The Venetians catalogue everything, including themselves. ‘These grapes are brown,’ I complain to the young vegetable-dealer in Santa Maria Formosa. ‘What is wrong with that ? I am brown,’ he replies. ‘I am the housemaid of the painter Vedova,’ says a maid, answering the telephone. ‘I am a Jew,’ begins a cross-eyed stranger who is next in line in a bookshop. ‘Would you care to see the synagogue?’
Almost any Venetian, even a child, will abandon whatever he is doing in order to show you something. They do not merely give directions; they lead, or in some cases follow, to make sure you are still on the right way. Their great fear is that you will miss an artistic or ‘typical’ sight. A sacristan, who has already been tipped, will not let you leave until you have seen the last Palma Giovane. The ‘pope’ of the Chiesa dei Greci calls up to his housekeeper to throw his black hat out the window and settles it firmly on his broad brow so that he can lead us personally to the Archaeological Museum in the Piazza San Marco; he is afraid that, if he does not see to it, we shall miss the Greek statuary there.
This is Venetian courtesy. Foreigners who have lived here a long time dismiss it with observation : ‘They have nothing else to do.’ But idleness here is alert, on the qui vive for the opportunity of sightseeing; nothing delights a born Venetian so much as a free gondola ride. When the funeral gondola, a great black-and-gold ornate hearse, draws up beside a fondamenta, it is an occasion for aesthetic pleasure. My neighbourhood was especially favoured this way, because across the campo was the Old Men’s Home. Everyone has noticed the Venetian taste in shop displays, which extends down to the poorest bargeman, who cuts his watermelons in half and shows them, pale pink, with green rims against the green side-canal, in which a pink palace with oleanders is reflected. Che bello, che magnifici, che luce, che colore! - they are all professori delle Belle Arti. And throughout the Veneto, in the old Venetian possessions, this internal tourism, this expertise, is rife. In Bassano, at the Civic Museum, I took the Mayor for the local art-critic until he interupted his discourse on the jewel-tones (‘like Murano glass’) in the Bassani pastorals to look at his watch and cry out: ‘My citizens are calling me.’ Near by, in a Paladian villa, a Venetian lasy suspired, ‘Ah, bellissima,’ on being shown a hearthstool in the shape of a life-size stuffed leather pig. Harry’s bar has a drink called a Tiziano, made of grapefruit juice and champagne and coloured pink with grenadine or bitters. ‘You ought to have a Tintoretto,’ someone remonstrated, and the proprietor regretted that he had not yet invented that drink, but he had a Bellini and a Giorgione.
When the Venetians stroll out in the evening, they do not avoid the Piazza San Marco, where the tourists are, as Romans do with Doney’s on the Via Veneto. The Venetians go to look at the tourists, and the tourists look back at them. It is all for the ear and eye, this city, but primarily for the eye. Built on water, it is an endless succession of reflections and echoes, a mirroring. Contrary to popular belief, there are no back canals where tourist will not meet himself, with a camera, in the person of the another tourist crossing the little bridge. And no word can be spoken in this city that is not an echo of something said before. ‘Mais c’est aussi cher que Paris!’ exclaims a Frenchman in a restaurant, unaware that he repeats Montaigne. The complaint against foreigners, voiced by a foreigner, chimes querulously through the ages, in unison with the medieval monk who found St. Mark’s Square filled with ‘Turks, Libyans, Parthians, and other monsters of the sea’. Today it is the Germans we complain of, and no doubt they complain of the Americans, in the same words.