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.