In Canaletto’s canvases the eye, that sleek conveyance,
travels down watery corridors
like a gondola on wheels
whose rims barely scratch
the glassy surface.
This Capriccio shows a giant urn
carried from the isle of shades
on the crest of a green wave
the oligarchs’ megayachts.
My third Biennale – to cruise once more
through a glut of money and art almost reconciles me
to petty, internecine poetry.
Compaesano! The Neapolitan bouncer
lets me gatecrash the British Council party.
Behind splendour, ruination.
Behind the lion’s tawny paws
on an azure ground
the humble rat. Behind
the crimson procession, the plague.
(Sorry. I have to stop things there.
My rat’s not Eliot’s vile Rialto slur.
Nor even Rosenberg’s parleying, droll rat.
But simply Rattus rattus, ratty rat,
of pestilent bacilli, the innocent vector.)
Fine to pretend an impossible
vista exists, to bend
the actual field of the eye
to include the ideal
but when does an inch become a mile?
Did the light go out for Canaletto
when, following the money, he came to London?
One contemporary British critic
deemed him an impostor. Be that as it may,
if it were now he’d be a bargaining chip.
‘The sands of Venice never sunk
under the weight of a war tower; and her roof terraces
were wreathed with Arabian imagery, of golden globes
suspended on the leaves of lilies’
– Ruskin’s resonant prose chopped up (one ‘of’ per line).
Girt with ropes and pulleys, San Marco’s campanile
has a long jagged edge in this ink sketch
– a rare relief amid all the ruled lines
but the result of lightning, so it counts
more as God’s than Canaletto’s handiwork.
On Elide’s roof garden in I forget which rione
we sipped some pink drink and watched San Simeone’s
green peaked dome inflate then float off
towards the mainland where it clipped the top
of a Mestre oil refinery chimney.
Canaletto constructed in oil and coarse-weave canvas
Palladio’s impractical Rialto bridge
so sturdily that boats can still pass
under its echoing triple arch
and visitors take selfies in its cool arcade.
Underneath the Giants’ Stairway
leading, in two flights, to the Ducal Palace
lies a narrow dungeon reserved for traitors.
All day they feel the steps of the ambassadors,
all night the weight of Neptune and Mars.