Thursday, May 17, 2012

Venice: Pure City

Like so many other people, I am captivated by the idea of Venice, not having had the opportunity to visit it yet.  Everything I know about Venice I've learned from books...primarily Donna Leon's Commissario Brunetti mystery novels, but also Thomas Mann's Death in Venice, Daphne duMaurier's Don't Look Now,  John Berendt's City of Falling Angels, Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice, and most recently, Dickens' Little Dorrit.  But, I always felt a bit confused about Venice, not really being clear about its history and why it has such a hold on the imagination.

For help, I turned to Peter Ackroyd's Venice: Pure City.  In general, I like Ackroyd's books, fiction and non-fiction, and this book is really an ode to Venice, poetic and rich in imagery.  I read this book very slowly, sometimes only reading a page or two a day.  I'm tempted to say it's dense, but I don't mean that in a derogatory sense at all.  On the contrary, reading this was like eating a very rich chocolate mousse.  Delightful, but you have to pace yourself.  Luckily, Ackoyd facilitates this pacing by providing fairly short chapters within major thematic sections. 

Most of the history that Ackroyd provides of Venice takes place in pre-Napoleon times, which was fine because I really enjoyed reading about life in Venice during Medieval and Renaissance times.  I am a firm believer that geography has a big impact on character and it was fascinating to read Ackroy'ds analysis of how the unique situation of Venice, bridging Europe with Asia, surrounded by the sea, but facing outward, shaped the politics, economy, architecture, and character of Venice.

I ended up earmarking many pages that contained quotable quotes about Venice.  Ackroyd really knows how to turn a phrase.  Here are some of my favorites:

Venice is not so much a city as the representation of a city.

The nineteenth-century English artist William Etty described Venice as 'the birthplace and cradle of color.'
In the early centuries, the Venetian dead were buried in the campo of the parish. Thus the passing generations trod upon the remains of their ancestors. Nothing could instil more awe in a Venetianthan to stand on the spot where the parish was created. In addition the presence of the ancestors gave a true title to territorial ownership of the land.  No stranger could claim the ground where the bones were buried. This may be the clue to the origin of all cities.  They began as cemetaries.
Literature asks questions and poses problems, whereas art and music celebrate and affirm; writing may encourage disruption and even revolution, whereas art and music aspire towards harmony and balance.
I now feel like I have a handle on Venice's place in world history, but despite the amount of time I spent immersed in Venice through this book it provided but one way to view the city.

I just started my next Venice book, Brunetti's Venice: Walks with the City's Best-Loved Detective, by Toni Sepeda, with a forward by Donna Leon.  This book provides walking tours of the city based on the first 16 Leon novels, following Guido Brunetti as he walks his native city, pointing out landmarks and offering suggestions for restaurants, hotels, etc.  Again, I plan to read it slowly...we have an obsession in the making.


  1. You have really fallen in love with this city! If I ever get to Europe, Venice is a must-visit city.

  2. I love Venice. I love books about Venice. I love Guido Brunetti books about Venice. I love all of it!

    I even have a Venice Book List, but I am embarrassed to say that this one wasn't on it. I am going to go add it now.

    You may also like The World of Venice by Jan Morris. Ackroyd may have mentioned it because it is the be-all/end-all of Venice books. Wonderful.

  3. I like the useful distinction between Venice as a place to visit in person and as a place to visit in books. Like you, I have only done the latter so far! Let me add another author to the list: John Julius Norwich. He keeps returning there as an author and has written his own small shelf on the city! Besides he is such a felicitous writer, a superb stylist. His books include A History of Venice, A Traveller's Companion to Venice, and Paradise of Cities: Venice in the Nineteenth Century. Finally, one can real excellent chapters on Venice in his beautiful history of the Mediterranean, The Middle Sea. Thanks for all your recommendations to this armchair traveller in geography and history!


  4. Nice review! Venice is a magical place, I visited there three times when I lived in Italy in 2004. Its best in the rain, strangely enough. Not the nicest place I went in Italy - that goes to Siena. Wonderful, magical place.

  5. Venice is one of my favourite cities to visit. If you liked this, you should definitely try Jan Morris' Venice. Also, there is a Brunetti themed Venice cookbook out there which intersperses Venetian recipes with extracts from the books.