry James who was one of the first
admirers of Venice to distinctly draw attention to the
fact that the veritable building material of the town is
neither sand, stone nor water but something much more
powerful: light, conceived as materia prima: The light
here is in fact a mighty magician and, with all respect to Tit­
ian, Veronese and Tintoretto, the greatest artist of them all.
You should see in places the material with which it deals—
slimy brick, marble battered and befouled, rags, dirt, decay.
Sea and sky seem to meet half-way, to blend their tones
into a soft iridescence, a lustrous compound of wave and
cloud and a hundred nameless local reflections, and then
to fling the clear tissue against every object of vision. 1
More than a hundred years later, the phenomenal
Watermark by Brodsky contained a distant reflection
of that observation, albeit this time in a more concrete
form. Brodsky made an observant remark about the
particular variant of Venetian light: The winter light
in this city! It has the extraordinary property of enhancing
your eye’s power of resolution to the point of microscopic
precision [...]. It carries no warmth or energy, having shed
them and left them behind somewhere in the universe or in
the nearby cumulus. It’s particles’ only ambition is to reach
an object and make it, big or small, visible. 2
What is the light mentioned in those two frag­
ments, how is it comprehended? Quite certainly it is
not merely a physical quality. It is no longer ordinary
electromagnetic radiation, but possesses the power of
extracting things out of non-being. To put it in stronger
terms: it has the power to create the world and render
it visible. This gesture changes things fundamentally:
it takes the conceit of light out of the space of physi­
cal description and strict measurable parameters and
introduces it into curious space with properties that
only partly succumb to rational description.

Each successive Venetian narration carries traces
of comments by predecessors and is added above or

along other texts about the town, even if not always
aware of this fact. The foundation of the discoveries
made by Ewa Bieńkowska in her intentionally palimps­
est novel: Co mówią kamienie Wenecji? 3 is Venetian
light in its assorted forms and versions. They are thus
an open reference but also - and this must be stressed
- an original and creative development of the abovecited observations of her predecessors.
Already the fragment opening the book is highly
symptomatic: This person stood in the centre of Piazzetta
on a cool but sunny autumn morning, and holding a book
looked at the cover and then at the view before him, rais­
ing and lowering his head in a regular rhythm, over and
over again (...). His facial expression was both astonished
and delighted to such a degree of bliss that I could not pre­
vent myself from a gesture of indiscretion. I came close and
looked over his shoulder. Obviously...
This was the cover of a cheap album of works by
Guardi, reproducing precisely that, which was situated
right in front of us. The slabs of Piazzetta leading towards
the water, St. Mark’s, the church on the island of San
Giorgio Maggiore on the opposite shore, and translucent
sky marked with several swift clouds. The veracity of the
image bordered on the uncanny, one felt the same chilly
air, the same suffusion with light, the glistening quality of
the dark colours (as if with an addition of bottle green),
the strong vibrating white colour of the church facade, and
the surface of the canal, whose smoothness was produced
by tiny waves ruffled by the wind. One had the impression
of a model, which in some manner rendered the view more
accurately than our eyes (...). (CMKW, 7-8)
This thoroughly Venetian genre scene is not con­
cerned solely with measuring the distance between the
real and the painted, the reduction of the intensity of
the painterly mimesis, which in a moment will reveal
its illusory character. Here, the heart of the matter is
different. Recalling the morning frame from Piazzetta,
Bieńkowska openly demonstrated her writer’s inten­
tion: a wish to discover Venice predominantly in the
images created there, to extract and name the Vene­
tian eidos manifested in those disturbing objects made
of colour and light.
In other words, this is a richly documented book
about Venetian painting... or more exactly, about
Venetian art and Venice as a work of art. Undoubted­
ly, the key to the town is painting, the works of Vene­
tians. An undertaking, and this cannot be concealed,
that remains highly risky (If I could describe the Vene­
tian courtesans... , as in Milosz’s famous reservation
about the possibility of depicting the canvas by Car­
paccio), since it embroils the narrator of the story into
all the problems faced by the ekphrastic statement.4
Regardless whether this intention succeeds or not it
must be underlined that it is in this particular gesture
of abandoning literature for the sake of painting that
the originality and force of Bieńkowska’s book lies.

D ariusz C zaja • FRAGMENTSOF THE VENETIAN D i s c o u r s e

Venice, Photo: Joanna Benedyktowicz


Whoever would like to perceive Bieńkowska’s
publication primarily as a compendium on the history
of art would be wrong.5 Although it brims with erudite
comments bibliographical details, sophisticated de­
scriptions, and interpretations of particular canvases,
it remains obvious that this is more than just a guide­
book on Venetian art, although one cannot exclude
the possibility that this is the way in which it could
be perceived. Following the complicated adventures
of Venetian painting, delving deeper into the art of
Bellini, Giorgione, Tintoretto, and Titian all the way
to Guardi and Canaletto, the author revealed for our
sake a complicated pattern, still only partly recognised,
of spiritual and technical borrowings, affiliations, con­
tinuations, and negations occurring between their oeu­
vre. Actually, this feature is not the most relevant. It
is merely factographic substance from which one can
depart towards an intellectually subtler concept.
Precisely. As I have mentioned, the book by
Bieńkowska is usually read “transparently”, without
understanding that this prose, sometimes with a strong
underpinning of style, is not solely a thorough report
on library and museum surveys but, first and foremost,
a literary construction. And if this is so, then it is not because it cannot be - conceived without committing
a cognitive ”sin”. In other words: it is an attempt not
only at an account but also tries, sometimes in a high­
ly evocative manner, to impose with the assistance of
rhetorical operations an image of Venice. Hence my
task: to take a look not only at the designates towards
which the text steers us but rather at the text itself, the
way in which it creates a vision of the town and the lin­
guistic operations with which it fulfils this task. To put
it differently: to discover the mythological component
contained in the book. This is particularly interesting
in view of the fact that many parts of Co mówią kami­
enie Wenecji? possess a distinctly meta-textual nature
and the discursiveness revealed therein could suggest
that this sort of narration is free of all myths. Unfortu­
nately, this is not so simple. There, where we fall into
the trap of the language mythical matter reveals itself
with all force whether we know this or not. More: it is
worth remembering about a certain recommendation
that has all the features of a self-fulfilling prophecy:
there where there is Venice there you should search
for a myth!
Apparently, the mythical narration present in the
book is organised predominantly by two closely con­
nected motifs: the metaphysics of light and the nature
of the creative act. The whole erudite and impressionoriented “rest” is based on these two foundations. Let
us try to take a closer look at them.

The first question posed by Bieńkowska is totally
essential: how did it happen that it was precisely here,

in Venice, at the turn of the fifteenth century, that
there emerged painting so dissimilar to all that that
was being executed all around, for instance, in the
workshops of Tuscany? Were the Madonnas by Giambellino, The Tempest by Giorgione or The Pastoral
Concert by Titian conceivable outside Venice? - she
asked rhetorically and is clearly inclined towards some
sort of a version of geographical-aesthetic determin­
ism. It is Venice, the author added, and its unique
light that left such a strong impression on local paint­
ers. Venetian space is an inimitable laboratory of light,
a place exceptionally suitable for observing its changes
and for seeing how it behaves in a confrontation with
matter: Whoever toured Venice or looked at its paintings
in foreign museums was aware that something special was
taking place as regards the question of perception and the
puzzle of the visible nature of the world. Here this feature
was exceptional and provoked unique responses. The sim­
plest elements of the world exist in Venice in a manner
not encountered elsewhere, granting ordinary activity an
additional aura, semi-ceremonial and semi-intimate. Light
shines differently across the lagoon, builds space, enfolds
things, draws forth and conceals their matter, and endows
the latter with scores of guises. (CMKW, 237)
In this town everyone, whether he wishes to or not,
becomes engaged in looking. Here, we all are only a
mere addition to the eye, the author echoes the lesson
taught by Brodsky. Venice is the sole space in which the
eye reveals its autonomy so distinctly, in which it not so
much separates itself from the body as totally subjugates
the latter: Venice taught how to look and suggested percep­
tion. Each of its seasons and time of the day, each caprice of
the weather was a lesson in the manner in which the theatre
of the visible is arranged, the manner in which plans and
depths are constructed, the way in which they occupy their
surfaces and abandon them. It teaches what happens with
colours when they are illuminated by the variable glimmer
of the lagoon, when they outline the meandering canal or the
line of the coastline with its half-moon shape. That what is
light becomes doubly reflected from the water and the stone;
the degree to which it makes it possible to penetrate the con­
cealed substance of things and the extent to which it main­
tains us in a state of illusion. (CMKW, 238)
Here we counter an interesting and creative ap­
plication of the metaphor of Venice as a theatre. Now,
Venetian space will no longer be the patinated, old,
and crumbling stage design that it is often perceived
(in vain would we add that this is not a compliment!),
but will become a living and pulsating panorama
transformed into a theatre of perception. An instruc­
tive panopticon of the stirring work performed by
light, texture, and colour. In other words, an instru­
ment with distinctly positive commutations enriching
Remarks about the variable and disturbing nature
of the visible are developed in another beautiful and



instructive metaphor of the space of Venice possess­
ing the features of a magic telescope whose simplified
version is the kaleidoscope. It combines the narrow
field of vision and depth evading our gaze, concealed
but foreseen in each element of the vision. The slight­
est movement and tremor of the telescope shift all the
components that upon each occasion arrange them­
selves into a different world, into related micro-cos­
moses that, however, vary with every moment. The
limited field of vision - the narrow canals, streets, and
squares, whose majority are streets slightly expanded
to make space for a church - produce the impression
that the centre of vision is transferred elsewhere, al­
ways further on, and will be reached by walking ahead,
by discovering the point of an encounter, the point
of an equilibrium, somewhere where the eye can no
longer penetrate. Each step causes an alteration, a
rearrangement of elements creating an inexhaustible
number of configurations; a walk across Venice is
tantamount to slowly twisting a kaleidoscope and the
transformation of its countless virtual versions into re­
ality. (CMKW, 71-72) This game with the unknown
appears to be endless, since each consecutive version
shows a successive one. Interestingly, the town plan­
ning configuration, narrowed down, stifling, and at
times claustrophobic, does not become tedious due to
the incessant presence in this restricted space of the
elements: the sky and water.
One could outright have the impression that Ven­
ice extracted itself from non-being as if specially for
the sake of painters. The latter took up this challenge
and devoted themselves to studying colour and light.
Venetian painters discovered, albeit each in his own
manner, an astonishing thing. As if contrary to all
sorts of Platonic approaches they recognised that the
mystery of reality lies in its skin, its surface appear­
ance. That e v e r y t h i n g is already given to us h
e r e, and it is only necessary to be able to see it. It is
in Venice that convincing arguments were provided
demonstrating that the corporeal is merely a form of
the spiritual and that only a thin line divides optics
from metaphysics.
For all practical purposes, the entire book by
Bieńkowska is an attempt at describing this mysterious
and, from the viewpoint of common sense, impossible
abutment of opposites.

If it is true that, as Maurice Merleau-Ponty main­
tained in his pioneering analyses of the phenomenon
of perception, painting, in its most profound vocation,
is an incessant examination of the mystery of the vis­
ible 6, then Venetian painting is certainly the most
credible confirmation of this declaration. It was in
Venice that a discovery was made of the creative force
of colour and its fundamental role in the creation of

painterly reality. Painting was revealed as a passionate
celebration of the visible.
Take a single instructive example. The Tempest
by Giorgione, still puzzling and resisting all exegetes,
belongs definitely to the canon of Venetian master­
pieces. Here is an ekphrase of this famous canvas as
proposed by Bieńkowska: It is impossible to describe The
Tempest without succumbing to a paralysing feeling of
helplessness. Sometimes, personal recollections can assist
us in coming closer to it. The eye first registers a cloudy sky
and a snake-like line of lightening against ominous heav­
ens. Lightening is the source of light, it illuminates the walls
of the town and the tops of the trees in an abrupt flash,
which everyone recognizes from his experiences of summer
storms. This flash brings forth the phosphorescent white­
ness of the stones and for the single blink of an eye changes
leafs into constellations of glistening points, accentuating
the dark shadows of trees standing against the light. Before
the eye rests on a mysterious Gypsy woman in the lower
part of the painting it is attracted by the view of a town as if
straight out of a dream. The flash of lightening for a single
moment changes not only the appearance of things but also
their substance, and leaves us convinced that for a split of
a second we took part in a different, ceremonial, and secret
existence of the world.
Only later does out gaze pause at a female figure and
even later extracts the figure of a man —his white shirt
and dark red jerkin. Both figures are less absorbing that
that, which is taking place in the sky and on earth, but
we feel that that the painting could not do without them.
It is thanks to them that it evades pan-aestheticizing “Ro­
mantic” savouring and gains an equilibrium. (CMKW,
Not by accident in her description of the canvas
the author did not concentrate on a mysterious an­
ecdote, which is the case of so many difficulties for
its interpreters, but on the just as puzzling purely col­
our stratum, sensual and visual, not to say: formal, if
it were not for the contemporary, almost exclusively
“technical” comprehension of that term. The land­
scape of The Tempest is so extraordinarily rich as re­
gards colour that it reveals in Nature qualities whose
existence the “ordinary” eye bypasses and simply does
not surmise. Contrary to commonplace habits the
painting is not a carbon copy of reality but its crea­
tive construction, created in an alliance of the eye, the
imagination, and the intellect. It is the painting that
reveals and projects into the visible the reflections of
the invisible.
It would be difficult to acknowledge an abuse or ex­
aggeration in the author’s claim, placing The Tempest
among religious works. Naturally, this is quite a differ­
ent religiosity than the Renaissance (only?) compre­
hension of a religious canvas. She discerned in the per­
ception and reflection of Giorgione an unprecedented
attempt at a totally new understanding of its meaning:


Giorgione - as far as we know - did not leave behind any
religious paintings (...). This too is not unusual for those
times. I have the impression that this fact is connected with
the attitude, which we sense in The Tempest, as if he
wanted to discover a different form for the sacrum, a form
not foreseen in the official canon and one about which he
too did not know, matching shapes and colours, eliminating
the first sketch, and conducting a further search. Accord­
ing to him the sacrum was further from man (further than
in the Christian missive - after all, so strongly anthropo­
centric) and closer to direct experiences of the world, that
vibrating light, air, and earth shown in such a disturbing
manner in The Tempest. (CMKW, 49)
Giorgione discovered and with brilliant virtuosity
demonstrated that a painting, regardless of the theme,
can be a congenial medium of metaphysics.7 That a
patient contemplation of the puzzle of the visible,
the concentration of ways of the appearance of light,
guides beyond its boundaries, towards a harmonious
coexistence of “the visible and the invisible”. That the
greatest achievement of the art of painting is not aes­
thetic entertainment, but can become the most pro­
found form of cognition. To put it differently: that a
painting does not have to be merely a screen of reality,
but can turn into an instrument of its r e v e l a t i on,
disclosure, as the Latin interpretation suggests. A rev­
elation of the limits of the visible.

In Polish: “light “and “world” (światło and świat)
are connected by an astonishing lexical similarity. As
we have seen, in Venice light assumes extraordinary
creative power. It reveals the world and extracts quali­
ties in it that were not anticipated. It is the funda­
mental building material of paintings - those specific
products, “new worlds” . Yet another unusual compo­
nent of Bieńkowska’s narration is connected with the
nature of the latter: reflection on the miracle of the
birth of Venice. An attempt at an explication
of the creative act. A t this stage, we abandon the
aesthetic discourse and plunge into the dark terrains
of ontology.
Taking into consideration purely rational reasons,
Venice, that strange civilizational and aesthetic prod­
uct, simply should not exist. This is obvious. It should
not be and yet it is. Despite all gathered knowledge
about the history of Venice it is impossible to find
some rational reason for its existence. It is pure impos­
sibility, a paradox, a curiosity, a freak of Nature, or, as
some claim, a miracle. It follows that Venice actually
engages the mind not only and not predominantly as
a town-planning problem but as a serious ontological
puzzle, as a cipher that has to be decoded. What is
the origin of Venice, what are the reasons for its exist­
ence? If for a moment one would relegate - since it is
impossible to reject them completely - political, eco­

nomic, and sociological reasons based on otherwise
serious and scientifically confirmed arguments 8 then
there remains only a single possibility of a purely poet­
ic nature: according to it, the town built on a lagoon ex
nihilo is a folly of human imagination, an insane crea­
tive gesture devoid of pragmatic reasons. It is creatio ex
nihilo repeated in a human dimension.
Venice is an entirely imaginary town. Note, how­
ever, that this insane conception lacks the same sort
of cold calculation that took place in the case of St.
Petersburg, another town on water brought into be­
ing by the human fiat. Hence, perhaps, in both cases
the unreal and phantom-like character, the mixture
of dream and awakening that is part of their nature
has quite a different dimension. But was it only the
human hand that was involved in this project? In the
emergence of Venice from non-being the motor force
was not merely human imagination. Here, something
more was needed: imagination outfitted with divine
prerogatives, as in Blake: The material —and all others
- being of Venice at each moment depended on a miracle,
a constant preservation in a being which philosophers de­
scribed as the Supreme Being. Not only did it decide about
creation, but in addition it conserves its work from mo­
ment to moment; without its incessant attention it would
have dissolved in nothingness. The miracle of Venice,
basically and actively human and arbitrary, forces us to
think about constant, extraordinary intervention —so that
which is could exist. So that it would not vanish together
with springtime mists, so that it would survive wintertime
attacks of freshet, floods flowing from terra firma and
drowning St. Mark's Square, filling basements and under­
cutting foundations. (CMKW, 98)
Exactly: the wonder of Venice consists not only
of the fact that it was created at s o m e t i m e and
was brought to life, but to an equal degree that con­
trary to all else, and despite the incessant destructive
work performed by Nature, political failures or civilizational crises, it s t i I l goes on. Consequently, there
emerges the question: What calls for greater effort: to
create or to ensure duration? To this query, which once
excited learned minds, Venice replies: I am, I continue be­
ing, the improbable became reality. Today, we know that
the danger of gradual and systematic annihilation is real.
But do we believe it? It is impossible to treat it seriously
when we stand, for example, in Fondamenta Nuove facing
the glistening stretch of the lagoon, the cemetery island of
San Michele, and to the left, in the background, the less
visible and Impressionistically outlined coastline of Murano. It is impossible that the Supreme Being resigned from
its achievement, the masterly operation when with human
hands and with the assistance of millions of beech posts it
lifted out of the salty marshes one of its most magnificent
works. What does this mean? Would Venice have to cease
existing since the eternal work performed by the sea, the
creative-destructive work of man, successfully tackled its


solidity? With its essence, one that does not have any coun­
terparts in some sort of an emporium of ideas and came
into being only across the ages, connected by a dramatic
bond with time? (CMKW, 98)
Not for the first time did Bieńkowska make it obvi­
ous that Venice is a reality that cannot be explained
with a metaphysical dimension, regardless of the way
in which it is comprehended. From time to time,
therefore, she shifted reflection from languages suit­
able for architecture or the history of art to unambigu­
ously theological rhetoric. Thus comprehended, not
only Venetian masterpieces but Venice as such and
conceived as a holistic ontological project containing
not merely the miracle of creation but also the mystery
of duration, are proof of the living existence of spir­
itual reality. Here, Venice is not “solely” a magnificent
town, nor is it a superficially understood aesthetic di­
mension, its most profound component constituting
its differentia specifica.
Venice, as a multi-strata, unique reality is a work of
art in its vivid meaning, accentuating predominantly
the creative gesture. In other words, it is something
that has been produced thanks to the creative act,
and this means that it had been elevated to existence
ex nihilo, without emulating the model of an already
existing image. The aquatic genesis of Venice matches
the exegesis of the creative act performed by George
Steiner who showed convincingly how in the emer­
gence of each work of art (a painting, a poem, a so­
nata) the essential element is randomness. This means
that it could be totally non-existent and that the very
essence of a work of art includes the fact that it could
have been never embodied: The work of art, of poet­
ics, carries within it, as it were, the scandal of its hazard,
the perception of its o n t o l o g i c a l c a p r i c e (my
emphasis - D. C.). 9 There is no beguiling logic of the
necessity of its emergence. How rarely do we realise
that such an admired work of art could have never
existed! That thanks to some force, which cannot be
fully analysed, it emerged from original nothingness.
In this sense - one could add - each great work of art
(including Venice) fully deserves to be regarded as a
miracle since it comprises an open and brutal over­
coming of the logic of necessity.
To put it yet differently: in the perspective outlined
here Venice proves to be not only one of elements of
the visible world (one of many) but something much
more: it is a world on a reduced scale, a place in which
all the most essential issues of our worldly existence
are concentrated, the most profoundly symbolic real­
ity in which, as in textbook definitions of the symbol,
extremities and contradictions merge. Symbolon com­
bines the spiritual and the material, the totally alien
and that which is profoundly own, the conceptual
and the imaginary. As Hans-Georg Gadamer wrote:
We understand the symbol (...), the experience of the

symbolic, to mean that the individual and the spe­
cial resembles a particle of being, that the something,
which corresponds to it is a promise of supplementing
entity and happiness, or that the still sought particle
supplementing the whole is a second particle matching
our fragment of life.10 The experiencing of the symbol
contains the warmth of the binding mystery but also
the poignant certainty of participation in some sort of
completeness transgressing our individual nature.
In a genuine, deeply experienced encounter with
the reality of the symbol our gaze seems to be turned
towards the observer. The symbol is a mirror, in which
our most profound spiritual “I” is looking at itself. This
cognition is not only the recognition of that which is
different but also self-cognition. Perhaps it is in this
particular circumstance and not in literary inertia, the
film legend or the pressure exerted by mass-scale tour­
ism that one should seek the true force of the end­
less attraction of Venice and its hypnotising gaze. All
those seduced by Venice constantly stressed that they
suddenly found themselves in a totally alien and ex­
otic space, but at the same time never felt more at
home. More, they argued that despite the cognitive
resistance initially put up by the town they ultimately
felt an inexplicable unity with it. Such statements
make it possible to understand a certain recurring cir­
cumstance: extremely emotional reactions to rumours
about the annihilation of Venice. This is not difficult
to comprehend: what would we care about the death
of Venice, prophesied time and again, if we did not
notice in this fact a prefiguration of our death?

There is not a shadow of doubt: in her book Ewa
Bieńkowska disclosed extremely aptly several earlier
unknown or only slightly recognised faces of Venice.
Do not delude yourself, however, that we have final­
ly found out what Venice is r e a l l y like, and that
while reading the book we have reached some sort
of an “objectively existing” essence of the town that
can be measured, tested, and confirmed. Actually,
Bieńkowska has added to the web of the myth, labori­
ously woven for centuries, yet another thread by writ­
ing a successive version, this time her own. Her twomotif narration - the one about the creative power of
light and the one about the origin of Venice - is only a
camouflaged variation of the Biblical story about creatio ex nihilo. This is the reason why the narration as­
sumes the properties of an archaic myth according to
the meaning proposed by studies about religion: a holy
story about a powerful event, about the way in which
something appeared in the world, came into being,
emerged from primeval chaotic magma. This endows
the story with a hieratic feature (in the literal, etymo­
logical meaning derived from the Greek hieros), and
ensures that in the intimate discourse about Venice

D ariusz C z aja • F R A G M E N T S (


the heart of the matter involves undoubtedly prime
thing's. Here, Venice is a sign, but not: - as in this novel
by Brodsky - a watermark, but rather a hieroglyph. Not
always lucid, sometimes rattier illegible, but with all
certainty: a holy sign.

II. T h e deceitful beauty of the mask
One on tite images appe aring most often in attempts
at reaching the essence ot Venice is, as we know, tine
figure of an unreal town.Thris image, depending on tlee
view, can assume two diametrically different classifica­
tions. Tlie unreal, in the eyei of a person enchanied
with thf town, can mean something extraordinary and
dazzling, and describe a world situated tit the pinnacle
of the scale of his wishes and bewilderment. The unrerl is a designation of tin object that remains beyond
the limits of tlee imagination eomething for which
there is nr comparison In visiblr reality. Thus com­
prehended unreality is rhe utmosa degree of adoration
and aesthetic sublimation. Ie is also, paradoxicallyethe
name oh a powerful and multiplied exiitence. This it r
being whose actual unreality is not sunject to any sort
ofdiscutaion or appeal.
The same adjective in the eyes of ascep tic can,
hrwever, signify space with deformed onthlngee Somet
thing that does not exist truly, strongly, and in reality.
On the contrary: in this case, unreil "Venice proves
to be merely collective hypnosis, a cognitive illusion
inheritef across the nenfuries and concealfng the real
image of things. In that case, the town on the lagoon is
no longer an enchanting curiosum, but a being with an

extremely doubtful identity; a town that not so much
exists as pretends that it existse A town of artificial
beauty and tawdry glitter. Tombac pretending; to lie
fold. A town-planning phantomf This impressfon is
visible in T ie Venice Text 11 almost trom the very first
Here are several instructive examples arom differ­
ent time bertpectives.
Eighteenth century. Edward Gibbon, author of the:
slassical "The History of the Decline and Fatt of the Roman
Empire, whose acrid itatement quite oaten inaugurates
a lithany ob complaints rbaut Veneeian aet^lity, did
not concea! his disenit after a brief visit: I was afforded
some hours of astonishment ansi some dayt of disgust hy
the spectacle of Venice. 12In this ftatement let us accentuatenot only fhe historian’s extreme disilSusionment
with the city but the wrrd “spectacla”, rather clearly
itating tOat Venetian space is not a real world; on the
tontraey, it is a world put ore show', fleeting, and un­
real. !n addition, it is a case of poor art producing only
distaste and thui worthy of swift oblivion.
Nineteenth century. Mary Mc Carthy quite aptly
dtscribed the behaviour of John Ruskin, the great
codifier of the preatous stones oi Venice (The Stonee off
1Venice), who feom an initial enthusiast changed into
a fanltfinder and a demystificator r f Venatian allure:
Ruskin, who was her overdue Jeremiah and whr came at
the end to detest nearly everything in Venice, spent half his
days trying tf expose her frauds - climbing laddere in dusty
churches to prove (what he had sushscted) that the Venetian Renairsance was a false front, a cynical taick fo.).0
Here too Venice deludes and pretends to be something

aft r

W. Turner, Veduta dal canale che porta Lido: la Riva degli Schiavoni (fragment)
fSource: Venezia. Acquerelli di T ner, L'ippocampo, Milan 2008)

t2 t


that it is not; uttered by Ruskin, such a declaration is a
veritable kiss of death.
Twentieth century. This motif of deceit and men­
dacious illusion returns in the text of yet another seri­
ous destructor of the Venetian myth, the outspoken
Regis Debray. In a modest volume whose title leaves
no place for ambiguities: Contre Venise, we encoun­
ter entire sets of epithets. The author compared pal­
aces along Canal Grande to a Potemkin mock-up,
barely resembling human adobes and totally lifeless.
14 Here is the culmination conclusion: This city with
its theatres, its opera, its masked balls is a theatre itself.
(...) Venice is not a city but the representation of a city. 15
In other words, Venice is a town-model, a town pre­
tending to be a town, something that imitates real life.
A town that cultivated a beautiful illusion and cel­
ebrated a world of theatrical illusion for so long that
it exhausted itself and died, ultimately becoming that,
which once was its valued hallmark: a mask devoid of
a living, real face.
Twenty first century. In a whistle-blowing arti­
cle published several years ago in the “Independent”
about an apparently immortal question concerning
the purposefulness of conserving the crumbling pal­
aces and churches of Venice, the author already in
the first sentence pinions the readers with a strong
end line: all who had just returned from Venice had
taken part in horrendous deceit. 16This is followed by
customary lament concerning the Venetian world of
illusion - the effect is enhanced by statements made
by eminent men of letters (naturally, including the
classics of the destructive current, i.a. the abovementioned Gibbon and Debray, but also the Italian
Futurist Marinetti, with impetus turning Venetian lies
inside out 17). The text ends with the poetics of a ver­
dict eliminating all possibilities of an appeal: Venice is
not endangered, it is dead. 18 In other words, touring
Venice resembles strolling amidst rotting and musty
sets, across a gloomy cemetery of past splendour. It is
participation in collective hallucination, for which in
addition one pays a high fee. But there is something
more. This rather funereal description shows clearly
that the old slogan Venice preserved, so strongly affect­
ing the imagination, is already very outdated.
What is there to conserve, and for what purpose?
There is no longer any rational reason to be concerned
about a declining town, just as there is no sense in
dealing with a painted corpse.
Apparently, times are changing but this dark
thread present in Venetian accounts remains almost
unbroken. Arguments vary, different comparisons and
metaphors circulate, but the basic intuition appears to
endure undisturbed.

Among numerous testimonies expressing aversion
towards Venice, which in a more or less sophisticated

manner reveals the town’s artificiality, falsehood, and
phantom status, we come across an essay by Georg
Simmel:Venedig (1907) 19 This brief text - sometimes
issued in a separate volume together with two other
portraits of towns (Florence and Rome 20) - is not only
a handy catalogue of negative opinions appearing in
publications written earlier but also, as can be easily
proven, a true a r c h i t e c t of demythologisation
statements made already after the publication of simmel’s essay.
simmel presented his hermeneutics of suspicions
in a series of arguments. His demystification of Venice
construes images and comparisons that, probably con­
trary to his intentions, are not semantically transparent
and as such outright invite to embark upon an interpre­
tation. It is worth taking a closer look at them. First, let
us read this text as neutrally as possible, trying primarily
to capture and name the “negative” sets of meanings in
it, and then see what they mean and in what manner,
but already without the deciphering intention and rhe­
torical custody of the author. In the case of simmel the
unreality of Venice has many names.
In order to understand something of simmel’s
Venetian lesson it is necessary to first comprehend
the way in which he interpreted urban space. This is
certainly not rhetoric characteristic for an historian,
an architect or a town planner. True, simmel made
fragmentary use of languages typical for professional
researchers but he did not identify himself completely
with any of them. He did, however, merge them into
a peculiar synthesis, typical only for him. Simmel in­
terpreted urban space, first and foremost, as a series of
signs or, better still, indices referring to a reality more
profound than the visible one. 21 Hence he saw the
town predominantly as a text providing much food for
thought. This is an ambiguous and multi-dimensional
reality, a significant organism that is not a simple sum
of its parts. A laboratory example of such an approach
involves fragments dealing with the space of Rome.
Here, ordinary sensual perception of urban space
became a point of departure for a wider conclusion:
hence the multi-storeyed form of Rome is capable of
translating the haphazardness, contradictions and ir­
regularity of the history of erecting the town into a
cohesive whole, with the top and the bottom grant­
ing the sinuous lines of the image of the town guide­
lines realised by all the details. This is the direction
followed by the dynamic of the urban life of Rome:
no element, even ancient, alien and unnecessary, can
evade its extraordinary vitality. Even dissimilar ele­
ments are drawn into this current. The inclusion of
old and oldest monuments into later development is
a symbolic expression or frozen form of the same el­
ement that the dynamic of Roman life presents in a
fluid form: the creation of own life unity out of end­
lessly different elements. [MiD, 56-57]


Simmel depicted Rome as a curious town, which
draws the power of its influence from the variety of the
elements comprising it. This process takes place both
in the spatial dimension (particular “monuments” ex­
ert an impact not as isolated objects but as an entity)
and temporal dimension (individual epochs in some
incomprehensible way merge together, thus creating
a palimpsest configuration of harmoniously coexisting
strata). In doing so, he disclosed the phenomenon of
the w h o l e, which, strangely, individual parts do not
cancel but build, although not by means of simple ad­
dition. This is why, Simmel insisted, the typical tourist
rushing from monument to monument understands
little of the genius of Roman space because he does
not notice the beauty of the second power inferred
from particular beauties and imposed upon them.
[MiD, 57] In other words: he is unable to penetrate
the veil of the senses and to cross over to the other
side of the looking glass, which discloses the spiritual
depth of the town, just as he is incapable of putting
together particular phenomena of the visible world so
that the miracle of the whole could reveal itself.
In a similar - anatomical, holistic, and spir­
itual - manner Simmel wrote about his favourite Flor­
ence, demonstrating at the same time the miracle of
its cohesion. Everything in this organism matches: the
past, albeit severed from the present, still pulsates in
current life, and Nature, which the spirit encircles as if
it were its astral body [MiD, 163], remains in a strange
symbiosis with works of art. Everything here adds up
and mutually supplements, creating a semblance of
implemented utopia, an ideal town. Florence is the
cosmos of realised Harmony: it is the joy of the mature
man who has achieved all that is most essential in life
or resigned from it and now wishes to only seek a form
for his conquest or relinquishment. [MiD, 168]

The essay written by Simmel about Venice starts
as if with an anacrusis, i.e. by defining the principal
features constituting a work of art. A t first glance,
this might seem rather strange but Simmel knew very
well what he was doing: he was preparing solid ground
for further reflections. A work of art, he maintained,
should be always assessed from the viewpoint of its
truth or falsehood. A work is genuine when its outer
form is a living and adequate expression of reality.
Sometimes, however, it may happen that a work of art
seems to be referring us to some metaphysical world,
which should be expresssed in it, but nothing of the
sort takes place: particular fragments can be perfect
and remain in mutual harmony but the w h o l e is
detached from the roots and the greater its perfection
the more radically does it lie, pretending to be some
sort of inner life, world outlook or religious conviction
that it actually denies. [MiD, 177-178]

This is a very relevant statement because the
inadequacy of form and content, here depicted by an
opposition between the empty interior and the lavish
exterior, will become a pair of opposites that will work
brilliantly in the further part of the text, i.e. the inter­
pretation key to Venetian space.
The entire ideological construction of Simmel’s text is based on a juxtaposition between Flor­
ence and Venice. As we know, such an approach is
by no means new in the history of ideas. Already once
in the history of European culture we have dealt with
such an acute contrast of both towns. Then, the heart
of the matter was the essence of painting and the way
of constructing a canvas. Renaissance treatises end­
lessly discussed a certain fundamental problem: what
comes first, what is more important: drawing or col­
our? 22 In this dispute the names of both towns were for
the time being extracted from the space of geography
and politics and rendered legible emblems of a certain
painterly attitude. Florence, therefore, is a model-like
embodiment of disegno, the primacy of drawing over
colour. Venice is just the opposite, i.e. the domination
of colorito, a passion for the constructive role of colour
and the weaker role of the line. This is a contradiction
not to be reconciled.
In the writings of simmel we also encounter a
harsh contradiction, but the principle of the opposi­
tion is different. This time we are dealing with the
function fulfilled by architecture, and more precisely:
the idea of the town concealed behind real buildings.
Or perhaps something more: the very conception of
life obscured by town-planning premises. In simmel’s
essay Venice is the model-like reverse of Florence, its
sick contradiction, an ominous anti-thesis.
start with a comparison of the architecture of
both towns. The most profound differences between
the architecture of Venice and Florence probably lies
in the fact that in the palaces of Florence, or rather
the whole of Tuscany, we perceive the outer aspect
as an adequate expression of the inner meaning: as a
vainglorious, grave and lavish demonstration of power
tangible in almost every stone. Each palace represents
confident, sovereign personality. On the other hand,
Venetian palaces are sophisticated playthings, whose
uniformity masks the individuality of their residents, a
veil whose folds are arranged in accordance with the
rules of its beauty while showing the life concealed be­
neath only by hiding it. [MiD, 178-179]
Simmel did a lot so that his conceit would become
convincing. Earlier remarks about the work of art are
skilfully transferred into urban space. The yardstick of
the evaluation of architecture is the degree of concur­
rence between the expression and the contents or ref­
erence to an archaic differentiation between form and
contents. Florentine palaces are transparent in the
function of expression and do not conceal anything.


W. Turner, Chiarore mattutino sulla punta di Santa Maria
della Salute, sullo sfondo de Zitelle, (fragment).
(Source: Venezia. Acquerelli di Turner, L'ippocampo, Milan

They find total fulfilment in their revelatorE function.
The opposite is crue in the case of Venetian architec­
ture. In order to de fend Inis thesis Simmel was will­
ing to sacrifice evens elementary respect for facti and
common sense, i.e. only someone for whom tine initial
conceit ie more important than empiria verifiable at a
single gfanee can maintain that Venetian palaces afe
identical (by way of example, take a look at C a’d’Oro,
C a’Ree:.onico, Palazoo Dario - whas depressing similasity!). Let us move on, since palaces concealing life
ore not the end.
Sailing along Canal Grande we know that liOe, re­
gardless of its ntture, is aertainly different. Here, in 0i.
Mark’s Square, the piazzetta, we teel the iron will of
power, the murky passion embedded behind this tran­
quil phenomenon. Thc latter, how aver, seams to live
in a state of ostentatious separation from being, and
rise exterior does not: receive from the ina^rior any sort
of guidelines or no urishment; it heeds only the laws of
art, which appear to be outrighe established for deny­
ing the former. When, howevec, even rite mosf per­
fect arf does not conceal a meaning of life - or when
it opposes it - then art becomes artificial- Florence is
perceivsd as a work of art since its obvious form is con­
nected with life, which has undenisbly abandoned it
but etill loyally stands bn ito side. Venice is an artificial
town. Florenct will nevsr becom ea mere mask because
its phenomenon re sounded with the pure voic e og real
life, while in Venice, where all tranquillity, lighgness,
end freedom strvnd only as a facade for a sombre and
violent life, unrelentingle striving towards its god, the
twilight of this liZe left behind only unfeeling decora­
tions, the talse beauty of the m ask.[M iD , 179]
The same old story. Florence is transparent for the
inner senses while Venice is aaliehood that conceals
emptiness. Florence continuec being, an in the past, a
work of art while Venice rs a mere extract oOartificial­
ity. Despite lexicel similarity, art and artificiality are

not quite the same. The reason lies in the fact that
historical lite, ergo, true liOe, even though it has aban­
doned both towns (here Simmel does not seem to pro­
test so strongly), id some mysterious wae -till exerts an
imprint on Florentinn architecture, continues being
present in it, and permeates it in an outright intimate
mannen while a Ve netian palazoo is only an old skin
(thc externel) aasf off by a once living and vittl organiem. We are cemoelled to accept this intuition at
tace value in view oCthe faca that Simmel did not offer
any arguments. One could ask the justified question:
wheat Weis that ’’real life” supposed to mean and why
does it still appear in Florenye while totally abandon­
ing Venice?
Simmel went eeen further in intensifying an imaye
of artificial (unreal) Venice. Apparently, in ths Vene­
tian theatrum ie is not only buildings but also pgople
that lose their vitality, while rUe town sucks their blood
and changes them intc a collection of shadows. aimmet made creative use ya the nur particulady orisinal
Zigure of Venice as a theatre, without losine anything
of his iniaial intuition:

W. Turner, Porta della Carta, Palazzo Ducale, ifragmosle.
(Source: Venezia. Acquerelli di Turner, L'ippocampo, Milan


In Venice people walk as if across a stage, busy with
barren dreams or undertakings that yield nothing; tkie^y
incessantly appear around a corner and immediately
vanish around anorher one, always resembling; actors
meaningleso beyond the stage because an it there takes
place a play devoid of causes and effects foi the rkality
of the next moment. The work of art binds particu­
lar elemente into a single whole and imposes its own
meaning; uonsequently, in Venice the image of people
appears to tie shallow. They walk and stand, buy and
solt, watch and speak - all within the enchanted cirkle of thie town, where illusion is detached from being
and seems to Ire two-dimensional, added to its real and
definitive essence. But this concealed esoenca appears
to be dead, and all activity resembles a faekde without
f background, onu peart of nn equaoion whote second
part has been obliterated. [MiD, 179-180]
Anticipating by severcl tecedet tine statement
made by Debrae about V enice, which is no longer a
town but only pretends to be one, Stmmel demon­
strated the way in which id Venice the moet ordinary
tomn-plannins elements creating every other town are
subjected to striking deformations causing a signidicant
shift: of their normal Sanation:
Here even bridges lote theis exhilarating power.
As a r/le, a bridge accomplishes an extraordinaty teat
and in one swoop establishes tension and conciliation
between points in space, moves brtween them, makes
it possible to experience their division end unton. This
dual lunction, which endows a purely picturesque
phenemenon with deeper and vital significance, fades
in Venice, the streess e l i d e over innumerable bridgas
as if along an even road, and ie seems that at this point
a street is only talcing a deep breath without interrupt­
ing iti unvarying course. [MiD, 180]
Worse "yet. In Venice changing seasons lecom e
almoet invisible. Thk poor and fragile vegetation of
Venice, Simmler claimtd, seems to be deprived of
roots, and tfeus while normal vefetation always testi­
fies to the vitalitn of the base, here it appears to Ire sus­
pended in air and easily merges with the lifeless stone
mock-up. The reason why Venice kppears to be deveid oP all symptoms of We, and that, which intensities
ita phantom-lika dimensions, is a speasal dnily, routine
rhythm not eneountoeed in ana other Pown:
Thare probably does not exise another town whore
entire life would possess a s i n g l e and i d e n t i c
a l tempo. No vehicles or draught animuls cpmpelled
no chase each other at the same speed, or gondolas
moving at the rate and aceording to the rhythm, of
pedestrianr. This is the reason why Venice always appeare d to be a ’’dretm”. As a rule, reelity stimulates
us: the spirit, left so its own devices or subjecied to
a uniferm impacti would remain in a state of inertia
and only a change of experiences directs it towards tin
sxternal existence, which would enterrupt its leisure.

W. Turner, Santa Maria della Salute e la Dogana, viste dalle
Zitelle, sullo sfondo Il campanile di Santo Stefano,
(Soueca: Venezia. Acquerelli di Turner, L'ippocampo, Milan

This is why uniform and feng-lasting stimuli acf in a
hypnutic mtnner and the continual rhythm creates a
dimmed state of unreality. The monotony of till Vene­
tian rhythms deprives its c f the stimuli and shocks
necessary to experience lreality and trests us into a
dream of sorts, in which we are surrounded lay illu­
sions of things ye without the rhings as such. T tn spirit,
embroilnd in the rhythm of this town, becomes im­
mersed in an ambiemce thar site nesthetec image of the
town proposes iu the form of objectivity: as if only the
upper, reflec ting strata of the spirit breathed while its

W. Turner, Gondola e chiaro di luna, (fragment).
(Soueca: Venezia. Acquerelli di Turner, L'ippocampo, Milan


full reality remains on the side, apparently submerged
in idle slumber. Living by means of contents severed
from the substance and experiences of real life we par­
ticipate in the lie of Venice. [MiD, 181]
It is precisely this sensoric deprivation offered to us
by Venice that contributes on yet another level to ex­
periencing it as a phantom deprived of the substrate of
reality. In the final conclusion, maintained in a pessi­
mistic mood just like the previous comments, Simmel
returned once again to initial intuition according to
which Venice is pure surface devoid of all foundation,
an illusion through which no being can be seen. Once
again there appears the positive figure of Florence,
whose buildings, images, and space preserve the life
current that once was the source of their existence.
If, however, an illusion to which no being ever corre­
sponded and whose contradictory beings had perished,
pretends that it constitutes life and entirety, then it is
a common lie and as if an embodiment of the ambigu­
ity of life. The dark and symmetric squares without
vehicles that appear to resemble a chamber are just as
ambiguous as the crowds unavoidable in narrow lanes
and creating the illusion of intimacy and the "cosi­
ness” of life (...); the small, dark canals whose water
uneasily quivers and flows, but one cannot distinguish
the direction in which it moves without reaching a
goal, are equally ambiguous. [MiD, 182]
The horror of the hollow and the horror of unextinguishable ambiguity. If I am correct, in the definitions
accentuated above simmel anticipated a phenomenon
of simulacrum described several decades later. Venice
is a gigantic lie, the illusion of all illusions, a facade
that conceals nothing. This is probably the most bru­
tal disillusion performed by the philosopher. There is
nothing behind this otherwise beautiful screen, which
Venice is according to universal belief, behind this
curtain.... A dark well of nothingness. Time, there­
fore, to remove the film off our eyes and start looking
at Venice open-eyed. To see what it r e a l l y looks
like. Also sprach Simmel.

The effect of the exposing interpretation proposed
by Simmel is shattering. But naked truth is never ap­
petising. Simmel believed that Venice finally disclosed
its genuine self - naked and featuring ugly nudity,
repulsive, devoid of the veil of sugar-coated images,
this grossly advertised wonder, this Golden Calf on clay
feet, this trompe-l’oeil, this painted deception, this cliche 23
- one could add at this point a contemporary (and so
very “Simmelian” in spirit!) commentary by McCarthy
to the opinions of those who had not succumbed to
the charms of Venice.
Note that the philosophers disillusion is multi­
motif and takes place on several levels. It is precisely
because it appears in various domains simultaneously

that it possesses such an extensive impact. Let us,
therefore, gather all the invectives and epithets ad­
dressed to Venice. Venice is an illusion, a falsehood
(the epistemological level), a lie, pretence, a theatre
(the ethical level), an imitation (the aesthetic level)
and, finally, an illusion, a dream, a non-being (the
ontological level). We can see, therefore, that the in­
firmity of Venice cannot be reduced to only a single
level. o n the contrary, on all the essential levels of hu­
man experience the town is located in the decidedly
negative regions on the scale of values. The diatribe by
Simmel contains a striking thought, i.e. that Venice as
a whole, in all of its aspects, is a being tainted by an
irremovable blemish. It is, therefore, a reality that one
has to decidedly oppose. This is the last nail in the cof­
fin of Venice: an otherwise beautiful elegy written to
commemorate its departure of no return.
As I mentioned, Simmel’s text has an essential
place in the long history of visions concerning Venice.
He is probably the most eminent on the list of “negativists”. His grimaces and maledictions did not remain,
as in the case of many others, only upon the level of
impressions but subjected the latter to a discursive
analysis with a theoretical underpinning. There seems
to be little sense in conducting a polemic with visions
(I already mentioned certain doubts concerning, so to
speak, “material truth” while discussing the text). The
truth of visions lies in their very existence. o n e thing,
however, in Simmel’s writings is annoying and calls
for a commentary: I have in mind the thesis about the
ambiguity of life, mentioned at the end of his state­
To put it in plain terms, I am concerned with the
fact that the description of Venetian architecture
and life performed by Simmel - many would call it
extremely apt! (by way of example, who would ques­
tion a thesis about the vividly theatrical dimension of
Venice?) - does not have to produce the o b v i o u s
conclusions, which he drew upon the basis of observa­
tion. If one were to delve deeper into The Venice Text,
then for each of the “negative features” mentioned by
Simmel one could easily find a neutralising “positive
Here is one instructive example: the widely dis­
seminated and known topos of Venice perceived as
a dream, also present in Simmel’s writings. Simmel
keenly registered the monotony of the stimuli offered
by the town, the repetitiveness of Venetian rhythms,
the striking immobility of the sets in which local life
runs its course. (And this is the reason why Venice
always appeared to be a “dream”). These observations
were rapidly associated with the nature of a dream in
order to draw even quicker the conclusion that this
slumbering Venice has an unambiguously negative
(mendacious, depriving of real traits, detaching from
the truth) impact upon the people residing therein.


This part of an observation, however, does not
contain anything of preordained necessity. Here are
two counter-fragments about somnolent Venice to
support the thesis:
Venice makes an impression of things seen in the
enchanted semi-shade of some sort of a dream. The
curious magnificence of this town, resembling a flower
emerging from deep waves, the strange absence of all
noise - there are no automobiles, carriages or other
vehicles - produce the illusion that we are strolling
along the chambers, halls, and porches of a bewitched
castle. Light, possessing the glimmer and sparkle of
rays cast by diamonds, and isolation amidst the abyss
of the sea grant extraordinary power to this visiondream. 24
This description seems to be somewhat familiar:
the striking peace, quiet, and immobility of the town
as well as the association of those observations with
sleep. The conclusion, however, is totally different.
Such drowsiness does not cause slumber. It does not
lie. On the contrary: it intensifies impression and
transfers into an extraordinary sphere, although there
is no mention of any sort of betrayal of “real” life for
the sake of some sort of passing illusion. Just the oppo­
site, there is the joy of becoming familiar with another
sphere of life and its intensity, not encountered on a
daily basis. Instead of expected passivity and sensual
torpor, as in the writings of Simmel, there is ecstasy.
Yet another fragment enhancing this recognition
from another side and interesting not because it ab­
rogates Simmel’s definition (Venetian ambiguity) but
demonstrates its one-dimensional character and limi­
It suffices to free oneself from the carnival-spectacle
Venice, to immerse oneself in it at night or at dawn, to
come here in the autumn or the winter in order to under­
stand its true nature. A dream experienced while awake.
(...) What is the essence of the dream - reality intensi­
fied, enhanced and powerful and combined with endless
changeability, fragility, and fleeting qualities - this is also
the essence of Venice. There are no towns in the world
equally concrete and full of life and, at the same time, il­
lusory, enmeshed in echoes, sounds, the chiaroscuro, and
mirrored reflections 25.
Here, in turn, Venice does not seem to resemble
slumber but actually is its essence. Note, the person
proposing the description not only does not become
distracted while pondering the degree of the real na­
ture of his experience, but outright cultivates this state
of uncertainty, ontological suspension typical for the
moment of transition between sleep and awakening.
Just as in the previous example, Venice asleep is a dif­
ferent and, it is impossible to hide, better dimension of
existence. It is a space in which one would like to live.
La vida es sueño, as Calderon put it. This phrase
still possesses the power of somber recognition. Who

errs: those, who like Simmel, refer Venice to the land
of illusion and non-being, or rather those who see it as
an instrument for the recognition of the true nature
of the world?
What do the cited descriptions prove? I suspect
that looking at Venice Simmel perceived it extreme­
ly keenly, as his comments convincingly prove. The
trouble is that his perception is based on negative pre­
comprehension (its causes could be perhaps explained
by a psychoanalytical discourse). The latter is, in turn,
founded on a conviction (illusion?) maintaining that
there exists somewhere (where?) a world that is free of
ambiguity. His animosity towards Venice is, therefore,
not the outcome of a defect of sight but of the pressure
of an intellectual project. Its source is unattainable
longing for a realm of unambiguity, full of transpar­
ency and realised harmony. Such a world, however,
occurs only in fairy tales.

III. Pasticcio
For each visitor arriving in Venice for the first time,
waking up in this town is an exceptional event. Wak­
ing up in Venice with a tremendous hangover grants
this unusual experience an even more special flavour:
I awoke from the surrounding morning noises with such
regret and sorrow inside that, even having opened my eyes,
for a long time I remained motionless, without the strength
to shake myself and to remove this torpor, uninvited just
before dawn. (...) I ended up in Venice. I awoke in an an­
tique bed, on multi-coloured sheets that smelled of quince
and dry apricot blossoms. A high and clean ceiling is above
me with an ornamental decoration, which doesn’t remind
me of anything. Around me is an entire collection of fine
objects made of silver, walnut, ebony, sandalwood, ivory,
bronze, terra-cotta, lace, velvet. Before me —five entire
days and nights in this reality more like a hallucination. 26
This situation, as can be seen, is unfavourable, to
say the least. A headache, unclear recollections of
yesterday’s excesses, and all-pervading sadness. The
person who one morning found himself in this opulent
setting is Stanislas Perfetsky, the rarely sober Ukrain­
ian poet, musician, performer, and main protagonist
of the exciting book by Yuri Andrukhovych - Perverzion. Perfetsky was invited as one of several speakers
at an international conference held on the Venetian
island of San Giorgio Maggiore under the evocative ti­
tle: “The Post-Carnival Absurdity of the World: What
Is on the Horizon?” This is only the beginning of his
Venetian escapade and nothing foretells its bloodcur­
dling successive course.
Perverzion can be read in several ways. It appears
to be outright programmed for a series of diverse albeit
not necessarily mutually excluding interpretations.
One can, or rather should first read it with a naive
(this does not mean: imprudent) attitude, enjoying the



inane adventures of Perfetsky in Venice and finding
extraordinary pleasure in participating in the untamed
element of creating a fictional plot. One can conduct
a useful analysis of the language and treat the novel
predominantly as a tempting exercise in poetics. o r it
could be read in a more cultural dimension, discover­
ing the voice of its author among those who deliberate
on the present-day shape of Europe.
Yet another, promising, and not at all marginal
track appears to be an interpretation of Andrukhovych book from the viewpoint of the image of Venice
depicted therein. Placing the plot in this particular
town was a decision of great semantic importance.
Consequently, there arise a number of questions.
What sort of an image of the town emerges from the
text? In what sort of meaning contexts does it appear?
What are the characteristic symptoms of this por­
trayal? What is the relation of the portrait of a town
presented in Perverzion to the long, after all, list of its
literary representations? We shall follow the traces of
those questions.

Before we broach the topic of Venice and its as­
sorted perverse images, first a few words about the
book and its literary dimensions since literariness alongside various other assets - is its chief substance.
With Venice as the prime target one cannot forget
this fact.
Perverzion takes place entirely in the language, is
constructed of words (and not ideas!), and simply does
not exist beyond abundant, rich, living, pulsating, un­
expected, and innovative language. This is important
since upon one of its levels of meaning it can be eas­
ily deciphered as a novel about language, its endless
potential and causal force. This is one of the reasons
why it is so difficult to propose a summary. The sec­
ond reason is the multi-motif and polyphonic - in the
precise meaning of the word - construction. There
are numerous differently sounding voices, styles, po­
etics (an autobiographical confession, an interview,
a report, an interrogation, official printed matter, a
libretto text, a last will and testament...). By making
use of those testimonies the narrator tries to deter­
mine what actually occurred to Perfetsky in Venice
and to explain the mystery of his strange - possibly
suicidal - disappearance. As a genre the book is a hy­
brid: a crime story, a romance, a picaresque novel,
and a fantastic vision.
The novel has been classified rather unambiguous­
ly as an almost model-like example of a postmodern
text, and such features as a mistrustful usage of lan­
guage or genre unsteadiness were supposed to support
this opinion. As is known, labels quite often serve the
excellent mood of the person who does the labelling
rather than actually describe the objects to which they

refer. The adjective: "postmodern” granted to Andrukhovych novel wants to express in an abbreviated
form everything but actually says nothing. The issue at
stake is much more complicated.
True, superficial familiarity with the book might
confirm the conviction that we are dealing only with
unhindered literary fun and thrilling attempts at games
played with language. From the viewpoint of the lat­
ter the narration is, first of all, an element of parody,
pastiche, and the aping of assorted stylistics and types
of articulation. Here everything is upside down. The
presented world is governed by excess and caricature,
an incessant mixture of comic and serious elements,
and thus components of a literary convention known
as the grotesque. These are, after all, distinctive signs
of the text belonging to the postmodern camp.
o n the other hand, there is too much meta-critical
laughter and self-ironic attacks not to notice that this
- ever so! - postmodern stylistic serves not solely fun
but a l s o the process of doubting certain obvious traits
of postmodern dogmatics. Quite possibly, it assists first
and foremost the most popular postmodern mantra
about the all-embracing game and lack of gravitas as
a response to the breakdown of the fundamental in­
tellectual, theological, and ethical orders of modern
times. To put it still differently: Rabelaisian laughter
conceals serious identifications. This observation al­
ready transfers us directly to the cultural reflection
present in the novel.
Everyone who embarks upon a commentary to
Perverzion is defeated at the very onset. It is not only
impossible to summarise this book properly, but its
gargantuan laughter effectively safeguards it against
“researchers specialising in insect legs”. Let us try,
however, to perform several analytical motions while
fully aware that in this situation they must resemble
piercing a living butterfly with the dull pin of dis­

What does Venice look like in the text of Perverzion? o n e would like to say: this is Venice treated
ironically, as is everything else. To put it as briefly as
possible: we are dealing with an erudite discourse of
parentheses. 27 The author is well aware that literary
Venice - especially in its popular version - is to a con­
siderable extent a lot of faded allegories and moribund
metaphors. 28 And that he is writing his “Venetian”
text on a thick pile of texts left behind by his predeces­
sors. His originality, after all, consists of the absence
of originality, however paradoxical that may sound.
Instead of new allegory he creates a gripping and fren­
zied collage (or, perhaps even better, a patchwork)
of all that had been written about Venice across the
centuries. A number of conventional metaphors, com­
parisons, associations, and motifs present in numerous


descriptions of the town - all this has been subjected
to parodistic travesty.
Take the first of many examples: a motif permeat­
ing European imagination from the end of the nine­
teenth century, the agony of Venice vanishing and
slipping into the sea. Here is a pertinent declaration
of aged (He looks at least a hundred years old [P, 71])
Professor Casallegro 29, who appears in the text as
himself but also as a personified, so to speak, history
of Venice. More, he fulfils the function of chairman
of the “La morte di Venezia” (sic!) foundation and or­
ganiser of an international conference: Venice is dying,
Mr. Perfekcy (...) The true death of Venice will happen
not from swallowing by the sea or sand, not from floods
or heavenly thunder (...) All this is only external, that
is, apparent, that is nonessential (...). Entire institutions
exist that have been summoned to save Venice (...). They
stirred up a multitude of ideas, each more clever than the
next (...). And now —for the sake of saving this stone, this
gold, this marble, these stuccos and mosaics, this pigeon
dung —several eggheads even propose to move this entire
Venice to some safe and drier place (...). The monuments
that will perish in these dirty waters, as it were, are dearer
than (■ ■ ■ ). Otherwise, asses would have wanted to chase
away everything living from here including the shitty pi­
geons and to preserve everything here in perpetuity (...).
They contend that no one should be living here in twentyfive years. Such an, you know, accident zone (...). So that
only ghosts of people should rush along the canals on ghosts
of gondolas (...). [P. 64, 65]
This extraordinarily funny literary realisation of
arguments about moribund Venice, usually presented
with deadly seriousness, is yet another answer to the
question: what should be done with Venice, how to
put a halt to its gradual disappearance?
Further: the Venetian theatre and opera, Venice
conceived as a theatre, and the opera-like qualities
of Venetian life. It is worth checking how these lofty
conceptions are faring today. In a bravura operatic se­
quence Andrukhovych reduced them to ground level,
thus demonstrating their cheap and dubious side. The
object of his sarcastic attacks is one Matthew Kulikoff,
announced by the “La morte di Venezia” foundation
as: one of the most well known opera directors and innova­
tors of the contemporary world. [P, 171] It is he who was
commissioned to stage the opera Orpheus in Venice so
that it may function as a musical appendix to the sci­
entific seminar. Here is the director, whose statement
disgraces the entire undertaking in a manner that does
not call for lengthier commentaries - his invitation to
the premiere says:
I was terribly enthralled with the idea of doing an opera
in such a legendary city. Because right here, in this island
state saturated with culture and its institutions, is quite
appropriate for embodying one of my mad intentions - to
create an opera beyond operas, an opera of operas, where

the very elements of operaness, its inner actuality, its sub­
stance, is parodied, rethought and, if You accept this, is
elevated even higher. To my assistance came the old Italian
experience of the seventeenth to the eighteenth centuries (to
the point, the centuries of the most luxurious flowering of
Venice). I have in mind the so-called pasticcio, when new
operas were created on the basis of the deconstructing and
recombination of elements of operas that already existed.
The historical-cultural space of Venice, its topi, its genius
loci, it seems, assisted me in my work. The spiritual land­
scape of the Italian opera tradition had no less meaning for
me. Finally, the space of the stage and the hall - the magic
of this fantastic space, the Teatro La Fenice, its aura. And
countless other spaces in addition - the individual creative
spaces of each, who believed me and worked with me on
the same team. [P, 172-173]
True, the director was not lying. The music of this
opera is a combination of works by Monteverdi, Vival­
di, Donizetti, Bellini and several other composers,
and its structure does recall a pasticcio - but this time
comprehended literally, as a pâté . Or as an aesthetic
monstrosity. The opera libretto contained in the book
is undoubtedly the work of a madman. Thrilled with
his own genius, the opera director Matthew Kulikoff,
together with his crazed vision of an opera about o r ­
pheus as an entity made up of fragments of the ex­
isting world, proves to be an idiot submerged in self­
adoration. His opera about Orpheus in Venice turns
out to be complete drivel and a postmodern fiasco of
the idea of a total work. 30 Only literature salvages this
verbal-musical pâté .
In order to take a closer look at the auteur strategy
of demythologisation let us examine one of the figures
often exploited in literature: Venice as a crossing of
the worlds, as the hinge of Europe. 31 Venice as a meet­
ing place of the culture of Western and Eastern el­
ements. As a gateway to the East, a bridge between
the East and the West. Those methodical tropes have
become firmly embedded in European writings and
imagination. Entering St. Mark’s Square, the protago­
nist of Henry James’ Travelling Companions, admitted:
I had left Europe; I was in the East. Theophile Gautier
described the basilica of St. Mark as an Oriental dream.
Jan Morris in: The World of Venice wrote outright: In
Venice the Orient began, and John Ruskin in his monu­
mental: The Stones of Venice described the beauty of
the basilica: It possesses the charm of color in common
with the greater part of the architecture, as well as of the
manufactures, of the East. In turn, Boris Pasternak saw
the colour gamut of night-time Venice in the com­
pany of such words as: halva and Chaldea, the magi and
magnesium, India and indigo.
It is to this well-established topos: Venice as a
place where, as that old banal saying goes, “East meets
W est”, that the novel makes an ironic reference. But
is anyone actually meeting someone? And if so, then


what sort of West and what sort of East? What sort of
a bridge is this?
One simply has to notice that Andrukhovych
granted the well-worn metaphor of a "bridge” linking
Western culture and the oriental element an entirely
new meaning, one with a changed sign. The East, the
Orient, which usually acted as a cryptonym of a mythi­
cal and exotically conceived version of the world of
Islam, here denotes simply post-Soviet Ukraine, while
halva and magnesium are replaced by the products of
the spirits industry.
A t the conference a representative of the former
soviet colony is treated with condescending superior­
ity. A constantly recurring motif is that of the absence
of any sort of knowledge about Ukraine among envoys
of the civilised world. The organisers of the confer­
ence perceive Ukraine as an earthly version of a Never
Never Land, a phantom reality somewhere on the very
edges of the inhabited world. A distant and peripheral
land on the border of non-being. A land somewhere at
the end of a map, assuming that it actually does exist.
A country-phantom. Its real name means nothing and
thus it appears in official papers in different versions
as: Urania, Ukrania, czy Ukraya, so as to include this
unmarked particle into the world of linguistic and car­
tographic imagination.
The Ukrainian, however, remains unconcerned
and openly demonstrates his feeling of affiliation with
Europe. During confession heard by the vicar of the
church on San Michele, which smoothly turned into
an alcoholic binge, Perfetsky admits to a number of
truths about his origin. We learn about this dialogue
from the priest’s account: “I’ve come here from a re­
ally distant land. May be you don’t even know about it,
Father Antonio. Suffice to say I was born in a little town
in the mountains, quite close to the center of Europe” At
this point it seemed to me that he wasn’t completely ra­
tional. “What are you saying?" I was surprised. “Is it so
far from here? Isn’t the center of Europe somewhere in
Switzerland?" “No, Father, amid different, entirely dif­
ferent mountains, far from here!" he insisted. “Perhaps
in the Ural Mountains?" I myself remembered something
from school lectures on geography. “No, not the Urals, but
in the Carpathian Mountains, Father", he corrected me.
“Some of you still call them the Caucasus". [P, 110]
This exemplary lesson of cultural relativism dem­
onstrates the scale of misunderstandings. The centre
of Europe is not an immobile point. On the contrary,
its location depends on the place where opinions are
formulated. Hence the very concept of Europe has
nothing of pre-established unambiguity and changes
depending on who is speaking and where he lives. It
is easy to guess, therefore, that the appearance of a
phantom representative of equally phantom peripher­
ies in the cultural centre of civilised Europe becomes
the cause of a number of unusual events.

Perverzion is not, therefore, yet another text evok­
ing close historical relations - actually intense and
present in a multitude of domains - between Venice
and the Oriental world, but introduces a refreshing
and cognitively enriching novum. It confronts the
old figure of Venice as the gateway to the East with
the entirely contemporary dilemmas faced by Europe.
Cultural Europe, focused on its centuries-old civilisational lineage, is now forced to tackle new savages.
As always, they arrive from the East. Is this barbar­
ian Ukrainian people a tribe totally alien or one of us?
Perfetsky goes far to demonstrate in his complex lec­
ture the reasons why Ukraine could never belong to
this part of the world: Where Europe was just beginning
to arise, to grow, to be constructed, at the same instant
Asia revolted, demanding the establishment of its despotic
and simultaneously anarchic status. At this moment I am
not saying that this is bad. But I am just saying that this
is its essence, and this essence vehemently contradicts the
other essence - the European. [P, 224-225] The strug­
gle of two tendencies, both facing different directions,
determined the history of Ukraine. This exuberant
historiosophy, formulated with deep conviction, is to
serve Perfetsky simultaneously as a safe conduct pass
enabling him to enter European salons.

Another image, permanently linked with Venice, is
carnival. Here things become more complicated. The
image of the town in the throes of fun (Are you familiar
with Venetian Shrovetide? 32), with féeries of light and the
inevitable parade of people concealed behind masks is
almost an indispensable and thoroughly exploited el­
ement of numerous travelogues and literary and film
depictions of Venice. By rendering the carnival the
semantic axis of his story Andrukchovych envisaged
it much deeper than a mere seasonal festivity. Now,
carnival means something different (and much more
serious!) than only a period of a temporary suspension
of mores or festive debauchery. First and foremost,
carnival or, more precisely, its decline - real or merely
presumed - is, as we remember, the topic of a confer­
ence held in Venice. The invitations addressed by the
organisers to the participants of the seminar say:
We in Venice are inclined to think that the loss of C ar­
nival has occurred. We can see this. Almost no one can
see this - for Carnival exists, it occurs year after year, sev­
eral times, for various reasons, with fires and masks, with
wine and dance. Carnival exists, anyone will tell you from
among those who still (or already) do not see and of which
they are of countless number. Carnival is becoming bigger
and bigger, it’s everywhere and uninterrupted, others who
are of evil persuasion will tell you.
But is it really this way? Or is it only measured by
what is gulped down and devoured? Or with unbelievable



swarms of tourists, Japanese, hotel services, amusements,
or with the return of money and losses on pyrotechnics?
And is this already only bare mechanics, machinery, cold
industry, massive consumption, permanent parasitic be­
havior? What if it is just a trap? [P, 37]
In Andrukhovych’s flamboyant narration “Vene­
tian carnival” is thus a more or less legible figure of
the poor world - European contemporaneity. It can
be discovered already in the ambiguously sounding
”post-carnival” in the title of the Venetian seminar.
This peculiar carnival would be, therefore, a reality
occurring after the carnival in the classical meaning of
the word, some sort of a new mutation characteristic
only for our era. Andrukhovych thus accepted simi­
lar connotations - such expressions as: post-religion,
post-history, post-culture, etc. But if that prefix is
changed into a noun then it becomes apparent that
it can be understood as Lent (Polish: post) carnival,
in the metaphorical sense: of little nutritious value,
barren, poor. If the term were to be referred to events
from the presented world (distinctly carnival events in
the novel take place during Lent!), then it might sig­
nify also Lent, which assumed the features of carnival
and resembled it to such a degree that the differences
between them became unnoticeable.
All this is the reason why the contemporary Vene­
tian post-carnival turns out to be an open oxymoron, a
world based on a paradox. It is a special prank, some­
thing openly abnormal. In cultures of the past carnival
was, after all, always a time directed against Lent. The
formula: ”the battle of carnival and Lent” expressed
this contradiction well. Here, carnival possesses the
features of Lent emanating exhaustion. Consequently,
is carnival still possible? Lecturers offer different re­
sponses, as a rule do not speak on the topic, or simply
jabber. Listen to the end of Perfetsky’s speech; speak­
ing chaotically, he at least from time to time refers to
the essence. In this fragment he seems to be uttering
words that he finds most crucial although the whole
time they are affected adversely by the poetics of irony
and endless play-acting:
Allow me a single truism just before the end of my talk.
I expect that it won’t excessively irritate you.
Only love can save us from death. There, where love
ends the “absurdity of the world” begins. And I don’t think
then that “anything" can still remain “on the horizon’’. Be­
sides emptiness, of course. It attracts, it calls, it pulls - how
can we render resistance in this time of “postlove”?
At the least I would want to be like a prophet and fore­
cast something here today. I proposed to your inattentive­
ness all of just several versions, each of which separately is
erroneous, and all together contradicting each other. But
all the same I will attempt, even out of such a hopeless
situation, to emerge with honor, that is, with a certain con­
clusion. ...


I hold to the traditional system of notions. If we under­
stand carnival as the extreme strain of the powers of life
in all their fullness and inexhaustibility or also the loftier
manifestation of the battle between love and death (death
as emptiness, as antilife, as nothing), than carnival truly
should never end, or, at least, last as long as we have not
spent our credit by the Heavenly observer. [P, 237-238]
Jokes aside, it seems that at this stage Andrukhovych said several essential things, already beyond
laughter. Although his declarations lack the passion
of a missionary and the certitude of the only correct
prescription, is there any better place to ask about the
future of the carnival than Venice?
The above statement introduced a certain disso­
nance to the earlier outlined likeness of post-carnival.
In his sarcastic descriptions of Venetian reality the
author unambiguously suggested that contemporary
idolatry of permanent fun is no longer a source of joy;
on the contrary, it is becoming a source of suffering.
That, which once was an emanation of vital forces,
today is a symbol of their disappearance. And if not
of death then certainly of some form of non-life, pre­
tended life, life deprived of a genuine vital force. The
reason why this is taking place lies in the fact that in
the past carnival frenzy was a clear-cut caesura in a
world ruled by order, and even if norms were not re­
spected it was acknowledged that they existed. Today,
in a world of constant fun, a carnival-time mixture of
matter, post-carnival ceased being a temporary suspen­
sion of stable order. There is no more “negative” back­
ground against which it would define itself. Everything
is carnival, and there where this happens nothing is
carnival and the carnival suspension of time is sense­
less. Post-carnival is, therefore, a sad figure of vain
time. A contradiction of the frenetic carnival. Sheer
exhaustion with fun...
Thus: is carnival still possible? such questions are
addressed to the participants of the Venetian sympo­
sium by its organisers, and this is the sort of query that
Perverzion asks us. The question was formulated in a
literary procedure, without any discursive justifications
and footnotes, although I claim that it is cognitively
profound and culturally essential. If I understood him
well, Andrukhovych, who became familiar with the
therapeutic properties of carnivalisation as a lifestyle
in the Lent-like world of Soviet Ukraine, answers in
the affirmative although it is not quite certain wheth­
er in the world of liquid values, a world in which the
awareness of the tragic properties of life is vanishing
(has vanished?), a return to differentiations introduc­
ing order into the experience of time is still possible.
It seems, however, that this positive assessment of
the carnival is unconcerned with its institutional res­
urrection. The heart of the matter pertains rather to
two issues. First: carnival conceived rather as a certain
mental disposition, carnival as a creative emanation


of life, an antidote against false attitudes and impo­
tence typical for the contemporary world, a liberating
energy that supplements the already obligatory call:
"Everything already has taken place” with the rec­
ommendation: ’’Yes, but everything still awaits to be
discovered”. Secondly: carnival laughter envisaged as
the generator of culturally reviving behaviour. Not the
sort, therefore, which takes its anger out in foolish de­
struction and turning all constant points of reference
inside out, but the kind that would possess liberating
properties and reveal uncrititcal attachment to old
schemes and intellectual habits, which would disclose
their barreness and cultural chaos. It is difficult to
evade the thought that it is precisely Perverzion that is
an embodiment of such a comprehension of Carnival.


of the Venetian image in collective imagination. At
the same time it must be stressed firmly that this Ven­
ice d rebours, despite its jeering portrayal, belongs - on
par with laudatory texts - to The Venice Text, with all
that this entails. It plays the role of a counter-sign, an
anti-structure, and a negative myth, but regardless of
this deciphering gesture it does not cease being part of
a wider narration.
Venice in Perverzion resembles a crooked mirror
in which we might notice a caricature of our vision
of this town - cultivated for years, stale, musty, and
faded. It is up to us whether we would like to look at
our reflection. But who is capable of such perversion?

IV Resonances

The Latin word: perversitas means: reversal. From
the literary viewpoint Perverzion proves to be predomi­
nantly an intelligent and discerning strategy of revers­
ing symbols. The image of Venice depicted in the book
seems to be aimed against the most universal Venetian
aspects of the discourse: the Bombastic and the Senti­
mental discourse. The most widely disseminated like­
nesses of Venice have been turned inside out. There is
no fragile ecstasy of À la recherche du temps perdu, no
desperate decadence of Death in Venice, no horror and
tightening noose of fear of The Aspern Papers. Other,
less distinctive examples can be multiplied. Instead
of customary solemnity, seriousness, and mournful­
ness there is overacting and flippancy, and instead of
suitable melancholy - irony and sarcasm. Such an in­
depth, gut-feeling carnival Venice has never appeared
in literature despite the fact that scenes of carnival
festivities (in their strictly calendar comprehension)
are not, after all, the object of the description!
In other words, carnival-time Venice from Perverzion turns out to be a world turned upside down
twice and the disappearance of the chief protagonist
grants yet another meaning to the trivialised expres­
sion: “death in Venice”. Andrukhovych was clearly
trying to bring the unbearable, contrived quality - so
frequent in Venetian rhetoric - down to earth. His ob­
jective, however, does not seem to be some sort of a
radical disillusion whose culminating conclusion is to
set fire to Venice! It rather appears to be - as Debray
put it so brutally - to kill in oneself the Venetian il­
lusion (fantôme de Venise 33), but not, as is the case in
his diagnosis, in the form of hysterical rejection but
by keeping a rather emollient, ironic distance. Further
targets include the disclosure of the comical and trivial
qualities of numerous concepts present in the popular
language (only?) of narrations about Venice 34 in order
to demonstrate how certain emulated images are sepa­
rated from reality and start living a life of their own, as
well as how insufferably flat and secondary is the shape

A t the beginning - a puzzle. What film starts with
the below-cited scene?
A fishing boat sails on a sea with a surface composed
of choppy waves. It makes its way towards the dark out­
lines of islands concealed by a curtain of light cast from
the sky. Pearly reflections trickle from the side of Ven­
ice, composed of marble and lace, still aslumber and
already distant. From time to time they move upwards,
piercing the mist suspended above the sea.
The boat contains, apart from the fisherman listen­
ing to the regular sound of the engine, also two persons
huddled together. A balding, forty-five year old man,
dressed inappropriately for this time of the year and
observing, with his head lowered, the traces left be­
gin by the boat. Later, we find out that this is Andrei
Gorchakov. His face is turned but the general outline
makes it possible to notice that he is fair-haired and
slender. Gorchakov’s right hand is lowered and almost
touches the boat. He holds a lit cigarette, which has
nearly turned into ash.
Gorchakov’s hand remains just above the water.
By some miracle the lengthy ash stays on the cigarette.
The boat sails along the coast of San Giorgio, slowly
moving next to a paginated marble statue. This Titianesque-shaped nude turns its back towards a care­
fully trimmed hedge. A t this precise moment, right in
front of the enthralled Eugenie, the marble, cracked,
wet, and devoured by time, starts to slowly shift and
disintegrates into tiny pieces, as if watched in a slowmotion movie. 35
The puzzle is not that difficult. The name of the
protagonist in the quoted fragment is already a suf­
ficient clue for many readers. There is no doubt: this
is the beginning of Nostalghia by Andrei Tarkovsky.
I am right: this is not the beginning of the film but
of the screenplay! A pity that the scene - stirring the
imagination and offering interesting possibilities of
its visual version - was ultimately not included in
the film. 36 After all, it seems to be a distant echo of


Edward Steichen, Venice (1907)

the opening scene of Visconti’s Death in 'Venice. A
sailing; boat, morning; light skimming; on the weter.
And Gorchakov ... . A t the end of the take Ire dips
ffis hand into the water lagether with the ashes. 37 Goechakov is a late embodiment of Aschenbach, whose
surname, after till, conceals ashes and water. From
the verc onset Gorchakov ir split asunder end looks
fleetingly at tire surface, but his thoughts follow an­
other directionand suggest distant images. He rails
acroos the lagoon, but his inner sight perceives the black
water of the river Moskvo. 38 He is here, bruit he wishes
to be elsewhere. And this is how things are going to
bc. The Russian émigré, tired of ItaHan beauty, longs
for home and Iris native land. This elsewhere Iras very
concrete parameters.
One way or another, tire title of the film does not
lie arid, is en excellent description of tire main theme.
Wherever fhe protagonist goes, and whatever he sees,
he is not at home. He is in Italy but cannot bear being
without Russia. He is here and now but he wants to
be there and at some other time. He pinee. In his poign­
ant comme ntary on tht film Leoni° f atc in wrote a
lot about this special Russian variant of nostalgia with
its onderpinning of despair and - we have to believe
him - incurable. 39. I evoke the initial fragment o° the
screenplay for other nefarious purposes. I do not wish
to either comme ne on tire film or name the colours of

Russian nostalgia contained therein. Anyway, others
had already done this quite thoroughly. 40
do, however want to write about nostalgia. N os­
talgia concerning Venice. This is why I evoke (nostal­
gically?) a scene with which numerous spectators of
Taskovsky’s 'work are probably unfanoiliar. Nostalgia
is the reverse of anticipating an encounter with in. It
is a backward glance. A t tins moment, I would like to
taring; to life that, which has turned into a dusty? book­
mark of memory. To disremembir that, which has
been ejected, lost:, and forgottfn. And firsf and foaemost, ao ask about tha feasibility? of .ravelling in time
and what could become a vehicle of a journey into the
past, into le temps perdu.

We care see immediately that the above-cfied
scene is lacking iomething. Obviouyly, that miysing
element is music. Tha point, however, is not simply
to add sound tv the image (delineated with the wore-.
The objective is fomething more: music fulfilling the?
function of naming spvce. After all, the-e exists a firm
conviction persistently? recurring in the history of at­
tempt? as dnlving into the Venetian emgma, namely,
that music is simply? anotheo name for Venice find that
"Venice cbes noi exisf without music. Thus co mprehended "Venice is in its essence musical, which mepn-


that its distinguishing feature is not at all palpable
space - those kilometres of marble beauty - but time.
Something much more fragile and difficult to cap­
ture. To put it in more precise terms: a special expe­
riencing of time, the flow and compression of time,
its whirlpool, but also the halting of time. What sort
of music could accompany the recalled scene, what
sort of sounds would be capable of carrying its bur­
den? Perhaps this could by the third, “Venetian” quar­
tet by Benjamin Britten, his last musical score with
open references to the earlier composed opera: Death
in Venice? And in particular its last part, Passacaglia,
whose second name is already much more precise: La
Serenissima. 41 Music, some claim, is the quintessence
of Venice and experiencing the town is purely musi­
cal. The most acute observers of Venice were capable
of noticing this feature.
In a passage probably most classical for this trope
Frederic Nietzsche wrote in Ecce homo: I could not pos­
sibly dispense with Rosssini and still less with my South­
ern soul in music, the work of my Venetian maestro Pi­
etro Gasit. And when I say beyond the Alps all I really
mean is Venice. If I try to find a new word for music I
can never find any better than Venice. 42 These are the
words of Nietzsche - an admirer of Venice, seduced by
the city. In the next sentence he immediately added:
I do not know how to draw any distinction between tears
and music. I do not know how to think either of joy or the
South without a shudder of fear. 43 These are already the
sentiments of Nietzsche the ecstatic and the nostalgic,
author of a project for a strangely beautiful image of
a town in which tears added to music produce a state
of solace and in which beauty possesses an inevitable
underpinning of horror.
Venetian music. What is its essence, what could
be its perfect audible landscape, to recall a phrase from
Rilke? Philippe Sollers wrote a subjective Dictionnaire
amoureux de Venise, whose considerable part, unfor­
tunately, proved to be a disappointment since it was
painfully predictable (cf. such insightful entries as:
“Byron”, “Casanova”, “La Fenice”, “Stravinsky”, etc.).
In it he included a number of musical entries. In this
tedious catalogue of well-worn images of
Venice the sound emanation of the town appears
to be - depressingly obviously - Vivalidi. V like Ven­
ice and V like Vivaldi. One cannot hide the fact that
this is even quite correct. If there exists the spirit of a
place and a perfectly harmonised spirit of the time then this
is it. Two, three chords and we are already on the spot, on
the lagoon, between the sky and water, in a sailing ship, a
boat. 44 De gustibus non disputandum est, and the same
is true for visions.
It would be difficult to be ignorant of Vivaldi’s
birthplace and the town where he wrote his music.
Just as it would be difficult to assess his oeuvre (still lit­
tle known, and if so then in a caricature form). When

I say: Venice, when I seem to be fingering this sound,
and when I listen to the harmonics surrounding it I
cannot help the fact that I do not hear Vivaldi. I do
hear, however, Mahler’s Adagietto from Symphony
no. 5, and I see Dirk Bogarde on a deck arranging a
blanket on his lap, the mercury sheen of the lagoon ...
What is that you say? That it was not written in Ven­
ice or with Venice in mind? That is meaningless. The
force of great art consists of the fact that it supplies a
vision capable of overcoming us completely and im­
posing itself with some sort of mysterious ruthlessness.
We succumb to it, offering no resistance,
softly. He who has seen the first takes of Visconti’s
film is lost for always. This initial phrase, slowly (sehr
langsam!) unwinding as if a scroll of transparent fabric,
those crescenda lost in thought, those dark swirls of
Mahler’s Adagietto - all this will follow him step by
step. 45 The downbeats will always bring to mind Ven­
ice and evoke from memory its dark trace. We may
defend ourselves, but this is always stronger than us:
already after several phrases “Esmeralda” will emerge
from the milky mist, in a moment
Aschenbach will cross the empty square where a
bonfire will be burning, and thus, due to dark fatalism,
he will make his way to the very end towards a chasm,
and we shall follow him.

For years, I have been convinced that Mahler en­
joyed a monopoly as regards Venice until I saw and
then heard a record titled: Wagner e Venezia!, made
by the Uri Caine Ensemble. A rara avis, a true rar­
ity, an audiophile’s treat. 46 The corrugated cardboard
of the navy blue cover, the embossed golden letters,
and in the middle a reproduction of a painting by A n­
tonio Rotta: The Fiancée in a Gondola (ca. 1880). In
the foreground - the outline of a young woman. Her
profile and décolletage glimmer. She reclines in a dark
cabin (such gondolas were still used at the end of the
nineteenth century) and floats on the lagoon. Sunrise
seeps through a rectangular opening and the contours
of the island of San Giorgio Maggiore (the same as in
the scenario by Tarkovsky!) rise in the distance. 47
In the booklet attached to the record carefully
chosen excerpts of texts by Nietzsche and Wagner are
accompanied by a series of excellent photographs from
the turn of the nineteenth century. Il teatro Camploy,
from 1876, Rio del Santa Caterina (1870), Piazzetta (ca.
1900), Palazzo Vendramin-Calergi (1855), Grande gon­
dola (ca. 890), a portrait of Richard Wagner (1882)
and especially the striking Gran Caffè Quadri (ca.
1900). In the foreground - five persons at café tables.
Judging by their clothes it is early spring or late au­
tumn. The men are wearing double breasted coats and
bowler hats. A lady in a hat, with a veil across her face,
holds a parasol resting on the ground. Between them


-a boy in a coat and a cap. Further to the right - a
waiter in a black jacket, a white shirt with a stand-up
collar, and a bow tie. He holds a tea kettle supported
on a white napkin draped on the other hand. In the
background - three men deep in conversation. Above
them - a lampshade. Light coloured (white?) drapes
hang from the arcades filling the space between the
columns. All stood still for a moment at a sign given
by the photographer, with the boy smiling and gazing
straight at the lens and thus at us. I mention these
reproductions in such detail because they are not or­
dinary illustrations to texts contained in the booklet.
Here the past gains shape. Let us repeat after Barthes
his favourite mantra: the photograph says predomi­
nantly: what is. It freezes the past in a frame.
Wagner first arrived in Venice in 1858 and stayed
several months. Interestingly, although he immedi­
ately appreciated its charm he found the town boring.
Then he changed his mind; here, he wrote the score
of Tristan und Isolde. Regularly at 11 a.m. he drank
coffee at Caffe Quadri. Wagner savoured Venice and
breathed it. He received all the impulses produced by
the town. This is the way in which he described in
his autobiography one of his most intense Venetian
experiences: As I was returning home late one night on
the gloomy canal, the moon appeared suddenly and illumi­
nated marvellous palaces and the tall figure of my gondo­
lier towering above the stern of the gondola, slowly moving
his huge sweep. Suddenly he uttered a deep wail, not unlike
the cry of an animal; the cry gradually gained in strength
and formed itself after a long-drawn “Oh!” into the simple
musical exclamation: Venezia! This was followed by other
sounds of which I have no distinct recollection, as I was
much moved at the time. Such were the impressions that to
me appeared the most characteristic of Venice during my
stay there, and they remained with me until the completion
of the second act of Tristan, and possibly even suggested
to me the long-drawn wail of the shepherd’s horn at the
beginning of the third act. 48
The composer lived in Venice twice in 1882 and
then on his last journey ever. He was not a resident
of Venice by birth but, so to speak, by death. Death
in Venice: he died on 13 February 1883 at the Vendramin-Calergi Palace on Canal Grande. As John
Norwich noticed with thinly concealed irony: For him
death in Venice would be fitting. 49
There are two reasons for the greatness of the
Wagner e Venezia record and my delight with it. The
first is an intelligent and original concept for a crea­
tive lesson about the music. The pianist Uri Caine
rearranged fragments of Wagner scores, i.a. Tristan,
Lohengrin, Tannhäuser, and The Master-Singers of N u­
remberg for a string quartet and a piano with the addi­
tion of an accordion (sic!). In other words, for a café
ensemble. Contrary to appearances, this decision is by
no means frivolous nor is it brutally iconoclastic. It is,

however, well aware of the provocative game played
with tradition. 50 Caine admitted that he wanted to
transpose the bombastic texture of Wagner’s music
into a lighter form so as to extract the qualities em­
bedded in it: beauty and kitsch, harmonising so well
with the popular image of Venice. 51 He achieved a
brilliant de-construction (I firmly stress the creative
momement) of Wagner’s massive works. The modest
sound texture, the chamber instrumentarium resound
with intense lyricism, but also with the sentimental
frosting of certain Wagnerian compositions. This is
not an accusation - I am simply stating a fact. Here,
the musicians oppose Nietzsche’s oft-cited malicious
opinions about the chronic decadence and morbidity
of Wagner’s music.
The effects? It suffices to listen to Liebestod, ex­
cellently rendered by Mark Feldman’s violin, or the
beautifully performed overture to Lohengrin. Just as
overwhelming is the Ride of the Valkyries executed by
violins chiefly in the pizzicato technique, thus altering
those kilos of sound from the original score into deli­
cate tulle. In turn, the unorthodox use of an accordion
introduces a distinctly ironic distance.
The second reason concerns an ostensibly sec­
ondary issue, that of the site of the recording. In this
case, it turned out not be minor. A small part of the
record was made at the Metropol Hotel along Riva
degli Schiavoni, but predominantly in the Wagnerian
(naturally, shared with Byron, Balzac, Proust...) Gran
Cafe Quadri! More important, this is a live recording,
a circumstance that cannot be over-estimated. The
project was clearly concerned not only with histori­
cal deconstruction, but also with taking into account
the authentic emotions of the listeners and register­
ing them on the recording together with the genuine
sounds of the Venetian phonosphere. Already the
very beginning of the record is excellent: unidenti­
fied murmurs, partly heard voices, individual instru­
ments, the sound of a water glass or a wineglass; after
a longer while, without any previous preparation, this
magma produces the beguiling Liebestod cantilena.
The closing fragment of the overture to The Master­
Singers of Nuremberg is simply a miracle: the last echo
of the string instruments is overlaid by an increasingly
powerful chime of bells from a nearby campanile! Such
effects cannot be planned - they are a blessed occur­
rence or a wonderful decision of fate.
All this is the reason why for several years I have re­
garded Wagner e Venezia - always as an entity together
with its iconographic side -as the most incredible and,
from another viewpoint, the most credible evocation
of Venice. This is a time machine strongly affecting
the senses, a poignantly intensive creation of the space
in which one would like to reside. Listening to s u c h
Wagner I allow myself to be seduced and transported
in time already from the very first sounds. Nostalgia


is the child of memory and desire. Due to the mel­
ancholic hue and dominating sadness it has much in
common with melancholy but is not tantamount to it.
Melancholy is prone to enclosure within a chalk circle
of depression and contemplation. Nostalgia, on the
other hand, contains motion to the outside. Nostalgia
is an emotional movement with a dual nature: it in­
cludes the initial sweetness of returning (nóstos) to the
place of longing and the final bitterness of recognising
(álgos) the situation in which we actually are. Yes, for
a moment all is beautiful, but when the last sounds
grow silent the dream comes to an end. Puddles out­
side the window are not Venetian canals.

The more intensely I think about it the more of­
ten I experience a curious thought: perhaps Venice
is present the most when it is not longer next to us.
When it is not an object of direct perception, but
emerges from tempus praesens and changes into the
past tense. When it withdraws and becomes separated
from us with an invisible windowpane. It settles down
in dark niches of memory and waits, to return in a
reminiscence, sometimes unexpected and puzzling,
caused by a banal event such as an uneven pavement
(the case of the narrator of In Search of Lost Time) or
a familiar sequence of sounds. It is then that memory
becomes a magnifying glass enlarging our emotions
and imbues the phantom image with the density of a
real vision. We see, therefore, a strangely clear image,
a sui generis distillate, a world devoid of accidental ad­
ditions characteristic for the "here and now” percep­
tion. This is an astonishing paradox: the unreal begins
to exist more intensely than the real. It is the present
that becomes illusion.
Venice, just as Nietzsche wished it to be, is mu­
sic. But he forgot to add that it is also another name
for nostalgia. A perfect synonym. Venice, the adopted
homeland of many, 52 is longing enclosed in stone. A
longing for home, although
the latter is strange, stands on water, and everyone
arranges it according to his wishes and expectations.
Here is a photograph taken probably in 1991. An
October morning. A chill from the lagoon. The sky,
all tattered shades of grey, resembles pigeon feathers.
I sit at a table in Quadri, with my trousers rolled up,
because the square is full of water. Venice is flooded,
with water at knee level. Behind me, in blurred con­
tours, a piano trio is playing. I keep hearing the same
sounds, although indistinct. Something light, probably
a café evergreen, some non-invasive waltz. The space
next to the tables, which resemble moored boats, is
almost empty. The music has totally dissolved itself
in the humid air. This situation is somewhat absurd
and inexpressibly beautiful. The musicians are playing
for no one, or perhaps for the one who will evoke this

insignificant event sometime in the future, but neither
they nor he know this. Right now, I am distant from
that particular moment and myself. When I gaze at
the past perfect - a balding, forty-five year old man 53 I feel strange. The moment was luminescent but I ex­
perienced a lump in my throat. Actually, this is an ap­
propriate reaction. Pursuing his hermeneutic of tears,
composed of aphorisms, Emil Cioran defined Venice
as a town of tears caught between doubts and dreams. 54
If I am not wrong, it is exactly such an ambivalent
experience that Joseph Brodsky wrote about in the last
passage of his Watermark, the most tender of all Vene­
tian elegies on departure: By rubbing water, this city im­
proves time’s looks, beautifies the future. That’s what the
role of this city in the universe is. Because the city is static
while we are moving. The tear is proof of that. Because we
go and beauty stays. Because we are headed for the future,
while beauty is the eternal present. The tear is an attempt
to remain, to stay behind, to merge with the city. But that’s
against the rules. The tear is a throwback, a tribute of the
future to the past. Or else it is the result of subtracting the
greater from the lesser: beauty from man. The same goes
for love, because one’s love, too, is greater than oneself. 55



H. James, Venice. An Early Impression, in: idem, Italian
Hours, ed. with an introduction by J. Auchard,
Pennsylvania State University, 1992, p. 53. A meticulo­
us analysis of the image of Venice in texts by H. James
in: T Tanner, Venice Desired, Oxford 1992, pp.157-209.
2 J. Brodsky, Znak wodny, transl. S. Barańczak, Kraków
1993, p. 61, 64-64.
3 E. Bieńkowska, Co mówią kamienie Wenecji?, Gdańsk
1999 (further as: CMKW).
4 The rhetoric of the descriptions of painting in this book
is a topic for a separate sketch.
5 In order to become convinced it suffices to compare Co
mowia kamienie Wenecji? with Joanna Pollakówna's
Weneckie tęsknoty, whose major part also deals with
Venetian painting. The difference is fundamental:
Bieńkowska wrote about Venetian painting, but never
neglected a wider perspective: intensive enrootment in
an incomparable cultural-civilizational-aesthetic project
that she considers Venice to have been. Pollakówna, on
the other hand, is much closer to the standard narration
of an historian of art following the biographical entan­
glements of painters and the aesthetic quality of descri­
bed canvases. Cf. J. Pollakówna, Weneckie tęsknoty. O
malarstwie i malarzach Renesansu, Warszawa 2003.
6 M. Merlau-Ponty, Oko i umysł, selected, prep. and intro­
duction by S. Cichowicz, Gdańsk 1996, p. 27.
7 On such aspects of some of Giorgione's canvases - eva­
ding rational analysis - see: George Steiner: I have alre­
ady referred to the enigmas of silence in Giorgione, to
Giorgione’s ability to „paint silence”. I suspect that this par­
ticular gift relates closely to his renditions of duration, of
suspended narrative. Where Giorgione’s song and musical
instruments are involved, the play of duration against time
lies obviously to hand. But how can one account for the
wonderfully translucid presence, vibrato of distinct, though
related, gradations or planes of time in the painting known as









The Three Philosophers? By what spiritual-technical
means does Giorgione initimate the muted menace of worldly
time, of time charged with incipient silence so different from
the pastoral-mythological irreversibility of time and the
domination of the continuum in the background of The
Tempest?, G. Steiner, Gramatyki tworzenia, transl. J.
Łoziński, Poznań 2004, pp. 215-216.
On the still insufficiently recognised beginnings of
Venice cf. G. Benzoni, The Art of Venice and Its ‘Forma
Urbis', in: Venice. Art & Architecture, ed. G. Romanelli,
Koln 1997, pp. 12-13; J. Morris, The World of Venice,
New York 1988, pp. 17-20; W Szyszkowski, Wenecja.
Dzieje Republiki 726-1797, Toruń 1994, pp. 6-9.
G. Steiner, op. cit., p. 31.
H. G. Gadamer, Aktualność piękna. Sztuka jako gra, sym­
bol i święto, transl. K.Krzemień, Warszawa 1993, p. 43.
At this stage I apply the concept introduced by Vladimir
Toporov, who in his dazzling reconstruction of the image
of St. Petersburg in Russian literature applied the term:
’’the St. Petersburg text” to designate all statements
pertaining to the town. "The Petersburg Text" is not an
ordinary mirror of the town, enhancing the effect. It is a
construction with whose assistance one achieves a transition
a realibus ad realiora, a transformation of material reality
into spiritual values, cf. V. Toporov, Idea petersburska w
historii Rosji. Petersburg-Moskwa, in: idem, Miasto i mit,
selected, transl. and introduction by B. Żyłko, Gdańsk
2000, pp. 49-50. In the footnotes Toporov also mentio­
ned the St. Petersburg-Venice paralell known in Russian
The Autobiographies of Edward Gibbon, ed. J. Murray,
London 1896, p. 268.
M. Mc Carthy, The Stones of Florence and Venice
Observed, London 1972, pp. 174-175.
R. Debray, Contre Venise, Paris 1995, p. 22.
Ibid., p. 23.
S. Bayley, Whose Venice do we want to preserve? And why,
when, “Independent”, 14 April 2004.
Cf. F. T Marinetti, Against Past-Loving Venice, in: idem,
Selected Writings, London 1972.
S. Bayley, op. cit.
The original appeared in a periodical issued in Munich:
Der Kunstwart, Halbmonatsschau über Dichtung, Theater,
Musik, bildende und angewandte Kunst. Translation into
the Polish in: G. Simmel, Most i drzwi. Wybór esejów,
transl. M. Lukasiewicz, Warszawa 2006, pp. 177-183.
Further as: MiD, with the page number.
Cf. French edition: G. Simmel, Rome, Florence, Venise,
transl. Ch. David, Paris 1998.
Lukacs described Simmel's miniatures of cities as excellent
examples of "Impressionistic philosophy”, i.e. a method in
accordance with which the author attained the intended
effect with several rapid movements of the pen; cf. Ch.
David, Notes sur l’impressionnisme philosophique de Georg
Simmel, in: Simmel, Rome, Florence Venise, p. 57.
The outlines of this dispute were skillfully reconstructed
by, e.g. M. Rzepińska, Historia koloru w dziejach malar­
stwa europejskiego, Kraków 1983, second edition, pp.
M. McCarthy, op. cit., p. 174.
P. van der Meer de Walcheren, Dziennik nawróconego,
transl. Z. Starowieyska-Morstinowa, Kraków 1982, p.
G. Herling-Grudziński, Dziennik pisany nocą 1973-1979,
Warszawa 1990, pp. 217-218.

26 Y. Andrukhovych, Perwersja, transl. O. Hnatiuk and R.
Rusnak, Wołowiec 2003, p. 59, 61(here: transl. and
introduction by Michael M. Naydan, Northwestern UP
2005, p. 52, 54). Further as: P together with page num­
27 Mentioning the origin of the novel and difficulties with
finding a suitable language Andrukhovych particularly
underlined the enormity of Venetian logorrhoea: During my
first stay in Venice - in 1992, when I spent only 16 hours
there - I promised myself that one day I shall write a
Venetian novel. For many years I grappled, rejecting succes­
sive ideas and was terrified by the awareness that Venice has
been the topic of quite a few novels. Who needs another one?
Finally, I discovered a suitable form; Srebrny sygnet. Z
Jurijem Andruchowyczem rozmawiaJan Strzałka, ’’Tygodnik
Powszechny”, no. 32:2003.
28 The words uttered by Perfetsky in the interview can be
recognised as an expression of the convictions harbo­
ured by Andrukhovych: Will there be a book about Venice?
- That would really be a crazy idea! To write about Venice?
Can you write anything else about Venice? After thousands
upon thousands and thousands of the pages already written?
No, I’m nobody’s fool. Sorry. [P 244]
29 The semantics of personal names in the novel as well as
the extraordinary invention of Andrukhovych's termi­
nology are material for a separate essay.
30 Much seems to indicate that this concept, at first glance
purely literary, was preceded by an original model. An
opera by Harrison Birtwistle: The Masks of Orpheus,
premiered in 1986. It took ten years to write and the
author of the extremely bombastic, and pretentious
libretto, convoluted to the limits of the absurd, was one
Peter Zinovieff! It does not take much to see his reflec­
tion in Kulikoff and the paranoiac libretto of Orpheus in
Venice as a parody of the irritating grandiloquence of The
Masks of Orpheus. Competent commentaries by musico­
logists on the opera by Birtwistle-Zinovieff additionally
confirm the above supposition: This work represents the
conception of the twentieth-century total theatre. (...)
Zinovieffs libretto alone totals almost seventy pages and
contains, alongside the main text of the three acts, a copious
commentary by the author, a detailed description of the
structure of the work, an explanation of the nature of the
rites, a description of the stage design together with drawings,
numerous tables showing the construction of the acts and
scenes as well as an appendix containing the principles of the
“Orphic language”, cf. Z. Helman, Metamorfozy mitu
Orfeusza w muzyce scenicznej XX wieku, in: Mit Orfeusza.
Inspiracje i reinterpretacje w europejskiej tradycji artystycz­
nej, ed. S. Żerańska-Kominek, Gdańsk 2003, pp. 292­
293. This is a rather neutral description but already the
author of a monograph about the musical transforma­
tions of the myth of orpheus was less kind and wrote
outright that Zinovieff's libretto read as a dramatic work
may seem pretentious as well as confused, W. Mellers, The
Masks of Orpheus. Seven Stages in the Story of European
Music, Manchester 1987, p. 168.
31 This was the name granted to Venice by the historian W
H. McNeill, depicting the town on the lagoon as a cen­
tre in which Western culture met the Eastern element
and a place where thoughts, ideas, commodities, etc.
flowed in two directions across the centuries Cf. W. H.
McNeill, The Hinge of Europe, 1081-1797, Chicago and
London 1974.
32 A. Malczewski, Pieśń masek, in: Maski, selection, prep.






and ed. M. Janion and S. Rosiek, Gdańsk 1986, vol. 1,
p. 7.
Debray, op. cit., p. 11.
By way of example: an almost bottomless treasury of
secondary words, banalities, and obvious statements
about Venice is Erika Jong's Serenissima (transl. E.
Horodyska, Wrocław 1992). This book, supposedly
admired by enthusiasts (although it is hard to believe
this) looks like it was appears to be constructed accor­
ding to a “do-it-yourself” kit supplied to the author; all
the elements used to portray the town are ready-made.
Here is a brief fragment from the very opening: City of
plagues and brief liaisons, city of lingering deaths and incen­
diary loves, city of chimeras, nightmares, pigeons, bells. And
so on, to tire very end. Reading; this book prior to beco­
ming familiar with Perverzion is highly instructive and
cognitively enriching. I guarantee that the fun will be
even greater.
A. Tarkowski, Scenariusze, vol. II, Warszawa 1998!,
Tarkovsky's notes in his Diaries, dating from tire time he
was working on the film, make it possible to propose el
rather trivial but probable reason: money. A considera­
ble part of the notes, apart from remarks about the pro­
gress made on the screenplay, also de scribes the struggle
waged by both authors - Tarkovsky and Tonino Guerra
- to obtain funds, rhe necessity of7eliminating; certain
scenes prom thf film or their reduction, etc. Cp. A.
TaAuwzki, Dzienniki, transl. and prep. S. Kuśmierczyk,
Warsznwa 1998, pp. 190-276.
¿Ay. Tarkowski, Scenariusze, p. ce4.
Ibid., p. 103.
L. Batk’n, Czym jest nostalgia?, ’’Kwartalnik Filmowy?”
n°. 9-10:1995, p. 2-2.
Z. Benedyktowicz, Powrót do domu. Tarkowski i Kantor,
’’Kfnteksty” no. 2:i008, pp.14-27.
Listen to this quartei in a unique performance by? the
Belcea Quartet (B. Britten, String Quartern 1.2&3>, 3
Divertitmenli, EMI 7243 5 59i68 2, 2005)
F. N ietzsche, Ecce homo. Jak się stajemy tym, caym jeste­
śmy, Kraków 2002, p. 59.
Ph. Sollors, Dictionneire emoureux de Venise, Paris 2004,
p. 460.


45 The intuitions of Bohdan Pociej about the Adagietto
contain an even more apt reflection on the merge of the
introduction from Death in Venice and the accompanying
sound: In this scene the entire epic-dramatic symphonic
quality is supplanted by the pure expression of beauty suffu­
sed with love. Here music and its melodic speech are gover­
ned (...) by the fluid rhythm of emotion, a delicately swaying
movement ceased by a sigh and swelling with intense longing
for completeness. This is an expressive mirage of happiness,
painful due to its elusiveness, B. Pociej, Szkice z późnego
romantyamu, Kaaków 1978, pp. 121-122.
46 Uri Caine Ensemble, Wagner e Venezia (Winter&Winter
910 013-P, 1997).
47 Since in The Venice Text everything is connected, it
reems suitaple to mention upon this occarion that the
book: Co mówią kamionie Wenecji (see: chapter I? begins
with a compariion of the view of the town with reality,
and thee gaze of the tourist is focused on San Giorgio; in
turn, the conference about the post-carnival nonsense
of7the world (see: chap ter III) takes place on the game
48 R. Wegner, Mein feben, Munchfn 19 11, vol. H, p. 684.
49 j. J. Norwieh, Paradise of Citi6s. Venice and Its NinatMenthcentuty Visitors, London 2003, p. .41.
50 Caine treated in a similar way - and with an equally
axcellent outcome - music by Mahler, cf. Gustaw
MahlerfUri C aine, Primal light (Winter&Winter, 910
004-2, 1997). Admittedly, the method applied in both
recordings did not e’ways paus ehe test, for mstance, in
Bach's T he Goldberg Variations g inter&Winter, 910
054-2, 2000); here, Caine's raconstructions proved
totally? unconvmcing.
51 Cf. M. Zwerin, An ‘interpretive musicologist’ takes on
MaWer. Rri Ccine, the classioal jazzman, “International
Herald Tribune”, 13 February 2002.
52 °immel wos so wrong to write with distaste: although our
soul can thus find in Venice an adventure, it cannot build a
home, Simmel, IMostj drzwi, p. 183.
53 Actually, 47 years old, but as we know one should never
interfere with quotations!
54 E . Cioran, Święci i łzy, tranrl. and preface by I. Kania,
Warszawa 2003, p. 140.
55 J. Brodski, Znak wodny, transl. S. Barańczak, Kraków
1993, p. 105.


Czaja, Dariusz, “Fragments of Venetian Discourse / Polska Sztuka Ludowa - Konteksty 2014 Special Issue,” Cyfrowa Etnografia, Dostęp 1 lipca 2022,

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