Spirited Away by My Ghosts

Text by Davide Coppo
Photographs by Paolo Di Lucente
Scouting by Anticàmera Location Agency

I think I was put under some sort of curse the last time I set foot in Venice. It was August and the sun was doing all it could to melt bodies and shirts and trousers and good will. It was several years ago, a few, but not too many. When I went back in February, I discovered a city with another face: hidden in the fog, its edges blurred, or without clear edges or borders, not wearing but nevertheless disturbing. In reality, when I arrived in Venice, it was another question that was going around my head: what’s the ingredient that makes some cities generate memories more than others? 

It’s something I ask myself because my relationship with Venice has always been as a tourist, recreational, in a certain sense not very personal. I ask myself because of that sort of bad spell: there are cities where I’ve never lived for any time that I nevertheless managed to get to know inside-out, or that opened up naturally – they opened their geographies, their emotions – before me. It happens with London, with Paris, with Belgrade, perhaps also with New York or Addis Ababa: they’re places where I can find my way, whose buildings are somehow familiar, whose everyday life I can manage to grasp. As soon as I come back to Venice, I realize that it doesn’t work here. And yet I have such vivid memories of Venice, that summer, that I can almost feel them. Every time my mind goes back to those few roasting hot days in Venice, it’s like reliving them in real time. Does Venice generate memories, or keep them trapped? 

Automatically, while I head towards La Giudecca, I realize that the more I try to think about it, the more new questions come to mind. Is it Venice that’s trying to confuse me? Is it something to do with magic? Is it something to do with the hologram of Venice that has become such a pervading image in the mindset the world round? I look at the palazzi and have the feeling that Venice has a mysterious life outside the lives enclosing it, like the magical night-time forests in kids’ cartoons. As soon as I land on the island, I look for the place of one of those memories, the Milan Club Giudecca, and I find it with the same window display it had years ago. I remember the photo that I’d taken – I look for it and find it in my smartphone memory – and take the same one again. I compare them. Now, like the last time, my outline is reflected in the glass. In the old photo there’s another one too, next to me. It’s blurry, like a ghost.

I play with the idea of what it’d be like to live in Venice. It’d be an interesting thing to do, against the flow: Venice is losing 1,000 residents a year and now there are only just over 50,000. Again, I come up against the agigation that the city transmits to me, and this time I know it’s got something to do with the thousands of layers of past years that I don’t know and that I get the feeling I’ll never be able to know. Can you ever get used to Venice? I feel like Chihiro in the animated film Spirited Away by Miyazaki, suspended and at the same time a prisoner. Perhaps it’s what you feel in port cities, and yet Venice is a different port in this case too. It doesn’t really belong to the Mediterranean epic, it doesn’t have the characters, nor the olive trees, nor the waves or storms. The same water that unceasingly and silently grows seems a spell or a biblical plague, a torture, a slow anxiety in contrast to the violence of a high tide. In Mediterranean: a cultural landscape by Predrag Matvejević, an atlas and a Bible of every shore of this sea, Venice is hardly mentioned at all, and only in passing. It’s not a Mediterranean, it’s not of this maritime world, it doesn’t belong to anything else but itself. It must be the lagoons that produce this effect: I look at the little flat-bottomed boats that move nimbly on the water – it’s hard for me to call it the sea – and they remind me of the same boats I saw on Lake Tana in Bahar Dar, in Ethiopia, another magical and damp place, full of beauty and conmen, like here, I say to myself.

I avoid lingering in the crowded places and head north towards Cannaregio, moving forward as if I were blind and being led or magnetized, finding another memory in a series of courtyards with nothing particularly special about them. A sign on a wall says Corte de le Case Nove, there’s no one around and I slow down, stop, turn around. As if – again – there were a glitch in time I see the images from that summer again: the enraged, little, grey dog, which ran around me and wouldn’t stop barking, arrived from over there. I remember being afraid and standing stock still, the old man sitting on a plastic chair a few steps away from me – they’re still there, piled up, but without any old men this time – impatiently mumbling for me to go and leave the dog, my anger, in peace.  

When it was late in the day and I looked out over the sea, I saw the white sky become a tiny bit pinker as the sun went down on the horizon or went to hide. I could follow the path of my memories and go towards the Lido and get on a vaporetto for Pellestrina. I’d find the same witchcraft and again it’d be like walking in the past, the straight, narrow street, the lagoon on one side, and on the other the bright houses that look as if they’ve been coloured by wax crayons, the lazy idea of spending a whole summer on the island without ever moving, except to the restaurants and the beach. But Venice doesn’t only catapults me back in images, I’m enveloped by the same emotions and the same fears too. I only come back to the present when the train gets to the Po valley plain, I have the feeling my dulled senses are coming back to life after a long dive. I don’t have answers to my questions, but confirmations of the magic. 

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