ONE OF the great things about a Civitella Ranieri fellowship is the castle’s proximity to a host of cultural destinations, which could range from single works like Piero della Francesca’s Madonna del Parto in nearby Monterchi and the contents of fabulous palaces such as the Duke of Urbino’s to entire cities like Florence and Venice, reachable by train. I had been to Italy twice before, but never, in an almost literal sense, this close to Italy’s cultural glories.
Strolling in the vicinity of the Ponte Vecchio in Florence with no fixed plan in mind (sometimes, I take this approach to escape the frenzied anxiety of the guidebook-driven first-time visitor, which I was, to Florence), I strayed into the Galileo Museum and marveled at the telescopes, globes, and scientific instruments that described not only the frontiers of the physical world but also those of the human mind. As if that were not enough, as soon as I stepped out of the museum and turned right, I found myself at the Uffizi Gallery and saw a door leading to a free exhibition of drawings by the masters, and soon brought my nose within two inches of work by Mantegna, Titian, Michelangelo, da Vinci, and Raphael.
While our immediate brief was to work on a creative project over the five to six weeks of our stay at the castle, Civitella’s executive director Dana Prescott made it clear that it was all right, even encouraged, to spend some of our fellowship time exploring the cultural countryside, especially for those of us to whom these opportunities would come very rarely. We plunged into this diversion with relish, availing ourselves of day trips or even overnighters organized or suggested by our sponsors (but payable out of our pockets, being optional activities). There’s no country, after all, like Italy for stepping back into the Renaissance, and even today, on a train ride across Tuscany, many scenes appear like they might have five centuries ago, with castles and churches towering over the farms and ochre houses of the common folk.
And thus it happened that my Malaysian friend Lat and I decided to run off to Venice during our last week in Italy. I had never been to Venice, the setting of some of my favorite movies: Luchino Visconti’s 1971 Death in Venice and Nicholas Roeg’s 1973 psycho-thriller Don’t Look Now (okay, I’ll admit, I watched The Tourist as well—I’m a sucker for anything with Angelina Jolie in it—and let’s not forget that fabulous chase scene from 1979’s Moonraker).
We did Florence as a day trip, but it seemed such a pity to rush through Venice, especially since it was more than five hours away by train from Perugia, the city we were closest to. So Lat and I decided to look for an inexpensive bed and breakfast online—a tough job, since we were going to Venice around the June 2 national holiday (their equivalent of our June 12) and the opening of the big Biennale art festival, which guaranteed that all the good, affordable places in Venice itself were going to be either booked or overpriced.
Thankfully we found a small B&B in Mestre, a residential district across the long bridge, close to the train station; this way, Venice was a five-minute, 1-euro ride away. The optimistically named B&B Romantica was a tiny, Hong Kong-style walk-up on the third floor of a building; it had no name on the street, and we had to call the owner, Giorgio, 20 minutes in advance of our arrival, as soon as our train hit Padova, so he could stand on the street to wait for us and to let us in.
Despite that curious touch, the Romantica proved just fine for two hefty, middle-aged Asian guys; our two-bed room was so small there wasn't even space for a desk, but the place was clean, fresh, and well maintained. Our room even had a balcony to sit out on for watching the street life. We had to share a toilet and bath with other guests, but there was free wi-fi, and best of all, it cost us only 30 euros a night per person. Giorgio himself turned out to be a very amiable person who, in halting but clear English, advised us to take the vaporetto shuttle boats around the island using a 12-hour pass, to skip the tourist trap that was Murano, and to spend time on Burano and Torcello instead.
That’s exactly what Lat and I did the next day. But we couldn’t wait for morning to get into Venice itself, so as soon as we dropped off our bags and got our briefing from Giorgio, we ran back to the train station at Mestre, and rode off into Venice just in time for sunset and a dinner date with Dana Prescott, who was also in Venice for the Biennale. We let the Italian-speaking Dana guide us to a small but apparently very popular restaurant along the edge of the canal for a five-course all-seafood dinner—something Lat and I had sorely missed in the hills of Umbria—and we laughed and swapped life stories as the setting sun, casting the kind of light I’d always associated with the watercolors of J.M.W. Turner, gilded everything around us. Indeed to be in Venice is to live in a painting—the city, after all, having been home to Bellini, Canaletto, and Tintoretto.
A Civitella colleague had told me this before we left the castle, and it proved to be true: when you step into Venice for the very first time, coming out of the Sta. Lucia train terminal, you smile, and smile. There’s everything you’d always imagined Venice to be, right at the doorstep: the Grand Canal and all the vaporetti and gondolas weaving past each other, the brilliant blue sky, the new glass bridge by Calatrava, the marvelous architectural mix-up of the Byzantine and the Moorish (something, I thought, that a set designer today would have been hard-pressed to conjure, given absolute liberty). I had expected to see this for ages, but I still smiled to understand with my own eyes that Venice meant islands without shores; standing flush against the water’s edge, its buildings looked like upthrust apparitions.
Like James Bond, Lat and I had secret missions to accomplish in Venice: our wives’ birthdays were coming up on that same first week of June, and we had to find and bring home suitable presents to show for our six-week bachelorhood in Italy. The next day, in a shop in colorful Burano, we settled that issue like real men, with decisiveness. “How much for this necklace, please?” I asked the salesgirl. “Twenty-one euros,” she said, “but for you, I give it for eighteen.” Thinking I had scored a bargain without even asking, I said, “Excellent, I’ll take it!” Lat quickly chimed in: “I want one as well!”
We walked out of that shop laden with trinkets, and, pleased with our accomplishment, we spent the rest of our one full day in Venice hopping from one island and vaporetto stop to another, parking ourselves for most of the afternoon in the vicinity of the Piazza San Marco, enjoying the doves, the pretty signorinas, and the bands playing everything from “Al Di La” to Broadway showtunes. I didn’t get myself any Venetian souvenir, but back at Mestre, I found Ligo sardines at an Asian food store near our B&B (“Prodotto in Filippine,” the label said proudly), and brought back two cans of comfort food to the castle for my final week.
Just a few days later, Lat and I were together again, on a bus taking us from Perugia to our flights home at Rome’s Fiumicino airport. Outside the window, a rash of vermilion poppies was welling in the fields. Given all that beauty and vitality, it wasn’t hard to imagine how the Renaissance could have come about where we had just been.