Book Review – “Venice is a Fish: A Sensual Guide” by Tiziano Scarpa

“Venice is a Fish – A Sensual Guide”, by Tiziano Scarpa, Gotham Books (Penguin), New York, 2008, 153pp., originally published in Italian as “Venezia e’ un Pesce”, Giangiacomo Feltrinelli Editore Milano, Milan, 2000.

Tiziano Scarpa is a Venetian by birth, by residency, by choice.  One of Italy’s outstanding
contemporary authors, Scarpa even skips a Table of Contents in order to plunge the reader right into his tale of the reality and myths of Venice, what the senses of a Venetian reveal about La Serenissima, not what others say about it.

“You’re walking on a vast upside-down forest, strolling above an incredible inverted wood”,

he observes, and makes his readers wonder what is upside down, the physical City or its benighted observers and citizenry.

Tiziano Scarpa wants to “…tell you what happens to your body in Venice” in  chapters starting with your Feet, then Legs, Heart, Hand, Face, Ears, Mouth, Nose, Eyes, and even then suggests a few other books for accessing better explanations than his own.
He excels at telling you what happens to your body and to your senses overwhelmed by this place (after all, everyone says that they must be!), in tales from the most exalted to the genuinely scabrous.  Be prepared for the truth – you can handle it, can’t you?

What can you expect from a City that is like a fish, created not as mused by “historians” but arrived complete at this spot from far away, a City that swam into the Lagoon exhausted, only to be caught by man – tethered to the shore by the hooks, double lines and sinker of causeways for those foreign Terra Firma iron beasts, railroads and automobiles.

As if that tethering were not enough, Scarpa observes, mankind has actually nailed the poor City to the floor of the Lagoon with millions of hammered wooden piles, turned it into a veritable pincushion, assuring that it is unable to escape their prodding and inspections, their wanton dancing on its imprisoned body.

"Streets Flooded, Please Advise!" Robt Benchley telegram upon arrival in Venice.  Photo(c)2011 Randy D. Bosch“Streets Flooded, Please Advise!” Robt Benchley telegram upon arrival in Venice. Photo(c)2011 Randy D. Bosch

Scarpa’s word pictures are enlivened by tales of history and the present, how people really live in the City today, as well as the experience of those who came to prod the “specimen” on its pins – the literati and the “day-trippers”.  He reveals places hiding in plain view from those incapable of observing, the gastronomy special to a special place, the cultural triumphs and societal peccadilloes that built the character of the City.  Sometimes, you can see or imagine yourself in the scenes, sometimes his words may make you feel like an interloper, a voyeur, peeking into what might sometimes best be kept between Venetians.  I mean… You don’t share those things about your family or your city, do you?

He makes you an accomplice.

Self-Defense Against Beauty (and Other Helpful Training)

A full one-quarter of the book is a “Coda”, “A micro-anthology of Venetian texts”, some written by Tiziano Scarpa, some penned by other writers of notoriety.

  1. An 1885 article, “Venice”, by Guy de Maupassant.
  2. A 1997 story by Scarpa, “The Killing Stones”, revised for this publication.
  3. “Instructions for Self-Defense Against Beauty”, Tiziano Scarpa’s tour de force
    “remix” of several paragraphs from the Chapter “Eyes”, written in 1996.
  4. “The Bridge of Gum”, another Scarpa “remix” of one paragraph about
    Ponte del Vinante from the Chapter “Hands”, new in 1993 but not published until the 2000 1st Edition of this book.
  5. Diogo Mainardi’s “Going Back to Sleep in Venice”, from a 1995 pamphlet for young tourists visiting Venice, written as part of the “Rolling (Writing) Venice” project published by the Assessorato alla Gioventu del Commune di Venezia.

This little book is weighted with the history and presence of Venice, skewed to reveal the life before you that is artfully or naively concealed by tour guides and “tourist” reporters!

Should you choose to read “Venice is a Fish” (and I highly recommend that you do read it!), be forewarned to heed Mainardi’s advice…

“Be prepared to ignore the street signs”.


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