A mutual friend and Venetophile introduced me to Judith Harris a couple years ago, and I had the pleasure of including her essay on Venice in my book First Spritz Is Free. Judith’s voluminous knowledge of Venetian history enlivens her writing, whether in one of her books or articles or her First Spritz essay. I hope one day we’ll meet in person! Until then, I can enjoy her responses to this month’s “Venice, My Muse” interview.
How has Venice seduced you?
Seduction is the right word! It derives from the Latin, seducere, which means to lead astray, especially from duty. And Venice does lead one astray: it seduces. How? Because it is beautiful, unique, and the loveliest city in the world, thanks to its deep past, its rich civilization, its islets, its people, even its cemetery. Venice seduces in mid-winter, and especially at Christmas, when it is often cold but sunny.
What do you never fail to do in Venice?
In Venice I love to walk and walk and walk some more. I delight in looking at every curious corner, however minor–to pause before every church facade, but also to revel in the laundry dangling on lines above the canals. I especially enjoy looking up at the high Gothic windows of the palazzi, and gazing down at the sometimes very low bridges as the gondoliers skillfully maneuver beneath them, bowing swiftly, perfectly.
What is your Venice soundtrack?
Most of all there is grand opera. The opera theater La Fenice was built in 1792, and it is literally thrilling to recall that in the mid-19th Century Rossini, Bellini, and Donizetti all mounted operas for the stage at La Fenice. Here Giuseppe Verdi directed rehearsals of both Il Trovatore and La Traviata. In Venice, too, Richard Wagner wrote Act II of Tristan and Isolde. La Fenice was burned in 1836 and rebuilt, and again destroyed by fire in 1996 and again rebuilt.
Walk or take a boat?
Nowhere is it lovelier to walk than in Venice. To walk across a bridge is a particular delight. A pause at the top of a bridge offers a memorable spectacle: to peer down upon boatloads of gawking tourists, upon wedding parties, upon romance, upon life itself.
Which church or campo best epitomizes you? Please explain.
The question should really be which church or campo best epitomizes Venice itself, and a response to that is very difficult. The market by the Rialto Bridge is only one of the campi I love.
Which is your favorite Venetian festival and why?
Very dear American friends make an annual effort to fly to Italy to attend the famous Venetian festivals, beginning with Carnevale. My personal favorite is the Biennale di Venezia, which offers works of art and unusual encounters with artists. Albeit outside the Biennale itself, in the Church of Sant’Antonin I saw the incredible models made by Ai Weiwei in 2012 detailing his 81 days in a prison in China.
Spritz or Bellini?
What do you always tell friends to do when they visit the city?
Avoid the narrow streets when the cruise ships bring in their thousands for a quick hop through the city.
If you could have dinner with any Venetian, living or dead, who would it be and why? What would dinner be?
I first visited Venice a half century ago, attending a reception at the home of Peggy Guggenheim. It was thrilling to meet her, and I would enjoy dining with her, reliving those moments when she was still entertaining in her garden and collecting fine works of contemporary art. What would we have for dinner? I am not very adventurous and so would stick with tradition: sarde in saor for starters, and then risotto al nero di seppia.
Casanova: genius or cad?
Casanova was, of course, a genius, or we would not be pondering the question today. We would have forgotten him. Had he lived today, we women would be screaming with rage at his modus vivendi, not yet outmoded, however; he notoriously had an affair with a girl of 16 and with her sister of 14 as well. But I suffer for his time in prison.
What would you do with $30,000 U.S. to spend in Venice?
I would use the money to try to find a way to reduce the damage from high water. My $30,000 would not be much of a help, but could begin crowdfunding to at least foster the idea of finding a way to keep the huge cruise ships at a distance safer for the city. It is very sad that the much criticized $6.5 billion sea wall called Mose remains unfinished.
If money were no object, which palazzo would you buy?
The 16th Century Palazzzetto Pisani near the Campo Santo Stefano, which overlooks the Grand Canal. Alternatively, I would be tempted to buy a modest palazzetto on one of the farther islands so as to avoid the crush of tourists.
Which gelato flavor are you?
Gelati artigianali tutti! Try the chocolate varieties at Venchi–but don’t ignore the others.
How can readers learn more about you and your creative pursuits?
Judith Harris, prize-winning author and freelance journalist based in Rome, Italy, is a graduate of Northwestern University. She began work in Rome as a cultural attaché to the US Embassy.
Returning to freelance journalism, over time her reports from Italy have appeared in Time magazine, the Wall Street Journal, ARTnews, and Reuters Agency. For 25 years she conducted a biweekly broadcast on Italian culture for RAI International.
At age 17 she won her first journalism prize, and for her reporting on Italian terrorism for NBC TV she was included in the Peabody Award. She is currently the Italian correspondent for the online magazine www.i-italy.
Pompeii Awakened: A Story of Rediscovery (2007, 2014, I.B. Tauris),
The Monster in the Closet (2012, American History Imprints),
Evelina, A Victorian Heroine in Venice (2017, Fonthill Media),
Reflections from a Roman Lake (to be published)