The Venetian Night

During that cold afternoon the male porters at the San Severa hotel on the island of the Lido in the Venetian archipelago had unfolded one hundred sunbeds on the empty beach, placing each one meticulously in an evenly-spaced line, then draping over them the extravagant furs of mythic creatures whose shining black coats now brushed the raked sand on the ground beneath in the light evening breeze that blew in from the sea. It was the time of Venice's Carnival. Every year for centuries the preparations for the arrival of these female guests had been executed identically; though no sign of their nocturnal presence was yet expected. Only the few children with fantastic minds and shivering bodies suspected and questioned the silent servants about the purpose and timing of this ritual and display. On the main island of Venice, a short journey by boat, by vaporetto, from the Lido, the riot of the multi-coloured shirt, the fat wallets of crude tourism, provided the casual observer with no hint to the events planned for that night. To the trained eye, perhaps, to the seer the earlier disappearance of the taxiing and ferrying gondolas, the muted sound of the singing gondoliers, evidenced the prospect of a paranormal night. While violins beside the restaurant tables of loud, ill-mannered men played on with enthusiasm forced against the knowledge of the impending hour, rubberised women drawn by the fullness of the moon from the subterranean to the mediterranean, emerged unobserved through streets of stagnant water, their glistening skin soon cloaked in darkness, their clicking heels then lost enveloped within the receiving shadow.

On the beach of the San Severa hotel, the sunbeds in their regimented row were empty pointing out to sea, the spherical moon shone brightly on the rippling water of the black lagoon, the beams of creamy ambient light revealing a vast, as yet deserted stage. As the clock-hand turned toward midnight, the reflecting surface becoming smooth, a child points at something nearly seen, his finger bent again by adult arms outstretched in fear, for rising from the sea, with open palms pressed down beside the gleaming female shape upon the healing water, a Goddess stands above the glassy sheen in testing boots that walk, then strut upon the surface, firm and sealed, towards the sloping shore.

The children, awe-struck dumb, behind drawn curtains peeping stare, wide-eyed, frozen still in fear, adult whispers hushed beside in blind despair. A second female guest arrives in curved stiletto heels and rubber, emerging perfect in the midnight light, polished, pushing up above the closing sea, the arching boots with- drawn in time, then stamping down upon the resisting, moonlit stage. While one hundred porters, with heads inclined eyes focussed to the ground, patiently kneeling wait the performance of a greeting ceremony, ancient, timeless and new, street urchins with cleaning cloth, improvising, staring, mimic for their adult years, breath taken by this posture and the vision of this overwhelming view, of dripping boots delivered, thrusting, to their care. The echoing of stiletto boot heels on solidifying water, the sound made by whips cracking in the air, by one hundred aquatic guests, clatter and smack against the stone walls and shattering window-panes of the San Severa hotel.

Elsewhere in Venetian palaces shuttered against the passage of time, the ugliness of an ignorant world, of stupid science and idiot men, evening dresses laid out upon exotic beds by nervous servants charged in the Mistress' long absence with the preservation of the priceless, timeless content of her wardrobe are secured by pin- lipped maids, transvestites, stitched tight, corsetted, bejewelled for the duration of the night. Outside, dangling down by a length of knotted rope from the balcony into the muddy depths of the foul- smelling canal below, the rubbery boot-slave, subconscious, weighted down, animation suspended for the year, is hoisted by her leather opera-gloves clear from the polluted water into which is lowered for the night the Mistress' rubber clothing, preserved in substitution, undetected by the outsider's curious eye.

Slapped by the Mistress' dark-skinned glove into sudden recognition of his role as slave, she observes him at her feet, her whip for now withheld behind her back, though serpent coils, candle-lit, inquisitive, remain in sight upon the marble floor, reminding constantly of his most likely fate, the irreversibility of this natural state. His feverish body so recently revived, previously kneeling beaten about the face, polishes, unable yet to stop and breathe, prostrated there beneath the reflection, flickering and otherworldly, of his Mistress' sculpted shape, of her white face impassive behind the haughty, leathered mask, behind the intervening sheet of glass.His annual duty so painstakingly performed beneath her silent gaze is duplicated a thousand times upon the shine of marble stones of palaces unshuttered for this single night, by boot-slaves lifted from the Adriatic sea, the social detritus of science raised prematurely from the seeming dead.

The sound of music, of vital violins and of drunken, gesturing men, wafted in the deepening night, slows perceptibly to the Mistress' ear; the motion of the revelling tourist then seized, frozen mid-step, the movement of his travelling body held in abeyance, expressing sudden disbelief, is fixed in helpless admiration of the passing ladies, their faces masked and cloaked in black, who move between them, touching with their outstretched whips, overbalancing with extended leather glove or forcing boot. Upon the water, frozen still in time, its creamy surface firm to the tread of female heel and the feet of dancing monkeys on taut leashes, from the nearby island of the Lido the guests of the San Severa hotel in rubber masks and black-hooded fur converge in cruel conversation upon the appointed hour, upon the steps of the white-stoned balustraded bridge that by the moonlight lead on past the pink marble facade of the Doge's palace, to the prison.

A shiver, an earthquake's tremor vibrating blurs the focus of this otherwordly and inhuman scene where man and monkey mix and play; the ivory moonlit sea becomes as rigid ice and as stalactites drips water on the rubbered heads of weeping slaves that kneeling hang with death beside the snowbound palace, necks locked together by enchanting spell and frozen chain within the eternal night. The architecture, composite, intermediate between two worlds, adjusted by this shudder appears resolved, the focus tightening, the clarity restored.The boorish tourist is converted from his vulgar state, transformed from his immobilized, stunned, unblinking state, his lifeless living torso becomes incorporated in hardening rubber polished black, his flexing arms are linked behind with glowing cuffs of cooling steel, his lower body fixed embedded within the pink-stoned walls, and set within the chis- elled mantel of internal fires that blaze against the blizzard's cold.

On the pavement below the Doge's palace, crossed over from the thirteenth century when Venice's dreaded and infamous Tourist Police, the Council of Ten's instrument for torture and repression, cast a shadow across her maritime empire, a number of tethered ape-like men, spread out like dogs on radial leads, comb and then sift the blanketing snow for litter, refuse, for objects materialised from their world, beneath the overseer's guiding whip, the lashing of her foreign tongue. Ropes of stretching elastic rubber lowered like fishing-line from the palaces of the Grand Canal, from the fifteenth century facade of the Ca'd'Oro, twitch above the frozen surface, as signs of human life, of the boot-slave polishing in a fever, his outline seen fleetingly beneath the ice, beneath the re- clining figure of his leather-booted Mistress, ensure the smooth progress of her gondola beyond the Rialto bridge, the punctual timing of her masked entrance to the Doge's palace.

Opposite the water-gate of the palace adjoining the Ca'd'Oro, pushing up through thinning, snow-covered ice beneath which a second boot-slave invisibly labours, a circular mooring-pole capped with a human form, seemingly impaled by some monster from the deep, then dipped in molten rubber and left in agony to die, looks up religiously to the balcony where the Mistress stands imperious in noble dress, her patient whip dangling from a leather opera- glove, her waiting gondola lashed tight about his stiffened neck. She is Diane de Poitiers, one of the five members, each counted twice, with and without the obscuring leather mask, who compose the Council of Ten, the supreme leaders of the Republic of Venetia, who meet once a year at midnight at the Doge's palace, on Carnival night, to elect from their number and to crown her, La Serenissima, Bride of the Adriatic.

Inside the Doge's palace, the medieval `Palace of Justice' with its `court of the room of the Cord', which is the seat of govern- ment, the organising centre of Heel!, where plans are made behind our patriarchal scene, decisions taken for this modern version of their world, four of the five, twin-faced Council members, Nefertiti, Semiramis, Cleopatra and Helen of Troy, deliberate about the press- ing problems of that other tourist-infested Venice, cushioned on human furniture with ears removed smoothed over by encasing rubber. The questions raised: How and with what numbers to re- introduce the Tourist Police so essential for the preservation of their world; when and with what means to obliterate the nineteenth century causeway and the hideous factories of the adjoining main- land, to secure the outer bounds and good health of the Venetian city-state; what manpower, kneeling or temporarily erect, is required to dismantle the white concrete railway station constructed in 1954? After which it is unanimously agreed, before her imminent, de- layed arrival at the grand entrance to the palace, at the ceremonial `Giant's Staircase' where the gods, Mars and Neptune, were turned spell-bound to stone in 1567, that after a confirming inspection of the two huge globes and the walls covered with the maps of the two worlds in the Sala dello Scudo, Diane de Poitiers is to be elected for the period of one year, La Serenissima, Bride of the Adriatic, in recognition and for the purpose of the most rapid expansion of the circulation of the Paris-based Heel! magazine.

Crowned between the statues of Mars and Neptune with a crescent moon upturned upon the head-dress that surrounds her leather mask, receiving from the extended glove of Semiramis the bow and quiver of the Moon Goddess, Diana, the foundress of Venetia, then responding to the loud whip-cracks and smacking gloves of the thousand masked members of the Great Council by her punish- ment of the kneeling Casanova, Diane de Poitiers turns to enter the palace followed in procession by the Council of Ten and the members of the Great Council who file ceremonially past the fresco of `The Coronation of the Virgin' in the Sala del Guariento on the second floor, into the Sala del Maggior Consiglio. Once inside the Hall of the Great Council, a chamber of monumental proportions, Diane de Poitiers, La Serenissima, takes up her position on the balcony overlooking the frozen lagoon where three riderless horses are seen dragging at speed a giant cage filled with flaming wood, spiralling away from a central point marked by a boot-heel, equidistant from the Doge's palace and the island of San Giorgio Maggiore, in an ever-widening arc, finally mapping out a melted circle of vast cir- cumference equal in area to that lit up by the beaming shafts of descending moonlight.

Below the balcony, the hundred guests of the San Severa hotel, dressed and masked in rubber, cloaked in fur, the Tourist Police, play cat and mouse with a prisoner just released, undressed in stages, redressed in black rubber, from head to foot, a trident pressed into his right hand, his body then held in place, brought shivering to its knees. The nature of his crime, the sentence passed, is read out slowly by Cleopatra, the retiring `Bride of the Adriatic', who condemns at length the corrupting and damaging effect on the built and moral fabric of the Republic of Venetia of this civil servant's slogan, `Veni etiam', interpreted as, `Come again and again'. As proof, the erect body of Casanova, the salt-smuggling philanderer, is shown, then thrown from the balcony for its examination beneath the vicious boots of the Tourist Police. With her bow strained and accurately aimed at the heart of the cringing and protesting prisoner, a flaming torch guiding the flight of the burning arrow to its fleshy target, Diane de Poitiers has slain her quarry, pierced him through and dumped him dead upon the bleeding snow. Pulled to his feet, and lifted sagging in the air, his body is tossed into the canal by rubbered Amazonian hands, over the balustrade of the Ponte della Paglia.