What Russian doesn’t dream of seeing Venice? Who doesn’t dream of taking an apéritif on a hot summer day surrounded by Piazza San Marco, while gazing at crowds of strolling tourists; of exploring its tiny canals while cruising on a gondola and getting lost while wandering around the intrinsic curves of the city? Every part of it brings special pleasure. Its curves, salted dewy scent and elegance embody an image of an irresistible dark-haired Italian woman. Venice seduces your mind before you even get to see her.
For hundreds of years, Venice has been seen as the most desirable Russian destination. Russia’s pride, Saint-Petersburg, took inspiration from it and was built as theVenice of the North. At different times Venice was a dream of Dostoevsky, Turgenev, Aivazovsky, Tchaikovsky, Mandelstam, Pasternak, Achmatova and Gumilev. But none of them seemed to have had a remotely similar life-long infatuation with *her*, as Joseph Brodsky. Venice hypnotized him before he saw *her* for the first time. “I had seen it for the first time several years before, in that same previous incarnation: in Russia”. Whether he talks about the city or a woman still is a mystery.
The author of “the Watermark”, Joseph Brodsky is one of many Soviet people born in Leningrad (now Saint-Petersburg) who dreams of escaping to the Queen of the Adriatic. Expelled from the Soviet Union, the Nobel Prize laureate settles in America, where, with no university degree or proper education he becomes a professor of poetry. When interrogated by the Soviet authorities, he claims that it doesn’t take training to become a poet. All it takes is to listen to God. Despite being born on the Russian land, and living in America, the poet doesn’t really feel he belongs to any of these two countries. His home is somewhere half-way between them. It is in Venice.
“It was a windy night, and before my retina registered anything, I was smitten by a feeling of utter happiness: my nostrils were hit by what to me has always been its synonym, the smell of freezing seaweed…One recognizes oneself in certain elements” – he writes upon his first visit in December 1973. Inexplicably, he is attracted to the scent of his beloved city, smelling of pure happiness. From that surprising sensory revelation, a true chemistry is born. From now on, his mind will be seeking *her* in his dreams. “She was the kind that keeps married man’s dreams wet. Besides, she was a Veneziana”. Every following winter he will return to his dream, where 17th century palazzi drift through the mist on gleaming water surfaces.
Brodsky loves winters in Venice. Dozens of fashion stores; the famous winter Biennale, which draws artists, poets and critics; the famous carnival with its masked balls and costumed processions; and, of course, the serenity, in which he senses the spirit of God – that’s what lures him most. Summers are usually chaotic and electric. They involve dealing with insufferable heat and the suffocating lack of personal space with thousands of tourists jostling for space on Piazza San Marco to take a memorable photo of the Doges’ Palace.
The Russian poet stays at Hotel Londra Palace, so wonderfully located along the main esplanade of the city. Here he meets with his friends, some of the most prominent minds of the last century. Among them there are writers, such as Susan Sonntag and Pyotr Vail. At Harry’s bar they order Bellini cocktails and the famous Venetian carpaccio, created by Giuseppe Cipriani for countess Amalia Nani Mocenigo in 1963. Harry’s bar with its history going back to 1931 still remains one of the best-known places in Venice. It is here that Ernest Hemingway holes up while writing his novel “Across the River and Into the Trees”. Brodsky, who doesn’t speak any Italian, comes here to immerse himself in the wonderful atmosphere of a parallel reality of Venetian life, which mustn’t be interrupted by his own presence, much less by his words.
Brodsky speaks about Venice as a place where time evaporates like particles of salted water on a cold day, unwillingly and sluggishly. “I always adhered to the idea that God is time, or at least that His spirit is. I always thought that if the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the water, the water was bound to reflect it”. So he travels back to reaffirm that nothing has changed, that time is still frozen like the frozen seaweed in the waters of the Adriatic, and that the true happiness does exist, even if it's only encapsulated in the dewy scent of a passing woman.
However, now, almost twenty years after his death, it is still unclear whether Brodsky’s passion for Venice arose from his passion for a certain Venetian woman.
Mariolina Doria de Zuliani and Joseph Brodsky meet in Leningrad (now Saint-Petersburg) when Venice lives purely and solely in his dreams. The tall, elegant girl with hair as waves of the Adriatic sea, soft and dangerous; and dark eyes as two gondolas, casts her spell on the poet. He travels to see her in Moscow, writes her poems and dreams of the time when he can step out of his dreams and love his Veneziana in Venice. As soon as he settles in New York, he spends his first earned money on the most desirable journey of all – to the city of his dreams. He chases her and the scent she leaves in the air. “Then my Ariadne vanished, leaving behind a fragrant thread of her expensive (was it Shalimar?) perfume, which quickly dissipated in the musty atmosphere of a pensione. That’s how I found myself for the first time in this city”.
Ten years later he will write a long love letter, better known as “Fondamenta degliIncurabili” or “Watermark”. Whether it is dedicated to Mariolina or Venice or both is a beautiful mystery. Despite all his efforts and romantic inclinations, the enchanting Veneziana isn’t at all impressed. She welcomes him to the city of Vivaldi, Tiziano and Veronese, but not to her heart. To her, Brodsky is the man who lets himself visit her drunk early in the morning, yelling about his deep sexual longing for her. He is a Soviet barbarian, whose inner freedom and complete absence of manners cool her feelings. Like Venice on a cold December night, Mariolina hits him with cold waves of reproach.
Now, perhaps, we can say that his timid love was masked by unpolished manners and bravado. As Gualtiero Dall’Osto once wrote: “Venetian masks cover your face, but they can also help you discover entirely new personalities”.
With a mask on his face, Brodsky will seduce many hearts and minds, he will win a Nobel Prize for literature and become famous on both continents on both sides of the Atlantic. But one thing will remain unchanged, just like time in Venice - his deep longing for a mysterious and enchanting woman and her perfect curves washed by freezing salted water. Whether it is a city or woman, doesn’t matter. Joseph Brodsky will come back every December chasing her expensive scent and dreaming of happiness. And maybe now that he is buried on Isola San Michele in Venice, we can state with all certainty that he has found what he was looking for – serenity.