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Venice back

Jiro Taniguchi


Page 45 Review by Stephen

"Then I discovered my grandfather's name in the guest book of an old hotel."

Venice is a city of surprises.

It's a city of gently lapping water, of dazzling light reflected on its undulating surfaces; of bridges, of sighs, of the Bridge of Sighs; of echoing footsteps and silent facades which are no less impressive when crumbling. But more than anything, Venice is a city of surprises.

If Paris is a city of vistas where everything was re-designed to be seen through, under or over, so that wherever you roam you know where you are, Venice is far more tantalising. You can catch glimpses under and over those pedestrian bridges, be they built of wood or stone, but such are its circuitous and labyrinthine trails within the embrace of its serpentine Grand Canal that all is revealed only gradually and most unexpectedly, as you take one random turn then the next.

It's magnificent, it's mysterious and it is coquettish. It is my favourite place in the world.

For Jiro Taniguchi, on his first trip to Venice, the city becomes a deep well of visual inspiration but also personal, familial discovery.

"I hadn't known that my mother and grandmother had been in Venice.
"My mother never talked about my grandmother."

Upon the death of his mother, Taniguchi discovers an exquisitely lacquered box containing old photographs and hand-drawn postcards of Venice in the 1920s or 1930s which hint at a family history he never knew and promise further revelations if only he can track down the specific locations and follow the bread crumbs on to bars, hotels and more permanent lodgings. Evidently his mother had also been an exceptionally proficient artist, but so had Jiro's grandfather.

"A postcard by my grandfather.
"Grandfather, what kind of life did you lead in this city?"

This is non-fiction, but it's the same searching, quietly contemplative voice one heard in A DISTANT NEIGHBOURHOOD.

Sparsely narrated so as not to intrude on your own perambulations (perhaps forty sentences in total?), we are presented instead with a personalised pencil and wash tour, and I cannot even begin to calculate the time each meticulously rendered, painted panel must have taken. Often there are up to five per page, but there are also dozens of full landscape spreads and one spectacular, double-page aerial panorama looking out over the domed, red-bricked church of Santi Giovanni e Paolo surrounded by smaller cream-coloured domiciles with their bright white chimneys rising up and so standing out against the horizontal planes of terracotta roof tiles. Even the yellow crane to the right is in harmony with the towers of the island beyond.

The album was commissioned by Louis Vuitton as part of its series of deluxe travel books in which artists were invited to bring their sensibilities to bear on cities foreign to them, so I'm sure that Taniguchi was recompensed in full, and it's a consideration which our favourite Japanese comic creator - both mine and Jonathan's - rewards with a winking nod towards the finale.

However much it looks like an art book on the first-inspected surface, it is a sequential-art narrative as you wend your way, guided by Jiro, around each corner, down tall, narrow passageways and over the smaller canals in search of the next stunning spectacle or clue as to how his grandfather lived and worked in Venice.

This is the giant responsible for GUARDIANS OF THE LOUVRE, A DISTANT NEIGHBOUROOD, FURARI, QUEST FOR THE MISSING GIRL etcetera, and he will not disappoint.

We begin - as any approach to Venice should - by boat, surging across the expansive blue-green lagoon towards the north of the city which lies low on the horizon, our eyes tantalisingly drawn towards its vanishing-point promise by the wooden bricola. And it is a promise rather than a full revelation, for the real treasures lie within.

Immediately we're rushed to Piazza San Marco (and if you can resist doing precisely that, I would be very much surprised), the Byzantine Basilica first hinted at in a crystal-clear puddle's reflection before being revealed in its full glory beyond the Campanile. Ascending the bell tower early on, as he does, is a top-tip for gleaning your first and possibly last sense of overall, topographical context.

Taniguchi's ability to capture not just the intricacies of the ornate cupolas and the magnificence of the golden, winged lion, but also the different skies which may soar above them (dry brush for the upwards shot of the tower / wet brush for the full landscape spread) is thrilling, phenomenal.

His lines are crisp and clean but also more delicate than mere photorealism, his colours softer and oh, when it rains! From under an umbrella our explorer gazes in wonder at yet another blinding facade, this time that of San Giorgio Maggiore, and it is here that his keen judgement on the varied strengths of line for different degrees of semi-relief really comes into play. Its Palladian white marble brilliance, reflected in ripples on the wet stone below, boasts both engaged, structural columns and decorative pilasters, both adorned with Corinthian capitals. If seen straight on it would have seemed far flatter, but the angle allows the artist to accentuate its depth as well as its symmetry, while the three tourists gathered in conversation closer to the church emphasise its scale and weight.

Many of his meanderings are far more relaxed and some of his discoveries more bizarre. Around the Arsenale towards the south-east of the main island, Taniguchi almost does a double-take as he spies a leviathan of a cruise ship passing what appears to be comically close, its contrasting modernity dwarfing the buildings and footbridge in the foreground. So that's, umm, another way to enter Venice.

The page which immediately follows shows him holding his jacket and slightly dumfounded against the more ancient, castellated shipyard area behind him.

Eventually Jiro finds himself back in San Marco, this time in the evening when the colonnades are lit up to glorious, golden effect against a sable-coloured sky while tourists dine at the posher places and Italian residents take their customary pre- or post-prandial passeggiata along the broad quayside under the shining orbs of free-standing lamps.

After that, there's time for more than a few final flourishes - several statues and two different views of the white, Baroque, grey-domed Santa Maria della Salute before a fond farewell and a solemn promise to return, delivered with customarily Japanese gratitude.

"Oribe Tsugo, where are you now?
"I will come back and find you. Thank you, dear grandfather."
Now, Taniguchi didn't take all this in nor draw it in one day (!), so I don't advise that you attempt to absorb this in a single sitting, either. Ridiculously, you will become immune, almost inured to its majesty; bloated on its intoxicating beauty rather than drunk on its detail.

This is the advantage of the painted page browsed at your leisure: that you can focus on the intricacies of an individual balustrade or the effect on its surroundings of a trailing window box. Although there is nothing like the first-hand, eye-candy explosion of a city like Venice, a book like this enables one to sit back and appreciate in detail what might be lost in one long weekend's exhilarating, overwhelming experience. Inevitably your eyes dart all over the place, such are the limitless wealth of monumental distractions vying for your attention, but with a book like this sat on your lap you can smile in remembrance of everything you adored, or in sublime anticipation of a unique experience yet to come.

There are more verdant areas here that I have evidently yet to discover, so I just know I'm going back. Plus I've never seen Venice in the rain. I shouldn't and do not complain, but I want at least once to see Venice from under an umbrella.

Further, unapologetically personal if irreverent notes (you can honestly stop reading now):

All roads led to the Rialto. It doesn't matter where you think you're heading, you will wind up on the Rialto Bridge. On my third visit to Venice I effectively short-circuited that mildly amusing inconvenience by booking us a hotel room right on the Rialto. We returned safely and immediately home every evening.

Random turns: they will be random whether you wander map-free or not. Your ability to navigate Venice with any degree of accuracy will prove inversely proportionate to your injudiciously declared confidence. Being lost is one of its many great pleasures.

Selected bits of Venice rotate overnight by 90 degrees. This renders any memorised routes unreliable. Honest advice...? Ignore maps, ditch them completely, and go with the flow. You can identify your destination upon arrival using a pocket guidebook. That's much more satisfying.

If you have found cars, you have lost your way. I mean, really lost your way. There are no cars in Venice. Suggest re-spawning at San Marco then trying again.

Venice is a working city, which should go without saying, but somehow didn't in what used to blind me as a fantasy land. But here we are introduced early on to its vegetable, fish and fruit markets which obviously aren't catering for tourists but residents. So another top-tip is to rise bright and early at least one morning to mix with commuters on their way into work while the city is still quiet enough, tourist-free, so that you can hear their patent leather shoes clap-clop-clap on stone and share their en-route espressos. I love that washing hangs out on lines between some of the residential buildings. Presumably there's some sort of pulley system. That's neighbourly cooperation for you.

Do not attempt to open a bottle of wine alongside the Grand Canal with teenage girls watching you. If you do, do not attempt to mitigate your observed failure by rolling your sleeves up and then trying again. Your consequent, compounded, cork-screw failure will result in much vocalised mirth.

You cannot, alas, sleep on Venice's train-station platform any longer. My mate Ian Marshall and I did during the 1980s when there was no room one Easter season at the proverbial inn. We had a brilliant, convivial night and awoke the next morning to find so many Venetian youths flocking in to wash then blow-dry their hair using the station's sinks and hand-dryers (twisted upwards for maximum wind-tunnel effect).

There is if not a cul-de-sac on the Grand Canal to the east of the train station, then at least a virtually untrodden path leading nowhere, which you can find by crossing the train-station bridge southwards, heading just a little in-road and left over the first footbridge, then cutting back north to reappear on the Grand Canal with not one single soul passing by to bother you. Sitting together on the canal's edge, legs dangling and swaying freely, then opening a bottle of Prosecco is an experience what I can only describe as a sustained, shared and spiritual orgasm as you absorb the reflected opulence of the facades opposite, waving gently and colourfully in the water.

I hope this has helped.