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99: SERENISSIMA

#99: SERENISSIMA. Venice in literature has largely had a regretful, malarial, even sinster presence. Think of what you encounter in such literary (and cinematic) confections as Henry James’s Wings of the Dove, Browning’s “Toccata of Galuppi’s,” Mann’s Death in Venice, Ian MacEwan’s Comfort of Strangers or Daphne du Maurier’s Don't Look Now: deception, greed, disappointment, illness, evil-meaning strangers and a homicidal dwarf in a red coat, the image of which has creeped me out for forty years. So best perhaps to stick with the history and travel writing. I can’t imagine anyone reading John Julius Norwich’s History of Venice (Knopf, 1982) and not falling in love with the city, becoming an enjoyer of its successes and partisan for its well-being. Each city’s history is unique, but the history of Venice is particularly and wonderfully so. It evolved a republican government that, even as it dwindled into oligarchy, offered stability and freedoms that made it remarkable in its world. Its lagoon setting rendered it safely separated from the wars and maneuverings of mainland Italy, at least until Napoleon’s arrival in 1797. Its aesthetics were eastern and Byzantine as much as western and European, which gives its architecture lights and surfaces unlike any other. Its empire, and hence its virtues, were mercantile; this has been looked down on, but with its councils and elaborate electoral safeguards Venice’s virtues always had the shape of reason in ways not shared by the theocracies which flanked her east and west, and that should at least have embarrassed Bonaparte, with his tantrums and fussing. (Someone once joked that capitalism is the worst system of government in the world—except for all the others.) There’s a police-state side to Venetian history, certainly, but Norwich convinces us when he writes in his peroration: “By whatever political standards she is judged, she compares favorably with any nation in Christendom…Nowhere did man live more happily; nowhere did they enjoy more freedom from fear.”

In his follow-up book on Venice, Paradise of Cities (Doubleday, 2003) Norwich—as if he was so disheartened by the end of the Republic he needed to have a pause—takes up Venice in the nineteenth century. It’s a smaller topic altogether; except for a sharp-eyed and stirring chapter on the abortive 1848 revolution, Norwich concentrates on the extraordinary list of visitors and devotees Venice attracted when, bereft of its empire, it retained its status as a capitol of pleasure. In effect he returns Venice to the hands of those writers and modern artists who may have attracted our attention to the city in the first place: Byron, Ruskin, Henry James, Browning, Whistler, Sargent, Baron Corvo, Wagner (the least Venetian artist imaginable, but who loved the place), as well as a gallery of the rich and professional-class Yankees and Brits who provided a connective tissue as well as patronage to the artistic society. In this the book reminds me of James Mellow’s Charmed Circle, with a similar wealth of cameos, graceful prose and the same wise sophistication.

Venice in the high days of the Renaissance had claims to considering itself one of the most important centers of the visual arts. It also, in the eighteenth century in a moment of reflexive glory, produced its own best portraitist: Giovanni Antonio Canal, called Canaletto. He, with Francesco Guardi trailing a little behind him, brought to an individual perfection the art of the veduta—the minutely detailed panoramic cityscape, begun as a genre in the Netherlands in the sixteenth century. Trading the theological imagination of the Renaissance paintings for a shrewd realism, the vedutisti were viewed largely as hacks (which no doubt most of them were) and their canvases as commercial production for the visiting gentry—outsized, very expensive picture postcards. It was the genre Canaletto was born to master, and his canvases, both the Venetian and those from his years in Britain, are like freeze-frames of incomparable color, light and composition—all action caught just as it’s about to return to motion. Of course in Venice he had a supreme subject: one of the greatest cities in the world, at the height of its energy and beauty. And part of our delight in Canaletto’s paintings is in this satisfaction of our curiosity about the city in its past: how the buildings took the light, how the wind moved through it, its patterns of human traffic. This appeal is simply human and historical, and it would be silly to impose a metaphysic on Canaletto’s paintings, but there are times when the still of these scenes, with their beautiful, subtly involving compositions and their attentively rendered skies, so capture the purely urban spell of great architecture as to seem almost mysterious. The best book I’ve seen on this supremely approachable genius is Canaletto, by Katharine Baetjer and J.G. Links (Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1989), a very good text loaded up with gorgeous reproductions.

The library of books on Venice is considerable. The four discs of Peter Ackroyd’s BBC series “Venice” are a good introduction and invitation. Jan Morris’s book The World of Venice (Harcourt, revised 1988) is up there with the best of this incomparable travel writer’s work—page after page of anecdote and information, in lively and elegant prose, as with her book A Venetian Bestiary (Thames and Hudson, 1982), about everything in the city that has paws, fins or wings, in art or in life. Mary McCarthy’s Venice Observed (Heinemann, 1961), likewise, is full of sharp observation and fluent writing: the chapters on the Venetian Jewish Ghetto and on the isle of Torcello are particularly good. An especially good book on the materials of Venetian art and architecture—and as beautifully illustrated as any art book I know of—is Paul Hill’s Venetian Colour: Marble, Mosaics, Painting and Glass 1250-1550 (Yale University Press, 1999).

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