Something Good #12: The Institute for the Study of 3:32pm, April 10, 1954
I had been feeling guilty about having watched so few movies during 12 months of confinement so the other night I put on 2019’s Spider-Man: Far From Home.
I enjoyed the high school comedy of the first 20 minutes or so, before Peter Parker and his pals head off to Europe on a supervillain-plagued school trip. What bothered me the most wasn’t the Marvel-standard writing and set pieces, but the depiction one of my favourite cities in the world, Venice. Though they obviously went to the trouble of shooting on location, the ancient republic felt like little more than an over-lit backdrop for uninteresting action scenes.
Venice is a city that has haunted my memory since I first visited as a teenager, backpacking through Europe on a Eurail day pass. It’s a place utterly unique, unspeakably beautiful and mysterious and at the same time a totally disgusting tourist-ravaged shithole.
When I arrived, at first it felt not very much like the Venice that Jan Morris describes in her account of her visit there in 1960:
It was a half joyous, half melancholy city, but not melancholy because of present anxieties, only because of old regrets. I loved this mixture of the sad and the flamboyant. I loved the lingering defiance of the place, bred of empire long before, the smell of rot and age which was so essential to its character, the queerness, the privacy.
Most visitors dutifully followed the snake-like procession of tourists making their way from the Santa Lucia train station, past the Rialto bridge, towards their final goal of Piazza San Marco. It was, and I suspect remains, an expensive and dispiriting experience. Terrible restaurants—I remember being outraged when I was charged for salt and pepper—souvenir stalls, insanely expensive gondola rides. (Tip: if you just want to feel what it’s like to ride in one, take a traghetto, gondolas that ferry pedestrians back and forth across the Grand Canal, for just a couple of bucks.)
But Venice’s magic (and if any city has earned that word, it’s La Serenissima) was still there if you looked for it.
Duck down a side street or alley and you’d feel this incredible silence—no voices, no cars, none of the sounds associated with a modern city. At the same time, you might stumble across something mundane, like an air conditioner repair storefront or a thousand-year-old fish market, that reminds you of the weird fact that people actually still live ordinary lives in what often felt like a moldering museum.
I remember one time where I did manage to break away from the tourist pack and make my way to the end of a little side street ending in a narrow canal. I sat down with my book and was enjoying the perfect shady serenity of the moment when I heard a soft gurgling sound. I glanced over at the water, where a bloom of feces and toilet paper had just squirted out of an unseen drainpipe like a cloud of octopus ink. That about summed up the conflicting feelings of contemplation and disgust the city inspired in me.
And then there was the institute I stumbled on my first morning there, after a groggy awakening in a third-class sleeping car from Vienna. I had a huge, purple Mountain Equipment Co-Op bag on my back and had done zero planning ahead save for circling a couple potential hostels in my Lonely Planet. (Insane, I know.) Ignoring the train station touts, I walked out into the sunshine and towards the closest hostel, only to be turned away for lack of capacity. The second one I tried was full, too. It was hot and I was hungry and discouraged and I just sort of wandered off.
When I saw the name on the plaque, L'Istituto Morosini per lo Studio delle 15:32, 10 apr 1954 I figured that I was looking an address, that this tiny square, or campo, was named after an obscure historically important date like so many streets you come across in South America and Europe (a tradition that never really caught on in the English-speaking world). A lot of hostels were housed in spots like the stately old ruin I was standing in front of, so I walked in.
It was dark and cool inside. It took a second for my eyes to adjust. When they did, I saw I was standing in front of a tall painting of an elegant woman and her skinny, aristocratic pooch. I realized I was probably in the wrong place.
I was about to peace out when a woman, dark hair pulled back and all in black, appeared and greeted me in Italian. I stammered out a dumb tourist response in English and she laughed. “Would you like a tour of the Institute?” she asked. She seemed so friendly and welcoming that I said sure.
After dropping my sweaty backpack off behind the front desk, she led me deeper into the building. It had once been a convent, as recently as 20 years before, even, but had since been converted—a beautiful old place, shaped like a long rectangle, with a sunny courtyard.
The woman explained that she was the Director of the Morosini Institute for the Study of 3:32pm, April 10, 1954. In the years since the Institute’s founding, she had been responsible for hiring historians, cultural critics and other assorted researchers. Their singular goal: creating a comprehensive portrait of one particular second in human history—specifically, 3:32pm and 23 seconds, April 10, 1954.
What could there be to say about that one moment in a not particularly important or impactful day in an otherwise pretty boring (as she admitted) year? Apparently, a lot! The Director led me through rooms of exhibitions and research—long tables with newspapers from all over the world spread out on them (most from April 11 and 12, 1954, when the news of April 10 would presumably be reported). Rows of quiet, friendly-seeming workers, heads down over microfiche machines, or transcribing interviews out by hand.
The Director explained that what you could find in the newspapers was the easy stuff, the big, wide-angle news of the day. April 10, 1954, had been a Saturday. Film pioneer Auguste Lumière died, age 91. A TV station in Weslaco, Texas, started broadcasting. What movies were playing in cinemas. Weather in various world capitals, etc.
But it was when they got into the weeds, the specifics, that the real work began. It’s hard enough to pin down one specific, unremarkable day in history—what happens when you get down to the hour, the minute, the second?
It would have been difficult to isolate any given second in even one single city, but a comprehensive global survey was an almost overwhelming task.
There were, she explained, a lot of disappointments in the museum’s early years. A sporting event, or corporate meeting, or other event worth keeping a record of, would be discovered, only for the researchers to realize it had taken place before or after that very specific time of 3:32pm and 23 seconds (CET).
But, one smiling researcher told me in broken English when we stopped by his desk, eventually the workers at the Institute began to embrace this insanely specific limitation. The man giddily described to me a sexual act he had discovered in a diary someone had found in a bookshop in Atlanta (they had buyers all over the world looking for this stuff). By careful triangulation and research, he had been able to confirm that it had indeed been occurring at the right moment. The whole project had taken the better part of a year.
As it turned out, the more detailed and specific their investigations had become, the more fascinating and totally unexpected details they had dug up. A murder that had gone unreported, and indeed undiscovered, at the time. Lots of affairs. A dream that a sleeper had scribbled down that somehow predicted the results of the 1979 World Series, of all things.
Once they had really concentrated their studies on that one instant to the exclusion of all others, they found they were finding more and more details—a fractal pattern that kept growing more and more detailed the closer they looked, with all sorts of unexpected interconnections. What began as a small research team of five people or so quickly multiplied. There were departments dedicated to politics, to meteorology, to transit, commerce, whole areas of scientific study. I got the sense that I only saw one tiny corner of the Institute.
I wondered where I fit into April 10, 1954. I wasn’t alive of course. My parents would have been children. My grandparents would have all still been alive. What had they been doing? If I dug deep enough into the Institute’s archives would I find a trace of them? Of everybody I knew?
Years later, I saw a short Errol Morris documentary, The Umbrella Man, which investigated the presence of a mysterious man holding an umbrella in the footage of the JFK assassination, which took place on the very sunny day of November 22, 1963.
The reason for his presence there turned out to be not proof of any conspiracy, but rather something totally unexpected (which I won’t spoil). The expert interviewed for the doc memorably said, “If you put any event under the microscope, you will find an entire dimension of weird, incredible things going on. It’s as if there’s the macro level of historical research, where things sort of obey natural laws and usual things happen and unusual things don’t happen. And then there’s this other level where everything is really weird.” I couldn’t help but thinking of the Institute when I saw that film.
I forget exactly how I got out of there—I must have politely thanked the woman and left with my backpack. I lucked out and found a hostel with a spare bunk that afternoon and spent two more confounding days in the city. I remember walking along the Canale di San Marco the early morning I left and watching a stately procession of horrible cruise ships sail into port to disgorge their day-tripping passengers.
My experience that afternoon was quickly submerged by other memories of that summer, and I didn’t seriously think about it again for years. I tried to look up the woman who had given me the tour of the Institute, but I had stupidly forgotten to write down her name. I didn’t remember the date it was dedicated to either, but one morning I woke up with the name “Morosini” in my head, so I looked it up.
A member of one of the city’s great families, the Countess Annina Morosini had been known as “the Dogess of Venice” and had lived one of those crazy 19th/20th Century lives. Called “the most beautiful woman in Italy,” living in a Palazzo on the Grand Canal, friends with Rilke and kings and Shahs. When the Kaiser visited Venice in 1894 he was said to have halted his yacht’s ceremonial procession down the Canal when he spotted her on a balcony, saying “I bow to the sun” as he ceremoniously clicked his heels. An article I dug up called her “la magnifica narcisista.”
Her death marked, for some, the end of the city’s last great era and the beginning of its decline.
And, according to the records I dug up in an online city archive, it had taken place on April 10, 1954, at 3:32pm… and presumably 23 seconds.
I never figured out what her connection to the Institute, with its minimal online presence, was. A bequest? A tribute from a descendant or a lover? Sometimes I wonder if was meant not to honour her, but to celebrate her passing, founded by a son or daughter finally free of her controlling influence. I’ll probably never know.
But I did find a picture of her, and her aristocratic dog.
Post-script: Venice traditionally ascribes its founding to a specific moment in time: March 25, 421, at exactly noon. That would make last Thursday, at 12pm on the dot, its 1600th anniversary.
I loved this story in Smithsonian Magazine, about a handful of blue glass beads discovered at an archaeological site in Alaska. The beads were identifiably made by Venetian artisans. By radiocarbon dating the twine wound around them, archaeologists were able to date them to the mid-1400s.
Since they predate Columbus’ arrival in North American, that means they must have been carried over the Bering Strait from Asia by indigenous travellers, having made an unimaginable land journey along Silk Road trade routes from what was then the Most Serene Republic of Venice, but is now Italy.
I received so many great photos in last week’s #nojacketsrequired challenge that I’m going to make this a regular feature. Liberate your hardcovers from their dust jackets and show me your discoveries! Email me your pics at firstname.lastname@example.org as large attachments tend to bounce off Substack’s servers.
At least 50% of the above is true. Every Wednesday I’ll send you Something Good. If you like it, please tell a friend or two.