Jan Morris, Venice

Cover of the Faber third rev. ed. of 'Venice', publ. 1993

Cover of the Faber third rev. ed. of ‘Venice’, publ. 1993

Jan Morris, Venice was first published in 1960 when she was James, but so timeless and largely unchanging is the fabric and spirit of Venice that the account isn’t particularly dated. On our visit there a week or so back, however, Mrs TD and I saw little of the animal and bird life she describes – apart from the ubiquitous pigeons and seagulls (noisy in the mornings, like sobbing babies). I did catch a glimpse of early swifts darting and screeching overhead. And a community of surprisingly well-nourished feral cats. An old lady was feeding them from a packet of biscuits. They lived in a peaceful central courtyard of the Ospedale San Giovanni e Paolo (San Zanipolo to the locals) – a magnificent Renaissance cloistered complex, including an art gallery, that still functions as a hospital, with its ER access a canalside quay for water ambulances!

Plaque outside Brodsky's house

Plaque outside a house where Joseph Brodsky stayed, near the Zattere. Meant to include it in yesterday’s post. He was buried in San Michele. Because he was a Jew, he wasn’t buried too close to Ezra Pound’s grave.

Morris describes the strutting equestrian statue of condottiere Colleoni in the square outside as ‘incomparable’. This Venetian notable died in 1484, leaving his entire fortune of ‘nearly half a million ducats to the state (which badly needed it) on condition that a statue was erected to him’ on that site. It’s that kind of well-researched detail, engagingly communicated, that makes this account of Venice so readable.

The Marías and Brodsky books I discussed yesterday were impressionistic sketches; this is a full-length biography and socio-cultural history of a city, of the kind Peter Ackroyd has produced more recently – almost a psychogeography. And there are charming personal touches braiding the narrative: Morris standing on her balcony gazing at the breathtaking views, but also pointing out, when the tide is low, that ‘the underpinnings of the Venetian houses are revealed in all their green and slimy secrecy.’ This is so typical of Venice: beautiful exteriors covering a sleaziness under the surface. But even the squalor is only superficial; there’s always something gorgeous if you look beyond.

View along the Grand Canal from Accademia bridge towards San Giorgio

View along the Grand Canal from Accademia bridge towards San Giorgio

She provides almost every detail and history you could desire of the city (its 450+ bridges, 107 churches) and in the archipelago of over 100 islands. As you see flying over the lagoon into Marco Polo airport, there are countless mudbanks and islets that come and go with the tides and currents. It was an uninviting swamp, and the city suffered decimations of population for centuries from the diseases harboured there, from plague (a hazard of the Levantine trade) and mosquito-transmitted malaria to cholera caused by poor water hygiene (that did for gloomy von Aschenbach in Death in Venice). Hence the prominence of San Rocco in the city’s five church dedications to him; they stole his relics, too, from France, for his protection against ‘bacterial demons’. I remember the Visconti neorealist film ‘Rocco and his Brothers’ – rather better as I recall than the more famous and morbid Bogarde vehicle with its picture-postcard superficiality.

A random sample of the Morris narrative tone in an extract from the opening page:

Here is a glowering octagonal fort, here a gaunt abandoned lighthouse. A mesh of nets patterns the walls of a fisherman’s islet, and a restless covey of boats nuzzles its water-gate. From the ramparts of an island barracks a listless soldier with his cap over his eyes waves half-heartedly out of his sentry-box. Two savage dogs bark and rage from a broken villa.

Not just hard facts dug out of histories and archives, then; human observations like the above make this book a pleasure to read.

Those cats in Zanipolo

Those cats in Zanipolo

She also gives a detailed account of the major islands, including Torcello, where the original settlers established a foothold in the 5C to escape the depredations of the invading Goths, Huns and other warlike tribes. This island prospered, then declined disastrously from the 12C, and is now returning to nature, its former glories weed-covered and plundered for materials to build its replacement, Venice itself.

Some highlights from a book densely packed with interesting details. How in 829 Venetian merchants, with typical audacity and cunning, stole the relics of St Mark from Alexandria. To keep the loot safe from prying Muslim eyes they hid them in a barrel of pickled pork. It was a city of policy, trade, chicanery and sharp practice (hence the plot of The Merchant of Venice). It’s a ‘shamelessly self-centred place’, redolent of ‘elderly narcissism’. It can adopt ‘a morose but calculating look’ full of ‘sly contempt’, with ‘a note of amorality’, ‘hard-boiled, sceptical and sophisticated’. But also courteous, ceremonious – ‘a very bourgeois city.’ Full of nosiness, gossip, sex, melancholy and intrigue.

It was also the city of Tintoretto, Titian and Goldoni – and Casanova. They even claim Othello as one of their own.

There’s a fascinating section on the Ghetto (and the cruel treatment of the Jews), and on the visitors from all over the world – not just the usuals like Shelley and Byron and his suicidal jilted girlfriend throwing herself into the Grand Canal from the Palazzo Mocenigro, the Brownings, George Eliot and her canal-bound suicidal husband, swaggering Hemingway and punctilious Ruskin. She shows how the city is cosmopolitan, enriched over the centuries by incomers from the orient, the Middle East (those Armenians and the Riva degli Schiavoni, named for the Slavs who brought cargo to the place that is still a thriving trading and ferry quay.) Oriental influences are seen everywhere, like the arabesque swirls in the windows.

I recall the Venetian style of the harbour at Chania in Crete. Forts in Cyprus. For Venice absorbed features from every culture it dealt with, but also disseminated its own.

There are some good jokes. Like Robert Benchley, who cabled home when he first arrived there: ‘Streets full of water. Please advise.’

In the section on the city’s influence elsewhere in the world, she says she saw a sign in London’s Little Venice: ‘Beware of the Doge.’

Some omissions: she mentions the church of the Madonna dell’Orto, but unlike Brodsky and Marías, says nothing about the Bellini portrait noted yesterday. There’s some reference to Ezra Pound, but not of his grave in the San Michele cemetery, or Olga Rudge.

The six-pronged prow of gondolas, with the curve above maybe representing the sweep of the arterial Grand Canal

The graceful six-pronged prow of gondolas, with the curve above maybe representing the sweep of the arterial Grand Canal. Sunlight, not lamplight

Finally, those gondolas again: even the etymology of the word is controversial. There’s the now discarded felze, or canopy, which concealed all kinds of illicity liasions (see previous posts). Is it true, as the gondoliers assert, that the six prongs on the prow – the ferro – represent the six sestieri, the curved beak at the top is the Doge’s hat/the Rialto bridge/several other theories? Whatever their origins (Roman, Egyptian or Turkish?), they are a magnificent sight,

curved, rampant and gleaming, riding side by side through the lamplight of the Grand Canal.

I’ll not forget the atmosphere of this extraordinary, beautiful, vibrant city. It probably sounds inane, but I hadn’t realised what an effect is gained by having no road traffic. No wonder Venice’s appellation is La Serenissima. It’s a serene city – the only sounds the lapping of the water, the cries of the gondoliers (and those seagulls) and the chugging engines of the innumerable boats supplying the produce for the wonderful markets – but also cleaning the canals, ferrying travellers and transporting the sick to the Ospedale.

There was a water fire-engine moored at the canalside, attending a blaze on Murano, with a chic uniformed fireman posing for the tourists’ cameras while his colleagues buzzed in and out of the burnt shell of the building a hundred metres away. He looked like a young Robert de Niro.

Brodsky and Marías on Venice

Joseph Brodsky, Watermark: An Essay on Venice. Penguin Classics, 2013. First published 1992.

Javier Marías, Venice: An Interior. Translated by Margaret Jull Costa. Penguin Books, 2016 [and part of the essay collection Between Eternities, 2017]. First published in Spanish, 1988.

Jan Morris, Venice. 3rd rev. ed. 1993; first published 1960 – next post

Brodsky, Marías and Morris book covers on VeniceMy previous two posts on Venice have touched on recommended Venice-based or –set reading; the Brodsky I read after my return from the recent visit with Mrs TD to celebrate her birthday – our first time in the city – and was inspired by this post by Karen at Kaggsysbookish Ramblings. She provides an excellent introduction and background to the Russian poet, and a perceptive review – so there’s not much more for me to add about his book here.

As she says, it’s a prose poem/meditation. I too found the strange visit to Ezra Pound’s former mistress, Olga Rudge (with Susan Sontag, of all people) a stand-out scene. There’s a beautiful anecdote about her first meeting with Stravinsky, at a violin recital she was giving (she was an outstanding concert violinist, which is how Pound first encountered her. She survived him by several decades and was buried beside him at San Michele).

He’s interesting on – and a little dismissive of — Pound as deluded politically; detention at St Elizabeth’s was ‘nothing to rave about’ in Russian eyes. The Cantos left him cold:

…the main error was an old one: questing after beauty. For someone with such a long record of residence in Italy, it was odd that he hadn’t realized that beauty can’t be targeted, that it is always a by-product of other, often very ordinary pursuits.

He listens to Sontag trying unsuccessfully to deflect Rudge from her lengthy whitewash job on her fascist-sympathising, anti-Semitic lover; having dealt with countless ‘old CP members’ it was a tune that rang a bell. They left the house and found themselves, significantly, on the Fondamenata degli Incurabili.

Brodsky’s love for the city and its ‘serene beauty’ is rapturously told – ‘this city is the eye’s beloved’ – though he’s not blind to its occasional decaying squalor, its decadence and artificiality and superficiality. I wasn’t so keen on the objectification of women, including his unreconstructed lusting over the beautiful (married) Veneziana who met him at the station on his first visit and introduced him to her city.

Among several enigmatic images (others include his repeated, interwoven references to chordates and fish-eye perception; tears, surfaces, reflections/water, beauty and time – and a woman with mustard-and-honey coloured eyes) is a strange description of the ‘wonderful’ Bellini tempera portrait of the Virgin and Child that was in the Madonna dell’Orto church in Cannaregio sestiere near the Ghetto (he couldn’t have mentioned its theft in 1993, after he was writing this essay).

Bellini, Madonna and Child

Bellini, Madonna and Child (Wikimedia Commons)

He was unable to enter the church one night to steal a look at it, and at

the inch-wide interval that separates [Mary’s] left palm from the Child’s sole. That inch –ah, much less! – is what separates love from eroticism.

This is Javier Marías: he refers to

…the beautiful Bellini Virgin depicting a lunatic Christ Child who looks as if he’s either going to choke to death at any moment or pounce on his extraordinary mother…

When I look at the image I think it’s this description that makes more sense.

In fact the Marías essay is in some ways the most interesting of the three texts discussed here and elsewhere (though it’s probably apparent from some of my earliest posts at TDays that he’s one of my favourite authors: list at the end). Morris is more of a comprehensive guidebook, but his is the most vivid.

He can be as poetic as Brodsky in his palpable love for the city – he visited it fourteen times between 1984-89 – but without the sometimes mannered obscurity. His description of night-time, when the inky darkness accentuates the city’s ‘stage-set’ dramatic quality, is beautifully evocative. He also identifies in a few succinct, vivid images the essence and soul of this compact city (in theory one could walk from end to end in just over an hour; in practice this is impossible because of the dead ends and distractions).

There’s what he identifies as its harmony and homogeneity, its seediness and ostentatious glamour, and, paradoxically, its fragmentation and articulation.

He’s particularly good (as his title suggests) on the interiority of Venetians’ lives (‘they don’t go out very much’). And he’s characteristically funny, too: his account of the glamorous women (and men), who seem to be ‘always on their way to some elegant party’ when they do venture out accords with what I saw. Nearly everyone is chic and on display:

Singers at the theatre sometimes complain that their voices cannot be heard above the rattle of jewellery and that their eyes are dazzled by the glint of gold in the darkness, because some ladies do rather over-adorn hands, ears and neck in their eagerness to outshine, well, themselves, principally.

At the beach on the Lido they’re dripping in jewels (even when they go for a swim) and dressed to the nines.

He gives an entertaining account of the love-hate relationship between the Venetians and the hordes of tourists. Each sestiere or district (there are six, as the name suggests) has its own distinct atmosphere and ‘idea’. Locals from one area are unlikely to venture beyond the end of their nearest canal, rarely straying into the tourist honeypots – and they’re snootily dismissive of any place else. The same thing or person seen in one sestiere appears different in another (he gives the example of a beggar who moves about the city, shifting shapes mysteriously). I find these perceptions more human than Brodsky’s rather cerebral musings.

Marías identifies the strange ways that distances between places on the island can’t be measured by space alone. That account of the Bellini was to demonstrate that even though it’s found just a stone’s throw from the Grand Canal, it seems ‘a thousand leagues away’.

Both he and Brodsky are dismissive of Visconti’s film Death in Venice. Both are good on the best perspective from which to admire the architecture: from the water. But they agree that only the tourists can afford the gondola. When my wife and I were there it was 80 euros for a half-hour ride. We adopted the practice of the locals: take a gondola traghetto across the Grand Canal for two euros. It only takes minutes but is a much better deal. Otherwise the vaporetto (with a tourist pass) is good value, but often crowded.

I could go on, but had better stop, but I must quote the closing lines of the Marías, in which he poetically relates the timeless beauty of Venice, as it impacted on him on revisiting the city twenty years after the first Spanish edition of this text in 1988, when its people and places might have been expected to be lost:

We probably only really lose what we forget or reject, what we prefer to erase and no longer wish to carry with us, what is no longer part of the life we tell ourselves.

Readers of his fiction will recognise that haunting allusiveness to the elasticity of time and experience, universalised.

Javier Marías texts posted about here include the Your Face Tomorrow trilogy

The Infatuations

Thus Bad Begins

and the essay collection Written Lives

Next time, as I’ve gone on too long here, I’ll return to the Jan Morris.