A Hello! magazine history of Venice

A review of Italian Venice: A History, by R.J.B. Bosworth. Informative but clichéd history of the past 200-years with guest appearances by Chanel, Coward and Diana

23 August 2014

9:00 AM

23 August 2014

9:00 AM

Italian Venice: A History R.J.B. Bosworth

Yale, pp.329, £25, ISBN: 9780300193879

When Napoleon Bonaparte captured Venice in 1797, he extinguished what had been the most successful regime in the history of the western world. The Venetian Republic had lasted over 1,000 years — longer than ancient Rome — without a revolution, a coup d’état or a successful foreign invasion.  Yet after 1797 it was never to be independent again: it was given to Austria, taken back by France, allotted once more to Austria and finally, in 1866, handed over to the young Kingdom of Italy.

Most visitors to Venice are interested in its distant past, in the struggles to build a city on the mudbanks, in the glories of its gothic architecture, in the scuole decorated by Carpaccio and Tintoretto, even in the decadence of the 18th century with its alliterative seductiveness of carnivals and Canaletto, courtesans and Casanova. Yet less colourful eras must have their historians, and R.J.B. Bosworth, who has written distinguished books on Mussolini and Fascism, is a knowledgeable guide to the last century and a half.

Excessive enthusiasm has never been a characteristic of the Venetians. Few of them were either zealots of the Counter-Reformation or ‘Rome or Death’ patriots of the Risorgimento. Similarly, as Bosworth points out, Venetians were generally moderate, both in their adoption of Fascism and in their anti-Fascist retribution following the fall of Mussolini. ‘Venice survived the violent depradations of Nazi-fascism with relatively little loss and barbarity.’

The author writes informatively of the industrialisation of the lagoon and the liberal politics of the post-unification decades; he also has interesting things to say about such neglected figures as Giuseppe Volpi, the entrepreneur and initiator of the city’s film and music festivals. Yet unfortunately the text too often becomes less a history of the place than a chronicle of its events based on a methodical study of the pages of the newspaper Il Gazzettino — of what was happening at the Biennale or the various festivals, of which operas were being performed at the Fenice. Accompanying these catalogues are lengthy lists of visitors, often (as in the case of the King of Siam and the Duchess of Hesse) people merely identified by their titles, without any mention of what they might have said, thought or done when they were in Venice.

During ‘the Roaring Twenties’, we are informed, ‘the city was enlivened by many lavish high society parties, featuring such rackety [sic] celebrities as’ (among others) Diana Cooper, George Gershwin, Coco Chanel and Winston and Clementine Churchill. Later we learn that Somerset Maugham and Noël Coward were among the famous people who signed the first guestbook at Harry’s Bar.  Later still we read that Princess Diana, after ‘taking a photo’ of the Ca’ d’Oro, enjoyed a ‘toothsome lunch’ at Harry’s sister restaurant at Torcello (where Bosworth also likes to eat) and that ‘among the genteel guests’ were Count Valmarana and his wife. (Il Gazzettino, 3, 4, 5 and 6 May 1985). Oh dear, the history of Venice suddenly seems to have descended to the level of Hello! magazine.

Yet while Italian Venice is sometimes bland in content, it is generally acerbic in tone. In a somewhat portentous introduction (‘as I prepare to unroll Venice’s modern histories’) the author describes his work as a challenge to Ruskin and other nostalgic worshippers of the Venetian past, as well as to ‘more contemporary superciliousness’.  This last category is not defined but seems to include ‘lovers of Venice’ (a term of mockery for this author), people who have written romantically about the city (like John Julius Norwich), people who have laboured to save its buildings (like Norwich again and the Venice in Peril Fund), people who managed to thwart Frank Lloyd Wright’s attempt to erect a modernist monstrosity on the Grand Canal, and almost anyone who argues that mass tourism is damaging and suffocating the city.

Readers will easily picture Bosworth’s sneer as he lines up his targets, be they neo-liberals or French intellectuals or, more usually, those unreasonable people who wish to preserve Venice ‘come’era e dove’era’ (how it was and where it was), a phrase jeeringly repeated throughout the book. Of course he has a point: Venice and its population (like all places and all peoples) have been changing throughout their history, and it would be futile to try to preserve the city as it was in Canaletto’s day. Yet to scoff at those who have devoted their money, time and skills to restoring churches and palaces for the rest of us to enjoy (the author included) seems both unkind and unfair. In any case, the effectiveness of literary sneering depends on the elegance of the sneerer’s prose style. And Bosworth, with his fondness of cliché (yawning gaps are a favourite) and his persistent misuse of the word ‘ironical’, is not often elegant.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Available from the Spectator Bookshop, £21.50. Tel: 08430 600033. David Gilmour’s latest book is The Pursuit of Italy: a History of a Land, Its Regions and Their Peoples.

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Show comments
  • The film: Oh dear. ‘Why would anybody want to have s-x with that… at any time?’ I look at human men and think ‘no thanks’. Maybe aliens are hunkier and more attractive. I’ll never know.

    • girondas2

      A less confident man might be upset at such sentiment.

      • You mean: one that didn’t know I was a nun already. But really: footage of Winston Churchill at the sea just goes to show that one can be the colossus bestriding a whole century and yet not have everything….

        • girondas2

          A dancing nun at that.
          I’ll email you a photo – One of my staff offered to show me her puppies – Startled, I replied “If you insist”

          • Seen and responded to. Are you going to take one?

          • girondas2

            No, they have been found homes and anyway my two cats would go crazy.
            I have to be careful about accepting favours from staff in any case.
            She’s an Amanda too, and would no doubt sit on the edge of my desk and discuss extra leave entitlement.

          • Oh, I’d pay her for the puppy so no favours done. But best to keep the family harmonious as it is.

          • Kitty MLB

            I did come here to mention my granddad who
            lived in Venice and who escaped Mussolini’s
            tyranny in a boat.I also see you S, are chums,
            so you would have known all the other identities..a private joke on me I think..(riddles)

            Can I also say Heathcliff and indeed the little sister of Flashy were only meant as jokes..
            but clearly were recycled too often..especially
            when other people don’t realise your being amusing and think God knows what..
            Apologies are a nice man..and socks
            were not created for wearing but stuffing into
            the odd mouth.

          • girondas2

            No private joke at your expense Kitty. S has had numerous identities and delights in not telling us who she really is.
            I can usually spot her – she’s an unusual girl (aren’t you S?) .but I always wonder if there is yet another, unidentified, version out there somewhere in the ether (unnerving idea!).

            I would rather you didn’t apologise for things you say – it takes the fun out of life don’t you think?

          • Kitty MLB

            Did I ever tell you that some here held me responsible for the vanishing of G, I’ll explain.
            He and I hardly ever spoke ,then
            one day he for some unfathomable reason started a long chat about gin martini’s and Peruvian
            kaftans..and then vanished …others here thought it
            Suspicious.Could you imagine a police investigation. “Madam, a gentleman who just disappeared and who rarely spoke with you was last seen talking with you about…gin martin’s and Peruvian kaftans?…you are not
            taking this seriously”. (I’ll end up sewing
            I hope you don’t do the same thing, going awol
            is becoming a habit…and I might get the blame

            You are quite right…one must not remove the fun out of life and these blogging creations have a duty to play havoc..

          • girondas2


  • Kitty MLB

    Venice has always seemed like a seperate country to the rest of
    Italy..although both parents were English, my paternal grandfather
    was from Venice.Never speaking of it himself once arriving on
    Our shores in the middle of the night in the late 30s getting married and gaining the VC in the war he considered himself
    English.He and many others never were not moderate with their
    views of fascism..Italians have a unfair reputation of being
    far too laid back.