Venice is an artificial city, an unusual hybrid of land and water, a place renowned for its duplicity and drama. From swamps and mudflats a dazzling nation-state was created that has captured the European imagination for centuries.
My mind was littered with myth and metaphor about the city long before I visited it – contributions included the writing of Byron, Ruskin, Henry James, and Evelyn Waugh: the art of Titian, Tintoretto and Canaletto, the music of Vivaldi, the origin of opera, the tale of Casanova, the home of Marco Polo, a place of carnival, gondola and revelry, a far-flung maritime empire that once controlled the Eastern Mediterranean. Also a place of espionage, betrayal and imprisonment where the Jews were locked in their ghetto every night - let out in the day to indulge in commerce, their money-lending enabled the state to flourish.
Venice lived up to expectation and imagination. Our little hotel room’s back shutters opened on to a small, quiet canal. St Mark’s Square and Cathedral were superb. The Doge’s palace was splendid – all those energetic, muscular Tintoretto paintings. The dungeons were terrfiying – it was a police state, secret denunciations were assumed. But the most breath-taking experience was seeing Titian’s painting The Assumption of the Virgin Mary in the Santa Maria Basilica – the largest altarpiece in the city. The monumental scale, the colour and the geometric precision are awe-inspiring. Seeing it was one of the highlights of my life.
While there I was conscious of the tides, light off the water and reflections at night. The absence of traffic noise is a lasting impression. Horses were excluded very early. There are pet dogs and caged birds – Byron had a menagerie - but the only wild animal life are feral cats and their prey, rats and mice. I took a photo of a plump cat sun-bathing half-way up a statue. Tourists were forbidden to feed the pigeons from 2008. I saw seagulls and swallows –maybe they were swifts - but recall no sparrows.
Peter Ackroyd’s book about Venice is full of interesting facts and theories. I didn’t know that Hobbes the English philosopher lived there before he returned to England to write The Leviathan which argued for a strong central authority to control human nature. Ackroyd describes it as a city of stone, brick and cobble-stone. There are very few gardens and no bare land.
Ackroyd is a word-smith. He uses this skill to build up a picture as his ending ilustrates: ‘And so we have the words – vivacity, gaiety, radiance, extravagance, energy, buoyancy, spontaneity, urgency, facility, exuberance, impetuosity. Oh! Venezia!’
That old exam question – compare and contrast? I must reread Jan Morris’s history of the same city. My memory banks tell me she captured the historical grandeur and horror even better. Both books capture a past glory – that was my impression when I visited, a metaphor for individuals as well as vanished empires.
WORDS - Douglas McLennan
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