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Against Nature

There were once many gardens in Venice. In the sixteenth century there were five hundred of them nestling within the city, spreading their own refreshing and aromatic life. Yet by the eighteenth century Casanova remarked that “a garden is a rarity in Venice.” In the middle of the twentieth century it was estimated that there were sixty remaining. That number may have since been revised. Yet there are still gardens, secluded and still, protected by walls and gates, creating little pockets of green in the stony life of the city. In previous centuries the smaller gardens might have shrubberies of larch or cypress or laurel. The larger gardens were planted with flower-beds and avenues of fruit-trees, complete with cages of singing birds to maintain the illusion of nature. There were also, in the largest of them, temples and fountains as well as elaborate loggias. The fugitive scent of fruit and jasmine and banksia roses trailed through the calli and the campi.

The Venetians evinced a great love for flowers, matched only by their love of buildings. There were itinerant sellers of gladiolas and tuberoses, and other blossoms harvested from the mainland. On describing these merchants in 1623, Sir Henry Wotton coined the English word florist. It entered the vocabulary effortlessly. On Saint Mark’s Day it was the custom for each young Venetian man to offer a rosebud to his sweetheart. In painted representations of Venice in the fifteenth century, there are innumerable pots of carnations cluttering the window-sills. But tastes change. In the early decades of the twentieth century, the aspidistra became the flower of Venice. There was, however, one native flower. It was the flower of the lagoon, fiore di barena, clothing the level marshes with a purple robe. It is a token of that time when Venice itself was merely a heap of wild and uncultivated nature.

On the lagoon itself there were garden islands. In the fifteenth century there were vineyards and monastery gardens. The island of Giudecca was until recent years a paradise of gardens. The island of Torcello was the home of the vine and the pomegranate, the oleander and the acacia, the fig and the elder tree; it also provided the rich soil for maize and artichoke. Once there were olive trees all over Venice. The island of Castello, where the cathedral of the city stands, was once known as Olivolo. Olive oil was a profitable commodity.

Yet in the city itself there is no sense of regeneration or rebirth that accompanies the presence of flora and foliage. It has been said that the Venetians prefer marble to vegetation. In Venice architecture must take the place of nature. It must allude to nature in a pious and consolatory manner. It is one of the secrets of Venetian building. The stone of the buildings is sculpted with leaf and branch. The hundred columns of Saint Mark’s comprise a solemn forest. The wood becomes stone. The stone becomes wood. The great houses have also been compared to coral reefs.

It needed art to re-create nature. There was a fashion among Venetian painters of the early sixteenth century for pastoral scenes. But the natural world is pictured without life. It is not worked or populated. There are sheep. There are picturesque rustic buildings. There are groves and springs. There are nymphs and shepherds in the foreground. The inner reality of rural life is not understood. The grass is depicted as if it were velvet, for example, just as in Venetian manufactories velvet was created to resemble grass.

The natural life of the city must be imagined rather than seen. It must be intuited beneath the layers of stone. Byron called Venice “the greenest isle of my imagination,” a paradox only he could sustain. George Aschenbach, the protagonist of Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice, sees in vision “a landscape, a tropical marshland … a kind of primaeval wilderness-world of islands, morasses and alluvial channels.” It is a vision of Venice itself in its original state. But it is a city that no one else will ever see.

And what kind of animals prowl in this city of stone? There were once sheep and oxen. There were foxes, and even wolves. There were horses and mules in the streets of Venice. In 1177 a mule carried Pope Alexander III through the streets of Venice, and in 1361 the doge and eleven patricians entered the city on horseback. The Veneti of early time had been known for their skill on horseback, and the latter-day Venetians continued their practice. Eighty horsemen were deployed in Saint Mark’s Square, in 1310, to maintain public discipline after the discovery of a conspiracy against the state. There were tournaments in the square, and at one such display in 1364 Petrarch was moved to remark that the Venetians demonstrated horsemanship and weapon-handling enough to equal “the fiercest fighters on earth.” There were horse-races across the Rialto bridge until they were banned by edict in 1359. It was a city where one of the principal sounds was that of the clangour and neighing of horses. This did not endure, however.

In 1611 the English traveller, Thomas Coryat, reported seeing only one horse in the entire city. Horses were eventually barred from the streets. There was simply not enough room, and the spread of stepped stone bridges was a further impediment. Such was their rarity that, in 1789, Mrs. Thrale noticed a line of Venetians queuing to marvel at a stuffed horse. Indeed by the eighteenth century the patricians of Venice were ridiculed for their inability to ride on anything except gondolas. It shows that a native skill may disappear from sheer lack of practice. The only horses now to be seen in the city are those with the rigid composure of metal. The four bronze chargers panting on the façade of Saint Mark’s, the spoils of war looted from Constantinople, are a token of a city where natural life is coming to an end.

Cats and dogs were, and are, popular in Venice. Once the city was filled with watch-dogs and hunting dogs for deployment in the lagoon. But over the centuries they have become more discreet. They are relatively small and domestic. They consort well with the spaces of the city. The dogs in particular enjoy the savour of old stone. They have a distinct sense of territory, as Venetians also do. The Venetian painters loved dogs. Carpaccio enjoyed their company on canvas. In one of his most famous paintings, now to be found in S. Giorgio degli Schiavoni, a small terrier looks up expectantly at Saint Jerome (or perhaps Saint Augustine) lost in divine rapture. Nature looks on, bemused, at the supernatural. But he also paints dogs on guard, dogs asleep, dogs on verandas and dogs on gondolas. They were not reserved for patricians. Almost all of the numbers of the local newspaper in the eighteenth century, the Gazzetta Veneta, contain advertisements for lost dogs. The Venetians embraced them because they were one of the tokens of the larger natural world that they had forfeited in their struggle for survival. In the modern vaporetti, the dogs are all safely muzzled.

The cats were celebrated as the “little lions” of Venetian life. They are part of the territory. They are naturally lazy. They are naturally observant, and can spend much of their day simply looking on. Yet cats, unlike most breeds of dogs, do not like water. They can still be found in feral groups, scattered across the city. They haunt the fish-market. They can be seen on ledges, on steps, under bridges and in the squares. The square of S. Lorenzo is particularly graced by cats. They are useful, of course, in catching the rats. Rats are one of the curses of Venice, but one surprisingly little mentioned in the literature of the place. There is a saying in Venice that every house has a rat; by which is meant that every family has a renegade member. But it can also be taken literally.

The efficacy of cats against the pests may have prompted the Venetian superstition that he who kills a cat will die within a year, and that he who hurts a cat will suffer an accident. This did not deter the more serious cat-haters. There were once mysterious outbreaks of cat-poisoning in the republic, and a curious ritual in which a cat tethered with a board was killed by systematic head-butting from the Venetian crowd. Yet there has always been a general celebration of animal life in the republic. Late medieval and early Renaissance painting is filled with animal studies; Carpaccio and Crevelli, Tintoretto and Veronese and Bellini, depict cats and dogs and falcons and deer and pheasants. Titian painted white rabbits. In every case there was a desire to embrace a natural world which was in truth out of reach, all the more fervently loved for being elusive.

There were aviaries and cages of singing birds all over Venice, another reminder of a natural life elsewhere. Brightly coloured birds—finches, canaries and parrots—were the favourites. All these birds had, of course, to be imported. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries the apothecaries of the principal shopping street, the Merceria, kept cages of nightingales to advertise their trade. John Evelyn reported that “shutting your Eyes, you would imagine your selfe in the Country, when indeede you are in the middle of the Sea.” The pursuit of nature was for the Venetians a way of forgetting the unnatural and precarious position in which they lived.

Browning loved the seagulls of Venice, although they are seldom mentioned in the annals of the city. Yet the seagulls should be named with the cranes and the wild ducks as the native birds of the lagoon. They are also part of the myth of the city, like the flight of birds that led the earliest settlers to the islands of the lagoon. There is a legend that the pigeons of Saint Mark’s Square are a direct descendant of those flocks that followed the exiles from the town of Oderzo in their flight from the barbarians. The swallows provide another blessing. They come in summer, and swoop down upon the mosquitoes that are the plague of the shallow waters.

No one can visit Venice, however, without being aware of the pigeons. Those in Saint Mark’s Square are the most pampered and preserved birds in the world, to the extent that they have acquired an absolute immunity from the passing human population. In times of frost or heavy rain they will literally form a pile, one upon the other, creating and maintaining warmth in their huddled masses. They know that they are not at risk from predators, and that they will not be disturbed. So they have developed a unique form of animal behaviour, like some remote island species on a distant sea.

They are protected by ancient custom. And custom, in Venice, is sacrosanct. It is said that on one Palm Sunday they were released from the basilica of Saint Mark, with small weights tied to their legs. Hampered in this manner, they became easy prey for the dinner-tables of the Venetians. But some of the birds still somehow managed to escape, and found refuge on the various ledges and alcoves of Saint Mark’s itself. So they were preserved by the intervention of the saint. After that, they became a cult bird. So the story goes. It is certainly true that a daily supply of grain was provided to them from the public granaries, as was the custom in Persia and in southern Russia, and that it became an offence to injure or molest them in any way.

There are now forty thousand “doves of Saint Mark” in the city. The vendors of corn, in the square, maintain nineteen Venetian families. The birds themselves do seem to enjoy some divine dispensation, and Elizabeth Barrett Browning referred to them as the “holy pigeons.” There have over the years been several attempts to curb their numbers, on the grounds that they constitute a menace to public health and that their excrement corrodes the precious stone of the city; there have been attempts at poisoning, at trapping, and even at contraception. All have failed. They have been flying and fluttering in Saint Mark’s Square ever since it was fashioned. Why should they depart now? And if they were to be removed, would the square itself be any nobler or safer? The case is arguable. Trafalgar Square, now that its own pigeons have been eliminated, looks like a denuded and almost empty space. The birds are part of the spirit of place. They are the grey stone come alive and rendered soft to the touch.

There were many ways in which Venice fought against nature. Its whole soul and being were devoted to the battle against the sea, and that rivalry by a process of transference affected other areas of Venetian life. It is remarkable, for example, how expert the Venetians became at “forcing” flowers. They were adept at making roses and gilliflowers blow unseasonably; they had sweet-scented roses in January. It was also common, in the first part of the twentieth century, for Venetians to dye their flowers; orange and blue roses were displayed for sale, as well as pink or purple daisies. But these are no doubt examples of a very old practice. The Venetian love of colour is well enough known. Why should it not spread from the canvas to the more transient world?

The Venetians were entranced by artificial gardens, the more complex the better. In their villas on the mainland, by the Brenta, the gardens were formed in symmetrical shapes with every variety of water sculpture in grottoes and caves. The greenhouses were filled with rare plants and with foreign flora, and the hedges were fashioned into the shapes of boats or animals. The marble statues of nymphs and goddesses were the natural or unnatural extension of the pastoral landscapes that were fashionable in the early sixteenth century. In this same period, too, there was a general and genuine interest in the practice of horticulture, in the constant striving to control and to improve the natural world. Everything was of a piece. The Venetian patricians revelled in their triumph over nature—or, rather, their native skill in manipulating it for their own purposes. It was, after all, the principal lesson of the republic’s history. The city represents in the most delicate and disquieting way the ambiguous domain between the natural and the artificial, suggesting that there may be some third entity.

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