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Venice and Morris and Me

By Harrison Hill

Aug 25, 2021

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Jan Morris first arrived in Venice in 1945, as an 18-year-old intelligence officer with the British Army. Then she was James Morris: a man to the world, a woman to herself.

Photo by Linda Heimerman

Jan Morris first arrived in Venice in 1945, as an 18-year-old intelligence officer with the British Army. Then she was James Morris: a man to the world, a woman to herself.

One writer travels to “La Serenissima” and finds that time is no match for Venice’s magic.

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I am in Venice, in search of Jan Morris, the great British travel writer and historian who died last November at the age of 94. I am here with my younger sister, Virginia, who has gamely agreed to a Morris-inspired itinerary. Our guidebook is not Fodor’s or Lonely Planet but Morris’s own The World of Venice, published in 1960 and still in print today. It is a rhapsodic book, zesty and beguiling, about this “lonely hauteur,” this “jumbled, higgledy-piggledy mass,” this “God-built city”: Venezia. Here, “all feels light, spacious, carefree, crystalline,” Morris writes with characteristic aplomb, “as though the decorators of the city had mixed their paints in champagne, and the masons laced their mortar with lavender.”

I first encountered Morris’s singular, celebratory prose in graduate school. Smitten, I hurled myself into her published work—a vast collection of more than 50 books, most of them about place. Morris, I learned, was promiscuous in her affections, finding something to love virtually everywhere she went. And yet there was one locale that seduced her with particular intensity: an island city that would prove fodder for no fewer than four books and scores of articles and essays. Writing of this brackish wonder in her 1974 memoir Conundrum, Morris recalls “trailing my fingers in the muddy water, submitting to what I still think to have been the most truly libidinous of a lifetime’s varied indulgences—the lust of Venice.” With an endorsement like that, how could I stay away?

On disembarking from a water taxi, Virginia and I locate our bed-and-breakfast along a meter-wide alleyway in the central San Marco district. The proprietor, Elisabetta, leads us up to the top-floor apartment where we’ll be staying for the next several days. She says she’s sorry if she seems sluggish: She has only just received her second vaccine shot and is feeling its effects. I ask about her experience of the pandemic, and for several minutes we swap COVID stories. During lockdown, she says, she was allowed no more than 400 meters from her house. It is July 2021: This is how strangers make small talk.

Out in the city, Virginia and I wander. It is our first time here, and we share an almost petulant astonishment at the sheer fact of the place. The borderlessness between the canals and the buildings is as beautiful as it is ridiculous: Could the city founders have chosen a less practical place to establish themselves? There are no cars, of course, and the row houses look like something out of Renaissance science fiction, as if they’d emerged fully formed from the muck beneath. This is Venice, then—all storybook bridges, striped-shirt gondoliers, and pigeon-filled campos. A city more or less happily acclimated to a permanent flood.

Jan Morris first arrived here in 1945, as an 18-year-old intelligence officer with the British Army. Then she was James Morris: a man to the world, a woman to herself. (Editor’s note: Morris wouldn’t transition for another three decades, but we are using her preferred pronouns throughout.) Venice was in those days like “a surrendered knight at arms”—a wistful, melancholic place where the glories of the old republic, the so-called Serenissima, had been ceded to a decidedly humbler present. 

In the late 1950s, Morris returned with her young family to write a book about the island. For a year they lived in a flat near the Grand Canal, the city’s main thoroughfare and waterway, “in a condition of more or less constant ecstasy.” This was the year that led to The World of Venice, Morris’s most famous book and the one that would make her most widely known. Not that she was a nobody: In 1953, at the age of 26, she’d reported the news of Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary’s successful ascent of Everest, gleefully sprinting down the ice-choked Western Cwm with one of the great journalistic scoops of the century.

After lunch, Virginia peels off to take a nap. I wander east, passing shop windows full of court masks, quill pens, and tiny glass animals. I shake my head “no” at gondoliers asking if I want a ride, and marvel at the uncrowded squares, appreciating my luck, to be meeting the city at its least crowded in perhaps decades. Venice is hardly empty, but it certainly isn’t full, either: When I walk into a stationery shop or take a seat on a bench, there’s almost no one competing for space—hardly the experience of the estimated 20 to 27 million visitors who crammed here annually in the years before the pandemic. (In The World of Venice, Morris reports that “rather more than 700,000 foreigners came to Venice in a normal recent year.”)

The sky above is a chalky fresco blue. I continue east, soon arriving at the Public Garden, a rare stretch of Venetian greenery where the cicadas buzz in hypnotic syncopation. Along the water I locate the statue of Italian nationalist Guglielmo Oberdan, his acid-stained visage trained out on the lagoon. I pull out my book, flipping to a passage Morris wrote about this very spot. Then I call out an odd, childish sound—“chwirk, chwirk”—waiting to see if the invocation will summon a passel of cats, as Morris has promised it will. But there is no movement in the dense shrubbery surrounding the statue, and when I peer deeper into the greenery, I see only a discarded white porcelain toilet bowl.

British writer and historian Jan Morris, pictured at her home near the village of Llanystumdwy, Wales, in 2007.

Morris would’ve surely chuckled at my attempts to follow, quite literally, in her footsteps. She conceived of her books as personal, impressionistic evocations, not “to do” lists for the intrepid tourist. It was for this reason, perhaps, that she always bristled at the moniker “travel writer.” She didn’t write about travel, she insisted. She wrote about place.

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If Morris’s gleefully subjective mode of reportage seems commonplace today, it wasn’t always so. As historian Peter Stead put it in a BBC profile about Morris, the genre was once divided into two rather tedious camps, at least in Britain: the scholars on the one hand and the complainers on the other. The scholars wrote for a highly educated audience that understood oblique references to art and history. The complainers, conversely, used their forays away from home to point out the failings of others: Those Italian waiters—really!

Morris pursued a different path, churning out dozens of books in a distinctively brilliantine style as admiring as it was accessible. Most of her research was done in the streets, wandering around and asking for directions. One of her favorite tactics for diagnosing a city was something she called “The Smile Test,” wherein she grinned broadly at locals, using their responses to gauge the character of a place. (In 2013, she told journalist Don George that San Francisco passed the test best of anywhere and was thus the most open-hearted city on Earth.)

Continuing onward, I try “The Smile Test” for myself, beaming stupidly at an old woman with her dog; at a man with a black-ribboned straw hat; at a group of 20-somethings in dark Puma gear. The results are inconclusive: No one really seems to notice me, or else they’re all too accustomed to idiot foreigners like myself to bother reacting.

By now I have made my way to the northern side of Venice, where the streets are mostly empty and the boats are all shrouded in tan and blue canvas covers. Despite the quiet, I see evidence of life hanging on the clotheslines that stretch from building to building, their damp carriage lolling gently in the breeze. I love these displays not just for their quaintness but also for their startling vulnerability. In one alleyway I spot a pink bra and an elastic-waisted pair of flower-print pants. In another, I glimpse a Nirvana T-shirt and a pair of polo shirts whose sweat stains are visible on their collars.

That night, Virginia and I dine at Quadri, a 191-year-old Michelin-starred restaurant in St. Mark’s Square. From our seats we can see the Doge’s Palace, the Basilica, and the great Campanile—the city’s three defining architectural wonders. We feast on something called mezzi paccheri, black truffle millefoglie, and raw breaded lobster that a waiter feeds me from a spoon. The highlight of the meal, however, is a 2015 Valpolicella, from Famiglia Castagnedi, recommended by our server. People who put words to wine are frauds, every one of them, but this wine really does strike me as a long-lost trail in the woods, twisty and strange, all new-made topsoil and the tougher, more complicated stuff beneath. Leaving the restaurant, Virginia and I feel quite certain that times have changed since Morris wrote, of Venetian food, that it has a “soporific sameness.” (Then again, she was clearly out of her mind when she called Italian cuisine “perhaps the dullest in Europe.”)

The next day we meet Ilaria, our guide for the morning. She is a lifelong Venice resident, in perhaps her fifties, with blueish eyes and a blueish dress to match. She marches us efficiently back to the Doge’s Palace, where we get a flurry of history, painters, and politicians. Then we’re back outside again, descending a stone staircase guarded by two statues that together symbolize the city’s amphibious nature: Neptune, god of the sea, and Mars, god of war and agriculture.

Back in the street, Ilaria leads the way with a delightful aimlessness, peppering us with anecdotes as she walks. She points out the altana, or rooftop terraces, where women once sprinkled their hair with urine to help bleach it. When we start to lose energy, she buys us coffee, then takes us back into the city’s crooked spindle. Everywhere she knows people: “Ciao, Nicolas!” she says to a man in a black suit. “Ciao, Ilaria!” he calls back cheerfully.

When the tour is over, Virginia and I meander to the other side of the Grand Canal, in the direction of Santa Margherita. It’s a trapezoidal campo with a fair number of tourists but almost as many Venetians—regular people with dogs, toolboxes, and walkers. Virginia and I take up residence at a restaurant recommended by Ilaria. We watch as a seagull swoops from behind a woman, snatching an entire pizza from her hand.  A man takes a drag of a cigarette and spits on the flagstones as he walks by.

I pull out my Morris, reading aloud as Virginia eats calamari dredged in sludgy black squid ink. “‘Santa Margherita is an unsophisticated place,’” I say, quoting Morris. “‘No elegant socialites sit at its cafés. No film stars cross their legs revealingly on the steps of its war memorial. The passing tourists hurry by anxiously consulting their street plans, on their way to grander places. But there is no better way to taste the temper of Venice than to sit for an hour or two in such a setting, drinking a cheap white wine from the Veneto, and watching this particular world go by.’”

In many ways, the place has changed. The old cinema has shuttered. There’s no second-hand clothing shop, no cheery vegetable seller. But the spirit Morris touted remains. When the church bell rings three o’clock, a little girl runs by, licking gelato from her fingers and yelping something clear and happy and Italian.

The server returns, and I switch from red wine to white.

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In July 1972, at the age of 45, Morris boarded a flight to Casablanca, where she embarked on the most momentous journey of her lifetime: the journey from man to woman. From the age of three or four, she’d felt “entombed” in her own body; in her late thirties, after marrying and having children, she’d started taking hormone pills in earnest. Still, she remained “abhorrent” to herself, as she recounted in 1974’s Conundrum, her best book and among the greatest memoirs of all time. She would get surgery then, or else die by suicide: That much, by now, was clear.

The operation was a success. Morris returned to England and divorced her wife Elizabeth, as was required by law, though the two would remain partners for life. (In 2011 they entered a civil union.)

Other things changed, too—Morris’s writing among them. Earlier in her career, she’d sublimated the sexual impulse into a more ecumenical lust for the world and everything in it. As far as Morris was concerned, life itself was an act of intercourse, a pleasurable exploit that brought connection and unity. Indeed, she says she took “a kindred sensual satisfaction from buildings, landscapes, pictures, wines, and certain sorts of confectionery.” The connection wasn’t just intellectual, or even emotional, but “actually sexual, purer but no less exciting than the sexuality of the body.” The style that resulted from this relationship was accordingly vivid, orgasmic, dopamine-drenched.

If transition surgery didn’t upend this style, it did tweak it. “The emphasis changed in my writing,” she wrote, “from places to people. The specious topographical essay which had been my forte, and my income, became less easy for me to write, and I found myself concentrating more on individuals and situations.” It’s not that Morris didn’t write books about place anymore; titles like Sydney, Manhattan ’45, and The Matter of Wales were still to come. But her repertoire gained a new personal intimacy. Now she covered topics as varied as migraines, hitchhiking, and Abyssinian cats. Her gusto for the world remained, but it was deepened with a certain Jan-ness: an acute and charming sense of just who this narrator was, anyway.

Venice played an important role in Morris’s transition. The city “was always feminine to me,” Morris writes in Conundrum, “and I saw her perhaps as a kind of ossification of the female principle—a stone equivalent, in her grace, serenity, and sparkle, of all that I would like to be.”

One of the book’s more moving moments takes place at the Accademia bridge, along the Grand Canal, when Morris is still living as James. Passing by one day, Morris puts some money in the hands of an old blind woman who sits there. Instead of continuing on, however, as she usually does, Morris squeezes the woman’s hand. “A miracle then happened. She squeezed mine in return, and in the pressure of her old fingers I knew for certain that she understood me in her blindness and was responding woman to woman.”

No such old lady sits by the Accademia bridge when Virginia and I cross it for ourselves. Still, there remains plenty to look at: a T-shirt salesman drinking a glass of rosé; a police boat wailing by, its distinctly European siren unthreatening and almost toy-like. On the other side of the bridge, Virginia and I continue east, spending euros heedlessly, joyously. Already I feel a sympatico with this place—its wild impracticality, its obsession with its own beauty. Morris, I know, is an important part of that fondness: She has given me a way in, like a buoyant grandmother showing off a favorite garden or grocer.

Isn’t this what the best travel writers do? They give us eyes to see, ears to hear. They lend us their sensibilities so that we can develop our own, experiencing a place not as they did, but as we alone can do. They model the how, not the what; if I have been rather misguided in my attempts to experience Venice as Morris did, the broader lesson of her writing has not been lost on me. A person should travel as oneself, and oneself alone, thrilling in their own subjectivity, delighting however they will in what Morris affectionately calls the “civic blur.”

On our last night in Venice, Virginia goes back to the B&B to rest before dinner. I circle back to St. Mark’s Square, taking a seat on a ledge at the base of the bell tower. The piazza is an easygoing fracas of conversation and music, of antiquity and today. A group of teenagers poses for photos with shiny “1” and “8” balloons: 18! At my feet I notice a discarded surgical mask.

After a few minutes, I stand up and join the line to the campanile. A polite German family asks the guard if they can bring their Toto dog to the top; the guard retreats to consult a superior, then returns with good news. I follow the family to the kiosk and buy a ticket, taking the elevator up, up, up. The doors open—and there is Venice, cozy, antique, implausible, astonishing. “Whole cities are mine, because I have loved them so,” writes Morris, and in this moment, the late afternoon sun blessing the vista, I know precisely what she means.

You’ll recall that Morris didn’t call herself a travel writer, insisting instead that she wrote about place. But even this assessment doesn’t get to the root of it. Morris’s deepest subject, it now seems clear to me, was love. Love of cities. Love of marmalade. Love of birds and exclamation points. Love of her late daughter, Virginia, to whom The World of Venice is dedicated. Love of Bach. Love of kindness. Love of—well, everything.

The colossal constructive force of love, is how Morris puts it in Conundrum. This is the defining theme of her work; this is the idea that animates her belief, as she once put it, that the world is “one terrific show, one great art gallery and pageant, especially put on for my own delectation.”

I put away my pen and my notebook. I lean out at the grand sweep of the Serenissima. I look around, gathering as many chimneys, rooftops, and flagpoles as I can.

All this, for me?

Ciao, Jan, and may the next world be as bright and vivid as you knew this one to be.

>> Next: Are We Loving Venice to Death?

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