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.
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.
I recently went on holiday to New York and Philadelphia, spending a lot of time looking at art, visiting historical/tourist sites and drinking in bars. At one point I combined two of these by visiting the City Tavern in the old part of Philadelphia. This is an recreation of an old 18th century tavern frequented by many of the US’s founding fathers. Living in England where actual pubs from that time and earlier are commonplace, I was dubious.
Continue reading City Tavern – Philadelphia