By Jane Hope Fox
We met Ivo by chance. He had placed an ad in the local monthly tourist guide, Un Ospite di Venezia, (A Guest in Venice) and on a whim, we responded. The ad read:
Sherlock Holmes’s Hidden Venice
Tour of the places described in the novel ‘Sherlock Holmes in Venice.’ Every Sunday, 11am. Meet at Campo San Stae boat ramp. Information at the Trattoria Antica Sacrestia, tel. 041-523.o7.49 (ask for Ivo Lombardo). Free tour in Italian, French and English.
After more than twenty visits here, we were old friends with Venice and her eccentricities; we were looking for something different. We knew La Serenissima more intimately than any other foreign city. We had seen her at her most vulnerable and her most beautiful. We knew her under aqua alta when wearing tall rubber boots we sloshed in knee-deep lagoon water through her grand piazza. We had celebrated the feast of the Redentore, the end of the plague of 1576, with Venice under a dazzling sky of fireworks. And for Carnevale, with jeweled masks and brocaded costumes, we had danced in the Piazza.
Part of Venice remains as much a cliché as the pigeons of Piazza San Marco. Venice is often filled with Japanese tourists photographing other Japanese tourists having an authentic Venetian shopping moment at Gucci and Valentino. Hordes of backpackers eat in trattorie from tourist menus, written in four languages, none in Italian. Hawkers set up shop in front of the Doge’s Palace, selling plastic snow globes with replicas of the Basilica of St. Mark’s, in a city, not known for its snow. The beauty of Venice seduces crowds of day- trippers to her Bridge of Sighs, her Grand Canal, and great noble palaces. Though often, in the blur of their whirlwind pace, they miss the Gothic glories of the city’s architecture. But our Venice, is “the other Venice,” the Venice of Giacomo Casanova, Henry James, Lord Byron and on that day, Sherlock Holmes.
The vaporetto took us to the San Stae stop, and we disembarked from the boat into an empty, silent campo. The air was damp and a winter fog was beginning to lift. At first we didn’t notice Ivo standing in the shadows and thought that perhaps there was no tour in January. But then, there he was, a short man, about thirty, in an Edwardian cape and wire rimmed glasses. He seemed to materialize from the fog. “Are you here for Sherlock?” he asked, in a deep cigarette voice, making a grand, sweeping gesture with his arm.
When he realized we were Americans, and the only two people on the tour, he said he would prefer to speak in English. His voice was low and ruminating and his accent heavy. He had an odd assortment of tics and jerks of his arms that came over him from time to time, adding further to the oddness of his personality. All of this made it necessary to listen to him carefully, with concentrated attention. He spoke with intensity about odd and unusual bits of Venetian history, some dealing with Holmes, some strictly Venetian. Though it was clear from the start that he was not a professional guide, his passion for all things Holmesian, was evident. Ivo seemed an old soul in the body of a young man. He was outside the mainstream of Italian culture, as quirky as his facial spasms. And we followed this odd little man, with curiosity, and some initial hesitation, over humpback bridges and through narrow back alleys.
Ivo led us through the dark reaches of Venice, while sharing his history of the strange and bizarre. He informed us that houses of the working class were built of wood with just a thin layer of exterior brick. Some of this wood, he said, with somber emphasis, was taken from the coffins of the poorer victims of the great plague that ravaged 16th century Venice. We also learned that before the island cemetery of San Michele was opened, the Venetians were buried under designated campi (town squares). These days, one can still identify where the unmarked, hidden plots hold these remains by looking for those campi, which are slightly raised. These were hardly the kind of tourist anecdotes we had expected!
In 1888, in the midst of the machine age, the gondoliers of Venice went on strike and so, we learn, the vaporetto became the new and official form of public transportation. Ivo is particularly enthused by the bawdy and the tawdry and assures us that Holmes was too. “At the time of Sherlock’s visit, Turkish baths were popular as a cure for syphilis,” he says. We cross the Ponte di Teti (Bridge of Breasts) and learn it was here that Holmes watched prostitutes bare their breasts to advertise their services. And that the older, less desirable prostitutes, who serviced the poorer clientele, wore Venetian masks to conceal their advanced age.
After two hours, our tour ends and Ivo takes a book from his pocket that he has written on Sherlock in Venice. Would we like a copy?” he asks, with a twitch of his eye, which gives new immediacy to the question. Yes of course we would. Hardly an entrepreneur, he suggests we pay whatever we liked for the autographed copy. We insist on paying the full price of 8 euros. Money well spent; after all, Ivo has shared his unique view of Venice and his intense passion for Sherlock Holmes with us. I promise myself I might even read something on Sherlock Holmes, for the first time, on the plane home.
If you are interested in seeing Venice from a different perspective, consider the Sherlock tour. There are several other short, themed tours, found in the Guest in Venice guide based on the lives of the famous and infamous who spent time in Venice such as Cassanova and Richard Wagner. For those fans of the mystery writer Donna Leon, there is even a tour of the Venetian haunts of her protagonist, Guido Brunetti. Sometimes your guide may be in period in costume, the group may be serenaded by lute or violin, or a stop at a café frequented by the subject of the tour may be in order. All in all, this is an unusual way to enjoy an afternoon in the city of clichés.