16 July, 2006

52. A unique beauty

This could be a tiny detail from any one of thousands of ordinary (well, ordinary for Venice) buildings somewhere off the beaten track in any of Venice's six sestieri, yet for me it contains most of the key elements that make Venice what it is.

Here is a wall with a structural crack in it crying out for repair, and you know it would probably be worse were it not for the iron brace with its crossbar anchoring the wall to another perhaps more solid part of the building. Here, too, are enough Venetian red stucco fragments clinging to parts of the brickwork to give you a hint of what this wall might once have looked like. There is part of a doorway, not magnificently ornate and grand, but more than just functional: this once announced itself as an entrance, not just a doorway, even though its lintel is cracked and a bit lopsided. The ironwork is rusting, the brickwork is crumbling, the scars of the building written on its exposed surface, this wall is what it is – aging, cosmetically unconcerned, but still upright.

In most other cities in the world, this building would never be left like this. It would either be sanitized and renovated if it was historically worth saving, or bulldozed and replaced if it wasn't.

But Venice isn't like other cities. Venice lives in harmony with its scars, it accepts its decay as part of its life, it knows that all existence is cyclic, that birth and death and rebirth are ephemeral and eternal at the same time, and that what goes around comes around.

In Venice there are countless corroded fragments like this section of a wall, but the whole place is a lot greater than the sum of its shabby parts. If you look at a really interesting old person through a microscope, all you will see is the many wrinkles on the surface. If you step back and look at the whole person, sometimes you can see both the timeless beauty that is and the seductive beauty that once was shining through the wrinkles.

If Venice was a woman, she would be Lauren Bacall.

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