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