Two Venices

Unlike Goethe , I did not want to go to Venice . The father of all Italophiles thanked God and forever remembered the day when he saw the city spun of water across the lagoon, and it ceased to be just a hollow name for him (this is what Goethe actually said *). When I first saw Venice, I was not impressed. Born in the city called Venice of the North, I expected sweeping vistas, wide canals, and brilliant palazzi. Instead, I found narrow stagnant ditches, damp passages, and dilapidated walls rising from greenish waters. But this time, twenty years later, Venice stood on our way from Milan to Slovenia, and as a concession to my son I agreed to stop there.

He had been too young to see it during our refugee days in Italy two decades earlier and wanted to make up for the miss. He was so naïve that he wondered why we could not just drive into the city. He thought it would be like Amsterdam, with normal streets along the canals. I relented, but on one condition: I wanted to find the grave of Brodsky.

Joseph Brodsky grew up around the corner from the house my wife called home as a girl. He, like us, would leave our city, we all thought forever. A premonition fulfilled in his case. Like him, we considered this eternal exile not punishment, but a blessing. He himself chose his resting place on the Adriatic shores.  Why did he betray his youthful pledge to return when he finally could? Who was I to question him? I too had left and not looked back. But I never promised.

Having driven across the lagoon from Mestre, we left the car at the multilevel garage on Piazzale Roma and took a direct vaporetto line to Cimitero San Michele, bypassing all the crowds. This route led through the Ghetto neighborhood and then bent around the gritty back side of the city of dreams – warehouses, repair shops, delivery boats, and floating equivalents of construction trucks. At Fondamenta Nuove, the vaporetto detached from the shore and turned to the open water on the way to San Michele. The island is completely surrounded by a brick wall interrupted by an occasional flight of columns, sometimes framing a gate leading inside from a short pier. A wall of cypresses rises behind the brick wall. No gun carriages can be used to enter this final destination. The last crossing is done by water as if in Charon’s boat over the Styx.

The main pier is much bigger and serves as a vaporetto stop on the way to Murano. Through the gate past a chapel along the main brick walk we came to a sign with an arrow that read “EZRA POUND, DIAGHILEV, STRAWINSKI,” and at the bottom, in smaller letters, barely visible scribbled by pencil in Cyrillic: “Бродский Иосиф”. The cemetery is divided into small sections – land is scarce on an island – and feels languorous and claustrophobic at the same time because water cannot be seen from inside the walls. Encouraged by the sign, we rushed directly to the Eastern Orthodox section, and quickly found Stravinsky with his Vera. Serge Diaghilew rested nearby. Besides flowers, two pairs of ballet toe-shoes were left on his marble monument. We walked around in the hot Italian afternoon, greeted by familiar names of unfamiliar ladies of leisure from the 19th century:  Princesse C. Troubetzkoy (née Moussine Pouchkine), Princesse Catherine Bagration. But no traces of “Бродский.” The section was less than an acre in size and we decided to divide it between us and comb row by row. 40 minutes later – still no luck. A woman sweeping the paths had heard about a Russian poet but did not know the exact spot and suggested we go to the ufficio to inquire.  It was the Lutheran section with Ezra Pound that we should have gone to! A flowerbed, a headstone with some pebbles and seashells scattered on the marble top, the name in two languages.

“Ni strany, ni pogosta ne hochu vybirat
Na Vasilievsky Ostrov ya pridu umirat”

“Neither graveyard nor country I am willing to choose
I shall come to my deathbed on the isle of my youth.”

He came here. He chose another island. Would I? Would I get to choose?

Earlier in Milan I had found this paean to Vasilievsky Island of St. Petersburg on the internet and printed it out. Now I unfolded the page and recited the verse, then weighed it down with pebbles on the edge of the flowerbed. Would this message survive to be seen? By whom? Would it be understood? As we boarded the vaporetto, three people in their thirties, a woman and two men, stepped off the boat speaking Russian. I knew my first addressees.

* This is what Goethe actually said:

So stand es denn im Buche des Schicksals auf meinem Blatte geschrieben, daß ich 1786 den achtundzwanzigsten September, abends, nach unserer Uhr um fünfe, Venedig zum erstenmal, aus der Brenta in die Lagunen einfahrend, erblicken und bald darauf diese wunderbare Inselstadt, diese Biberrepublik betreten und besuchen sollte. So ist denn auch, Gott sei Dank, Venedig mir kein bloßes Wort mehr, kein hohler Name, der mich so oft, mich, den Todfeind von Wortschällen, geängstiget hat.

Boston, 1984

Venice, 2000

In Venice, June 2000

Backside of Venice

San Michele, Island of the Dead

This way to celebrities

Princesse C. Troubetzkoy, née Mousine-Pouchkine

Joseph Brodsky

P.S. Looking through the Italian pictures of Cimitero di San Michele, I found the grave of C[atherine] Troubetzkoy, née Mousine-Pouchkine. It turned out this was a sister of Vladimir Musin-Pushkin, husband of Emilia Musin-Pushkin to whom Lermontov dedicated his poem “To E.K. Musin-Pushkin” my translation of which is in the Poetry section.