Absolute ambiguity? Venice from above, with the Doge’s Palace in the foreground.
Venice is a place awash with words and images, histories and memories. To many observers, those men and women who are found on its streets (calli) and squares (campi) live at least as much in the mind’s eye as in anything that might be deemed reality. So innumerable and unrelenting have been the efforts to put the essence and meaning of Venice into words that it has become a cliché that no one should write about it again, since everything has been said over and over and over. As Henry James stated more than a century ago, “there is nothing left to discover or describe [there], and originality of attitude is completely impossible.” A century later, Gore Vidal, candidly assessing his TV portrait of the city and its accompanying picture booklet, confessed wryly: “Not only did I have nothing to say, but there is nothing to say.” Yet accounts of Venice, from austere scholarship to tourist manuals to crime novels, pour off the presses, and every day millions of photographs are taken by those anxious to burnish a visual memory of their Venetian moments, convinced that they can, through the images that they conserve, make a Venice, somehow defined, their own.
Despite Henry James’s advice, “attitude,” whether original or not, is still the quest, often the high-flown quest, of the more celebrated commentators. Among French intellectuals, Jean-Paul Sartre affirmed that Venice is “the surpassing-all-or-nothing embodiment of that ‘absolute ambiguity’ which is indeed radiant life containing certain death.” A generation later, Regis Debray, the youthful revolutionary turned French government official, was still harsher about the present, damning Venice as dragging an entire continent into becoming no more than “a wholly museumised Europe.” Venice, he judged, was “the most vulgar resort frequented by people of taste.” Nothing was “genuine” there. “Venice plays at being a town and we play at discovering it.” The tourists constituted no more than “faceless extras”; yet, without them, Venice “would decline and collapse in a week, its text dissolving, lost, haggard, like a great star forced to play nightly to an empty house.”
It is not unusual for French intellectuals to earn gold medals in portentousness. But, when it comes to Venice, they have many challengers. So the Australian historian Manning Clark knew from a brief visit that the city was threaded by “that something else, beyond what we can see, touch, smell and hear”; it was where we know “we are alone.”
Special parts of the city have also been portrayed more or less evocatively. For one crime novelist, Piazza San Marco looked like “a giraffe – absurd, impossible, and beautiful beyond computation, as if Michelangelo, Christopher Wren, Walt Disney and God had sat on a committee to build it.” Less euphoniously, an American writer reckoned that “the Stazione Santa Lucia is like a gleaming syringe, connected to the industrial mainland by its long trailing railway lines and inserted into the rear end of Venice’s Grand Canal, into which it pumps a steady provender and daily pumps off the waste.” As such it amounted to “that tender spot where the ubiquitous technocratic circuit of the World Metropolis physically impinges upon the last outpost of the self-enclosed Renaissance Urbs.”
But the palm in recent commentary should be awarded to Peter Ackroyd for a book that aims to display today’s Venice to the world. In its pages, Ackroyd asserts that Venice and Venetians are radically cut off from other Italians, a mobile prey to water, tides and the sea, floating like Ophelia, naturally double and duplicitous, pure, dream-like, artificial, quintessentially touristic, devoted to retailing their pastness, expressive of rank rather than the individual, corrupt, psychopathic, anxious, unstable and unpredictable, self-obsessed, fearful, vivacious, gay, radiant, extravagant, energetic, buoyant, spontaneous, urgent, facile, exuberant and impetuous, and so like all cities and their peoples. Enough to be getting along with, it might be concluded.
Ackroyd’s book is unusual in that it purports to deal with Venice’s story in modern times, whereas most accounts chronicle the Republic from its (alleged) foundation near the Rialto at the stroke of noon on 25 March 421 CE to its destruction by Napoleon. Somewhere in the background to the determined concentration on the Republic and the implicit or explicit deprecation of its history after 1797 lies the enormously influential figure of John Ruskin and his meticulous depiction of a version of the city in The Stones of Venice (1851–53). It was Ruskin, another to imagine a city that was very much his own, who stipulated to a receptive audience in Victorian Britain and to his many admirers in Venice, Italy and Europe that the Dogal Palace was “the central building of the world” and San Marco “a great Book of Common Prayer.”
In his labours, which extended from the 1840s to the 1880s and included eleven stays in the city, with his most productive visits being through the winters of 1849–50 and 1851–52, Ruskin pioneered the view that a comprehension of the passage of time, and so of history, was the key Venetian message to the world. In that regard, he urged that time and history split into good and bad phases. Everything in the city had once been wonderful and transcendent; God had all but taken human form in the artistic triumphs of the early Republic. But the Renaissance marked “the knell of architecture, and of Venice itself.” By the mid nineteenth century, the contemporary city lay dead or gasping its last breath; as he put it in 1846 in homely metaphor: “the rate at which Venice is going is about that of a lump of sugar in hot tea.”
During the mid nineteenth century and after, most Venetians did their best to ignore Ruskin’s derisive view of what, in the 1850s, was the rapidly approaching Risorgimento – the unification of Italy into a liberal nation state that would proclaim itself as committed to delivering its people an “age of improvement” as was Victorian Britain. Venice was to join Italy in very specific circumstances in 1866, five years after the new kingdom had come into existence and four years before it made Rome its capital. But for quite a few Venetians, the message that mattered in Ruskin’s depiction of their town lay not in his lucubrations about present decay in a lapidary phrase destined to be deeply inscribed into the city over the succeeding years: com’era e dov’era (how and where it was).
This formula counselled Venetians not so much to harness values expressed in the past for present or future use but instead to stem the flux of time. Since, under the Republic, Venice had been the best and most beautiful, nothing that was left over from that past should be disturbed or changed. Doubtless, the passage of the years demanded watchfulness always and repair sometimes. But the latter must entail exact and literal reconstruction. The Venice of the twentieth or twenty-first centuries must keep intact the Venice of the Republic and its glories “to be a lesson unto the Gentiles,” that is, to allow the world, still and forever, to mark, learn from and inwardly digest its grandeur. Over the last decades, the often deeply pessimistic pleas to “save Venice” lie at the centre of much commentary and labour, almost always carrying the unspoken belief that salvation must be com’era e dov’era.
Many an introduction to the city thus stops short at 1866 (or even 1797) and dismisses in a few words or sentences Venice’s fate since it became part of the Italian state. Today, artistic and architectural guides are rich with detail about the achievements of Palladio and Sansovino, Palma il Giovane, Tiepolo, Tintoretto, Titian, the Bellinis and the rest. But more modern aspects to the city are mostly overlooked or dismissed with asperity as having infringed the rule com’era e dov’era. It is true that the Australian art historian, Margaret Plant, has produced a fine, lengthy, account of the cultural history of the place since 1797. More humdrum aspects of social and political history, however, pass her and almost all other commentators by. Again, Peter Ackroyd offers a template. His account of Venice through time nowhere mentions Giuseppe Volpi, entrepreneur of the Marghera industrial site, initiator of the cinema and music festivals, recognised even by the Fascist dictator and Duce as the doge of interwar Venice, a man whose widow and children continued to play major roles in the battles over what the city should mean throughout the post-1945 era. In portraying the modern city to his readers, Ackroyd omits the most important and influential Venetian of the twentieth century.
Somewhere in such fuzzy response to the Venice subjected to Italian rule lurks another grand binary opposite. Experts, devotees, those attuned to aesthetics and high culture, understand much about Venice before 1797 while happily conceding that a more perfect comprehension of the Republic’s past needs still further research. In their skills, devotion to scholarship, worthiness and individuality, they sharply distinguished themselves from the tourist clutter, those who do not really know the city at all but exploit it as though it were but another “Disneyland,” a dumbed down place of brittle show, shamelessly selling a concocted but not a real history. Intellectuals, yes; tourists, no, often seems the first formula with which the current city should be approached.
The real Venice is washed by many pasts, some old, some new, each of interest to a historian and many worth drawing to the attention of the city’s visitors, learned or not, who themselves have histories that are also part of Venice. •
Australian historian R.J.B. Bosworth is a Senior Research Fellow at Jesus College, Oxford. This is an edited extract from his new book, Italian Venice: A History, published this week by Yale University Press.