Eclipse of the heart
I HAVE just come back from a week in Venice, and it was fab. For me, as for so many people, Venice is a special place; and 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. The city was as beautiful as ever, with autumn sunshine on the faded façades of the palaces, and reflections from the water in the canals glittering on the undersides of the bridges as we passed. I can well understand Peggy Guggenheim’s comment, “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. 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, though, were 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 12 years later, I finally got round to it.
THE theme this year was: “May you live in interesting times.” I always thought this was an ancient Chinese curse, but it turns out that it was most probably coined by Joseph Chamberlain, in the 1930s, and 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 and the “fake news” direction it’s taking — 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 the Indian artist Shilpa Gupta. It consisted of a grid of 100 metal spikes, each with a poem impaled on it, in a darkened room, with a speaker suspended above it which broadcast 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 21st centuries, all were 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 15 years ago, journeying through the Kentish countryside on our way to Becket’s shrine in Canterbury. Enjoying the journey, we came on an orchard of heritage apple trees, each one bearing a poem tied to one of its lower branches. 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.
Words without end
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 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 30 years ago. It was good to catch up.
St George’s was very hospitable to me on my sabbatical. It’s one of the best examples I know of a faithful community that exists for the benefit of people other than itself. The 20 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 that I like the resonance of the ancient words, and the sense of rootedness that they embody.
I remember, when I was Vicar of another St George’s — in Wash Common, Newbury — I would occasionally cover an 8 a.m. eucharist in a country parish, where I 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, in turn, had been superseded by ”George”, and later again 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 of 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 Revd John Wall is Rector of the Uckfield Plurality in East Sussex.