Venice Is a State of Mind

Frances Mayes Dream of Venice

This essay, an excerpt from Dream of Venice, is the Foreword to the book, written by Frances Mayes.


Venice is a State of Mind

Venice is a state of mind.  That is, the scintillating, kaleidoscopic, shifting colors of that watery realm remain alive inside me long after I depart the actual city.

While there, the sensory overload constantly leaves me spent and happily exhausted at the end of every day, reeling with images of the man peeling artichokes at fifty miles an hour in the Rialto market, stalls mounded with lurid fish, waving clothes lines, squadrons of pigeons, the flashing oars of the gondoliers, the lure of luxury shops, the shadowy windows of the ombra bars, tourists gorging into San Marco, lost narrow streets leading me further into a labyrinth, even the sparrows pecking at my bread basket at a canal-side restaurant.

I’ve let myself wander all day, following a glimpse of a façade, a snatch of violin music, a child kicking a ball, and a cascade of blue plumbago hanging over a distant garden wall.  I’m almost thoughtless in Venice, reverting to a primitive creature who takes on the color and temperature of where I sit in an ochre, apricot, and stone piazza, sipping a spritz.

Later and far away from Venice, the city floating through memory is silent.  It belongs only to me, the traveler.  I stand again in Palladio’s Il Redentore, watching that white-as-icicles light fall through the lofty coved windows.  Was the cold light a part of his architectural plan?  In a city patched from an abbondanza of tints and hues, did he think you shall be immersed in white air?

I step outside and the Grand Canal – suddenly still – has darkened under a cloud to shimmering blue, like the supple Venetian velvet cape I once glimpsed on a woman stepping off a yacht in the rain.  If I ever saw another, I’d mortgage my house to buy it.  But maybe it’s enough just to remember an expanse of water faceted with light.  Venice, the literal gate to the watery subconscious.

Under an arched bridge, the narrow canal – what is that green?  Liquid malachite?  The eyes of the first boy I loved?  Yes, and when the sun hits, the color shifts to the green of a Coca-Cola bottle!  At lunch, nearby motor launches break up the surface, cutting the reflections into cubist angles of blue, yellow, red, white, churning and reforming.   At night the reflections turn silver and gold; long wands of starry shapes that easily mesmerize….  You might be momentarily convinced that you have landed in one of Italo Calvino’s invisible cities.

Always in memory, the moon is full.  Nowhere is the moon so powerful, enormous, so… well, heavenly.  Because it floats, as the city floats, a mirage of a mirage.  The moon could be chipped from travertine by an artist.  Why not?  Haven’t humans created this unlikely phantasm of a city?  Couldn’t they just as easily hang a moon over it?

On the brink of sleep, I sense the light in the Carpaccio painting at Gallerie dell’Accademia, “The Dream of Saint Ursula.”  She is sleeping with her little dog at her bedside.  At the door, the angel has just arrived, holding the palm of her martyrdom.  He steps into the room in a triangle of sunlight.  All these years, that golden light has fallen into the calm bedroom where she is dreaming.

The memory of a place is like that.  You are the dreamer.  You are the room.  You open the door over and over.


About Frances Mayes

Frances Mayes is a preeminent poet, memoirist, essayist, and novelist. Her internationally best-selling books, including Under the Tuscan Sun, revolve around her life in Tuscany and travels throughout the world. Under Magnolia: A Southern Memoir (2014) is about coming of age in the Deep South and the region’s powerful influence on her life. She divides her time between North Carolina and Cortona, Italy. Ms. Mayes also produces the award-winning Bramasole Olive Oil.


Dream of Venice Cover Image


“This is a beautiful book on Venice by the many writers who have fallen in love with the city. The photographs are intoxicating.”  —Erica Jong, author & poet