Liber Venezia

Venice in January feels like a secret. The calm before the Carnevale casts an eerie sense of solitude over the city and brings with it a unique sensation of magical unease. In the past I’d barely found the patience to tolerate - let alone appreciate - the invasive bustle of summer, but as we walked down a familiar street with only the hollow beat of our own footsteps against the hushed morning chatter of weary locals I found myself longing for a crowd – feeling exposed and intrusive, as though it was a secret we had stumbled upon uninvited.

On the edge of a vaporetto seat, watching him stare in awe through a lens at the forgotten gondolas bobbing at their posts, I wondered if he saw the ghost town. To me the Grand Canal was a winding turquoise requiem; the mayhem of June and the masses of August had turned into mist overhead, and although arguably more breathtaking in their absence, I saw what was missing. He had no memories of crowded bridges and churning water, and took no notice of the empty streets. With no way of knowing how welcome a departure from blistering tourism winter must be, he had no reason to echo my feelings of intrusion.

As St Mark’s Campanile extended, its peak tinted a green so similar to that of the surrounding lagoon it may as well have been a reflection, I began to feel as though we'd somehow overlooked some essential ingredient of adventure. We'd wandered through alleyways and side streets, found corners in dimly lit restaurants and made our way through enough house wine to necessitate a conscious effort to stay as far away from the canals as possible on each walk home. We'd made it this far completely eel-free, so I couldn't understand my uneasiness.

Witnessing my boyfriend voluntarily cover himself in pigeons, and forcing out a therapeutic “BASTA” in the direction of a street vendor who refused to remove his roses from my personal space, I remembered something I had seen years before.

Behind the two lions next to St Mark’s Basilica, just off the square, is the entrance to a web of back alleys and bridges. Extracting my contaminated companion from his new avian pals, a glimpse of familiarity returned as what little sun had managed to battle through the clouds disappeared and the open space became a maze.

In an alley less than two metres wide a kaleidoscope of Murano glass beams through windows on either side as far as the pathway extends, and amidst this sits a small wooden door. Baring the inscription “Liber Venezia”, this was my solution and escape. The air was musky and the room itself was barely wider than the street outside, but I couldn’t have thought of a better use of space. Every wall was lined with shelves, displaying row upon row upon stack of hand made stationery. Leather bound books with individually tailored covers; monogrammed letterhead and wax seals; watercolour paintings of the square, the sky and the water. As the shopkeeper approached with a warm, indecipherable welcome, I remembered was it was like to feel at home.

In a broken mix of English and Italian, pointing with a weathered, ink-stained hand, he fondly explained the features and intricacies of the leather, paper and cloth. I chose a brown wraparound cover with smooth, sturdy pages, and after a few minutes of careful consideration he delicately passed down a second book. A hand-stitched collection of thick watercolour paper, bound in blue; it excited me more than my own, imagining the things my favourite artist would fill it with. As he wrapped each item individually, we spoke lightly and were given our choice from a hidden box of personally illustrated bookmarks. With this final favour, a goodbye and a sincere 'grazie mille' we stepped back out onto the cobblestones. Winding quickly through the streets and bursting into the cold lagoon mist of the square, I didn’t notice the vendors or the tourists or the space in between.

Settled into a pair of bright yellow chairs in the shadow of the tower, I looked over the piles of steaming cappuccino and cream, into an improvised workshop. I sat and listened to the determined scratch of lead and watched as each glance upward brought him back down more intensely, closer to those thick, textured pages. I straightened up and looked out at what I could see of an island amidst the veiled expanse of lagoon, savouring the landscape as a long-awaited confirmation. Gondoliers ambled unrequired along the docks, the seasoned waiter beside us shooed an approaching flock of pigeons away from a nearby table without so much as wrinkling his tuxedo and I sat content in my chair as I realised that the unease had dropped away and only the magic remained. Feeling the chill as the shadows grew longer, I pulled my scarf up a little further, unwrapped the leather, and finally felt like the secret was mine.