Early morning in Venice was quiet, only the sound of distant boat motors and water from the canal lapping up onto the walkway. The walls in Ariel’s grandmother’s apartment stretched well above our heads alongside baroque white pillars, meeting an ornately patterned white ceiling. All the air in the rooms seemed to drown out the sounds drifting in from outside. Even the red marble floors felt soft. The air was so hot at night that we both slept with little on and only a sheet to keep the mosquitoes off. A little before nine in the morning the heat would suddenly subside, and it would seem like the perfect time to fall asleep were it not for having lain in bed for eight hours already. I would wake up with the light from the broad bedroom window and wander over to the kitchen. The kitchen held few things, but they were necessary ones: coffee (and an espresso pot); fruit juice and amaretti cookies. Ariel would wake up about the same time and had our coffee and juice in silence in the kitchen. At some point while we ate his grandmother wandered in. She would say good morning and stand or sit, admiring Ariel, and then ask what seemed like a series of questions (they were all in Italian) along the lines of “Well, what are you going to do today?” and then make a series of observations along the lines of “Oh, no no no, you have to go the such and such.” She was short and thin, with short, curly hair and wore tasteful, long dresses. She smoked about a pack of Virginia Slims a day, still at eighty, just as she had when she was eighteen. She moved slowly, methodically and elegantly around the house and never in my life have a seen another person so gracefully and delicately occupy a space. One morning after she had presumably asked us what we would do that day and Ariel had mentioned the name of a museum or church and then she had recommended the beach at Torichello or something like that she told a short story that made Ariel laugh so hard he almost fell out of his chair and nearly made him spill all of his espresso. Apparently the subject of tourists had come up in their conversation and she said that she (and all of the older women she knows) couldn’t stand “backpackers.” When Ariel asked why she replied that they never look where they are going along the canals, and they have a habit of suddenly turning to take a photograph of a building and knocking an old woman into the water.
Our first night in Venice we met up with a friend of mine, Lizzie, who had already been in the city. She met us at the Piazzale Roma when we arrived from the airport and walked us back to Ariel’s grandmother’s in the the Canareggio where we dropped our things and Ariel spoke to his grandmother as Lizzie and I sat with them. It was an odd scene, to say the least. Each of us was a stranger to at least one, if not two of the others there. Only Ariel spoke Italian and English. The last time I had seen Lizzie we were a couple. The last time we had spoken on the phone she had hung up on me, crying. The last time Ariel had seen his grandmother he was much younger. She was ratehr formal, but warm and throughout her first conversation with Ariel- whom she had not seen in years, and since she passed only a few months after we ourselves left Venice, and would never again see after that visit- her eyes were wet with tears.
The Santa Maria della Miracoli church embodies the rhythm, sometimes tense, sometimes fluid, of the city of Venice. The building is small but forceful, constructed, in a residential section of the Canareggio, alongside narrow canals, almost literally an island onto itself. Varied colors of marble ornamenting the outside of the church makes the building appear to be larger than it actually is. The structure is simple, rectangular, with a rectangular apse and marble walls. This simplicity reveals minute, subtle but dramatic flourishes; the marble slabs themselves are a natural wonder, reflecting with some irony the lines created by water surrounding them. The reliefs carved into the pillars at the entrance present a surreal version of the beginning of the book of Genesis, in which Adam and Eve have porpoise-like tails curving around infinitely entwined flora. The ceiling is divided into squares, in each of which are portraits of Saints. Two small, almost imperceptible busts appear facing each other at the top of the stairs leading to the apse. Upon walking up the stairs we recognized immediately the Assumption: Archangel Gabriel to the right, and Mary to the left. But despite the vitality of the colors, the lush imagery and the central image of Mary’s conception, and owning to the particular rectangular structure of the building, from afar the church appears unmistakably to be a giant tomb.