Academic journal article Hecate

Sempre Diretto & the Art of Getting Lost

Academic journal article Hecate

Sempre Diretto & the Art of Getting Lost

Article excerpt

Sempre Diretto & The Art of Getting Lost

`Venice is a place where you must lose yourself.'

Robert Ullian and Thomas Worthen

In the opening minutes of The Comfort of Strangers,(1) the lens of the camera holds for a tantalisingly long, steady moment on a map. It's been framed, this map, and it's hanging on a wall. And while some people would be unable to recognise the place it depicts, to those who have been to Venice and are familiar with its topography it is probably immediately identifiable. In part it is the distinctive, invitingly sensual, curvaceous double loop, the backwards `S' of the Grand Canal which runs right down the middle of the city that gives this away. Partly too its recognition lies in something of the cartographic style itself. For such old maps of the lagoon and its islands are often reprinted in travel and guide books on Venice to the extent that they have become, to those who browse in them obsessively often, almost an expectation. Not so surprising then to find such a map as this one, and right at the very beginning of the film too, a clear suggestion that the filmmaker intends the viewer to twig fairly early on in the piece to the exact locale in which this particular story is set.

This city's a maze. The streets form a labyrinth. No matter how much you prepare yourself in advance you will surely get lost. Stranded in a web of tiny alleyways and twisted turnings. Sometimes you can wander round for hours. In a daze. In this maze. It brings to mind a labyrinth. You might know where you started but it's hard getting back. Buy a good map, the guidebooks will tell you.(2) Then, familiarise yourself with the layout of the city.

The last time I went to Venice I did not need to buy a map. I already had one which, not for a single instant ever thinking I would get a chance to return, I had kept since I'd bought it on my first visit there.

For weeks before my departure every night after dinner I got this map out and perused its streets and canals. I studied the layout of the city. I quickly managed to find the area in which I'd be staying. But, as I was to discover, this would not in any way prepare me for the actuality of the six sestieri(3) themselves, the boundaries of which are hard to distinguish, to the extent that it is often unclear which one you are in. I looked up where the Zattere was, since someone had already told me that this was where I would find one of the few supermarkets in Venice. I found where the Peggy Guggenheim Museum was, and the church of Santa Maria della Salute, where I'd been informed the nearest vaporetto stop was. I checked out the Accademia Bridge and the Piazza. I knew I couldn't hope to hold the layout of the whole place in my head till I got there. But I didn't want to completely lose my bearings either.

It was Thomas Mann who wrote of Venice's `gloomy windings...slippery corners...(and) melancholy facades.'(4) The labyrinth of alleyways, little squares, canals and bridges, he meant, each so similar that it truly is enough at length to make you lose your way. Which is just what his protagonist did too in a sense, losing his morals, and his mind into the bargain some would say, certainly his health as well, and before not too long -- certainly by the end of the novel -- his life.

Losing your bearings is an experience not restricted to Mann's ageing writer but a possibly familiar one to anyone who has spent time in Venice. That sense of not knowing from which direction you might have just come or in which direction you might be going. It is only the faith that you might be heading somewhere, some instinct that in the long run there is a destination after all that keeps you going.

In an old anecdote about Venice, a Venetian is stopped by a visitor to the city and asked directions to a specific sight. The Venetian assumes a knowing smile, a faint smirk at the very least, suggestive of a secret knowledge which will in good time be revealed. …

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