The illusion of time in Campo San Barnaba


Where I come from, you never can catch up with the time. It is a swiftly flowing river. Conversations start and end with a check of the time. In fact, if time is not checked, and kept in check, it will lift you off your feet and carry you away, sweeping you past all of the important things on your to do list and appointment book.

Photography by Barry and Julie Harley

Set your appointment book aside for a moment and venture with me to the Campo San Barnaba, a square in the unhurried Dorsoduro, in Venice. Near the University area, and far enough from the Train station and tourists; this is a place set apart, a place where families live and play. More importantly, this is a place where time has been transformed. Gone is the swiftly flowing river, gone the rocks and boulders that churn and froth the water. Time here embraces you, and hangs around you, a heavy curtain. It drapes over the buildings and cafes and denizens of this place. The fierce winds of change, and the gales and tempests of activities are here naught but a faint breeze that may only ruffle the heavy fabric of time. The pleats and ruffles in this curtain may move or change, but the warp and weft of the tightly woven threads do not change.

As a result, a new metric must be found to mark the passage of time. Don't check your watch, and please don't pull out your phone. These don't work in this place and break the perfect spell of timelessness. Instead, look to the man leaning against the wall in a light fog of fragrant tobacco. Watch as his cigar shrinks interminably towards its completion, each puff of bluish smoke brings the scent of loamy soil, vanilla, and sweet stone fruits, and just as surely marks the passage of time as any watch face.

A man sits near to you communing with his guitar. He strokes the strings in such a way that you feel as if the guitar itself is singing out, and he merely encourages it to continue. Watch and listen to time pass as it entwines itself with the resonant melodies, in the subtle harmonics, in the exchange of chorus and verse and chorus and refrain. His tapping foot doesn't keep the time, how can time be kept in such a place, but instead merely pays tribute to the beats and measures of the song. At the end of each performance, as the last note dwindles down out of hearing, time itself holds its breath with you, all is still and slow and soft, and the small crowd shares a silent communion with the artist, and each other, and the city itself.

All of this is overlooked by the Chiesa di San Barnaba. The Church looks down on the square and yet exists apart from it. It has always been here, and so have you, caught in the reflection of the sun on its fluted columns and sculpted cornices. As the demarcation line of sun and shadow travels up the dressed stonework, subtle changes in the light play on your subconscious and day gradually yields its place to gloaming twilight. One by one the lights and streetlamps are lit, candles cast their tenuous glow on the faces of lovers who speak softly, knowing that this time is special and should not be broken or disturbed. A cello mourns the loss of the light and time moves slower still.

How long have you been here? Has it been hours or mere moments during which these changes have taken place? The point is that the time doesn't matter as much anymore. Back home time is measured by a constant pressure, a low level stress and tension in your head and neck, a tightness in your chest that tells you that you're already late and that you'll never catch up to time. Now you've stepped out of time, stepped back, and slowed down, and found that time has finally caught you.

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