Lead book review

‘The finest architectural delusion in the world’

Shelley’s description of Venice is one of countless vivid vignettes in Marie-Jose Gransard’s delightfully cosmopolitan literary guide

14 May 2016

9:00 AM

14 May 2016

9:00 AM

Venice: A Literary Guide for Travellers Marie-Jose Gransard

I.B. Tauris, pp.316, £16.99, ISBN: 9781780769837

Approximately 500 new books on Venice are published every year and this is not the first literary anthology devoted to the city. But Marie-Jose Gransard lectures in Venice about Venice to Venetians, and conducts her students on guided tours of the city. Her selection draws on sources going back over 800 years and across six languages. So the text, based on very wide reading, is crowded with unfamiliar observations and includes the impressions of artists, musicians and diplomats as well as writers. This is not a guide book for the first-time visitor, but for anyone who knows Venice, and cannot keep away, it provides a delightful change.

We are given Ruskin, Byron, Goethe, Henry James, Thomas Mann and Hemingway. But we also have the recollections of Hans Christian Andersen, Boccaccio, Cervantes, Chekhov, Kafka, Nietzsche and Voltaire. We meet Dante, invited to a banquet by the Doge and demanding a larger helping of fish, Rousseau falling asleep at the opera so that he can wake up to the sound of music, and Wagner working on Parsifal and habitually failing to pay his ice-cream bills (a habit that was shared many years later by Orson Welles).

In 1611 the old Wykehamist Thomas Coryat, who had walked from Somerset to Venice, became fascinated by the number of religious liturgies on offer in the city. He had to be rescued from the Ghetto by the British ambassador, Sir Henry Wotton, after getting into a blazing row with indignant rabbis. Anyone who crosses into the Ghetto today by the bridge from the Fondamenta d’Ormesini will pass over the same canal that the ambassador’s gondola happened to be navigating when the hard-pressed Mr Coryat attracted his attention. For, as the author points out, ‘the layout of Venice’, in contrast to most cities, ‘has not changed very much in the last 500 years’.

Russian travellers have always been strongly attracted to Venice as a refuge. Dostoevsky called in 1862. And Pasternak visited in 1912, as a young man. Both writers were entranced by the façade of the Basilica in St Mark’s Square, but whereas the former failed to record his visit, Pasternak left one of the most vivid descriptions:

Over the entrance the four horses are playing in the gold of the cathedral, as if they had galloped all the way from ancient Greece and had stopped there on the edge of a precipice.

Another detail caught his eye. Many years before he wrote Dr Zhivago he recalled his horror at the brass letter-boxes set into the walls and corridors of the Doge’s palace, into which citizens would push notes denouncing each other. Diaghilev was for many years one of those the Venetians called the Settembrini, the visitors who returned each autumn for ‘rejuvenating’ encounters with young men. He was eventually buried on the island cemetery of San Michele.

In the course of its long history Venice has experienced three distinct identities. Founded as an obscure and marshy refuge from persecution, it grew into one of the most powerful cities in Europe and a byword for tolerance and liberty. Venice was an innovator: it had the first public opera house, the first publishing houses in Europe, the first quarantine hospital, the first newspaper and the first coffee house. In the great years, foreign visitors were confined to certain areas of the city, and ambassadors were forbidden to meet Venetian citizens — unless they were courtesans. The most absorbing sections of this collection are drawn from those times, when visitors had to treat the city and its citizens with respect.

All this came to an end in 1797, when the last traces of the republic’s power were destroyed by Napoleon and the city began the long journey into its present state of picturesque decay. With the arrival of Napoleon, Venice was reduced in the words of Shelley from ‘tyrant to slave’. Napoleon did much to connect the city with the world around it. The Ghetto was unlocked, the Doge’s prison was emptied, orphans were no longer branded, the Inquisition was terminated and street lighting was introduced. But a heavy price was paid in plundered treasures, and Paris was greatly enriched as a result. Some of this loot has never been returned, the most famous example being Veronese’s ‘The Marriage at Cana’, which has a room to itself in the Louvre today.

The loathing Napoleon felt for Venice — he threatened to knock it down — was expressed in the ransacking of the city’s churches and private collections. Appropriately enough, this first downfall was also accomplished with the aid of tourist manuals. The Venetian historian, Alvise Zorzi, notes that French troops used the numerous guidebooks as a shopping list before carrying off their booty. In return Napoleon was kind enough to endow the city with a huge statue of himself, which was removed and apparently destroyed during the subsequent Austrian occupation. Amazingly, it reappeared in California many years later and was returned to Venice. The author writes that in 2004 it was in a locked broom cupboard in the Correr Musem; ‘nowadays it is behind a glass case near the ballroom, perhaps to avoid possible attack’.

Shelley arrived in 1818 and described the city as ‘one of the finest architectural delusions in the world’. Just 20 years after Napoleon’s arrival the once unconquered Serene Republic was already being reduced to the picturesque. Under Austrian rule from 1815 to 1866, as the process of destruction accelerated, visitors began to describe the city’s beauty as ‘melancholic’ or ‘sinister’ or ‘dreamlike’. Once power was lost, Venice entered the modern era — a place, in the author’s words, ‘to reflect on past or passing glories, and a warning of the dangers of excess and subsequent decay’. A process that started with Byron, Goethe and Verlaine, and continued with Henry James, Proust and Thomas Mann, culminated in the embarrassing figure of Frederick William Rolfe.

Ezra Pound was the exception: there was nothing ‘picturesque’ in his perception. Pound lived in Italy for much of his life; he first knew Venice in 1908, and he died there in 1972. When he was released from the lunatic asylum in Pennsylvania in 1958 it was to Venice that he returned to end his days. He knew the city in its original role, as a haven rather than a spectacle, and his relationship with it resurfaces in his work over many years.

Marie-Jose Gransard’s selection covers this process of decay to its current state, where the city’s fame has become the chief cause of its destruction. This has led some to a disenchanted reaction. In 1901 the Italian futurist Filippo Marinetti echoed Napoleon: ‘To hell with that Venice mooned over by tourists. Let us clean and cauterise the putrescent city.’ The French novelist and pacifist Jean Giono tried to avoid Venice in 1951: ‘Honeymoons, gondolas, Wagner, D’Annunzio repelled me along with the thousands of postcards and film scenes.’ The political philosopher Régis Debray published Against Venice in 1995, depicting it as a tiresome pantomime unconnected to reality. The city, which had a population of 140,000 in 1788, now holds no more than 57,000 inhabitants. Meanwhile annual tourist numbers, which have increased by 500 per cent in the last 60 years, have reached 20 million and rising.

Venice today is being raped to death by its most fervent admirers; mass tourism is completing the work that the rulers of republican France and imperial Austria initiated. I once raised this tragic situation with an Italian resident, who shrugged and said that if the Venetians wanted to cash in while their city was destroyed it was up to them (but he was from Genoa).

He was wrong, of course. Alexander Herzen, writing in 1867, explains why:

Venice is the most magnificent and absurd conceit. To build a city in the one place where it would seem impossible is already madness enough, but to erect the most elegant and grandiose city which ever existed is the madness of genius.

Venice today, like any other great museum, just needs an honest government and an efficient turnstile system. Some hope.

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  • polidorisghost

    Many years ago I helped escort a gaggle of 5th form girls on a school trip to Venice. As we floated down the Grand Canal in the moonlight, they were stunned into silence for the first time in their lives.

  • If the “huge statue” of Napoleon was indeed placed “in a locked broom cupboard in the Correr Musem [sic],” the Venetians must employ prodigious brooms.