Nocturnal Arithmetic: Venice by Night

Posted by Barry Timms

Let’s start with five I ask you to remember the number five. I tell you to subtract seven and add three. Then to add on four, subtract nine, and add another eight. Are we back to where we started with five, or not?

If you could answer this, it’s maybe because mental arithmetic comes easily, or because there was nothing to distract you. If you couldn’t, the answer is: not quite.

Left-turn. Right-turn. Long stretch of alleyway. Two more left-turns through the dark. Right-turn into a square that is disconcertingly unfamiliar. Map or no map, it can be difficult to walk in a straight line in Venice. Having chosen a direction, the route almost instantly becomes obstructed by water. Where you expect to find a bridge, a bridge never seems to be. The way forward disappears behind the tall facade of villas, and then behind your own shoulder, as you are forced to follow the canal in pursuit of the bridge, often further than anticipated. Once over the canal, an unexpected narrow alley takes you in an altogether new direction.

At this point, an extreme turn taken to compensate might get you back on track, but equally could it not be too much, leading into a completely different quarter? As such, an unusual spatial arithmetic begins to take over the brain as it struggles to get back on the desired route. It’s like one of those delirious dreams, where one can never quite get to the conclusion, meandering instead amongst the vagaries of the subconscious mind. In the darkness, and with no one in sight for a second opinion, the characteristics of Venice assume the significance of symbols in an idiosyncratic, illogical equation. Irrational yet obsessional questions are posed: Can walking past three consecutive left-turns guarantee that the next side street leads right? Will taking a left turn at every other junction compensate for the subtle curve of the Grand Canal? Do a well and a campanile cancel each other out? Would one alley and one Byzantine church equal a dead end with only lapping water ahead?

Buildings and streets begin to acquire a presence familiar and benign, or threatening, deceptive yet no overarching landmarks remain constantly visible. A single alleyway neglected by the cartographer is sufficient to make a map seem useless, hazardous even. Navigation begins afresh around every corner, coaxing one into the habit of impetuously abandoning the strategy and slinging together a new one, as though any progress made counts for nothing.

Tarpaulins covering buildings and squares under restoration create an illusion that this is all facade - that the rules can be broken. But this isn’t some hedge maze with ragged threadbare areas where lazy lovers have side-stepped through. There are no shortcuts here or cheating to be had. If Venice feels like a maze, then the challenge is made greater by the fact that the passages have been filled with water and there’s no option but to walk on the structure itself. Far from giving one an omniscient viewpoint, this adds to the distortion of the place, like those fictional spaces viewed in adjacent mirrors.

At night even the pathways seem at the mercy of the sea. Water laps right up to the brim of some canals, bringing to mind a sink or bath about to overflow. It’s tempting to linger, waiting for the moment when filling becomes spilling, listening for the inaudible sound as the surface tension of the water snaps. Beyond this point, the sea begins to reclaim the land. Circling the same quarter at this time of night, it’s possible to retrace one’s footsteps without registering a sense of the familiar. Once round the corner and a further street off-track, any trace of your having been there seems cunningly erased by the rising water.

March 19th, 2005 | Residents, Essays, Reading Room, Barry Timms

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