Venice, 1988: Settled at last into our borrowed Venetian apartment, my friend sipped her tea at the window while I stepped out to the narrow canal beneath her gaze. Chimney pots peppered the roofs like vertical stepping stones to the sky. I wanted to be under that sky, a drape of blue over the red and russet shoulders of the neighborhood.
I crossed a delicate bridge over the canal to a tiny piazza. Like nymphs attending Diana, the buildings on two sides gave way to the goddess between them: the Basilica S. Maria Gloriosa dei Frari. Dismayed by the large plain church (a pile of dun cloth in a city otherwise threaded with silver, azure and gold), I prepared to turn away.
But the church bell summoned the faithful. I joined worshippers squeezing through the door and followed them to the empty front pews. Thanks to the universal rhythms of the Catholic liturgy, I navigated the Italian Kyrie, Gloria, pace, and Eucharist with ease. And for forty minutes I gaped at the monumental altarpiece before me: the swirling pageant of draperies, dimpling flesh and baffled faces composing the “Assumption of the Virgin,” by Titian.
I had seen photographs of the altarpiece before. However, in our miles-long walks through the museums of Italy (“no more martyrs, no more myths”), I had forgotten it. Here it ascended before me: a gift of grace from the universe and piety’s reward.
For the entire Mass, I sat, stood and knelt before it exactly as Titian intended, with a grateful, reverent and exalting heart.