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Venice Is a Fish: A Sensual Guide

Venice Is a Fish: A Sensual Guide

3.6 5
by Tiziano Scarpa

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One of Italy’s brightest literary lights reinvents travel writing with a seductive, intoxicating celebration of the magical saltwater city

“Venice is a fish,” writes Tiziano Scarpa. “It’s like a vast sole stretched out against the deep. How did this marvelous beast make its way up the Adriatic and fetch up here, of all


One of Italy’s brightest literary lights reinvents travel writing with a seductive, intoxicating celebration of the magical saltwater city

“Venice is a fish,” writes Tiziano Scarpa. “It’s like a vast sole stretched out against the deep. How did this marvelous beast make its way up the Adriatic and fetch up here, of all places?” Paying homage to his native city in a lyrical and evocative style, he guides readers down tiny alleys, over bridges, and through squares, daring us to lose ourselves, forget the guidebooks, and experience Venice as Venetians do.

Venice Is a Fish provides no hotel ratings or museum hours. Instead, in a delightful initiation, Scarpa tells us how to balance while standing on a gondola; where lovers will find the best secret hiding places; the finer points of etiquette and navigation during an agua alta; and how best to defend ourselves from the pitiless beauty of one of the world’s most stimulating cities. Open Venice Is a Fish, and Scarpa’s magnificent images, secret history, and hidden lore unfold like a treasure map of the senses.

Editorial Reviews

Erica Jong
Venice is a Fish is a gorgeous tribute to one of the strangest and most beautiful cities on Earth. Was it Henry James or Mary McCarthy who said, 'There is nothing new to say about Venice?" Tiziano Scarpa has proved them both wrong.
Jane da Mosto
For as long as Venice has existed, people have been writing about her, yet Tiziano Scarpa brings a remarkable freshness to his lively descriptions and explanations of the essence of Venice. (Jane da Mosto, co-author of The Science of Saving Venice)
Independent on Sunday (UK)
Scarpa's approach is from the soul, not the mind. [This book] says more about Venice than you'd ever imagine.
Sunday Express (UK)
Plenty of practical advice to steer a tourist through the city, and fascinating insights into its customs and history...a lovely introduction to a magical city.
Independent (UK)
A splendidly fishy guide to Venice from a witty and imaginative writer. To write originally about Venice must be one of the greatest challenges a writer can take up. Every year, hundreds of books on the city are published, but none resembles this one.
Italy Magazine
A beautifully written book with one of the most refreshing insights into Venice that has ever been published. You'll be gripped from the first line...
Elle (France)
This is a very unsettling guide to Venice. It contains the addresses of no museums, hotels or restaurants. In Venice is a Fish, the author invites the reader to partake in sensual experiences that will enable her to discover the most intimate facets of the city. It's a funny initiation ceremony where one learns how to stand on a gondola, to cross barefoot muddy canals and caress eyes shut the faces of statues. Tiziano Scarpa's intelligence is a delight. Using stylistic audacity and literary remixes, he carries off an ambitious intellectual enterprise.
Le Figaro
A short, wonderful ode to the city. To touch it, feel it, describe it in all its bends and angles, to caress the myth, this is the aim of the writer. He ends his stroll in the 'Venetian langour' with these words that constitute a declaration of love: 'There is no better place than this one.
Publishers Weekly

Prolific Venetian writer Scarpa pledges not "to name a single hotel, restaurant, bar or shop" in this delicate yet supple book, a chain of linked and sensuously translated essays about the one of the world's most unusual and historical cities. He focuses each chapter of his tour through different parts of the body. He begins with the feet before moving up to the legs and heart. The translation renders even the most basic descriptions wonderfully tactile. Only eventually does Scarpa move on to the more obvious sights, sounds, tastes and smells. The main text is just over a hundred pages, but a 40-page coda takes it into the lit-crit realm by way of a "micro-anthology of Venetian texts" that includes samplings from the author's other works. Scarpa is better known in Italy than America, but that could change with this brief book, which captures Venice as only words and language on the tongue of a native can. (Aug.)

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Library Journal

Scarpa, who has published essays, novels, and poetry, offers a native's view of Venice, pieced together from Venetian history, his own personal life, and the kind of anecdotes that don't often make it into traditional travel guides. (The title refers to the shape of Venice when seen on a map.) Scarpa exhorts the traveler to leave guidebooks behind and see, smell, taste, and hear his Venice, an often dark place where the canals stink, church bells and heels echo through narrow streets, and the city's deadly beauty (radium pulchritudinis) is kept in check by scaffolding and unsympathetic modern buildings. Later chapters of his book include two that are variations on earlier chapters, presumably to fill out what otherwise is an intriguing but slim volume. Also included is a short essay on Venice by Guy de Maupassant. Although called a guide in the subtitle, this is not a travel guide, per se, but a meditation on a place.

Café Life Venice is the third in the "Café Life" series authored by Wolff and Paperno (Rome and Florence are their previous volumes). It's an attractive little book, full of color photographs of 17 cafés, bakeries, wine bars, and gelato shops and equally colorful and entertaining stories of their owners and of Venice. Readers will feel ready to greet the owners as if they were old friends after having read about them in such familiar detail. Travelers on a budget should check another guide for prices, since this includes none, as well as for more choices. While travelers to Venice will find much to appreciate in both of these books, they should regard them as supplements to comprehensive travel guides. Both are recommended forpublic libraries with large travel collections.
—Linda M. Kaufmann

Kirkus Reviews
Definitely not your father's travel guide: A native Venetian offers some playful apercus about La Serenissima. Venice is a fish: "How did this marvelous beast make its way up the Adriatic?" Venice is a tortoise: "its stone shell is made of grey trachite borders . . . which pave the streets." Venice is whatever novelist, poet and playwright Scarpa feels like making of it in his English-language debut, an entertaining, highly idiosyncratic look at la dolce vita veneta. Organizing his random agglomeration of musings by parts of the body, he suggests in the chapter on feet that tourists simply let theirs wander. "Why fight the labyrinth?" he asks. "Let the streets decide your journey for you . . . Lose your bearings. Just drift." Let your legs absorb the never-flat surfaces of the city's calli (streets), open your heart to the "permanent state of romantic excitement" that leads Venetians to make love outdoors on every street corner. (There are some hilarious anecdotes in this chapter, including one about a guy who offers a jovial "Hi!" to a passing acquaintance without disturbing the activities of his girlfriend, kneeling in front of him.) Hands (rubbing centuries-old plaster), face (hidden behind the famous carnival masks), ears, mouth, nose, eyes-each gives the author an excuse to strut his stuff. Scarpa provides insider information about the best local dishes (wholemeal spaghetti, fried sardines and calves liver, each sauteed in oodles of onions); about the meaning of street names, which generally commemorate "foul deeds and popular customs"; about why the city is plagued by flooding (deep channels dug in the lagoon to accommodate oil tankers). It's all exceedingly readable andagreeable-and nothing more. Venice's remarkable 1,400-year history as a crossroads between East and West is nowhere in evidence, and the city's character is rendered in such broad strokes that it approaches caricature. Plenty of atmosphere and attitude, but not much else; this would have been better as a snappy magazine article. Agent: George Lucas/InkWell Management

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Read an Excerpt

One of Italy's brightest literary lights reinvents travel writing with a seductive, intoxicating celebration of the magical saltwater city"Venice is a fish," writes Tiziano Scarpa. "It's like a vast sole stretched out against the deep. How did this marvelous beast make its way up the Adriatic and fetch up here, of all places?"

Paying homage to his native city in a lyrical and evocative style, Venice Is A Fish: A Sensual Guide by Tiziano Scarpa guides readers down tiny alleys, over bridges, and through squares, daring us to lose ourselves, forget the guidebooks, and experience Venice as Venetians do.

Venice Is A Fish provides no hotel ratings or museum hours. Instead, in a delightful initiation, Scarpa tells us how to balance while standing on a gondola; where lovers will find the best secret hiding places; the finer points of etiquette and navigation during a auga alta; and how to best defend ourselves from the pitiless beauty of one of the world's most stimulating cities. Open Venice Is A Fish, and Scarpa's magnificent images, secret history and hidden lore unfold like a treasure map of the senses.

On the map, the bridge connecting it to terra firma looks like a fishing-line: Venice looks as if it's swallowed the bait. It's doubly bound: a steel platform and a strip of tarmac; but that happened afterwards, just a century ago. We were worried that Venice might one day change its mind and go off travelling again; we fastened it to the lagoon so that it wouldn't suddenly get it into its head to weigh anchor and leave, this time forever. We tell everyone else we did it for its own protection, because after all those years in its moorings, it's lost the knack of swimming: it would be caught straight away, it would end up on some Japanese whaling ship, or on display in a Disneyland aquarium. The truth is that we can no longer do without it. We're jealous. And even sadistic and violent, when it comes to keeping someone we love. We've done something worse than tying it to terra firma: we've literally nailed it to the sea bed.

In a novel by Bohumil Hrabal there's a child who's obsessed with nails. He constantly hammers them into the floor: at home, in a hotel, when visiting other people's houses. All the parquet floors that come within his reach are hammered away at from dawn till dusk. As though the child wanted to fix the houses to the ground, as a way of feeling more secure. Venice is made just like that; except that the nails are made not of iron but of wood, and they're enormous, between two and ten metres in length, with a diameter of twenty or thirty centimetres. They're planted in the slime of the seabed.

These buildings that you see, the marble palazzi, the brick houses, couldn't have been built on water, they would have sunk into the mud. How do you lay solid foundations on slime? The Venetians thrust hundreds of thousands, millions of poles into the lagoon. Underneath the Basilica della Salute there are at least a hundred thousand; and also at the feet of the Rialto Bridge, to support the thrust of the stone arch. St Mark's Basilica rests on big oaken rafts, supported by elm-wood stilts. The trunks were floated down to the lagoon along the River Piave, from the Selva di Cadore on the slopes of the Venetian Alps. There are larches, elms, alders, pines and oaks. La Serenissima was very shrewd, she always kept a close eye on her wooden possessions; the forests were protected by laws of draconian severity.

Upside-down trees, hammered in with a kind of anvil hoisted on pulleys. I had the chance to see them as a child: I heard the songs of the pile-drivers, sung to the rhythm of the slow and powerful percussion of those cylindrical mallets suspended in the air, running on vertical rails, slowly rising and then crashing back down again. The trunks are mineralised precisely because of the mud, which has wrapped them in its protective sheath, preventing them from rotting in contact with oxygen: breathless for centuries, the wood has been turned almost to stone.

You're walking on a vast upside-down forest, strolling above an incredible inverted wood. It's like something dreamed up by a mediocre science-fiction writer, and yet it's true. Let me tell you what happens to your body in Venice, starting with your feet.


Venice is a tortoise: its stone shell is made of grey trachite boulders (maségni in Venetian), which pave the streets. All the stone comes from elsewhere: as Paolo Barbaro has written, almost everything you see in Venice comes from somewhere else, it's been imported or traded, if not actually plundered. The surface you are treading on is smooth, although many of the stones have been beaten with a small milled hammer to keep you from slipping when it rains.

Where are you going? Throw away your map! Why do you so desperately need to know where you are right now? OK: in all cities, in the commercial centres, at bus stops or underground stations, you're used to having signs that hold you by the hand; there's almost always a big map with a coloured dot, an arrow to bellow at you, 'You are here'. In Venice, too, you need only look up to see lots of yellow signs with arrows telling you: you've got to go this way, don't get confused, To the Railway Station, To San Marco, To the Accademia. Forget it, just ignore them. Why fight the labyrinth? Follow it, for once. Don't worry, let the streets decide your journey for you, rather than the other way round. Learn to wander, to dawdle. Lose your bearings. Just drift.

Do what we call 'acting Venetian': after the war the phrase alluded to our football team, 'doing the Venetian', 'doing a Venice'. Our footballers had an exasperating, selfish style of play, always with the ball at their feet, loads of dribbling and hardly any passing, a limited vision of the game. Of course they did: they'd grown up in that varicose whirlpool of alleyways, little streets, sharp turns, bottlenecks. So obviously, even when they took to the field in shorts and jerseys, they went on seeing calli and campielli — streets and squares — everywhere, and struggled to disentangle themselves from a private labyrinthine hallucination between the midfield and the penalty area.

Imagine you're a red blood cell running along some veins: you follow the heartbeat, you allow yourself to be pumped by that invisible heart. Or else you're a mouthful of food being carried along by the intestine: the oesophagus of an extremely narrow calle squeezes you between brick walls until they are practically grinding you, then pushes you out, sends you slipping through the valve of a bridge that flows to the other side of the water and deposits you in a wide stomach, a campo from which you can't continue without first having paused for a while, forced to stop because the façade of a church holds you back, chemically transforms you to your very depths, digests you.

The first and only itinerary I suggest to you has a name. It's called: at random. Subtitle: aimlessly. Venice is small, you can afford to get lost without ever really leaving it. At the very worst, you'll always end up at the water's edge, looking out over the lagoon. There is no Minotaur in this labyrinth, no aquatic monster waiting to devour its victims. An American friend of mine came to Venice for the first time one winter night. She couldn't find her hotel, and with mounting anxiety she roamed the whole of the deserted city, clutching a pointless piece of paper bearing its address. The more minutes that passed, the more convinced she became that she was bound to be raped. She was astonished to have spent three hours in a strange city without being attacked, without anybody running off with her luggage. This was a girl from Los Angeles! Keep an eye out for pickpockets, particularly around St Mark's Square, and on crowded jetties. If you can't find your way you'll always meet a Venetian who'll be happy to show you how to double back. That is, if you really want to.

Getting lost is the only place worth going to.

You can wander confidently around, anywhere, at any hour of the day or night. There are no rough parts of town, or rather there aren't any left: the only possible nuisance might be the occasional drunk. Incidentally, start familiarising yourself with the words of Venice: the districts aren't called quartieri, as in other Italian cities, but sestieri, because there are six rather than four districts in the historic centre: each one of them is a sixth of Venice, not a quarter like the four groups of buildings that form in cities thrown up at the crossing of two major roads, in the four slices of earth cut by a crossroads. Santa Croce, Cannaregio, Dorsoduro, San Polo, San Marco, Castello. The house numbers on the doorposts don't start at 1 on each street, but continue to count the whole sestiere. The sestier de Castello reaches the record number of 6828, in Fondamenta Dandolo, at the foot of the Ponte Rosso. On the other side of the same bridge, at the end of Calle delle Erbe, the sestier de Cannaregio begins, with its quota of 6426.

The paving stones are set one behind the other, in long segmented lines. They mark the direction of the calli, emphasising their lines of perspective. The city planners clearly designed them especially for children, who like to walk without standing on the dividing lines between one stone and the next. 'Don't cross the line!' said Salvador Dalí, summing up the compositional laws of his painting, so formally reactionary, and so insane in the content of its vision. Did being a child in Venice mean getting used to not crossing the lines, respecting the outlines of forms, while upsetting their contents? Do Venetian feet pretend to bow to the status quo while at the same time giving it a visionary distortion? Do we have dazed big toes, elated heels? Look at how much surrealist delirium, what an absurd, oneiric city we have managed to produce by insanely arranging a billion perfectly perpendicular parallelepipeds! Each maségno is an emblem, reproducing in miniature the whole of Venice, a city stuffed into its own outline, inexorably segregated from the water, prevented from expanding, from going beyond itself, driven mad by too much meditation, too much introspection. Look how many churches you come across with every step you take. A city that is seemingly pious, in fact theologically anarchic, devoted to a plethora of major and minor saints, adherents of an exploded, disseminated, utterly lunatic religion. Each maségno is a coat of arms without heraldic figures, a blazon consisting solely of a grey background, a blank slate, obtuse, unmarked: the only design on this vacant escutcheon is its perimeter. But tread on them, the rows of maségni: you'll notice the differences in height (a few millimetres only) through the soles of your feet. One French gentleman walked on them as a child and remembered them for the rest of his life.

On the twenty-first of November, the feast of the Madonna della Salute, place yourself at the exact centre of the octagonal church, beneath the lead chandelier that plunges tens of metres from the dome; drag the sole of your foot across the bronze disc set into the floor, as tradition decrees, touch with the tip of your shoe the words unde origo inde salus cast into the metal: from the origin comes salvation, the origin is the earth, walking on it brings you luck, does you good; salvation rises up from the feet. You should learn to make the sign of the devil with your toes, to discharge the gesture into the earth, letting it run the whole length of your body.

Apart from the inevitable mess left by man's best friend, it's only at the Zattere, in the springtime, that you need to watch where you put your feet: some Venetians go there to fish at night, using lamps and torches to attract enamoured cuttlefish and catch them in a kind of big butterfly net. From the bottom of their buckets, the captured cuttlefish catch you unawares by spurting ink on to the stones of the shore, staining socks and trousers.

Feel how your toes turn prehensile on the steps of the bridges, clutching at worn or squared edges as you climb; your soles brake you on the way down, your heels halt you. Wear light shoes, soft-soled, not post-punk boots or trainers with rubbery air-pockets, no spongy inner padding. I suggest this spiritual exercise: become a foot.

Meet the Author

Tiziano Scarpa is a poet, novelist, playwright, essayist and winner of the Italia Prize.

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Venice Is a Fish: A Sensual Guide 3.6 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 4 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Tiziano Scarpa, Venetian by birth, residency, and choice, plunges the reader right into his tale of the reality and myths of Venice, what the senses of a Venetian reveal about La Serenissima, not what others say about it. “You’re walking on a vast upside-down forest, strolling above an incredible inverted wood”, he observes, and makes his readers wonder what is upside down, the physical City or its benighted observers and citizenry. Scarpa wants to “…tell you what happens to your body in Venice” in chapters starting with your Feet, then Legs, Heart, Hand, Face, Ears, Mouth, Nose, Eyes, and even then suggests a few other books for accessing better explanations than his own. He excels at telling you what happens to your body and to your senses overwhelmed by this place (after all, everyone says that they must be!), in tales from the most exalted to the genuinely scabrous. Be prepared for the truth – you can handle it, can’t you? What can you expect from a City that is like a fish, created not as mused by “historians” but arrived complete at this spot from far away, a City that swam into the Lagoon exhausted, only to be caught by man – tethered to the shore by the hooks, double lines and sinker of causeways for those foreign Terra Firma iron beasts, railroads and automobiles. As if that were not enough, writes Scarpa, mankind has actually nailed the poor City to the floor of the Lagoon with millions of hammered wooden piles, turned it into a veritable pincushion, assuring that it is unable to escape their prodding and inspections, their wanton dancing on its imprisoned body. Scarpa’s word pictures are enlivened by tales of history and the present, how people really live in the City today, as well as the experience of those who came to prod the “specimen” on its pins – the literati and the “day-trippers”. He reveals places hiding in plain view from those incapable of observing, gastronomy special to a special place, cultural triumphs and societal peccadillos that built the character of the City. Sometimes, you can see yourself in the scenes, sometimes his words make you feel like an interloper, a voyeur, peeking into what might best be kept between Venetians. I mean… You don’t share those things about your family or your city, do you? He makes you an accomplice. A quarter of the book is a “Coda”, “A micro-anthology of Venetian texts”, some by Scarpa, some by other writers of notoriety: An 1885 article, “Venice”, by Guy de Maupassant; A 1997 story by Scarpa, “The Killing Stones”, revised for this publication; “Instructions for Self-Defense Against Beauty”, Tiziano Scarpa’s tour de force “remix” of several paragraphs from the Chapter “Eyes”, written in 1996; “The Bridge of Gum”, another Scarpa “remix” of a paragraph about Ponte del Vinante from the Chapter “Hands”; and, Diogo Mainardi’s “Going Back to Sleep in Venice”, from a 1995 pamphlet for young tourists, written as part of the City’s “Rolling (Writing) Venice” project. This little book is weighted with the history and presence of Venice, skewed to reveal the life before you that is artfully or naively concealed by tour guides and “tourist” reporters! Should you choose to read “Venice is a Fish” (and I highly recommend that you do read it!), be forewarned to heed Mainardi’s advice… “Be prepared to ignore the street signs”.
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