This is a strange book in a temporal sense. Morris originally wrote in 1960 and returned to revise it in the seventies and eighties. My (library) edition is from the early nineties. As Morris describes the people, places and behaviours of Venice, it isn’t clear what is from when. This gives a feeling of a city that is both timeless and in perpetual decline. There are plenty of details but many feel quaint and out of date – whether they are or not. But despite it feeling easy to get lost in them, those details are well written and often entertaining. Morris, like so many, clearly has a passion for the city (and I can see why).
Really, there’s a theme here about the death of local societies. Morris describes elderly women who have visited the same green grocers that their family has used for generations. That wasn’t in evidence when I visited, and (from other readings) it would seem to have died out – but that isn’t unique to Venice. Perhaps the magical world of Venice just seems to amplify the processes that happen elsewhere. Specifically to the city itself, my favourite chapter was one two thirds of the way through that discussed proposed futures for the city – kept as a museum of sorts, turned into a hive of craft industry or demolished as a futurist stunt.
She loses me slightly in the last third of the book, which offers a look at the decline of and the sights of the other islands of the lagoon. Islands like Murano and Burano should be interesting, and there are good anecdotes sprinkled throughout, but I found the whole section a bit of a dreary end to the book. On the whole though, I like the book. I’m not entirely sure what it is meant to be: not history, not a guidebook, not exactly a travel journal – but it does conjure up a certain image of the city.
I’ve been reading a bit of Italian history recently. Partly inspired by a trip to Venice, partly just because the patchwork renaissance world of advanced, somewhat independent city states intrigues me. Maybe I’ve played too much Europa Universalis, but those strategy video games kept coming to mind here. Caterina Sforza was born the daughter of the powerful Duke of Milan, but married a member of an up and coming papal family, and found herself helping him to govern the small towns of Forli and Imola. In an Italy increasingly under the sway of major powers, this would be playing the game on quite a difficult mode,
Girolamo Riario, the husband, was erratic and got himself involved in the Pazzi conspiracy against the Medici. His uncle Pope Sixtus IV eventually passed away and Caterina (although pregnant) jumped into the news by occupying parts of Rome to push for a beneficial result in the papal election. Neither of these were particularly successful and Riario soon found himself assassinated, and Caterina besieged by enemies. She would again show a ruthless side by taking an aggressive line in the face of enemies holding her children hostage (there’s a famous quotation “here I have what’s needed to make others”). She would rule the towns for more than another decade, with another two marriages (her choices this time) before being defeated and captured by the infamous Cesare Borgia.
This book by art historian Elizabeth Lev tells that story very well. The writing generally flows very well. An exciting tale of an independent woman in the world of the Medicis and the Borgias. There are however small touches in the writing that I didn’t like – there was a tendency to suggest what Caterina may have been thinking, and to repeatedly point out that she was a strong woman (telling rather than showing). She also can’t resist going into (what feels like) unnecessary detail on some artworks of the time. The main plot is good enough to make up for those minor issues.
Writing a book like this about Italy isn’t an easy job. The country has only officially existed for around one hundred and fifty years, and the debate is still open on how unified it has ever been. Black takes two hundred and sixty pages to rush through pre-history, the middle ages, multiple revolutions, more than a few wars and modern Italian politics. It’s obviously tough, but he leaves regional events or trends aside and does succeed in painting a general but chaotic picture of the peninsula. Some bits are better than others – there’s a lot of information to pack in and at times the book feels rather over edited: casually mentioning characters who are only introduced a few pages later, and the occasional garbled sentence.
Things get rather better once he’s past the Romans and early middle ages and into the Italian Wars of the 15th and 16th centuries. This is closer to Black’s specialist era, and he does feel more comfortable in both his summarising and his detail. I liked the build up to modern Italian politics – giving a brief overview of the trends that have led to the Five Star Movement and the Lega Nord entering into power together. Black isn’t afraid to call out cases of corruption, incompetence or dishonesty, but the whole thing feels (to me, anyway) fairly balanced.
The last part of the book looks at the different regions of Italy via travellers through previous centuries. That feels like a nice curiosity, but one that is neither detailed enough to really engage or modern enough to be a true travel guide. I liked the idea, but I would rather have had a full two hundred pages of it! Overall, this is a nice introduction to a varied country – it was never going to be an easy task to do everything justice. Some bits work better than others, but at its best it is an entertaining and informative read.
Usually books on Venice focus on the city or the state – the city itself is the obvious attraction nowadays, and the republic was run in such a way as to diminish the impact of individuals. Here Paul Strathern consciously sets himself apart by trying to tell some of the stories of (some of) the people of Venice. Some of the choices are obvious – Marco Polo and Casanova begin and end the book – but others are more obscure. The Jewish scholar Leon of Modena, the condottiero Bartolomeo Colleoni, or the courtesan Veronica Franco. They are, however, all notable people – you’re not going to find out about everyday life here.
During the book, Strathern refers to and quotes from the books of Peter Ackroyd and John Julius Norwich. In truth, he does seem to play a very much secondary role to their books. They (and countless others) describe the city, the architecture, the culture and the mystery that so captivates people around the world. In this book that feels incidental to a good adventure story, and there’s nothing necessarily wrong with that but it feels like a shame to leave the city in the background. There’s plenty to enjoy here, but if you only read one book on Venice I would look elsewhere.
Humblebragging: I started reading this book on holiday in Venice, but only managed to finish it at home – so I did a lot of after the fact realization about the titbits of information in this book. In a way, that’s fine – it’s a very good book for picking up things about Venice but not in a systematic way. It’s far from a guide book. Peter Ackroyd describes the history and culture of the city in thematic chapter that never quite fit within chronology or location. But that is a good encouragement for actually seeing the city: Ackroyd uses his themes to suggest concepts one should look out for – stylised depictions of the sea, contrasts between public display and private parsimony, references in names and art. It encourages you to just get lost and see what you see, rather than looking to tick off the boxes.
I understand that this was based on a TV show and I think that explains some of the uneven-ness; the mix of too much detail and not enough; the structure that jumps around. It’s not quite guidebook, not quite history, not quite travelogue (in fact for something based on a TV show, I might have expected more personal input from Ackroyd). It is rather good though at portraying that sense of magic that Venice has. It’s not without an ethical side, the author does describe the issues that tourism has had on the city, and that’s in a pre-Air B&B world.
In the Prague Cemetery, Eco creates a rambling book of tangents and bluffs, with the slimy Italian Captain Simonini, who makes a living throughout the nineteenth century hoaxing and forging his way through political movements and intelligence agencies in the nineteenth century – eventually culminating in the anti-semitic Protocols of the Elders of Zion. We learn all this from his diaries – confused and unreliable as they may be.
In research for the book Eco seems to have delved into all sorts of unsavoury sections of nineteenth century literature. Some are obvious, some are more obscure, some are surprisingly mainstream (Alexandre Dumas, Disraeli). He constantly seems to be saying “This actually happened. Someone did this. Someone wrote this. People believed it.” and sometimes he lets his amazement overwhelm the story. In this sense, he is at his best when he shows the borrowing, the twisting of old tropes for new audiences, the closed loops when a story is used to confirm itself.
He has covered conspiracies plenty of times before, but this does feel slightly different. The stories feel grubbier. The spectre of the Nazis, an eventually peak of anti-semitism, hangs over the book. For me, it also called up Conrad’s Secret Agent with its murky world of spies, informers and anarchist bombs. Fear of the Masons, Jesuits and satanists is there too. All the lunatic fringes are present. Although Eco does pull a surprise by largely steering away from The Dreyfus Affair.
At times the book can be funny, at times it can be interesting; but at other points it is difficult – it’s not just that it gets quite dry; but that it is an unpleasant read. Some of these movements, some of these writings, feel lost in history and it’s easy to wish they would stay there. Perhaps there’s a more general point than that, Eco’s russian agent Rachovsky (a real historical figure, most of them are in this book) sets out his case that his government don’t care for the truth of not of Simonini’s anti semitic rambling, they want to provide an enemy, a distraction. People need someone to hate, and it is in the interests of the powerful to find groups to demonize. Despite this gloom, I enjoyed it – it feels like one of Eco’s most purposeful books.
This month, i have been mostly reading Umberto Eco’s Prague Cemetery (try doing that in the voice of Jesse from the Fast Show). There are so many tangents and odd bits of history in there that I could spend as long on Wikipedia as I spent reading the book. Podcasts help, I can read them while walking (without bumping into things). This month I caught up on Italian Unification and learned about Alexandre Dumas three times. I also tried the remastered When Diplomacy Fails.
Zack Twamley of When Diplomacy Fails does like his big projects. In fact he tweeted this the other day;
The Korean War: 48/48 written, 13/48 recorded.
1956: 28/33 written, 2/33 recorded.
Poland Is Not Yet Lost: 40/100? written, 0 recorded.
He does seem to manage the time better nowadays. When I first listened to him, I found him sounding drained and tired towards the end of his Thirty Years War series. Now, I’m working through the big project from last year – celebrating five years of the show by remastering his early episodes. It’s actually rather good – he has removed bits that didn’t work (horrific Russian accents) and revised his opinion when he feels necessary. Some introductions add a nice personal touch too. The topics as ever are the selling point – a quick zip through the Spanish American War or the War of Polish Succession in a few half hour episodes quickly informs without being a commitment.
The Italian Unification podcast has also been running for almost five years; but less consistently – life commitments have meant that the pass has slowed to just five shows in the last two years, as it creeps towards the finish. There is one more episode to go, and the topic was brilliantly relevant for the early parts of Prague Cemetery – Garibaldi, Cavour and the battle for a unified Italy. Officially by “Talking History” (mostly Benjamin Ashwell – his brother Adam seems to have faded away from the project as it has overrun), it has polished up since I posted on its early episodes, I now like the production of the show. It’s the content that really shines, there’s a pacy narrative, but still with plenty of detail (every time I have a question they seem to pre-emptively answer it). I’m looking forward to it ending, but I’m also looking forward to any new projects that emerge (if they find the time).
Finally, I returned to Land of Desire for a series of episodes on three generations of Alexandre Dumas. I still find the tone of the show a bit uneven. The exasperation at Napoleon’s resentment of Dumas (grandpère?) worked but the show occasionally hinted at a more general criticism of racism in 19th century France, and I was disappointed to find that never emerged (especially as the treatment of anti-semitism in her Dreyfus podcast was rather good). I’ve been spoilt by Mike Duncan’s Haitian Revolution, so that the colonial relations seemed slightly shallow in comparison. The two more famous Dumas were interesting enough in their way, but never going to be quite as exciting a narrative. I still don’t love this podcast, but some of the topics are good – I think I’ll be dipping in and out of this one for a while.
The brothers Ashwell, Benjamin and Adam, are a pair of theoretical chemistry PhD students with a passion for history. Inspired by other history podcasts (most notably Mike Duncan, Zack Twamley’s When Diplomacy Fails, and Jamie Redfern’s The History Of) and time spent in Italy, they decided to put together a podcast series on the unification of Italy in the nineteenth century. The topic wasn’t chosen based on any expert knowledge but with a growing interest in the era and spotting a gap in the podcast market, they sketched out an idea. My own background is actually rather similar – as a particle physics DPhil student (recently completed) with an amateur enthusiasm for history, deciding to do a blog on some books and podcasts that I felt hadn’t received that much attention. I also have a twin brother, with whom I once made a student radio show. With these similarities, I feel like I am fairly well placed to judge their efforts.
Continue reading Post 23: Talking History: Italian Unification Podcast
This “biography” of John Hawkwood by Frances Stonor Saunders is a great read. Released by Faber & Faber in 2005, the book presents itself as the story of an English mercenary who made his name fighting first in the Hundred Years War, and then in medieval Italy. Actual biographical details of the famous mercenary may be short on the ground but it turns out these aren’t really necessary, Saunders gives a wonderful description of the mercenary life among the warring states of Fourteenth Century Italy.
Continue reading Hawkwood: Diabolical Englishman