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The People in the Painting

by Renato Pestriniero

A sound pushed through muggy air. Alberto climbed out of a deep well, rested his elbows on the rim, and leaned out on a new morning.

With the sirens second wail he woke up completely. The siren meant this morning would be different. It happened maybe once a year, and it was a pain. But it was also a change, a new element in the composition.

Low tide.

The young man half-opened his window, and looked out on a landscape cut from pearl-gray paper. A few inches over his head the garret’s roof framed the sight. Alberto liked that; the low roof gave him a sense of privacy, of protection, like a hat on a cold wet winter day.

He sat in the window casement wrapped in a blanket, taking in the first colours of the morning. A light fog was stuffing all the empty spaces. It was coming up in a slow soft puff, from the Grand Canal and the Canale della Giudecca, then melting into the network of canals and alleyways. It filtered across porticos and courts, around chipped wells, inside old broken doors, under bridges, into big cracks that sheltered whole cities of mice. This morning the city was a washed palette: the only blobs of colour not yet blown away by the veil of mist were the brown tile roofs beyond the canal. Floating levels of every shade of grey were stacked on one another, interrupted by the chimney tops and the dead TV antennas stretching out to the nearby horizon, where a curtain of mist cut off the visible world. Behind the curtain, a campanile struck six.

Alberto waited for another sound to complete the composition. Any sound would do.

But there were, as usual, no other sounds. He would hear nothing else until about 8:30, when Franco’s painting would start. A couple of hours earlier it might have been possible to hear the distant roar of a shuttle coming down; but the wind was blowing inland, so he probably wouldn’t have. Hard to say. Maybe they weren’t coming today.

The thought cheered him. The shuttles brought visitors to the paintings, and as far as Alberto was concerned, the visitors could go to hell. Along with their cameras and chatter, their arrogance and ignorance.

He left the window. Take a shower, read the instructions on the blackboard, put on Wednesday’s costume; water off, lights off. Out the door. He went down five flights of narrow coiled stairs, enjoying their bowed steps, the leprous walls, and the smell of mould. Then he was in the alley.

A shuttle’s roar blasted the quiet city, dashing his hopes for the day. He ran the rest of the way to Painting Six’s hall; it wasn’t far. Some of the others were already there, and others followed him in. Helloes, jokes, yawns, some comments on the morning.

Alberto stuck his card in the machine and drew breakfast, then sat in his favourite corner. All the tables were the same, but from the corner he could see through a window that seemed more than a window; it was an interface between reality and art, a transfiguring square of glass which revealed a work of art that was always new: the Ponte dei Tre Archi. It emerged from the darkness each morning just as the painter Francesco Guardi had seen it more than three centuries before, unchanged in substance, differing only in daily proportions of sunlight, cloud, rain, fog.

Granted, there were no longer gondolas floating on the canal, or people walking on the fondamenta. No one had really lived in the city for a long time. The only people left were the people in the paintings.

The city’s death had brought back the lagoon’s original smell of putrid wood, its original sound of squeaking mice.

„OK everybody! It’s seven thirty!“ Dario was about fifty years old, bald but full-bearded; he had an athlete’s body, and wore the red overalls of an artist. The young men and women who had assembled in the hall gathered around him.

„Now,“ he said. „Roberto, Juan, Helen, David, Hans, Ennio! Where’s Ennio? Anybody see him?“

Nobody had.

„All right. We’ll wait five minutes, and then I’m replacing him. The extras will be here soon.“

The door opened and Carlo came in. Carlo was a free-lance, and didn’t work regularly in the paintings; but he lived with the artists, and joined them occasionally if he needed the money. He was a well-known figure.

People knew him because of what he said. When he spoke, people focused on him; his sentences seemed to hang in suspension, insulated from crowd noise and laughter. Afterwards, thinking back on it, the only part of the evening those around him would recall would be a kind of idea, a phantasm of thought, and they would think, ‘ah, that’s what he meant!’

In an ordinary city Carlo would have been a classic example of the young revolutionary, fully committed to destruction for the sake of a theory. He would have been taking away, or eliminated. But in their city of dead things, of silence, of wails in the mist, nobody heard him but the painting crews, the only inhabitants of a huge, sunken ruin.

Carlo’s keen eyes returned the greetings of his noisy companions; he did not smile. „I’ll replace Ennio,“ he said. „He’s not coming.“

Dario didn’t answer, but two vertical wrinkles appeared between his eyes. He looked at the clock; the five minutes had passed. „OK,“ he said. „Go and get a costume.“

Carlo made for the cloakroom. As he passed Alberto he slapped him on the shoulder, and winked.

At eight o’clock the group left the hall and branched off into the tangle of alleyways, all going to their usual locations. That morning the siren had announced low tide; and sure enough, the streets had appeared. Nobody took the opportunity to walk in them, however; as always, they made use of boards that had been fastened to the walls several feet over the alley bottoms, along the routes leading from the halls to the painting areas.

Low tide was rare, and disgusting. The ancient uncovered pavement was encrusted with putrid slime, a magma of organic remains and objects transformed by salt into grotesque reminders of the time when people had used them. An uncovered cemetery of mice.

The voices of the young people faded away. The hall was only a point of light, pricking the fog. A trace of music filtered through a door, and was absorbed at once by the grey. From the interior alleyways the Ponte dei Tre Archi was no longer visible.

The shuttle took off from the mainland, rising elegantly on an invisible column of flame. Through its plastic windows the towers, bridges and canals of the dream city were not yet visible; they were covered in a discreet blanket of mist. Then a cry rose from two hundred throats, immediately followed by two hundred shouts of astonishment, as the craft plunged into the lagoon with a carefully calculated suddenness. A buzz of cameras, videos, holos; four hundred eyes carefully looked through viewfinders as light meters and beeping red and green lights flashed. The first ruins of the submerged area took shape in the shady layered water. Great ruined walls appeared and vanished, the gaps between them like mouths wide open in silent cries. The two hundred servants of their miniature visual robots turned their heads from side to side, leaving it to their small humming masters to obtain the proof that they were actually entering the city of dreams.

Voices from the structure that supported the submerged quarter whispered, „The images you record are the only things that will convince you later that everything you saw was real.“

A neon rainbow swallowed the craft as it entered the terminal. Hundreds of coloured plastic balloons drifted up through the water, and then the air. The human cargo spilled out and merged with previous cargoes on the dock. The conveyor moved them gently into the city.

„Three full hours in the fairy kingdom! Three hours in the kingdom of the great silence, where you can hear the water wear away the old walls. Guaranteed! And best of all: the paintings!“

The sun began to brighten the mist, just as the brochures described it. „A city immersed in a golden halo of light.“ Check the f-stop, adjust the focus, record the panorama in its golden halo of light. But where are the paintings? Why don’t they start?

„We have a surprise today, ladies and gentlemen. We are happy to announce that we will present three paintings instead of two.“

Hands applaud, looking like happy little butterflies.

„Look to the right at that mass of piles driven into deep foundations. A gondola crossing the canal. Excuse me, be careful not to step past this mark. If necessary the gondola will stop mid-canal to give everybody a chance. Ah yes, it’s clear an audience with your sensitivity needs more time. The gondola is stopping. As you can see, the boat carries real people. It would be futile for me to try explain the drama of this scene. One wrong move by the gondolier, or a sudden wave, even the shift of a single passenger, and they would capsize instantly. And look, that may happen right now before your eyes! Something is wrong, the gondolier is hurrying on instead of stopping for us. Look out! One of the big vaparettos of the Grand Canal is passing, and it will cause waves that will endanger the little gondola and her cargo of human beings. If there were women aboard, babies…. The gondolier is pushing the boat using a long stick called an oar, trying to get as far away as possible from the powerboat. My God! The ship’s blocking my view, I can’t see what’s happening….“

Pale hands cover mouths; bare eyes watch, and at last they see, all by themselves…

„Wow! Ladies and gentlemen, the danger is over. Look at the gondolier still standing firm at the end of his boat, manoeuvring it to a stop. A painting come to life. We’ve really been lucky. It’s an event that will never be repeated, how about a round of applause for this great cast – real artists, giving everything they’ve got to their art.“

Alberto and Carlo followed the narrow high path of planks back to Painting Six hall, saying nothing, their hands in the pockets of their black pants. As they crossed the Molo they heard the vaporetto from Painting Nine approach the quay. From the Bridge of Straw they saw it take shape, through fog that skimmed the water like smoke. No doubt their friend William would be at the helm.

The vaporetto passed. William glanced over, saw them, waved a hand. Alberto and Carlo remained on the bridge until the boat and its cargo of colourfully dressed tourists lost consistency in the fog, and vanished.

Alberto turned to leave, but Carlo stayed where he was, elbows resting on the bridge railing.

„Let’s go,“ Alberto said. „It’s late.“

Carlo looked at him. „So tell me, Alberto, have you thought about it?“

Alberto knew what his friend was talking about, but he wasn’t ready to answer the question. Perhaps he would never be ready.

„Let’s go,“ he repeated. „We can talk about it later.“

„No. Let’s talk about it now. We can’t just keep waiting! Don’t you see how absurd our situation is? It’s grotesque!“

Alberto stood on the steps of the bridge. „I know,“ he said. „But Carlo, you can make a living on your own. Me, if I leave the guild, what will I do? I know our ideals are important, but… I want to stay in the guild. I couldn’t live in an ordinary city. If I leave the guild my place would just be taken by someone else. Our ideals can’t change the way things are.“

Alberto looked down at the water of the canal. It was dirty water, dark and oily. Its slow flow carried away the rubbish thrown overboard by the tourists: multicoloured food containers, empty film canisters, bottles: all plastic, all indestructible, all fragments of distant worlds, covered with indecipherable messages.

The city, he thought, had been dead for years. Now it was a cemetery of ghosts. After the splendour, the slow decline. Then the end. The famous palaces, the slender bridges, the mullioned windows… none of them could look with pride at their own reflections in the water. Time had seen to that. And by the time the city had become aware of its decline, it was too late; the long agony had begun.

So who was going to maintain the memory of the dream city, if not the artists? The people in the paintings were protagonists of scenes admired by people from all over the world! Of course there were the guild cards, the tiny salaries, the behaviour codes, the fixed schemes for the paintings….

The paintings. This was the point where Alberto became confused. The very word unleashed all his uncertainties. And it was just at this point, with this very word, that Carlo’s ideas slipped into him. Perhaps Carlo had already convinced him.

Still looking down at the water, Alberto ended his long silence. „Carlo, have you ever looked at our situation from a different point of view? Maybe the jobs we have, as anonymous figures, as puppets, manoeuvred by the painters, maybe these jobs could be defined as their own sort of art. The means used to express the world are always changing, after all. Why not consider what we do just another form of painting? Painting has been through a lot of changes: it went from the studio to the outdoors, from oil on canvas to anything on anything. Painting changed into sculpture long ago, Carlo, into happenings, into montage, into performance… and now we’ve just replaced oils and plastics and all the other materials. We create the paintings with people. We’re living montages, and we’ve chosen to live in the paintings because we love this city! It died long ago, sure, but we bring it back to life.“

„We put make-up on the corpse, you mean. We put springs inside it and made it laugh and jump.“

„So what if we have! But it does laugh and jump, every day, for everyone who feels the desire to come here and see it! It doesn’t matter if their desire is imposed on them, it doesn’t matter if the people who come are tourists, completely at a loss if they don’t have a holocamera to record it all. It doesn’t matter if they can’t see for themselves, if their eyes are in their machines. What matters is that we make the city live!“ Alberto stopped speaking and spat into the canal. He spat a second time, angrier than ever. Finally he turned, and again looked at Carlo. „Despite all that,“ he said, his voice now strangely quiet after his outburst, „I know you’re right. You’re right the way people always are when they want to change things that have gone on too long. Habit should always be resisted.“

Carlo approached him, hands spread wide. „You understand what I mean. The scenes we perform were a logical artistic development, but the time has come to change again. We came from all over the world to give this city life, but it shouldn’t happen with yearly contracts and memorized scripts. Let’s make this town really ours, let’s really live in it, whether anyone wants to see us or not! Let them come if they want, with or without their cameras. But if they want to see our paintings, they should have to walk in alleys and over boards, and dip their feet in the slime, and meet us in our normal daily lives.“ This has to be our town, open to others, but they have to come to it on our terms. We shouldn’t be accommodating them like we do. This is a place outside ordinary space and time, it belongs to another dimension, and our visitors should understand that to be able to come here. We’re magicians, Alberto, not mechanics!“

The people from Painting Three suddenly filled the air with explosions of curses. Two women leaned out from their respective windows, opposite each other above the alley: fists resting on their hips as they staged their daily quarrel, which was quite incomprehensible to the tourists crowded on the platform below.

The two young men stood on their bridge watching, unconsciously waiting for the applause that would follow the performance.

High above the grey curtain of mist, first mournful and then silent, a rocket howled its departure. It carried a well satisfied cargo: they had paid a visit to the dream city, and they had learned about art. Above all, they had recorded it, and had proof of their pilgrimage hidden in small sealed cassettes and canisters, rolled up in black-coloured snakes, ready to be shown to all their friends.

„The dream city is invisible now. Perhaps it’s under the grey veil we see on the screen. Perhaps not. But let’s take a look at the tour program, and see where we’re headed next…“

Alberto felt cold. He covered his shoulders with his jacket. He and Carlo stepped off the bridge. They turned into an alley with a catwalk, and walked between high walls, pocked with empty windows. They disappeared around a corner. Their voices echoed in the fog, accompanied by the sound of their boots on the planking, high over the streets of mud.

Translated by Kim Stanley Robinson
First published in
Starshore, Summer 1990
Copyright © 1990 by Renato Pestriniero

Renato Pestriniero was born in Venice in 1933 and is one of the major Italian sf writers, who has published numerous novels and story collections, won all Italian sf awards and has his works translated into French, Spanish and English. He still lives in Venice and is a passionate lover of his home town, which shows in a series of stories which are set in a future Venice. Renato once translated Kim Stanley Robinson’s story “Venice Drowned” into Italian which in turn caused Stan to translate this piece into English. We thank both for their permission to reprint this classic piece of a cross-Atlantic sf collaboration.

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