At the time of the novel, the square was already an impressive open space, albeit not yet paved. The Doges Palace, facing onto the wide open waters at the mouth of the Grand Canal, would have been wrapped in scaffolding and lifting equipment, despite almost eight years of ongoing construction.
We first visited the square on the afternoon of our arrival in the city (we'd been offered an upgrade on our room, and had been unable to resist the complimentary bottle of chilled Prosecco that came with it - there are worse reasons to celebrate, I think). We emerged excited but not a little lightheaded onto this enormous civic space, after weaving through the maze of streets and water bridges between it and our hotel just a few steps from the Sant'Angelo waterbus stop. This was perhaps our second "wow" moment, after travelling under the Rialto Bridge a couple of hours earlier.
When Malin sees it in Chapter Two, it is under significantly different circumstances - far from being an uplifting view, he becomes haunted by what he sees there, and by the memories it evokes.
The walk back from a morning spent on Isola Saint Elena to find the small dock at the south end of Calle San Domenico was something of a pilgrimage for me. We'd seen it from the waters as we passed earlier, on our way to the Biennale Gardens at the east end of Castello, and I'd had all morning for my expectations to build. To imagine actually standing at the place where Malin spent so much of his life, and so many of the forty days of THE QUARANT. Malin and Uberto often stand here, at the dock, discussing life and its tribulations. My own contribution to meaningful dialogue on arrival was to ask Joanne if she could stop worrying that I would take a further step back and gain my first lungfuls of lagoon water.
Looking north from the point where I'm posing, rather self-consciously it must be said, I'm taking in the narrow street of Calle San Domenico as it disappears at the junction with the much broader thoroughfare of Via Giuseppe Garibaldi, and picking out the house in which Malin and Symon lived for a decade and a half before the action of the novel begins.
On my return home to Scotland, my friend Matt (a highly talented artist living on Royal Deeside) rightly accused me of cowardice for not knocking on the door of number 1258 to seek a look inside. I offered him a series of excuses, ranging from shyness to a lack of passable Italian, but inside, I knew he was right. I still feel I should have taken the chance while I was there.
You'll notice the chimney running up the side of the front door, which leads from the fire at which Malin spends many evenings, poking the embers and recalling many moments from his childhood and more recent times. He commences many important journeys on foot from here during THE QUARANT and, leaning briefly against the long high wall running the full length of the street on the opposite side from the house, recalling events described towards the end of the novel left me experiencing an unexpected sense of loss.
I know the Custom House looked nothing like this in 1348, but its location would, even then, have possessed some real symbolism, perched on the narrowing eastern prow of the sestiere of Dorsoduro. The dome of Santa Maria Della Salute wouldn't have loomed above it at that point (construction of the current church didn't begin for a further 300 years later), but anyone sailing into Venice in the medieval period would have been well aware of the centrality of the Custom House to the wealth and power of the Republic.
Each of Malin's two meetings here in the novel are very different in character - although each brings him close to old friends.
The small paved area in front of the main entrance felt mere inches above the open waters of the Lagoon. I was so concerned for Joanne's safety when she stood back to take the photo of me below, I clean forgot to hold my stomach in. Lardiness (I think you'll agree) abounds.