Friday, January 30, 2004

Running through Venice just like everyone else

My friend Liz was kind enough to share this wonderful story with me:

I just saw this incredible academic (history) talk called "Running Alternatives: Spies on the Streets of Early Seventeenth-Century Venice" that I am burning to tell someone, anyone about. Do me a favor and listen.

In the presentation, this absolutely insane (or very sane, I don't know) grad student retraces a frantic chase that a pair of counter-espionage agents took through the streets of Venice in November of 1622. One spy, Domenico, is a gondolier and would-be spy recently dismissed from the household of the Spanish ambassador; the other, Vano, is his world-weary handler in the Venetian espionage service. It is Domenico, pursued by Spanish assassins, who runs across the Bridge of Angels and turns left into Paradise Alley; it is Vano, writing deadpan reports to their Venetian masters, who tells the story of Domenico's flight. A month later, Vano writes in a later report, the Spanish ambassador and Domenico meet in the neutral ground of a church. The Spanish ambassador promises Domenico that all will be forgiven and that Domenico will have a place again in his household if Domenico tells Vano that another man, Battista, is a double agent passing false reports to the Venetians. Domenico promises to do so, but then makes a full report to Vano of the entire conversation. Five months later the two are dead, hung by Venice for perjury. In his confession before his death, Vano writes that he is innocent of the accusations, and that if he did do something wrong, it was "for the good."

Jonathan (that's the student's name), is trying to figure out what went wrong. In an attempt to reconstruct the fateful assassination attempt, he tries to follow Domenico's path (as reported by Vano) on a map of Venice. But there's a problem: you cannot now and never could turn left into Paradise Alley from the Bridge of Angels. The two are separated by a few streets, so either Domenico or Vano lied. The distance from the bridge to the alley is at best a two-and-a-half minute run, with a number of twists and turns. Jonathan, obsessed with the missing two-and-a-half minutes, goes to Venice in pursuit of the two hapless spies and the lost time.

He finds neither.

Instead, he tries to imagine what happened by creating a set of comic book spreads telling the story from Domenico's point of view, using photos he took in Venice. He retells the story as if it were a movie script, at one point making the pun: "cut to the chase." Ha, ha, ha, he says. He tries a deliberate parody of 19th century pedantism, and makes a decision tree for all the possible rationales for the Spanish Ambassador's offer to Domenico ("Reason 2C: The offer is not genuine; it is designed to make Vano suspicious of Domenico, but remove suspicion from Battista, who actually is a double agent." "Reason 3A: There was never a meeting at all. Vano is lying in order to make his life look more perilous than it is."). He starts seeing echoes of the textures of Venice's buildings in Vano's reports: the variegated browns of the cramped, ornamented script eerily resemble his photos of Venice's 400-year-old wooden walls and brick fronts. He makes drawings in the style of 17th century woodcuts of all the people who end up dying by May, 1623. Then he adds a portrait of himself, following them.

He never figures out what happened in November of 1622. Instead he finds a set of alternative chases through the streets of Venice. And each chase ends at the gallows. Jonathan claims that now he can't find a publisher for his book on the parallels between espionage and history, can't find a job, can't get academic respect. It's a fantastic story, and he tells it well. I wanted so hard for him to find everything he wanted, even though the point of the story is, after all, that he's running through Venice just like everyone else.

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