What are they on about?

31st March 2000 at 01:00
David Newnham on the wondrous beauty of Venice

By George I've got it! For three days I've been plodding the streets of Venice, and suddenly I can understand Italian.

Six years ago in Rome, I saw a parade of people marching for higher wages. Their banners identified them as council workers - lavoratori municipali. "Oh look," I exclaimed. "They're demanding better public toilets." Typical tourist, I was thinking with my bladder.

But such faux pas are safely in the past, for the language of Dante has just come to me in a flash. See the felt-tip words on that crumbling stucco? I can now read them as easily as if they were written in English. They say: "Love will tear us apart again."

What's that? They are written in English? Well now you come to mention it, I suppose they are. So much for my theory that if you immerse yourself in a foreign language, one day it will suddenly click.

And make no mistake. La Serenissima might be sinking into the lagoon more slowly these days, but her palaces and churches are already immersed in graffiti right up to their pretty ankles. Along the base of every wall, as high as the outstretched arm can reach, the stones of Vence carry a constantly scrolling subtitle of names and phrases, slogans and lyrics.

Most of it's in Italian, of course. But now you point it out, I can see there is a mysterious streak of English running through all this text. "Let's die," suggests a passing doorway. "Don't believe the hipe (sic)," warns a bridge abutment. And on a stone plinth, a dribbling brush has drawled: "We'll (sic) must never be apart."

English words might be outnumbered, but they certainly make themselves heard. "SKINS" - that's one of ours. "KILLERS" - there's another. And look - here's our famous F word, emblazoned on a marble column. Ruskin would have been proud.

In a shelter behind the fish market, you will find "Sodomy amp; Lust", while the "Official Ultras" leap out at you from a nearby wall nearby. And here, freed from all context, untucked and unbuttoned at last, is the single word "SHIRT".

Only in the alleyway that leads to the Peggy Guggenheim Collection does English reveal a softer side. In very small letters, somebody has written:

"Non-atavistic presence takes over the pigeon's biscuit".

Trouble is, this makes about as much sense to me as Italian.


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