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 There are plenty of details but many feel quaint and out of date – whether they are or not.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.
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.
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
How Venice won and lost a naval empire
This book by Roger Crowley, published in 2011 by Faber and Faber, tells a narrative history of the Venetian overseas empire – so essentially a time span of ~1000 to ~1500 with the changing interactions with the dying Byzantine Empire, the rising Ottomans and the wars with the other Mediterranean trading powers. Crowley is a very good writer of narrative history, particularly in his field of Mediterranean naval warfare circa 1400. This book can in some ways be seen as a natural companion to 2005’s Constantinople: The Last Great Siege and to 2008’s Empires of the Sea. Those charted the fall of Constantinople and the ensuing battle for the remaining christian strongholds in Cyprus and Malta. This book on the other hand is a step backwards in time, giving the run up to those struggles from a Venetian perspective.
Continue reading Venice: City of Fortune by Roger Crowley