Rolling in Venice

‘Heads will roll’ is the executioner’s grisly promise. The executioner’s house in Venice portrays a disembodied head – a catalyst for an image of a head rolling across the ground. But a rolling head still has some momentum. And a body with a head can also roll. Rolling is a form of travel that confuses bipedal authority. Bipedalism is led by the eyes and anyone who has been to Venice knows how tricky it is to find the gap in the crowd – keep your eyes peeled and gaps in the crowd reveal themselves in a vertical plane not a horizontal one. To roll across ground is to move without the certainty of vision and relies instead on the sensory announcements of the skin. The activity is mollusc-like in its pace, sensitivity and vulnerability – a snail trail of human proportions. Traversing stone paths and steps while horizontal is an intricate negotiation, with each measure of the roll alive with sensory information. Body weight releasing into gravity is the most efficient way; muscles relax when possible and allow momentum to do its work; joints articulate in sequence, softening as they release into the weight of the body. For me, rolling is a surprisingly satisfying means of movement – not efficient, but physically satisfying because of the call to fully attend to something embodied, each new moment as considered as the last. It is the opposite of the changeable, scattered impulses forced on you by the tyranny of the crowd in Venice.

The pedestrian crowds of Venice are clustered into tourist bedlam; a bipedal meltdown of interrupted intentions, changes of direction, contact with other bodies, sudden stops, frustrations, pauses for viewing (that interrupt someone behind you). To see someone rolling across this contested ground is either an irritation or a comedy. How could someone be so ridiculously, yet privately, attuned; so carefully attentive to the environmental changes yet prone amongst the tourist traffic? In rolling, embodiment is given primacy but its quietness screams at you. Tourists stare, locals look away with a weary sufferance or smile with mild amusement (selfie culture gone mad?). It was rolling, as a form of movement, that seemed so at odds with the chaos of congestion.

Each site (Palazzo Bembo, the house of the executioner on Calle de la Testa, the Church of San Nicolo dei Mendicoli) had its own qualities and its own challenges. The banker (a bank, along with the gallery, is also in residence at Palazzo Bembo) was appalled that I could be rolling across its marble floor when customers might enter. ‘Don’t do this’ he asserts; but are the merchant class still calling the shots in Venice? Yet the cold marble was smooth and consistent – the perfect medium for rolling. The muted shaft of light spilling into the foyer of Palazzo Bembo was a theatrical setting. At the far end of the foyer and beyond the doorway to the street a group of tourists are caught in the sharp light of midday, a visible counterpoint to the mystery of the rolling figure.

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