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TraveLit--A blog about travel literature. 

     Even with the best of maps and instruments, we can never fully chart our journeys.

Review: Venice is a fish

Venice is a fish: A sensual guide

By Tiziano Scarpa.  Translated by Shaun Whiteside.  Gotham Books, 2008, 160 pp.


Is there any city more written about than Venice?  The city is "encrusted with imagination" writes Tiziano Scarpa.  "There isn't another place in the world that could bear all that visionary tonnage on its shoulders."  Venice, he says, "will sink under the weight of all the visions, fantasies, stories, characters and daydreams it has inspired."


Scarpa nonetheless seems quite happy to add to that "tonnage" in this love letter to his native city.  His "sensual guide" addresses ways the visitor can take Venice in through the senses and is organized around various parts of the body. 


Under "feet," for example, he says: "Feel how your toes turn prehensile on the steps of the bridges, clutching at worn or squared edges as you climb…Wear light shoes, soft-soled…"  Under "legs," he observes, "You're forever going up and down, even in the calli.: Venice is never flat, it's a continuous unevenness, all lumps, bumps, hump-backed bulges, dips, dents, depressions…"  Heart disease is not a problem in Venice, he remarks.


As these quotes suggest, this is a very playful book.  "Heart" leads to a discussion of where, in a city without cars, youngsters can find a place to make love when their parents are home.  And under "eyes," Scarpa warns potential tourists to wear very dark sunglasses for protection because "Venice," he says, "can be lethal.  In the historic centre the aesthetic radioactivity is extremely high.  Every angle radiates beauty…You are face-butted, slapped, abused by beauty."


Not everything is rosy in Scarpa's Venice.  He comments on the stench of the canals, the danger of falling walls, pieces of balconies, and tiles.  And of course there is the acqua alta, announced by sirens remaining from WWII air raids. This high water consists of more than an inch or two covering the ground.  "On the terrible night of November 4th, 1966," says the author, "my father swam home from work."


Venice is a fish is a short book, padded out by a coda, but it is rich in detail. Whimsical, thoughtful, at times a bit precious, it offers a distinctive way not just to see but to experience the beloved city.  It is a guide that might lead visitors to pay attention to things they might not otherwise have noticed at all.


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