That request reminded me about one of the ideas explored in HOW TO SEDUCE: the paraclausithyron or “shut door poem” in Latin and ancient Greek poetry. I included some of them in HOW TO SEDUCE. In these poems, the lover describes being shut out of his mistress’s house, life, bed. Instead of lamenting the woman’s cruelty, he rails comically against the door itself. It is the door who must take the blame for everything and the brunt of the poet’s wit.
All the materiality of the door, from lock to hinges, can serve as a metaphor or for innuendo.
Lucretius (De Rerum Natura 4.1177-9) asserts:
at lacrimans exclusus amator limina saepe
floribus et sertis operit postisque superbos
unguit amaracino et foribus miser oscula figit
The weeping shut-out lover often buries the threshold in flowers and garlands, anoints the proud doorposts with marjoram scent and plants miserable kisses on the door.
Tibullus offers a classic example:
nam posita est nostrae custodia saeva puellae,
clauditur et dura ianua firma sera.
ianua difficilis domini, te verberet imber,
te Iovis imperio fulmina missa petant.
ianua, iam pateas uni mihi victa querellis,
neu furtim verso cardine aperta sones
A cruel watch has been put on my girl and the hard-hearted door has been firmly locked in my face. Oh door of a stubborn master, may the rain pelt you and lightning sent by Jove target you! Oh door give in to my complaints, open just to me and make no sound as you turn your stealthy hinge.
Propertius describes the ‘Dreadful door’ as ‘crueller by far than your mistress herself.’ He demands, ‘Why do you stand silent, outfacing me with such hard panels? … Will I sleep ignominiously on the cold-blooded doorstep?’ He continues,
If only a word of mine could squeeze through an open crack
And seek out those lovely little ears and ring inside them!
… But you are the one, the greatest cause of my pain,
Dreadful door, never won over by my gifts
The only one entirely devoid of pity for human suffering,
You answer me mutely with the silence of your hinges.
Walls sometimes come in for the same treatment. Possibly the best-known anthropomorphized wall is the one that separates Pyramus and Thisbe, first in Ovid’s Metamorphoses and later, via Chaucer and Gower, in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
One reason why these poems were fresh in my mind is because I’ve lately felt extremely drawn to an aspect of Venetian life that might seem mundane – door furniture.
On a recent walk around my neighbourhood, I photographed the following examples and recorded my feelings about them. After a little absence from Venice, now that I am back I find myself revisiting the esoteric mental scrapbook that is the by-product of so many novels, an anthology and much life lived, felt and thought in the city.
The first one to attract my attention is this handsome one belonging to the Dominican nuns near the church of Santa Maria degli Miracoli. The idea of nuns having doorbells seems somehow odd, thinking back on the days when they were sternly enclosed. Deliveries took place via ‘la ruota’ – a tall circular shelf that revolved inside the doorway, meaning that no one ever needed to behold a nun’s face, a sight reserved for her bridegroom, God. Food, money and unwanted babies were inserted into convents via la ruota. The nuns raised many orphans, including characters in several of my books ...
Many writers and several exhibitions have focused on Venice’s connections – mercantile, military and aesthetic – with the East. Here, on a palazzo in Cannaregio, I found a simulation of sinuous Arabic calligraphy on domestic door furniture.
Venice’s sense of humour is not the best known thing about her. I first discovered it in her earthy proverbs, which I began to translate as epigraphs for my first novel, Carnevale. But you see it, if you look, inscribed on her streets too. This panel of doorbells shown above is near San Lorenzo.
Next to a residential building, another kind of door furniture. I haven’t seen a rat in Venice for some time. But I still keep a children’s toy gun in my handbag late at night. The only thing it shoots is light and noise. It seems to work.
And lastly, my favourite piece of door furniture is not old at all. But I am very fond of it.
Perhaps some poet shall take against its door one day, but for the moment it offers only happy welcomes.
Michelle Lovric’s website