Tuesday 26 July 2011


During the edition of Quote... Unquote... on which I appeared last week, I quoted Robert Benchley's famous quip on Venice, and then went on to read a short, but highly evocative, passage from what is probably my favourite book written about the city: Watermark by Joseph Brodsky.

Sadly, it got edited out of the programme (though not too surprisingly since they recorded almost fifty minutes for what was, ultimately, only a half-hour show), so I thought I'd share it with you here.

A Russian-American poet and essayist, Joseph Brodsky (1940-1996) was expelled from the Soviet Union in 1972 for alleged "social parasitism".

With the help of W H Auden and others, he settled in the USA, taught at Yale and other universities, was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1987 "for an all-embracing authorship, imbued with clarity and poetic intensity", and was made American Poet Laureate in 1991.

Watermark is a long, discursive, essay, that describes the author's feelings about Venice. It would prove little or no use to those one-day tourists who throng the city, because it doesn't tell you even a fraction of what you need to know in order to point your camera in the right direction!

It is about the ideas and the emotions that Venice can arouse in the visitor with the temperament (and time) to watch and listen. It is also, and this is its quiet genius, about how the city shows the writer to himself.

This passage is from a section of the book that especially pleases me because most of our Venetian pilgrimages have been made in wintertime and because, like Brodsky, I am forced to greet each day with a heaped handful of pills!
In winter you wake up in this city, especially on Sundays, to the chiming of its innumerable bells, as though behind your gauze curtains a gigantic china tea-set were vibrating on a silver tray in the pearl-grey sky.

Venetian Dawn 2

You fling the window open and the room is instantly flooded with this outer, peal-laden haze, which is part damp oxygen, part coffee and prayers.

No matter what sort of pills, and how many, you've got to swallow this morning, you feel it's not over for you yet.

On Quote... Unquote... I didn't go on to quote (but I can do so here!) a line by Brodsky that, when I read it, summed up – in one sentence – my own feelings about La Serenissima...
Because one is finite, a departure from this place always feels final: leaving it behind is leaving it forever.

Brodksy himself never left Venice 'forever': he rests at peace on the cemetery island of San Michele. Venice-lovers unlikely to be accorded a similar privilege can, instead, comfort themselves by reading Watermark

Image: 'Dawn on the Piazetta San Marco' by Brian Sibley, © 2000.
There are more of our photos of this wondrous city in our flickr collection Visions of Venice


Lo said...

Thanks for the lovely quotes and for the gorgeous photos.....I love Venice and all its glories.

Geno said...

I think I will be needing to find this book soon. Just think, had they not edited it, I would probably never have heard of it!

Unknown said...

I love that picture - you must have stood there for ages waiting for all signs of people to vanish!

P.S. the captcha word I have to verify below is demousle
- wonder what that means?

Brian Sibley said...

Lo – Thanks, Lo! Glad to another Venice-lover.

Geno – Sorry, Geno! :)

Polkadotsoph – Didn't have to wait any time at all: it was taken around 7:00 am before the tourists were up!! BTW, I hope you're feeling better.