Just a few weeks before we went to Venice, we moved into a new place in Halifax. It's a small century-old house with white vinyl siding just north of the Common. As first-time homeowners we were suddenly faced with how to have a nice front face to the house. How do me make sure to be a decent part of the neighbourhood? What colour(s) of paint do we use so we fit in with but enhance the colours of the neighbours? Should we have flowers? Window boxes? What kinds of curtains? We certainly need to make sure that it stays clean and looks well-managed. We don't want to be the decrepit-looking house on the block.
This new world of house-keeping and decoration made us especially aware of how it was done in Venice. In short, very differently.
While in Halifax houses aim to present a clean front with fairly fresh paint, many buildings in Venice show varying levels of decrepitude:
Aged plaster, exposed bricks, and faded worn wood.
Wild plants sprouting from random surfaces.
And frequently all of the above:
Windows appear at random on walls, with different sizes and different attempts at decoration. The paint on the shutters is almost always worn thin.
The thing is, this wear and tear almost always makes the buildings more beautiful than they probably would have been new. They also frequently have bright fresh flowers, expensive-looking window frames and curtains, and sometimes even long-preserved statues or emblems:
Obviously, these aren't abandoned or unloved buildings. Given the price of real estate on Venice proper, it's hard to imagine owners truly letting their buildings go.
It all suddenly came clear to me when I watched a very stylish young Italian couple stride by, both wearing expensive jeans with holes ripped in them. While almost anybody can be clean and neat, it takes a whole extra level of sophistication to be just the right level of dissheveled. When my jeans start to wear holes in them, I never quite know if it means they're ready to go in the garbage or if they're just getting good. In Venice, they've figured this out not just with their clothes but with their buildings as well.
That said, once we started looking we noticed a lot of cleaner, recently re-plastered houses around. However, I couldn't help thinking they were like a new pair of shoes, needing to be "broken in" a bit before they really fit.
The general feeling I got of Venice was of something well-aged but lovely, like an especially charming great-aunt.
While cities like San Francisco try to impress you with their prettiness, and Chicago and New York flaunt their altitude and scale, Venice impresses most with its textures. Every wall is a chance for light and shade to play over layers of plaster and brick and plant life.
After a while, though, we noticed that the most wear on the buildings in Venice was the first five to eight feet up from the foundation. We also noticed that many of the 'ground' floors were unused, particularly on houses along the canals. No doubt these are the parts that get flooded during "acqua alta" season - presumably a little bit higher every year. Given how difficult it must be to get scaffolding up to replaster over water, it's perhaps not a surprise that they're "scenically decrepit" now.
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