Antoni Munné-Jordà

THE VENETIAN MIRROR
One_eyed_pilot_medium
One eyed pilot by Lina Theodorou
Translated into English from the Catalan by Julie Wark

One afternoon in Venice, in a bar in the Sant’Elena neighbourhood, Alessandro Scarsella, connoisseur of European fantastic literature, introduced me to Renato Pestriniero, one of Italy’s most active and prestigious science-fiction writers and very popular, too, especially since Mario Bava made the film Terrore nello spazio based on his short story “Una notte di 21 ore”. I see here that we met in February 1991 because this is what figures in the inscription – without specifying the day – that Pestriniero wrote in the copy he gave me of his book Le torri dell’eden. One of the reasons for this meeting was to discuss the possibility of bringing out two anthologies of fantastic stories by writers from all over the world, one set in Venice and the other in Barcelona, which, if the project went ahead, would be published in Italian and Catalan. Since 1992 was coming up, Barcelona was going to be in the forefront of the news, while Venice didn’t need any extraordinary events to grab people’s attention: everyone’s written about Venice. I was then in charge of the “2001” collection and thought we could publish the Catalan version of the books. What I didn’t know was that, the following April, the collection would be coming to an end with Volume 26. As a result, the only book to come out was the Italian one, Cronache dell’arcipelago, with an introduction by Alfred E. Van Vogt, survivor of the golden age of American science fiction. Our contribution to the book was the inclusion of Josep Palau i Fabre’s story “Vacances a Venècia”1 in the “traduzione dal catalano di Rosa Bertran”. Again, around that time, Rosa Bertran had shown one of Renato Pestriniero’s fantasy novels to Alfred Sargatal, who published it in the “L’Arcà” collection in the translation of Carme Arenas: Un niu més enllà de l’ombra”.2

A couple of days after this first meeting, I ran into Renato Pestriniero, this time in the picturesque weekly market on the Lido di Venezia, the island where he lives. He was with a character whom he introduced to me as dottore Vico de Lagarda, saying he was a doctor at the San Zanipolo hospital and adding, “un vero e proprio personaggio di fantascienza”. According to Pestriniero, De Lagarda lived astride two periods, the present and the eighteenth century and knew more than anyone else about the Venice of that time and, right then, was writing a book about the century of Tiepolo, along the lines of La vita quotidiana a Venezia nel secolo di Tiziano by Alvise Zorzi, which had been published the previous year and was still one of the local literary sensations. Doctor De Lagarda invited me to come and visit him at his palazzo on Guidecca Island, informing me that in its day it had been a casino where Venetians went to gamble clandestinely and claiming that he had been restoring ceilings painted by Giambattista Tiepolo, which had been hidden beneath a subsequent coat of whitewash.

I went there that very evening. He came to meet me at the vaporetto stop and we went to his home on one of the streets crossing the fondamenta. From the outside, it was quite a small building, not unlike the others in the street, once painted white but now grey with time and discretely tucked into the darkness yet, once the door was opened and the lights turned on, the space shimmered in a stunning explosion of Murano glass, gleaming metal, brilliantly varnished wood and a floor of highly polished white marble. I immediately understood why the floor was so shiny. On entering his house, Doctor Vico de Lagarda took off his shoes, donned a pair of slippers he’d left on top of some chamois dusters and asked me to come in. I self-consciously asked him if I could leave my shoes on and he said that was fine but as I walked across the entrance hall, which was decked out like a museum without a speck of dust in sight, he came behind me, shuffling his feet on top of the dusters, cleaning away my footprints, erasing the slightest trace my presence in his home might have left.

In the spacious kitchen where we sat, all the bits and pieces of baroque tiles, copper objects, wooden frames, marble bench tops and brass taps blazed in dazzlingly bright light. He offered me some herbal tea served in small, immaculate porcelain cups which, as soon as we finished, he washed, dried and put away. Nobody coming into the house after me would see any sign that I had been there as the doctor’s guest. We were talking about the strange sense of time one has in Venice, starting from the personal time that the city grants each person. Venetians only take the vaporetto when it’s absolutely necessary, for example to cross the Giudecca Canal or to go to the Lido. They go on foot without the hindrance of cars or traffic lights, each person knowing thus exactly how long it will take to get to whatever place. In the city, standing before one and the same building, if one looks at the entrance and the embossing on the ground-floor level it is possible to experience the Byzantine period, while all at once moving up to the Gothic by observing the first-floor balconies only to enter the Renaissance with the plasterwork and arches of the upper floor. “And with the total experience of the Baroque inside”, as the doctor would have me know, inviting me to look at the great ceiling over the staircase, which he assured me was by Tiepolo and hidden for over two and a half centuries until he had restored it.

As we ascended the sweeping imperial stairway (Vico de Lagarda was not scuffing his dusters up the steps but, noting that there was no way he was going to touch the banister, I didn’t either) he pointed out the amazing ceiling, flat or domed I couldn’t say for sure, with its sensational assortment of nude figures, winged horses viewed from below, spears, clouds, birds, open sky and wind-puffing cherubs leaving the frame to recline on the ornamental border, which might have been painted or in relief but I couldn’t tell.

Since he noted, I’d say, that I wasn’t totally bowled over by whole show he offered to show me something that would indeed interest me. We entered one of the rooms at the head of the stairs. He told me it was the hall in which the Venetian nobles of the eighteenth century met for their covert gambling sessions. The painting on the ceiling was simply staggering: nothing less than an orgiastic bacchanal with a profusion of rosy flesh in every possible position and combination overflowing from the central oval. The walls were hung with tapestries and all around the edges were sofas, some covered in silk and others in velvet of a shockingly blood-coloured hue. Yet what was most eye-catching, because it stood out like a sore thumb, was an X-ray machine, with its vertical supports and screen placed at the halfway point of the wall opposite the door. It was quite an ancient contraption, perhaps from the times of Wilhelm Röntgen but evidently not baroque. Doctor De Lagarda told me that when they renewed the equipment at the San Zanipolo hospital they’d thrown it out and, making the most of the occasion, he’d taken it for himself. He’d used it to detect murals under the coat of whitewash, pointing out that he’d installed it in front of a mirror. He wouldn’t let me go closer but the mirror, dark and mildewed, with a heavy gilded frame, was clearly part of the original decoration of the hall.

Vico de Lagarda invited me to sit on a sofa next to the door facing the X-ray screen, turned out the lights and began a sort of magic lantern session: a series of disjointed images of the period that at some points had me thinking of Fellini’s Casanova, interspersed with a few stabs at grand guignol. I didn’t know what he had in mind and, since I wasn’t greatly enthused by the picture-show either, I made it known, as discretely as I could, that I didn’t want to miss the last vaporetto across the canal. He stopped the show and turned on the lights.

Visibly worked up, he moved away from the screen and the mirror as if somehow wary of it. I felt bad about unwittingly offending him and wanted to apologise but he wouldn’t let me speak. He opened the door that led into the hall, invited me to leave the room and we went downstairs without a word. At the bottom he got on to his dusters again and followed me across the entrance to the door. Before opening it, he turned to face me and launched into a disturbing speech.

He told me that the mirror is one of the most primitive optical instruments, a device that acts with images just as a filming camera does with the screen that reproduces the images: something that captures and projects simultaneously. And he repeated the word “simultaneously”, the second time in an interrogative tone. He said that Einstein had shown that light was deflected by the presence of a body and hence gravity acted on photons, claiming that this demonstrated the weight of photons, these tiny particles of light that in repose have no mass and that can therefore be accumulated infinitely in the receptacle that has captured them. He declared that, using X-rays, he had gained access to the visual information accumulated in the mirror that had been covered over for more than two hundred years, the images it had retained of everyone that had passed before it. He declared that he had taken a great risk in showing them to me because, by activating the mirror’s reproductive powers, he had caused it to emit an incalculable mass of photons that had been mounting up over centuries. However, the mirror was a mechanism that captured as well as emitted so it had to replenish its stock, restoring the balance by replacing the atomic weight of the photons it had projected: any visible body located within the reach of the mirror as it was emitting was in danger of being absorbed into its depths in compensation for the immeasurable quantity of energy it was giving out.

I looked into his maniac’s eyes and at his feet still planted on the dusters that had effaced any trace of my presence in his house and was overcome by an irrational fear that forestalled any mask of courtesy. I reached for the latch myself, almost pushing the dottore aside, confusedly invoking the vaporetto. I rushed down to the fondamenta not knowing if I was fleeing from the house of a dangerous lunatic or some story spinner who’d wanted to scare the pants off me with his pseudo-pornographic Cine NIC session and his pseudo-scientific gobbledygook.

A couple of months later when my stay in Venice was about to end, I bought a Murano mirror from an antiquarian in Campo di San Moisè who assured me that it dated from the eighteenth century. I can’t claim that my visit to dottore Vico de Lagarda’s home was not well and truly present in my mind, so much so that, consciously or unconsciously, I wrapped the mirror up in a Burano lace sciarpa that I’d bought in a second-hand clothes shop in Santo Stefano with the intention of giving it to a friend of mine, but I never unwrapped it again.

Four years went by since my stay in Venice and I must repeat that I don’t know whether it was consciously or unconsciously but the mirror wrapped in Venetian lace still lay in the bottom of my wardrobe. I then started to read news about the synchrotron light laboratory that was in the pipeline for Cerdanyola des Vallès. What struck me was fact of its being a light laboratory. I cut an article out of a magazine (I cite it exactly, noting that the magazine is El Temps and that the article is by Txell Llorens), which says, “Synchotron light is a source of electromagnetic radiation that makes it possible to study the properties of matter. It is radiation emitted by electrons moving in a magnetic field and each time they change direction – which happens continuously – they give off light. This radiation is of an intensity that is two thousand times greater than that of X-rays.” It went on to explain how the Heritage Group at the University of Barcelona, using the Cheshire synchrotron radiation source in the United Kingdom, had analysed pieces of medieval pottery and paintings and had thus fathomed previously unknown details of their production.

Now it’s clear to me that, consciously or unconsciously, the Venetian mirror was still exerting its influence over me. I contacted an old acquaintance from my days as an Art History student at the University of Barcelona. In this case and until all the details are sorted out, I think it would be more prudent not to mention any name. The person I knew was not a member of the Heritage Group but did have access to it. I recounted dottore De Lagarda’s theory: how the mirror had stored the light of the accumulated images and how, with the right device, in his case, some kind of X-ray machine, he could make the mirror project them again; and the danger posed by the mirror for any visible body that entered its range because it might compensate by absorbing the equivalent of the energy freed by the accumulated protons. This person told me that, from the scientific point of view, the whole thing was gibberish but did ask me for a loan of the mirror in order to analyse it. It seems that in Murano, in the eighteenth century, they used a system of light that was dammed up by means of what might have been an as yet not very well-known mercury-based alloy, and the synchrotron had proved to be an ideal tool for studying matter. I handed over the mirror, and was told to expect a call when it had been analysed and that was the last I heard of this person. No one ever heard another word. No one has ever seen this person again.

In one of my discrete phone calls to another group at the university, they told me that there was indeed a baroque mirror in the laboratory and offered to return it to me if I could prove I was the owner. I’ve never dared to reclaim it. I didn’t want to reclaim it. However, now that I’ve started sorting out several short stories produced over a period of many years – some unpublished, some appearing in publications where hardly anyone’s seen them, and all of them rewritten, some from start to finish – with the idea of putting together a volume of certain generic consistency, I think that this tale of Venetian mirrors that store and reveal the marvels and horrors they have contemplated, which I’ve not yet managed to understand and perhaps, consciously or unconsciously, I refuse to understand, might represent some sort of metaphor that justifies all the rest. Maybe that’s why I’ve written it.

1. Holiday in Venice,  Barcelona, Galàxia Gutenberg / Cercle de Lectors, 2004
2. A Nest beyond the Shadow.







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