I like what Henry James wrote about Venice, but until tonight I never liked his famous phrase that Venice was “the most beautiful of tombs.” Tongue-in-cheek perhaps, since he also called Venice “the most beautiful of towns”; but the phrase does mean something and gets famous for that, while the word “tomb” is no doubt unpleasant to people who believe the city is still alive.

“Venetian life, in the large old sense, has long since come to an end… Nowhere else has the past been laid to rest with such tenderness, such a sadness of resignation and remembrance. Nowhere else is the present so alien, so discontinuous, so like a crowd in a cemetery without garlands for the graves.” – Henry James, Italian Hours (1909).

“Are there famous people buried in Venice?” My friend asked when we took a walk after dinner on College St. A law student at Yale, he is very interested in graves. He frequented the cemetery across the street from the Law School, and he said, “Malinowski is at another site.”

“Oh, the sociologist,” I said.

“He gets famous in China because of Fei Xiaotong the sociologist,” my friend said.

My friend is very kind and always responds to my comments by comments that follow my comments. That is, he doesn’t contradict, not explicitly, which I always do, especially to contradict myself. If I were him I would have replied that Malinowski is an anthropologist, if I could recall.

I couldn’t recall the name of the Russian composer buried at San Michele, and I told my friend only two literary figures to answer his question: Ezra Pound and Joseph Brodsky. Two obscure poets—they are famous, but obscure, like most dead people, like most distant and recent history—buried near Stravinsky. I remember the composer’s name now.

Come to think of it, of course more famous people are buried in Venice: St. Mark, for instance, though technically he was buried in Alexandria and only in 828 did he become a possession and patron saint of Venice. Many other saints and strangers are there, too, I mean their relics, like Othello’s, like Shylock’s.

But it just occurred to me that James was right about Venice being “the most beautiful of tombs.” The Basilica of St. Mark is a beautiful mausoleum of Constantinople, of the Byzantine, of the Eastern Mediterranean. And the palaces on the Grand Canal that of a simpler and perhaps better time.

The end of that time has left us materially rich but spiritually uncertain. Tradition is dead; tradition is yet to come. And every corner of the world is struggling to get back home.

A home not the old but the new. A home new but also old, that sees everything comes and goes, “and takes it all in with practised eyes.”

by Yuqian Cai, Venice Palaces