their structures and characters


Merida's street names

Venice as maze

Antananarivo's thousand villages

Istanbul and the City of the blind

Seven-Gated Thebes

Four-Gated Thebes

Hundred-Gated Thebes

Aswan at cusps of earth and sky

Bivalve Dubrovnik

Atrani between headlands

Three-bayed Watamu

Deep-Moroccan Marrakesh

There will be more.


Guy Ottewell

Venice as maze

We say easily that some place feels “maze-like“, but Venice really does. Like those other towns, it's not topologically a maze, in the sense of having ways that spiral in on themselves or wrap around each other or lead a long way to nowhere, but it feels like a maze in that you just cannot find your way across it by taking direct routes. There are no direct routes.
     There is just one large simple form, the Z (really a smooth backward S) of the Grand Canal. It serves to divide the island city into describable pieces: San Polo and San Marco within the two curves, Cannaregio and Castello and Dorsoduro and San Croce around (though these pieces do not at all closely correspond to the mazy boundaries of the six traditional sestieri with the same names). To link the regions, there are only the three bridges — Scalzi, Rialto, Accademia — across the Z of the Grand Canal. (This was before the recent building of a western steel bridge at the Piazzale Roma.) To get expeditiously between points far apart, the only way is to go by vaporetto, water bus, along the Grand Canal. On land there are very few ways that continue more or less unbroken for distances more than a hundred yards: the Strada Nuova in Cannaregio, and some fondamente along canal sides. Even these are interrupted, like every other way, by the stepped humps of the bridges over the small canals.

    (There are no wheeled vehicles in Venice, except handcarts, and tourists' wheeled luggage. Not quite true since Mussolini built the long bridge that carries the railway and also a road into the industrial northwest corner of the city. Even bicycles aren't supposed to be allowed, though one shows furtively in a painting I did on my first visit to Venice.)
     Every other street or passageway is in short bits, which rapidly debouch into cross-bits, unless they turn corners, open into campi, or dead-end into walls or into canals. (I have come very close to stepping off a passageway's end into a canal.) The buildings are rectangular or nearly so, and line up along the Grand Canal or some of the sides of campi, but they have been shaken together in a centuries-long sieve. The mass of buildings and slits between them gradually shifts orientations, so that it's no use trying to keep your continual left and right turns to a general direction; your general direction curves, and sometimes comes around in a circle. If you ask directions to somewhere you get a pointed finger and “sempre diritto” — but there is no diritto in Venice!
     The only way, if you don't know the way, is to discern a crowd and follow it. Here and there, even late at night, you come across a thickening of people, very much like ants who know they are on a trail because they keep bumping into their fellows. They are going one way toward San Marco and the other way toward the station (the Rialto being the mid point between them through which most journeys have to go). So you guess left or right and follow them; and because of the ant-trail you know not to stay with, for instance, the relatively wide and straight Calle dei Botteri but to turn into one of the slits in its side.
     Someone born in Venice and going to another city may find its blocks or wedges of streets crassly simple. A Venetian could surely not get lost in any other city! We might find that Venetians are winners at maze-solving.
     Helpfully to tourists the municipality has put up many arrowed signs along the ant-trails:
On one wall near the Santi Apostoli, signs point toward the very remote STAZIONEin opposite directions!
     And the canals — that is, the small ones, called rii. Before going to Venice I imagined it to be a number of islands, with a sort of village sitting on each and looking out across its surrounding bridges. Well, there may once have been on each island its village, which grew outward to fit against the surrounding water and narrow it to a canal; but it doesn't appear like that, except that there are the campi or “squares“, many of which still feel like the hubs of villages. You are aware mostly of the mass of stone, finding your way around inside it — turning corners, passing between pillars and under arches and around the rambling limbs of churches — and at unexpected moments you come across a piece of a canal, like a bit of broken glass glittering among bricks.
     The bridges — all high semicircular humps of white stone to let standing gondoliers pass under, with seven to ten steps up each side — are themselves, some of them, like little villages with room to congregate: because the openings they connect may not be opposite to each other, and may be more than one to each side. I think the most spacious, and almost impossible to draw the plan of while standing on it, is the one that evolved to get from San Giovanni Crisostomo to the Campo Flaminio Corner north of it.
     There is a fine large map that you can buy; it appears to show, in pleasant color, the shape of every block of buildings, every alley and courtyard. This map, though it has only a few mistakes (Campo Santa Maria Nova has an extension because a building is missing), compounds the maze. The map may give street-names that it considers correct though people no longer use them, the street signs may give dialectal forms — or vice versa. We were directed to the street called La Merceria; but that name applies on the map to one street, in reality to a group of several little streets roughly alongside each other like tines of a fork; the signs posted on them say (for instance) Marzaria del San Salvador o de Capitello; the map gives them yet other names. You come to a sign that says: Ponte Giovanni Andrea de la Croce o de la Malvasia. Can you remember that? — and how do you parse it, is “de la Malvasia” the alternative name of Giovanni or of the bridge?
     On the map it may appear that the route you want to take — even one of the main ant-trail routes — does not get through at all; or that there is no way to get to one of the landing-places of vaporetto or traghetto on the Grand Canal's sides. If you look at the map more closely, there are little dashed lines: there is a way under the buildings, a sottoportego.
     I recognized the view I had so elaborately drawn during my first visit to Venice long ago: we were on the Ponte de Bareteri, looking along a short stretch of canal to where it runs into another at a T. Tilly saw among the windows in the farther wall of the crossing canal a “Camere” sign; wouldn't it be good to lodge at this spot, in my painting? and she set off to inquire at the place, which seemed not far away. As soon as I, left on the bridge, looked at the map, I knew I shouldn't have let her go. It wasn't totally impossible to get to the other side of that building from here, but it involved a detour of seven times the distance, false turnings to avoid, another bridge, garden gates — I knew she'd be lost. She was, and I could only wait for her to find her way back.
     The campo that feels most like a village, somewhere in the San Polo region, is San Giacomo dell'Orio (one of the less easy names to recall in a hurry!). It's an ample space because it wraps around its church, which is externally a rambling dusty heap of round apses and has the usual art to boast of inside. There are trees, benches, a shop, café tables; dogs, birds, and people hang out; drifts of children cross on their way from school, and play with balls and skateboards. One of the openings piercing the smoother of the two long sides happens to be that leading to Venice — to mainer parts; the others prove to be tunnels ending in wharves on a canal. On the other long side, one of the ways around the church leads (past the opening of a hidden courtyard) to a sub-campo beside another canal, with more tables and a bridge; two others lead to two other bridges, which can see but not communicate with each other. The tapering end of the campo (Calle Larga, though not at all wide) becomes a sort of grotto easier to draw than concisely describe: yet another canal, turning a corner, the usual humped bridge with chain of figures loitering or hurrying over it, restaurant tables crowding points on either side, alley-streets slipping away slit-like to three destinations.
     There are, in the cores of other old cities, similarly dense webs of alleys and piazzas and perhaps even canal-glimpses, but the web of Venice is vast. It's all core. Just glancing at the map, or opening a guide-book and seeing all the chapters on the component districts, you are impressed by its vastness. It extends over almost the whole main island, that is, the island-mass, as much as — well, on measuring it I find it's only about a mile and a half wide. It seems several times wider, presumably because walking across it is such an intricate labor. That's why, though Venice is now injected with ridiculously large hordes of tourists, they don't seem dominant except in their concentrations around the station, Rialto, and San Marco. The mass absorbs them, like particles in the passages of a lung.
     Venice is — to under-state — pleasant to arrive at. You cross the lagoon in the train, come out of the broad front of the station; broad steps descend to the bank of the Grand Canal, at left is the Ponte dei Scalzi (“of the barefoots”); you ascend it and descend into the maze. I conceived of making a Venice Maze Game: you find yourself in a little street that leads straight ahead, in the general direction of Venice's heart, you quickly come to a point where there is a turning you could take to the left, but you ignore it and go ahead — and the little street dead-ends. You have to go back and take that other turning, over a canal, and so it goes on.

Ponte Scalzi