Many years ago I lived in Venice for a time. I was an enthusiastic architecture student from the rolling hills of central Kentucky and my arrival in Venice still resonates with me. Not so much the first impression or even the first day or two, but that growing feeling of unease and intrigue upon slowly realizing that I am in a place utterly foreign to me.
My travels in the Third World have been few and brief, and I understand folk’s descriptions of those environments and their sense of “foreign-ness” when confronted with those cultures. My fascination with Venice comes not from that kind of cultural displacement, but rather the uncanny feeling of simultaneous comfort and unease that waterborne Venice seeped into me.
I arrived in Venice from land-locked central Kentucky, with its clear blue skies, rolling bluegrass and crisp buildings. The hazy atmospheres of hot and humid Cumberland summer afternoons were temporary and seasonal. When writers describe Venice as the floating city, they don’t just mean its position in the middle of the Lagoon and its water courses. Most of my early mornings in Venice were spent wandering around the labyrinthine city through an air thick and redolent with sea. This seemed not so much as fog, as the sea itself, still sleepily gathering itself from a night dispersed in the air.
This ambiguity between sea and sky was all the more strange to me for the lack of land that in my experience defined each of the other. There is no land in Venice, not in the sense of land as I knew it. You may walk on stones or bricks, but this was not the earth. The built environment of Venice was not carved out of the wilderness nor did it exist as an antidote to the agricultural fields that make so much of Kentucky. Venice is built from tiny islands, out of the sea itself, to the point where no notion of those islands exist. It is not of the earth. For me, that was about as foreign as a place could be.
Walking around Venice it suddenly occurred to me that all the buildings that I was seeing, the houses and churches, squares and bridges, all of it, was from someplace else. All of this stone and marble and brick is from another place. The link between the materiality of buildings and a place didn’t exist in this marine world. I live in Colorado now and unsurprisingly we build with a lot of timber and stone. The color of the brick in Louisville where I grew up is the same as the local mud on the banks of every stream. Venice is built out of solid stuff, heavy cut stone and thick courses of brick. And it sits improbably on the water. I now know where all these materials came from but you don’t feel it as you live and breath in that place.
I have written quite a bit about my studies in vernacular architecture and how the buildings of a place are influenced by the materials and climate and terrain of that specific locale. But what makes Venice? You can trace the historical forms of the buildings and research their origins in form and material, but they do not feel natural to that place. Venice truly is other-worldly in that sense and that may go along way in explaining my love and unease with the place. In all its peeling stucco and crumbling masonry, it is a perfect jewel – of this world, but apart from it.