In Venice, a city of tiny islands surrounded by water, where frontiers get liquid and blurred, can we talk about doors?
This is something that has always fascinated me about Venice since I was a child. The dark green heavy doors standing at the entrance of both my grandparents’ houses became to me a sign of recognition of this city. When I moved to Venice, there I found a similar door for my house as well. Same dark green paint, peeling off and definitively a haunting, repetitive image, so Venetian.
Doors leading you to open courtyards
But what unexpected surprise to find out that behind these wooden, old doors, leading to what used to be rich merchants’ homes, there often appears an open space. A courtyard to leave your rowing boat, the oars and the oarlock. Or simply to place some plants in their pots. Or some children’s scooter and your shopping cart, when neighbors don’t mind.
And while you realize that crossing a door has not allowed you in anywhere enclosed or indoors, you admire how this fake simulacrum of a border lets the air in and keeps the mould away.
Doors that let the water in
For sure the most Venetian door, though, is the so called “porta d’acqua“, the water door. Yes, it leads you to the canal with some steps covered in the algae, a clear sign of the city’s subsidence and of the rising sea level. Monumental, beautifully inscribed in a limestone arch with its keystone often portraying a female or male face, the “porta d’acqua” in Venice can be double, sometimes it stands rotting in the water, sometimes partially walled up at the expense of what it’s for: connecting the house to the transportation system and allowing for communication with the waterways.
Carlo Scarpa: “let the water in and control it”
In the early 1960s Carlo Scarpa replaced the water entrance of the Querini Stampalia palace with an iron grate. The water then gets in the house when the tide rises, but instead of flooding the ground floor, it flows along a definite set of channels controlling the movement and shaping the water as in the fountain on the back where the water runs across a labyrinth tray in alabaster.
Don’t fight against the water, let it in and control it. That’s what a door in Venice can be for.
Secret doors in Venice
And then in Venice you can encounter secret doors, camouflaged in the elegant boiserie of the courtrooms of the Doge’s palace (and leading you to a torture chamber and dungeons) or the doors hidden below a bridge to allow an escape for lovers or gambling addicts at the time of Casanova!
Doors as works of art
And also doors as real works of art as the beautiful wooden door with carved lions’ heads at Ca’ Van Axel with a door knocker looking like a fish.
Or as the gate at the entrance of the Peggy Guggenheim collection in Ca’ Venier. There in 1961 Claire Falkenstein designed for the eccentric heiress a web of painted copper wire where stones of colored broken glass get trapped and cast their reflections as the light of the day changes. Sand made glass and metal forged in the fire altogether attract the attention of the ones passing by, thus revealing behind the garden one of the most perfect modern art collections in Europe. Of course you need a door of an artist to introduce you to an art collection, don’t you?
But artists of all ages have also viewed the threshold as a work of art introducing you to a change. If you cross that point, which space, which dimension can you imagine? And are we ever ready to cross it?
One thousand years ago. On an island in the Venetian lagoon called Torcello, a cathedral was rebuilt. And on the counter facade Doom’s Day was represented in mosaics. There, in the lower side to the left of the church’s entrance, you can notice Heaven’s door. Narrow, guarded by the open eyes of the angels and St Peter holding his precious keys for the salvation of the soul.
And in the Frari church, to the left of the nave, a pyramid in white marble attracts the attention of the visitors. So Antonio Canova had imagined Titian’s tomb at the end of the 18th century, but, after being refused, his idea was recycled by his students and eventually became Canova’s own grave. Beautiful women, allegories of the arts, accompanied by angels, hold the urn of the artist’s ashes. They slowly climb the steps: a solemn funeral goes on and a black door opens partially. There they will enter the tomb and lay down their precious token. To the left of the door an angel turns the torch off and a lion sadly mourns. The darkness behind the door could prevail if art didn’t offer you the key to fight the void, our most human virtue, memory.
by Luisella Romeo
registered tourist guide in Venice, Italy