The old historians took a different line and tended to view Venice as an allegory in which vice and reckless greed (or undemocratic government) met their just reward. They held up Venice as a cautionary example to other nations. But we cannot feel this moral indignation or this solemn awe before the Venetian spectacle. In Ravenna or Mantua, we can sense the gloom of history steal over us like a real shadow. These cities are truly sad, and they compel belief in the crimes and tragedies that were enacted in them. Venice remains a child's pageant, minute and ingenious, brightened with touches of humorous "local color," as in the pageant pictures of Gentile Bellini and Carpaccio. Or, with Tintoretto and Veronese, it swells into a bepearled myth. The sumptuous Apotheoses of the rooms of the Doge's Palace, the blues and golds and nacreous flesh tones, discredit the reality of the Turkish disasters that were befalling the Republic at the time they were painted, just as Giorgione's idyls discredit the reality of the League of Cambrai. With the eighteenth century painters, the pneumatic goddess is deflated. The pictures of Canaletto and Guardi and Longhi take us back again into playland, with toy boats (the gondolas) and dominos and masks and lacy shawls, while the pictures of Tiepolo with their chalky tones take us to a circus, in which everyone is a clown or a trapeze artist, in white theatrical make-up and theatrical costuming. Napoleon was at the gates, but it is hard to believe it. It was hard for the Venetians, at the time. For them, their "liberation" from the oligarchy was simply another pageant, another procession, with allegorical figures in costume before the old stage flat of St. Mark's, which was hung with garlands and draperies. At the opera that night, the fall of the Republic was celebrated by a ballet danced by the workers of the Arsenal; the patricians were there, in silks and laces and brocades, gold and silver lamés, diamonds and pearls, and, in honor of the occasion, gondoliers were admitted free.
Everything that happens in Venice has this inherent improbability, of which the gondola, floating, insubstantial, at once romantic and haunting, charming and absurd, is the symbol. "Why don't they put outboard motors on them?" an American wondered, looking on the practical side. But a dream is only practical in unexpected ways; that is, it is resource, like the Venetians. "It is another world," people say, noting chiefly the absence of the automobile. And it is another world, a palpable fiction, in which the unexpected occurs with regularity; that is why it hovers on the brink of humor.
A prominent nobleman this fall, rushing to the sickbed of a friend, slipped getting into his motorboat and fell into the Grand Canal. All Venice laughed. But if the count had had his misadventure in Padua, on terra ferma, if he had fallen getting out of his car, everyone would have condoled with him. Traffic lights are not funny, but it is funny to have one in Venice, over a canal-intersection. The same with the Venetian fire brigade. The things of this world reveal their essential absurdity when they are put in the Venetian context. In the unreal realm of the canals, as in a Swiftian Lilliput, the real world, with its contrivances, appears as a vast folly.