A Traveler's Blessing

By Janice Westerling


Asudden downpour has washed the tourists from the banks of the Grand Canal. Gondolas edge into their slips under a shroud of rain, the beribboned straw hats of the oarsmen dripping with water.

On the last afternoon of my vacation in Venice, I stare at the rain. I have yet to visit Madonna dell'Orto, a Gothic cathedral hidden in the northern reaches of my unfashionable neighborhood and dedicated to St. Christopher, the patron saint of travelers. Tomorrow I'll be rolling my suitcase onto a water bus and heading home, and I want his mystical blessing.

The gondoliers aren't singing now; it's a grim race against the deluge. Alongside my apartment deck mooring posts as supple as saplings are aligned in rows, creating stalls for thirty gondolas. A boatman unfolds a royal-blue tarp and covers the fringed seats tourists have vacated. He throws his soggy Persian rugs on the stern to drain. When he detaches the twisted wooden piece that holds his oar, I'm as startled as if he'd unscrewed a prosthetic arm and waved it in the air.

Watching the oarsman work I push aside my own weather anxieties, fretting how he'll get to shore—fifteen feet of oily green water separates his boat from the banks of the canal.

One by one gondolas glide into the next available stall, stringing together a slippery plank bridge to the dock. The crafts bob up and down in the restless water like ebony piano keys played by invisible fingers. The black, wooden boats are varnished with rain, but the gondolier steps across their rolling prows, a Venetian Jesus walking atop the waves.

When the downpour finally subsides, I hear bells clanging in a nearby campanile. Precious minutes are ticking away, and Madonna dell'Orto closes at 5 p.m. I pull on my slicker—on this rain-soaked day, it seems fitting to visit the church of boatmen who ferried passengers among the lagoon islands.

My apartment exits onto the Strada Nova, the wide walkway connecting the train station to the Rialto Bridge. The broad street narrows like an hourglass over slender bridges, and crowds of pedestrians stall like piles of sand. I choose to shorten my journey and start to the church by boat.

Every water bus is labeled Actv, the name of the company that operates the vaporetti. But I read the label as Act V, a Venetian play. With a break in the rain, this afternoon is a mob scene crowded with extras, but I've no time to wait at the dock. Pushing aboard the wide boat, I struggle between seats packed with passengers: luggage and baby carriages crowd the aisle. I'm pressed in an unwanted embrace with a stranger, close enough for a kiss.

"Avanti!" the conductor yells, trying to squeeze on thirty more people at the next stop. We are matchsticks in a box and tempers flare.

"Permessopermesso!" An old woman in black elbows her way to the front, discarding the polite "mi scusi." The boat lolls from side to side as passengers disembark and more people climb aboard, and the vaporetto pulls away from the station.

When I exit the water bus, persistent rain is dimpling the puddles. The isolated backstreets of the Cannaregio district are never crowded, but the weather has cleared out even the most intrepid tourists. I walk along slippery banks of thin arterial canals, where rowboats are tied to docks. A skiff motors by, pulling a deep furrow in its wake, and water sloshes over my shoes.

As I head further north, the streets become wider but less prosperous. Stepping into an open courtyard, I recognize the brick façade of Madonna dell'Orto, decorated with lacy carvings and mullioned windows. A statue of St. Christopher stands above the peaked main entrance under a rose window that resembles the lens of a spyglass.

I collapse my wilted umbrella and leave it in the foyer. The empty nave, flanked by rows of Greek marble columns, feels chilly in my wet clothes. Above me a rustic wood ceiling is suspended three stories high.

Walking through the spare, graceful sanctuary, I spot the vast paintings by Tintoretto on either side of the high altar. I sit on a pew to study the pictures, but then I move further back: The Adoration of the Golden Calf and The Last Judgment are each fifty feet tall, alive with earthy colors and glaring light. A son of Venice, Tintoretto imagined God's final judgment as a flood of water raging down on rotting corpses and scattered bones rather than the usual fiery inferno.

After viewing the paintings I wander into a chapel beside the apse. I notice a salt-white statue of the Madonna, haloed by light. The life-sized Virgin, carved in limestone, seems radiant and draws me into the room.

I lean forward to read the interpretive plaque, which tells me the sculpture was discovered in a nearby vegetable patch—orto—in the late 1300's, and seamen believed she possessed miraculous powers. The church was rededicated in her name, Our Lady of the Garden.

Glancing behind my shoulder to make sure no one's watching, I touch her pale, rough-hewn arm with my finger, a talisman for my trip home.

Leaving the church I grab my umbrella, but outside the rain has stopped, and lemony sunshine falls across my face. The light feels like a benediction, in this city where men walk on water.

 

Janice Westerling is a San Francisco Bay Area writer who grew up in the Central Valley of California and studied with the poet Philip Levine at Fresno State College.  Veering unexpectedly into a business career, she parlayed her literary skills into grant writing and a dramatic bent into lease negotiation, until returning to her first love, creative writing.  Her essays draw on the pocket-sized farms and drugstore soda fountains of her childhood.  She enjoys stories in any form--prose, plays, movies, opera--and is an avid hiker and international traveler.  Her work has appeared in the Christian Science Monitor.

 

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