• Gunn Meyerhoff Shay

La Serenissima

Without a doubt, Venice offers a feast for the eyes of anyone that takes time to see. Every corner turned opens to a new vista, even more alluring than the last. Blue sky or dense disappearing fog, mellow ochre sunset or darkest night, all revealing new secrets. The mystery never ends! A million stories told in a billion details, each one worthy of another watercolor. The people too—from every corner of the earth or from around the next passage—all walking, talking, gawking. The flocks of tourists following their guides, the ragazzi rolling through the crowds on their rollers, the mothers pushing bambini in strollers, the businessmen in finely tailored suits and scarves, the young art students in torn jeans. All moving at their own pace makes an unending parade of life. There is so much to see!


Even with all this scenery, memorable impressions too many to remember, there is something even more unique to this timeless city. There constantly, acting on the subliminal. The sounds of Venice earn her the title of “La Serenissima”: the most serene.


Church bells clang, competing in different tones to mark the passage of time and to invite the faithful to masses. Children laughing and shouting out to each other as they make their way to and from school each day. Seagulls cry out loud. Pigeons coo their secret messages to one another. The constant murmur of Italian and dozens of other languages being spoken in a constant low voice, as though someone uninvited may be listening. The low rumble of a vaporetto reversing engines at a ferry stop. The clatter of luggage rollers on paving stones rattling from place to place. All these gentle sounds reverberate off the stone and stucco and water. The lapping sound of wake water on wooden hulls or splashing off the fundamenta. These all waiting patiently for your attention.


A friendly competition between buskers provides another element of this urban sonata. A woman cellist unaccompanied plays classical music in Campo San Barnabas, while a quartet of young slavs play folk music led by a gamin who dances while blowing a mournful sounding clarinet. Late at night an old accordion player draws a French lament in and out of his magical machine. These musicians work for their coins but give the serene city much more than they take. Like birds singing in a dense forest, they help us find our way to the clearings!


On our way to visit La Doggana museum we stumble across a huge choir assembled on the steps of Santa Maria del Salute’, Our Lady of Good Health. All dressed in black tuxedos and evening gowns the singers look so out of place on an early Sunday morning. Soon an electric piano begins to play, and a wildly gesturing conductor invokes them to start up. “We are the World” they bellow in italicized English. It is a humbling moment, their prayer together before Salute’ a plea for unity and a cure for cancer.


Like a symphony played in a grand performance hall, it is not only that heard which brings delight. It is also what is missing! In Venice, no loud cars, no steel belted radial tires hissing across asphalt streets, no overpowering sound system turning an automobile into a giant boom box. No 18-wheel tractor trailers grinding gears and accelerating to run the next red light. Above all, no sound of shrieking leaf blowers, no high-pitched small motors piercing the morning silence to save a couple of minutes using quiet hand tools. No clattering hum from heat pumps struggling to lower the temperatures inside every building. And no screaming loud motorcycles revving up between gear shifts to scare the dead. Like a symphony hall, Venice kindly edits out all the white noise and lets you relax and listen to the sounds of the city most serene.


This provides an important lesson for urban designers. While the look of things makes long-lasting memories, the sound of a city remains, unforgettable.




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©2018 Gunn Meyerhoff Shay Architects, PC 

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