When the Venetians stroll out in the evening, they do not avoid the Piazza San Marco, where the tourists are, as the Romans do with Doney's on the Via Veneto. The Venetians go to look at the tourists, and the tourists look back at them. It is all for the ear and eye, this city, but primarily for the eye. Built on water, it is an endless succession of reflections and echoes, a mirroring. Contrary to popular belief, there are no back canals where a tourist will not meet himself, with a camera, in the person of the other tourist crossing the little bridge. And no word can be spoken in this city that is not an echo of something said before, "Mais c'est aussi cher que Paris!" exclaims a Frenchman in a restaurant, unaware that he repeats Montaigne.
Nothing can be said here (including this statement) that has not been said before. One often hears the Piazza described as an open-air drawing-room; the observation goes back to Napoleon, who called it "the best drawingroom in Europe." A friend likens the ornamental coping of St. Mark's to sea foam, but Ruskin thought of this first: "... at last, as if in ecstasy, the crests of the arches break into a marble foam, and toss themselves far into the blue sky in flashes and wreaths of sculptured spray..." Another friend observes that the gondolas are like hearses; I was struck by the novelty of the fancy until I found it, two days later, in Shelley: "that funereal bark." Now I find it everywhere. A young man, boarding the vaporetto, sighs that " Venice is so urban," a remark which at least sounds original and doubtless did when Proust spoke of the "always urban impression" made by Venice in the midst of the sea. And the worst of it is that nearly all these clichés are true. It is true, for example, that St. Mark's at night looks like a painted stage flat; this is a fact which everybody notices and which everybody thinks he has discovered for himself. I blush to remember the sound of my own voice, clear in its own conceit, enunciating this proposition in the Piazza, nine years ago.
"I envy you, writing about Venice," says the newcomer. "I pity you," says the old hand. One thing is certain. Sophistication, that modern kind of sophistication that begs to differ, to be paradoxical, to invert, is not a possible attitude in Venice. In time, this becomes the beauty of the place. One gives up the struggle and submits to a classic experience. One accepts the fact that what one is about to feel or say has not only been said before by Goethe or Musset but is on the tip of the tongue of the tourist from Iowa who is alighting in the Piazzetta with his wife in her furpiece and jeweled pin. Those Others, the existential enemy, are here identical with oneself. After a time in Venice, one comes to look with pity on the efforts of the newcomer to disassociate himself from the crowd. He has found a "little" church -- has he? -- quite off the beaten track, a real gem, with inlaid colored marbles on a soft dove grey, like a jewel box. He means Santa Maria dei Miracoli. As you name it, his face falls. It is so well known, then? Or he has the notion of counting the lions that look down from the window ledges of the palazzi. They remind him of cats. Has anybody ever noticed how many cats there are in Venice or compared them to the lions? On my table two books lie open with chapters on the Cats of Venice. My face had fallen too when I came upon them in the house of an old bookseller, for I too had dared think that I had hold of an original perception.