Brodskij in Venice

The famous poet Josif Brodskij had a special relationship with our marvellous city, Venice. He dedicated to his favorite city the best prose that he wrote: Watermark (in Italian, Fondamenta degli Incurabili).

He was born in Leningrad, but due to his ideas he had been exiled and thus spent many years travelling around the world. During this period he visited Venice over 17 times, but always in December. Why always in winter? Because he had been impressed by a de Régnier novel in which many actions take place in Venice in winter.

Josif used to stay awake till late at night: midnight was his favorite moment of the day and the best time to admire Venice. What fascinated the poet most was water. He always adhered to the idea that God is time, or at least that His spirit is, and he used to mumble to himself, “If the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the water, the water was bound to reflect it.  Every New Year’s Eve, in a somewhat pagan fashion, he tried to find himself near water, preferably near a sea or an ocean, “to watch the emergence of a new helping, a new cupful of time from it.” In fact, since the date of his exile he spent every New Year’s Eve here, in Venice, in a cold rented apartment or in a crumbling hotel. He would arrive with a big luggage full of books and typewriters. He was not looking for “a naked maiden riding on a shell”; he was looking for “either a cloud or the crest of a wave hitting the shore at midnight”. That, to him, was time coming out of water, and he stared at the lace-like pattern it puts on the shore, not with a gypsy-like knowing, but “with tenderness and with gratitude”.

Solomon Volkov (a Russian journalist and musicologist) once asked him if it could be said that Venice had become one of his worlds.  Brodskij answered that every person sees themselves, whether they like it or not, as a hero out of some novel or movie in which they’re always in the frame. And his idea was that Venice should always be in the background, because if some idea of order exists, then Venice is the most natural, well thought out approximation of it.

What he did during his time in Venice, nobody really knows. He surely met several women. He used to meet up with Susan Sonntag to whom he dedicated the beautiful poem Venetian Stanza I. He met Olga Rudge, Ezra Pound’s lover, too, but many think that he fell in love with a countess in Venice…

Mariolina Doria de Zuliani and Josif met in Leningrad when Venice lived purely and solely in his dreams. The tall, elegant girl with hair as waves of the Adriatic sea and dark eyes cast her spell on the poet. He travelled to see her in Moscow, wrote her poems and dreams of the time when he could step out of his dreams and love his “Veneziana” in Venice. As soon as he settled in New York, he spent his first earned money on the most desirable journey of all – the one to the city of his dreams. He chased her and the scent she left in the air. “Then my Ariadne vanished, leaving behind a fragrant thread of her expensive (was it Shalimar?) perfume, which quickly dissipated in the musty atmosphere of a pensione. That’s how I found myself for the first time in this city”.

Twenty years after his death, nobody knows if his book Watermark is a long love letter to Mariolina or to Venice, but it’s a beautiful mystery. 

by Margherita Tess

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