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!
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.
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.
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.
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.