We have met many times, he and I. In a tiny park, to adjacent to Basilica di Santa Maria della Salute, stands a statue of a bearded man. He is frozen in a terrified state, looking upwards to heaven. His arms are missing. His features are slowing being worn away by time, rain, and the gunk spewed out by industry and cruise ships. Every time I return to Venice I visit him—and wonder about him.
Santa Maria della Salute was built after the plague of 1630 devastated the city. A third of the population died within two years. Previous plagues had come and gone—like the plague of 1576 which killed the great Titian—and resulted in the construction of other, great Venetian churches. But they did nothing to prevent the plague of 1630. An even grander church needed to be offered to God and perhaps this one would finally calm his wrath or thank him, once and for all, for deliverance from this misery.
I wonder about such suffering and terror when I look up at the armless statue. I ponder what kind of fear he must feel as he looks up to a stormy, Venetian sky. I imagine that his relationship with his god certainly must be complex, filled with fear and apprehension. He must be wondering if he'd been abandoned. What kind of god would do this to him, to his world and to his great city?
He is frozen in terror with no arms and no hope. And if the next plague did not kill him, then the fumes of a thousand cruise ships of future years most certainly might. These behemoths glide past him now, casting shadows and soot, and delivering not the plague but gaggles of tourists instead. The tourists come and gaze at the church. They read about the ghastly disease that had killed so many. They stare up and walk around. They glance at their watches and move onward to the next landmark. Soon the ship would be leaving for another port in another city. Time with the statue is scarce. They move on.
The next morning, the small park is quiet again. The armless statue continues his vigil. It looks like rain today, something he's seen again and again. Rain falls into his open eyes. But, someone must keep watch. Someone must look upward. There is forever another plague on the way—and our poor statue's arms are already gone.