Venice or the Theory of the Labyrinth

04/12/2012 20:20

Λαβύρινθος, Labýrinzos: in ancient Greek means something like the place of the double blade axe. In times of the Minoan civilization Labros axe symbolized the city of Knossos and by extension Pasiphae son’s myth, the Minotaur, the famous dweller of the Cretan palace maze. And etymological origin for Labyrinth word.

Labyrinths can be traced in many different places and times, from Neolithic petroglyphs mazes to elaborate French Renaissance gardens with worked hedges. They are recognized in places such as medieval pavements in Chartres Cathedral, the Duomo in Florence or the Salute in Venice.

Ancient mazes representations describe them as a continuous path having a way in and an exit, without cheating alternatives and just granting viable options. Or show maps, such as the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem, the city of Jericho in the fourteenth century by Alisha ben Avraham or the concentric one for the fabulous capital of Atlantis. Circular or square, but all with a development in seven rows usually symmetrical, with a beginning and an end. From here on it is possible to investigate where lays its hidden meaning: a labyrinth is a Gnostic journey, a diagram showing the development in the knowledge evolution, a metaphor, in which sometimes the paradox occurs that the entry in is at the same time the output. Labyrinth metaphor applied to Venice means that to get from one point to another is not enough with guidance, also knowledge is needed to do not finish with the feet into water or in a cul-de-sac called courtyard.

The labyrinth concept where we may be lost, with endless returning branches, with dead end paths, and with an only solution is substantially modern, although it likewise can provide a symbolic sense, often possess a recreational component. Facing the primitive labyrinth provides the emblem of the existential dilemmas, the possibility of the election, the pleasure of the moment of doubt. For the philosopher Walter Benjamin the maze is the fatherland of the doubt.

Jorge Luis Borges in one of his stories of the Aleph, Los dos reyes y los dos laberintos (The Two Kings and the Two Labyrinths) tells the revenge of an Arab king whom another king from the islands of Babylon tried to mislead in a maze of stairs, doors and walls. Years later the Arab King abandoned the king of Babylon after three days' journey into another maze, this one absolutely free of walls, devoid of loopholes, clueless, not even input or output: amidst the desert, nothing.

For Umberto Eco there’s yet a third type of labyrinth, generated with the emergence of new technologies. This multi labyrinth extends in Internet. A step forward in the search for a target translates into many chances to move forward, or backward, or move in parallel. Is potentially infinite. Though unlike those followed in the newspapers pastimes highlighting pastimes with a pen or those which, physically, may be walked by foot, between green bushes walls, the maze of the network always has a single output which is ultimately a single key. This category could ascribe language, also understood as a maze by Ludwig Wittgenstein. Although, in some sense, every word, or every text, leads others in building a set of semantic meanings, the choice, mistake and doubt are present in the development of speech. In his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, Wittgenstein place himself in the first type of unicursal labyrinths in developing their proposals linearly. Speech uniquely leads from start to end in the development of the sense of logic. But transgression is always possible. To the linear logic of discourse can be opposed interchangeable blocks of text as did Julio Cortazar in Rayuela, or simply destroy it trough literary techniques as cut-up and fold-in designed by Brion Gysin. William Burroughs developed it in novels as Nova Express or The Soft Machine, endless mazes where language is a virus that only can kill destroyed depriving the text of sense.

Venezia é un laberinto. Or rather a fucking maze, as I heard in the mouth of a Spanish tourist when, during my first stay, I didn’t spent not even one hour in the lagoon city. Although whenever you ask for an address a Venetian will answer invariably tutto diretto, straight ahead, it isn’t completely a false notion that Venice is a curious sort of maze. To be accurate, such as Labros was a double-bladed axe, Venice is a double labyrinth formed by its intricate streets network, with its bridges, fondamentas, ramos, salizadas, cortes ... and the aquatic maze intertwines their canals and rivers. The latter always got a way out, just waiting to be carried away by tidal currents or for the salary of a gondolier. The former is more uncertain, not always with a clear continuity. More than once is forced to retrace steps and paths back after reaching a dead end courtyard, or run into the rungs of a riva directly heading to the water.

And even so, sometimes, at the whim of the moon phases and southerly winds, which usually occurs between fall and winter both mazes intermingle under tidal level. Aqua alta, the high water that hinders life for the Venetians and amuses tourists slows and merges both mazes in one, in a unique worldwide osmosis. As Ariadne's thread nizioletti exist, - small sheet in Venetian dialect - those little white boxes decorating every corner everywhere in the cityscape. Most only indicate the place name, but there are also showing the beginning or end of the term of a sestiere, parish, or pointing a direction. The latter are painted in yellow, did a subtle nod on the colour of thread that led Theseus?, Instead of the usual white, shows the way Per San Marco, Per la Accademia, Per Rialto... even T-shirts are sold with this subject in Lista di  Spagna or in Piazzetta San Marco. Venice is a world where not only is easy to get lost in its maze of streets and alleys, but it is also possible in the reverie that provide their names and stories and legends attributed to them. Where else in the world would be possible to find a street called Amor dei Amici, (Love of the Friends), of Donna Onesta, de la Morte, Larga dei Proverbi, (Proverb long street), a Stupenda courtyard, de la Vida, del Occhio Grosso, (Big eye) one fondamenta of the Tette or Turchette, a bridge of Maraveglie or Diavolo, Courtesy or Umiltà or Celestia. Or a corte Sconta detta Arcana? (A Hidden courtyard named Arcane).

Over time and through successive stays I believe I gained the bizarre obsession to pretend to memorize the whole city, consistent, although I didn’t know, with the view of the French mathematician Pierre Rosenstiehl in holding that the resolution of a maze lies in full scan. In them is the lack of references which leads astray and this to the search. The solution is, sometimes, a complete and thorough knowledge of each of its branches, its streets and corners.

But going back to the ​​gnostic journey idea, knowledge gradually progresses. Now about the city itself and its character, with the added benefit that provides steps walked back on to regain previously unobserved details. Remembering watercolours landscapes painted by William Turner or Maurice Prendergast, the oil paintings of Canaletto or Bellini. Or glimpse the lines written by Byron, Mann or Brodsky. Hearing Vivaldi notes sliding under the door of a church between Campo San Vidal and Campo San Stefano. Squint reflect I Frari facade in the river of the same name in a day fairly sunny. Find a door that leads nowhere in the middle of the street. Discover a stone elephant between Scola Grande di San Rocco columns or a stone heart, under the arch of a sotoportego in salizada Pignatier. Read the books spines of the library in Armenian San Lazaro, or Marciana Library in San Marcos, in search of some incunable how the 1499 Hypnerotomachia Poliphili. Find in a strange bookseller a pair of dolls with eyes closed hoping yearningly for a kiss. Imagine the palaces on the Grand Canal in its heyday or alive wells in the Castello and Cannaregio hidden courtyards. And when no longer feel the legs after a moderate calibre Gnostic surfeit, there’s endless terraces to sit down and recover with the quintessential Venetian cocktail, although the gossips insinuate that it is an Austrian invention. The Spritz: white wine, Campari, soda, ice, a slice of lemon and an olive. Cheers!

© J.L.Nicolas


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