When you fly into Venice, you arrive at a new airport named after the city's most famous son, Marco Polo, the thirteenth-century traveler. Then, as you cross the lagoon by motorboat to your hotel, you see Venice rising from the water, a mirage, Shangri La, Bali Hai, Paradise Imagined. The mirage-like nature of the city deceives the eye. It seems to be an artistic artifact with the gaudiness of a fishing lure adrift in the lagoon, as Rilke wrote in "Late Autumn in Venice."
Already the city no longer drifts
like a lure, catching the days as they surface.
The glassy palaces ring more brittely
against your gaze. And from the gardens
the summer hangs like a heap of marionettes,
head first, exhausted, done in.
Rilke, New Poems 255
Or, think of Aschenbach, who saw the city in Death in Venice as being "half fairy tale, half snare" (Thomas Mann 55).
In Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities Marco Polo describes a series of imaginary cities to Kublai Khan. One day, the emperor points at his surroundings and asks Marco, "Did you ever happen to see a city like this?"(85). This Chinese city has "bridges arching over the canals ... palaces whose marble doorsteps were immersed in the water, the bustle of light craft zigzagging, driven by long oars, the boats unloading baskets of vegetables at the market, the balconies, platforms, domes, campaniles, island gardens glowing green in the lagoon's grayness."
"No, sire," Marco lies, "I should never have imagined a city like this could exist" (86). Of course, he has seen such a city, because the description fits Venice in every detail, and he was born not far from the market at the Rialto, where, to this day, barges still unload vegetables, fruit, and fish in the early morning.
Throughout the night the Khan listens patiently to the stories until Marco says at dawn that this is all he can tell about the cities he has seen.
"There is still one of which you never speak." Marco Polo bowed his head. "Venice," the Khan said. Marco smiled. "What else do you believe I have been talking to you about?" "And yet I have never heard you mention that name." And Polo said: "Every time I describe a city I am saying something about Venice." (86)
The Emperor, possessing the orderly mind of an administrator, admonishes Marco not to mix Venice with other cities and to tell him all about Venice at another time. After a pause, Polo explains the working of his own mind--so different from that of the Emperor--as to memory and the power of a fantasy called Venice: "Memory's images, once they are fixed in words, are erased. Perhaps I am afraid of losing Venice all at once, if I speak of it. Or perhaps, speaking of other cities, I have already lost it, little by little" (87). To use an image from Yeats, "The painter's brush consumes his dream" (32).
What is the lure of Venice? In the 1490s Jacobo Sannazzaro's popular Arcadia appeared in Venice. He not only anticipated the subject matter which would occupy Venetian painters for the next half century--nymphs and satyrs gamboling under leafy trees, woods, and hills of the most idyllic nature--but he also celebrated the colors that would dominate Venetian painting. Again it is the Venetian light that he describes: "It was the hour when sunset had embroidered all the West with a thousand varieties of clouds; some violet, some darkly blue and a certain crimson; others between yellow and black, and a few so burning with fire of backward-beaten rays that they seemed as though of polished and finest gold" (Clark 57).
E. H. Gombrich, pinpointed the attraction of Venice, as being its peculiar light. "The atmosphere of the lagoons, which seems to blur the sharp outlines of objects and to blend their colors in a radiant light, may have taught the painters of this city to use colors in a more deliberate and observant way than other painters in Italy had done so far" (238). …