I’ve just come back from a week in Venice & it was Fab.
For me, as for so many people, Venice is a really special place, and it has been ever since I first went as a child. My last visit was three years ago, when I had a glorious sabbatical studying Titian and Veronese, and it was good to “touch base” with the place again. It was as beautiful as ever, with autumn sunshine on the faded facades of the palaces and with the reflections from the water in the canals glittering on the undersides of the bridges as we passed. I can well understand Peggy Guggenheim’s rather chilly comment on the city: "It is always assumed that Venice is the ideal city for a honeymoon, but it is a serious mistake. Living in Venice, or just visiting it, means falling in love and in the heart there won't be room for anything else."
We stayed in a little flat to the East of the city near the public gardens, the Giardini, and I was delighted to find not only good fishmongers and butchers a few doors down the road, but also within easy staggering distance one of those wonderful little “vino sfuso” shops where you can bring your empty bottles to be filled with local Veneto wines. I always feel that Prosecco on tap is one of the true high points of Italian culture.
We were, though, there primarily for the “Biennale”, the biggest Art show in the world, where - as the name implies- every two years hundreds of artists gather to showcase their talents. I first went in 2007 and loved it, and thought how exciting it would be to make a point of going regularly every two years. So only twelve years later I finally got round to it.
The theme this year was “May you live in interesting times”. I always thought that this was an ancient Chinese curse but it turns out to have been most likely coined by Joseph Chamberlain in the 1930’s & passed off by him as a genuine oriental aphorism: certainly in the show there was a general feeling of rather grim dismay about the world & the “fake news” direction it’s going in - a feeling that produced some big, huffy and grimly apocalyptic installations.
But in all the hundreds of objects on display, clamouring for attention, the one that touched me most was a gentle piece by an Indian Artist called Shilpa Gupta. It was a grid of 100 metal spikes in a darkened room each with a poem impaled on it and with a speaker thing hanging above which read out each poem in turn. Some were humorous and some were scurrilous, some were poignant and some were angry. In many languages and cultures from the seventh to the twenty-first centuries, they were all by poets who had been imprisoned for their beliefs. Standing in the shadows listening to these voices was an intensely moving experience. It reminded me of a walking pilgrimage I undertook with one of my previous parishes some fifteen years ago, journeying through the Kentish countryside on our way to Becket’s shrine at Canterbury. Enjoying the journey, we came upon an orchard of heritage apple trees, each one bearing a poem tied to a lower branch. We paused, and read, and felt, and moved on. I did the same in this darkened room. In a world where words are proving fickle it resonated with me.
After the importunate clamour of the Biennale, it was a relief to turn to the quiet stability of the Sunday Morning Service at St.George’s, the Anglican Chaplaincy in Venice. I generally find I bump into someone I know there, and this time proved no exception: in a large pilgrim group from the North of England, I met an old friend with whom I had been at Theological College some thirty years ago; it was good to catch up.
St George’s was very hospitable to me on my sabbatical & I always feel it’s one of the best examples I know of a faithful community that exists for the benefit of people other than itself. The twenty or so regulars keep it all going admirably to benefit the constant flow of multinational visitors (like me) who wash in and out every Sunday of the year, wanting to touch base with Anglicanism.
This time, it was the Liturgy that struck me: Common Worship Order One in Traditional Language. At one time, as an ordinand and then as a young priest (as my Sunderland friend and I once were) such a thing would have seemed dubious: now, I find I like the resonance of the ancient words, and the sense of rootedness they embody. I remember when I was Vicar of another St. George’s, in Wash Common in Newbury, I occasionally would cover an 8.00 a.m. Eucharist in a country Parish, and was amused that the altar book used was a large 19th Century copy of the Book of Common Prayer. It was unaltered apart from where “Victoria our Queen” had been crossed out and “Edward, our King” had been inserted, which was itself crossed out by “ George” and again later by “Elizabeth our Queen.” There is, I feel, something quite heroic about such continuity.
Living “ in interesting times” in a world with fake news where (as T.S. Eliot wrote about his struggles to write with authenticity) “words slip, slide, perish……will not stay in place”, it is good to touch base with places and language that speak of rootedness and permanence, of belonging and of hope.
The Rector Revd John WallReproduced by kind permission of The Church Times