Inside Venice for George Clooney and Amal Alamuddin's wedding

A reliable and avuncular-looking short man had chosen to get married in Venice – and I was there

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The Independent Online

In Venice with George Clooney. All right, not “with” exactly; more “at the same time as”. And even that is coincidental. The first inkling I had that something more than usually hyperbolic was happening here was an overheard conversation on a vaporetto about the city being struck by “Rooneymania”.

Funny, I thought. Had Wayne abruptly given up on Manchester United – for which no one could blame him, God knows – and signed for Unione Venezia? The phrase “the handsomest man on the planet” gave me pause, but who was I to judge Italian taste in men? And as for his marrying a beautiful human rights lawyer, wouldn’t Coleen have something to say about that?

Even when my ear corrected “Rooneymania” to “Clooneymania” I remained at a loss. Clooney is not a name I encounter much in my line of work and I do what I can not to keep up with the doings of the rich and famous. No Hello! falls through my letter box. And all invitations to red-carpet events are returned unanswered. They can beg all they like. This is the cultural equivalent of living as a hermit lives, but without having to relinquish soft mattresses, filet mignon or red wine.

I’m not saying I don’t know who George Clooney is. I’ve seen two or three pleasantly unremarkable films with him in them, and quite like the air of firm-jawed reliability he gives off. He would make someone, I imagine, a nice uncle. And for the same reason – though not of course at the same time – a nice husband. I also have the impression he’s short, and shortness is another quality I admire in men, famous or not. So a reliable and avuncular-looking short man had chosen to get married in Venice – excuse my internet Italian, but cosi che cosa cazzo?

The paparazzi clearly do, though in Venice it’s hard to tell paparazzi from your ordinary avid tourist. Here, everyone is in a permanently excited state, taking photographs of themselves taking photographs, not quite able to trust the veracity of their own eyes and needing records of their experiences to be sure they’ve had them. The fake Gucci bag street-sellers have a new line – infinitely extendable selfie-sticks which you attach to your phone so that you can stand on one side of the Grand Canal and photograph yourself from the other. Soon, the mobile phone whose virtue used to be its compactness won’t be complete without a tripod, a reflection kit and a camera assistant. But at least in Venice the object justifies the labour. Yes, there is too much here for the senses alone to apprehend.

But its virtues are its undoing. Venice has always been a city dying of its own beauty. Death in Venice is a tautology. Death is Venice. That’s what brings visitors back again and again: the allure of putrescence, whether in the creeping damp, the restless church facades – and every church proclaims the majesty of death – the jeering sensuality of Carnival, the disdainful gondoliers, or just the contemptuously atrocious food – an insult so deep that you can only suppose it to be an expression of the city’s unconscious desire to kill its visitors.

And maybe not so unconscious. There is only one response here to the proposition that the short man’s wedding will draw the world’s attention to Venice, and that’s a fervent hope it won’t. There are already more tourists here than Venice can cope with. Many of them disgorged from giant cruise ships which dwarf the city, pollute the lagoon and lower the tone. Of all tourists, those held in the lowest esteem are tourists let out of cruise ships for an hour in order to satisfy their unaccountable lust for tasteless objects. And the more of them there are, the more tasteless object shops there have to be. Take away the tourists and Venice’s population has been dropping dramatically for decades. “We are not a city. We are a museum,” one Venetian tells me. A mausoleum would be another word; a charnel house of imported tat.

As the son of someone who sold tat on Northern markets – “swag” we called it – I have mixed emotions about this. There can be a vitality in tat, however cynically produced. We fell in love with much of what we sold, relished its ingenious ugliness as a sort of triumph of the human spirit, and never felt we were taking our customers for a ride. If anything, it bonded us, soulmates in swag. Years later, when assisting at a craft (and semi-swag) centre in Cornwall, I had a confrontation with the National Trust, which ran our village like an occupying army and wanted to control what sort of visitors came through.

“I’m not prepared to see these beautiful cliffs worn away by people who buy witches on broomsticks,” one snooty Trust official told me. “But you don’t mind them being worn away by people who buy National Trust tea-cosies,” was my reply.

Tat’s tat. Take the long view and what isn’t tat? Ruskin thought the Doge’s Palace perfection; Goethe couldn’t be much bothered with it.

Sitting listening to a Palm Court orchestra playing Andrew Lloyd Webber favourites in St Mark’s Square – a square in which I would gladly expire some days, and some days not – I agree with them both. Depends on the light, on what else angles for one’s eye, and on one’s mood. Depends on whether the inane, idolatrous cries of “George, George!” come floating in from the canal where Clooney is promenading – if you can promenade on water – with his new wife and their glittering guests.

Gaudy or not, the place continues to die from its foundations up; exquisite and rotten, in the best and worst of taste – like its visitors.

I don’t know whether George is thinking about death this minute, but I can’t believe he isn’t. In the presence of beauty, what other subject is there?

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