Across the Bridge of SighsMore Venetian Stories
PantheonCopyright © 2005 Jane Turner Rylands
All right reserved.ISBN: 0375423419
Winter settles down in Venice like it means to make friends and stay forever, feeding the sea with rain, gusting attention on listless canals, and wrapping all wetness in a companionable mist. Even in April when everyone is wishing it would take its leave Winter lingers on like a gloomy guest with nowhere to go until all of a sudden brash, insouciant Spring blows in and sends it packing, leaving a trail of puddles in its wake. The campos still shine under scattered pools, when the first harbingers of renewal ring out over rooftops and echo down the canals—tock-tock! bam-bam! pink-pink! and the piercing ffffffwwwwinnng of a saw cutting through marble. These are the sounds of Spring in Venice, when workmen swarm over palace after palace weaving scaffolds like webs, up and up, until it seems that half of Venice is lost behind dust sheets and the only things left to look at are signboards describing building permits.
Architetto Fallon stood in the campo behind Palazzo Patristi watching one of his men in a hard hat swing onto the scaffolding. He could hear him climbing behind the dust sheets. A signboard slipped out through a gap and wiggled into position. The man looked out from beside it.
"How's this, Architetto?" The workman held the sign in place.
"I think it's a little too far up, Beppe; I can hardly read it. Let's try it down one level where it's easier to see."
The sign retreated into the dust sheeting and appeared a minute later ten feet below. Beppe peeked out beside it. "Okay?"
"That's perfect, Beppe. As soon as you get it secured, come down. I want to take everyone over to the bar to celebrate their fast work on the scaffolding."
As he waited in the campo, Vittorio Fallon looked at the signboard. He had decided against putting up the standard sheet of ready-printed enameled tin with the blanks filled in by hand with a felt-tipped pen. Instead, he had gone to some expense to make it match in elegance the amplitude of the project as well as the dignity and symbolic significance that Venetians attributed to the building. This house and its family were so woven into the history and pride of Venice that the restoration had even been reported in the newspapers and mooted as the largest private restoration in the city for many years. The works, the signboard announced, had been commissioned by the owner, Dottore Barone Edmondo Patristi, whom all Venetians knew as the scion of one of the founding families of Venice and whose house was unique in being still owned and occupied by direct descendents of the family who built it. The sign also said that the works were being directed by Architetto Vittorio Fallon, the most sought after of the up-and-coming Venetian architects. For the man or woman in the street, this sign was a nice document of modern Venice: the old and the new working in harmony for the betterment of the city. For the man or woman about town, however, it touched on something far more interesting: the Baronessa Patristi, the heiress who with her husband the Barone had launched the project four years earlier, and the new Signora Fallon, who with her husband the architect was overseeing the project, were one and the same person.
Venetian society had gradually come round to viewing this development in the Patristi story with a single mind and two points of view. Everyone agreed that Scandal and Rumor should let this woman pass unscathed, while at the same time maintaining that Edmondo, with all his faults, was a charming instance of his class. She was in the right, but he was in a category of his own. Of course even Venetians had to admit that Edmondo's inveterate philandering gave ample cause for a wife to decamp, and they were impatient with Sofi because she had let him go on with his adventures for so long—long after everyone had concluded that she should have put her foot down, if not the first time, at least the second or third. In the end, she filed for divorce but agreed to continue to pay for the restoration of the family palace, with the proviso that it would be entailed to their fifteen-year-old son, Matteo, just as the Patristi Villa in the country, which she had a few years before bought back into the family, would be entailed to their seven-year-old daughter, Esmeralda. The long-term agreement was that she would in due course go back to the restored Palazzo Patristi and live there with the Patristi children until Matteo married. Edmondo would maintain as his primary residence the Patristi Villa near the Euganean Hills. Edmondo was not very happy about the outcome. On the other hand he could see that it achieved more or less what he had hoped to gain from his fortunate marriage.
As a young woman, Sofi had been looking forward to a stint as an Italian career girl, but she hadn't had time to decide what she wanted to do before she found herself making the Venetian marriage of the century. Now that the marriage was over, she found herself rather happily taking up a role in an interesting project. It was what she needed. She threw herself heart and soul into the restoration of Palazzo Patristi and discovered that some of her ideas were not so bad. She was keeping pace with the architect, marching through the project point by point by point, when they both noticed that they were perfectly in step. Before they realized where they were going they had turned the corner and started finishing each other's sentences and ringing each other to share idle thoughts and funny instances. Meanwhile, Sofi and Edmondo's son, Matteo, who by this time was in his last years of liceo, became so interested in the restoration that he did a project on the house and decided to become an architect himself. His sister Esmeralda, who was eight, followed his example and designed her own room in art class, then submitted the sketch as a point of reference to hang in the office of the architectural firm. The two children, their mother, and the architect were all so happy in each other's company that it wasn't long before Sofi and Vittorio saw no point in trying to hide the fact that they were madly in love, so they shared their secret with the world and married. The whole of Venetian society claimed to have seen it coming a mile away and indulged in a pleasant flurry of self-congratulation—which in Venice was as close to an outright cheer of approval as such an unusual match could ever hope to merit.
Before the divorce, Edmondo and Sofi had summoned Vittorio many times to lay out the plans for the restoration. During their first tour of the house Edmondo told Vittorio the story of the infamous broken arch over the landward entrance.
The front door of Palazzo Patristi from the campo was tall and handsome like the family it served, and its ceremonial presence stemmed not from its bulk but from its elegance. Of white Istrian marble, the doorposts were decorated with slender rope pilasters supporting a lintel with a central medallion bearing the Patristi arms. The lintel was overarched with a tall ogee, like a crown. The soffit had always been bricked in and had once probably been decorated with polychrome marble, long since disappeared. Instead, in the soffit's upper right quadrant, there was a small square window that looked as though it had been thrust with such force against the curve of the arch, just below the point, that the marble had given way like meringue and let the corner cut the curve in two. Most people found the window disconcerting. It was almost like an eyeball rolled toward the heavens in dread.
Edmondo wanted to share with the architect the privilege of knowing the story as he had heard it himself from his grandmother, Moceniga Dan. The whole business stemmed from her sympatico habit of passing the mornings, in the manner of those days, making lace with her old mother-in-law in the long mezzanine room overlooking the campo, a strange corridor-like space that ran the whole width of the palace. The room had two small square Gothic windows at each end, but only one had good light. The other was blocked by a stately magnolia that was hundreds of years old and the subject of a local pride that had grown up over the generations right along with it. Moceniga was a woman of decision. If she couldn't cut down the tree, she could at least do something to improve the situation. She called the handyman to the lace room and told him to get his tools; she wanted a window directly in the center to match the two at either end. She pulled her worktable away from her mother-in-law's at the far window and positioned it in the center. "There," she said, pointing at the wall above it. "Put the window there."
In those days the owner of a house could do virtually what he liked with it, short of tearing it down. So old Antonio the handyman measured the two existing windows and traced the outline on the wall above Moceniga Dan's worktable. By that afternoon, he had the stone pieces cut to measure for the sill and frame and had already made a small hole opening out into the campo. When Moceniga Dan went down to see how the work was coming, she found the room transformed and congratulated herself. The light was going to be wonderful. As she watched, Old Antonio took out brick after brick. The wall was four bricks deep. She went away and came back several hours later to find the hole almost finished and a pile of white stones on the floor beside the bricks.
"What on earth is that?" she asked.
"It's marble," said old Antonio. "I had a terrible time breaking through it. But I've done it now. I'll go and fetch the window from the carpenter." When he came back that evening with the window, Moceniga Dan was in a state.
"Antonio! Didn't you see as you came in? The window cuts through the arch above the great portal just underneath the point!"
When she had positioned her worktable in the center of the room, she failed to take into account that the front door of the palace was not quite centered in the facade, or that the rooms on one side of the androne, the entrance hall, were a little larger than those on the other.
She said the arch had to be put right at once, but the handyman said it was already late so he would install the window for the night and then come back as soon as he could to put it right and move the window to the center of the arch.
His grandmother gathered up the pieces and stowed them safely away in the great press where the Patristi women stored the precious fruits of their labors, the wedding veils and trains, the christening robes and banqueting cloths. Fate decreed that Antonio had an urgent roofing job, so he asked if he could come a bit later. This reminded his grandfather that there was something to be done on their roof, too. While Antonio was working on the roof he noticed that the altana, the roof deck, was a bit shaky so that took precedence, and in the meantime his grandmother moved her table under the new window and worked there until he could get back to correct it. Winter came and they decided to wait until summer. Then his grandmother was working on a lace tablecloth that she wanted to finish before moving away from the window. Winter came again. Then Antonio got too old.
Over the years, various stone pieces were pressed into service as doorstops, paperweights, and spools for winding thread—one piece even found its way into a goldfish tank as an underwater ruin. The smallest chips were harbored in a pin box in his grandmother's worktable. Not a single piece had been lost because the work to correct this ridiculous mistake was always imminent. Rocco Zennaro, Vittorio's old stonemason, had with Edmondo's help tracked the pieces down to the smallest chip within a matter of days. Edmondo laughed that after so many years it had fallen to him and Sofi to put it right. Vittorio had to warn him that in today's Italy an architectural mistake, no matter how horrendous, once it was established had as much moral right to stay put as an illegal immigrant who's landed a job. The prospects were not improved by the fact that there was hardly a soul in Venice who didn't think that the ravaged arch should be repaired: civil servants, on principle, do not support their political bosses by attending to public opinion, unless somehow encouraged.
Sofi hated the broken arch. The first time she had walked under it on Edmondo's arm, she had been unnerved by a flash that made her start and look up straight at the ruined stone. Perhaps the maid had opened or closed the window so it winked in the rays of the setting sun. Whatever the cause, the flaming light triggered her memory. When she was a child, the captain of her father's yacht had sent up a flare because a man had fallen overboard and they couldn't find him.
All through the dinner with Edmondo's parents, Sofi's heart was heavy. It was their first time together in famiglia, before they were officially engaged. She apologized to Edmondo afterwards for being so dull. She told him that somehow the broken arch had made her sad, but she couldn't explain why. He said he didn't think a broken arch was bad. A broken column, for example, could stand for fortitude. Anyhow, the arch didn't harm the building's stability. On the other hand, tearing out the walls in the room behind the arch to make an indoor bocce court in the eighteenth century probably did. And of course it was the absence of those walls that led his grandmother into the mistake about the placement of the window. He thought it might be a good idea one day to put the walls back again. Sofi wasn't interested. It was the arch that had flagged her like a warning. Edmondo made a joke: Instead of the curse on the Casata di Atreo, the House of Atreus, his family had a curse on the atrio della casa—the atrium of the house. Sofi stopped talking about the arch, but after they were married she came to believe that it had to do with the ever-mounting Patristi pride leading up to some crushing blow that she would have to be very lucky to escape.