15 August, 2006

82. One bridge too many

John Ruskin visited Venice in 1836, when he was 16, and again a few years later when he was 22, both times accompanying his parents. Travellers to Venice in those days, whether for business or pleasure, had no option but to arrive by sea, approaching the island city slowly across the lagoon.

Well-heeled tourists like the Ruskins would have been rowed across in private gondolas, one carrying the family and several others transporting the 'cabin trunks' and other luggage, together with at least a valet and a maid, without which a Victorian gentleman's family would have been unable to travel anywhere.

Less wealthy travelers would have taken a gondola 'omnibus', the precursor to the modern vaporetta, much like the modern traghetto ferry, but larger.

In 1845, aged 26, John Ruskin visited Venice for the first time alone (well, apart from his valet and a 'traveling companion'). He was outraged to find that on the mainland where the Madonna dell'Acqua church used to be there was "a railway, covered with busy workmen, scaffolding & heaps of stones". Instead of being greeted with the sight of Venice in the distance he saw being built "the Greenwich railway, only with less arches and more dead wall, entirely cutting off the whole open sea and half the city".

I can understand his disappointment. To arrive in Venice slowly, at water level, perhaps in the fading light of late afternoon as the lanterns on the Grand Canal were being lit, would have been a magical experience and would have dramatically reinforced its unique island nature. Forever tying Venice umbilically to the mainland would have seemed to Ruskin to be a defilement of one of its most precious attributes – the freedom and independence of its watery isolation.

It is possible that some of the American students who were reading magazines or listening to iPods with their eyes shut or talking loudly about faraway boyfriends as they zoomed with us on this EuroStar express train over the long viaduct railway bridge to this platform in Santa Lucia station, may well have left the city several days later without even realizing that they had twice crossed a lagoon, or that Venice is anything more than just another old European seaside town. How sad.

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