We Sail in Similar Gondolas

It's odd how Russia keeps turning up -- even in Venice, which you'd think is about as far away a you can get. Yes, I know that St. Petersburg is called the Venice of the north. But that's what an Englishman once called "an unequal equation."


St. Petersburg, that's to say, may be like Venice, but Venice is not at all like St. Petersburg. St. Petersburg has no gondolas, for starters -- and no Byzantine, Romanesque Gothic or Renaissance buildings. It also has nothing to evoke what Henry James once called "that incredible past in which we once lived ... not knowing that we were fantastically happy."


Anyway, I was in Venice with Yelena for a brief visit not long ago. It was her first time there -- and she was knocked sideways. And so was a Russian couple we soon met wandering near the fish and vegetable markets of the Rialto.


"Nothing can prepare you for this, can it?" they said simply.


I asked them if they were there on holiday.


"Partly," they answered. "But we're mostly here to meet our son and grandson, who are coming from London."


Ever since they'd arrived, they said, they'd been simply walking the city in what they described as a perpetual gasp of admiration.


After that, we became quickly aware of the Russian presence in Venice. Some of the tourist restaurants, we noticed, had menus printed outside in Russian. And we heard the story of the Russian woman who lived in the Hotel Danieli for something like nine months at a time, as she guided specialist tours that came and went. Venetian waiters and porters loved Russian tourists, they said. They were the biggest tippers there were.


Perhaps because of this, Yelena and I were curious about what connections there might be between Venice and Russia. Venice, after all, is a city of the imagination, and we wondered what there might be to stir the Russian imagination. The next morning, then, we took a vaporetto to the Ca' d'Oro, the 15th-century palace on the Grand Canal that had been bought in 1847 by Prince Troubetskoi for the ballerina Maria Taglioni. The news there, however, was not good. The Ca' d'Oro had once been covered in gold leaf, and its ornate decoration had been copied for the building of the Doge's Palace. But as soon as Taglioni got possession of it from Troubetskoi -- we found out -- she sold the old well, demolished the interior Gothic staircase and pulled down and threw away the marbles on the facade, as well as the floor tiles.


Our spirits were lifted a little, though, when we traveled on to the Palazzo Venier near the Accademia, where the marchesa Luisa Casati had held parties for the visiting Ballets Russes. The palace is now the home of the Peggy Guggenheim Foundation, one of the world's greatest collections of modern art, and the Russians -- Pevsner, Gabo, Chagall, Lissitsky and Malevich -- were well represented.


The Russian connections became part of our daily wanderings. St. Mark's Square was (for us, for a minute or two) the place where a special bull-baiting was held for the visiting Russian Tsarevich in 1782. St. Mark's was the cathedral that Turgenev, among others, had tried to save from insensitive 19th-century restoration. We looked for the palace, not far from La Fenice, where Catherine the Great's master of music, Domenico Cimarosa, had died. And we wandered about the Dorsodouro district, searching for the houses where the Princess Darinka and Tsar Alexander II's mistress and morganatic wife, Princess Yekaterina Dolgorukaya, had lived.


All of this, though, was faintly depressing -- there was too much death and exile about it. So we finally took a vaporetto to San Lazarro degli Armeni, a little island that was given to an Armenian monk in 1717 and is still devoted to preserving Armenian culture. Lord Byron loved this place. He used to row out here for Armenian lessons, and he helped pay for an Armenian-English dictionary to be written. Peacocks wander in the garden, and the monastery contains a wonderful miscellany of objects, including illuminated manuscripts, a 3,000-year-old Egyptian sarcophagus and a collection of 14 ivory balls that fit inside each other like matryoshki.


The monastery is not quite Russian, perhaps, but it is still a wonderful, heart-easing place. And in any case, better this version of Russia than the lion's mouth near the entrance of Santa Maria della Visitazione, where citizens used to deposit letters of denunciation. Yes, the City of Light once really did have a lot in common with Russia. It, too, had stukachi, or informers, and a local Okhrana.