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Places of the Fantastic – Academia


‘It can happen in Venice’. Fantastic representations of Venice in Marinetti, Buzzati, Morante and Winterson

by Silvia Zangrandi (IULM University – Milan)

The following brief reflections build on one point: in order to come about, the twentieth-century ‘fantastico’ demands the presence of the real. It presupposes the concept of reality, it requests an already known space, a foundation of common knowledge. The ‘effects of the real’ indeed reinforce the illusion of referentiality and truth, seeing the birth of a situation that soon becomes disorienting if juxtaposed with reality. It is well-known that the fantastic of the 1900s favours familiar locations (streets from real cities, insides of normal houses) in which to set its stories: the choice to link together fantastic events in real places, which in itself does not have any features that are out of the ordinary, is part of the unheimlich discourse pursued by those who create fantastic tales. In these defined and well-known spaces, apparently reassuring due to the fact that we know them, extraordinary events are abruptly introduced, which bring along a sense of bewilderment and cause all our certainties to come crashing down. Inexplicable apparitions and unforeseen phenomena threaten our habits and make us aware that a common truth does not exist; rather what exists is a series of infinite possible truths that, in the end, turn out to be illusionary.

The unifying factor amongst many fantastic writers is the relevance given to urban space. The city is considered as a meeting place: without it the incredible adventures experienced and narrated by the characters would not have taken place. Therefore, we do not face ideal cities, but living and concrete ones, where the ‘fantastic’ can take shape. In these cities (paraphrasing Aristotle) it seems that the plausible becomes more real than the real. Into these cities the protagonists project anxieties and dreamlike visions, and they look into them for the existence of worlds that mirror their own: the urban space represented in these tales may invite one to rethink his or her own certainties, due to the fact that describing a city often means uncovering its hidden soul.[1]

Amongst the many cities that occupy the pages of the writers of the ‘fantastic’ of the past century,[2] I have chosen in these brief reflections to deal with a city which cannot fail to reawaken the imagination and fantasy of anyone who visits it: Venice. Suspended between reality and imagination, with its subtle atmosphere, with its buildings that appear in the waters of the lagoon, Venice not only holds the scenery of incredible stories but is itself part of the fantastic mechanism. The mythical divinity of water described by Filippo Tommaso Marinetti in Fabbricazione di una sirena[3] chooses the sea of Capri as the place to manifest herself. In Capri’s mythical aura the motionless becomes animated: the columns are ‘shocked and terrified to have lost their hat or roof in the last gusts of wintery wind […] the sea is ecstatically still, its tongue outstretched to drink the incandescent golden food of the sun’. Everything is alive and dreamlike, the narrator dives in and breaks the ‘mobile green glass’, and then lies himself down on a ‘tactile bed of algae and hard grass’, and, lying down on his back under ‘the penetrating oblique ray of the sun […] he feels his bed boil […] his hands wander. My right hand strokes an icy escape of female hips […] Intensity of shimmerings on that water spiral, almost thighTwo strips of red algae: lips’. He convinces himself in this way that ‘one can provoke the water siren from the green and blue suppleness’. The mermaid flaps her arms within ‘an oval mirror of flown-over horizon’: in that mirror not Capri, but Venice and its ‘lagoons motorboats seaplanes with spinning helixes in lake skies of green flesh’[4] are reflected. This city, with its liquidity enchantress, is the mouthpiece of the seductive power of the siren.

Elsa Morante sets in Venice her short story about a young couple entitled Il viaggio [The Journey].[5] Venice is described as ‘a city made of clear, transparent water and populated with angels […] the entire city on its waters seemed to dissolve into liquid, tremoring ghosts’. The real journey is preceded by the dreamlike one: ‘Venice held together a sensation of suffocated celebration, mixed with loss […] Venice seemed to appear to her in the form of a calm sea, on which enormous angels of marble were walking without touching the water, with bare feet and long dresses’. When the two protagonists arrive into Venice, the language lends itself to the sensation of irreality perceived in a dream: the houses reflect their ghosts in the still water, the deserted square seems like a lake full of wonderful reflections, the church is a glitter of gems, saints and colours, the entire city ‘seemed to dissolve into liquid swaying ghosts’. This passage is immersed in the lightness of a dream, or of a fairy-tale world that seems possible solely due to the fact that the story is based in Venice: the constant presence of water, an ambiguous and weightless element, the sculpted and quilted balconies, the golden embroideries, the surreal marbles, even the female protagonist who has the impression of being ‘a spirit, a shadow’, taken in a state of sleep into this unreal world… everything comes together to create a magical uncertainty. The rich and polished language gathers images that cross over, multiply and vanish to reappear later in a string of thoughts, sensations and events.

The novel Passion by Jeanette Winterson is partially set in Venice.[6] Winterson needed a liminal world between water and earth to bring to life the character of Villanelle, a cross-breed creature with webbed feet; this abnormality is linked to an old legend according to which Venetian boatmen would have webbed feet. This amphibious creature has the power to see different worlds through the palm of her hand; for love, she will lose her heart and go through life experiencing dangers, deceptions, visits to brothels and Sapphic encounters. The labyrinth-like structure of Venice is reflected in the character of Villanelle. This city, where ‘the streets spring up and dissolve overnight, new canals take the place of earth’, where ‘canals hide other canals, alleyways cross and criss-cross so that you will not know which is which’, does not upset the girl because in front of a canal she only hesitates for a moment on the slippery steps, then she places her foot ‘on the surface and it dropped beneath into the cold nothingness’. In the story fantasy elements cross over with real elements and more than once the narrator cautions the reader: take for example p. 165: ‘I’m telling you a tale: trust me’. Villanelle is the personification of ambiguity: she moves from a male appearance to a female appearance, like a siren she is the symbol of deceit, her amphibious nature often leads her to trick and rob with pleasure; she often confuses herself in the winding labyrinth of Venice and with the visionary dimension of a city where ‘buildings shimmer so that they seem never still’. Venice becomes a metaphor for life: as Villanelle says, ‘this is the city of mazes. You may set off from the same place to the same place every day and never go by the same route […] wherever you are going is always in front of you, there is no such thing as straight ahead. No as the crow flies short cuts will help you reach the café just over the water’, and again: ‘leave plenty of time in your doings and be prepared to go another way, to do something not planned if that is where the streets lead you’.

I have intentionally left until last a story by Dino Buzzatti that takes place in a city unfamiliar to him: Venice. It is known that Buzzati, Milanese by adoption, has set many of his writings in Milan, such as Poema a fumetti, Paura alla Scala, Un amore, etc.[7] However, in order to demonstrate the magnetic image of Venice which nobody manages to resist, I propose the reading of L’altra Venezia. In this little known story, reality and surreality intertwine, they elude each other and come into conflict with each other. The author speaks of a surreal and fantasy Venice that exists beside the real one, which is impossible to find in topographical maps because the streets are not marked. This second Venice spreads out ‘black portals of buildings’,[8] drawing inside itself the careless tourist in front of whom opens up a world of fairytales made of:

Hidden powers nestled behind noble windows; of lovers on the run along the winding streams; of never-ending gossip carried along roof to roof by the estuary wind, filled with different odours; of angels coated in sea salt which by flapping their wings make doves fly from the white pulpits of monasteries, against the sun; of ambushes, maybe coming up to the dark apses, with the twinkling mercy and the chatter of masks lit up by torches, of whispered promises between the slow, drowsy thud of the oar in the water, of lost glories, of the time that will soon come to be, of premonitions, of adventures, of sins, of enchantments; where absolutely anything can happen.

Uselessly, the visitor will look for the usual path, because he will be swallowed up ’into the depths of the labyrinth‘ where a clear and languid light will surround him, pushing his soul towards the illusions: he will think that he has entered by mistake ‘into a part of the world not made for him’ and when he finds himself in a known square, he asks himself if it is all part of a dream, of a fantasy that even makes a slum look stylish, a beauty which makes you hallucinate […] a luxury and a magnificence made of abject items’. One enters into this second Venice ‘on the whim of an unknown power and without any warning. One can find himself suddenly pulled in but he does not know how’ and, almost by a magic trick, ‘at the edge of the water a group of buildings which a few hours beforehand had not been there [emerge]: mind-blowing architecture which were both small yet immense, sturdy and fragile, and for an instant, seemed to rise their triumphant pinnacles to dizzying heights’.

The stories discussed here show how in fantastic literature the real can exist alongside the magical and the mysterious: in Venice, these binary opposites attract each other and reveal aspects of the real and the unreal present in the lagoon city and, more significantly, in every place where one has the courage to wander into fantasy.


[1] See Alfonso Berardinelli, ‘Immagini letterarie di città’, Trame di letteratura comparata 7 (2009): 9-38.

[2] For a comprehensive treatment of topic of the city in Italian ‘fantastic’ literature see Silvia Zangrandi, Cose dell’altro mondo. Percorsi nella letteratura fantastica del Novecento (Bologna: Archetipo, 2011).

[3] Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, Novelle colle labbra tinte (Milan: Mondadori, 1930), pp. 143-54.

[4] All translations in the article are by the editorial board.

[5] This short story was published firstly in I diritti della scuola (20 September 1938), and later in Elsa Morante, Racconti dimenticati [Forgotten Tales], eds. Irene Babboni and Carlo Cecchi (Turin: Einaudi, 2002).

[6] Jeannete Winterson, The Passions (London : Bloomsbury, 1987; and Hardmondsworth, Penguin Books, 1988).

[7] Amongst the many studies dedicated to Buzzati, see Silvia Zangrandi, Dino Buzzati. L’uomo, l’artista (Bologna: Patron editore, 2014).

[8] Dino Buzzati, Esperimento di magia (Padua: Rebellato, 1958), p. 46.

Translations by ReadingItaly editorial board

Silvia Zangrandi is Associate Professor of Contemporary Italian Literature at the IULM University in Milan. She works on fantastic literature, on women’s literature, on Italian fiction in the second half of the twentieth century (with a particular attention to the use of the language), and on the relationship between literature and journalism. Amongst others, she has published studies on Calvino, Primo Levi, Manganelli, Meneghello, Morante, Ortese, Pavese, Tabucchi, and the volumes Al servizio della realtà. Il reportage narrativo dalla Fallaci a Severgnini (2003), Pagine infestate (2007; on the evolution of the topos of the ghost between nineteenth- and twentieth-century literature), Cose dell’altro mondo. Percorsi nella letteratura fantastica italiana del Novecento (2011), and Dino Buzzati. L’uomo, l’artista (2014).


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This entry was posted on January 25, 2016 by in Academia.
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