Venice, Pure City Peter Ackroyd

Chatto & Windus, pp.387, 25

Is there anything original left to say about Venice? Probably not, but that doesn’t stop the books from coming, tied in, as they mostly now are, with a television series.

Is there anything original left to say about Venice? Probably not, but that doesn’t stop the books from coming, tied in, as they mostly now are, with a television series. In this context I dream of programme-makers courageous enough to eschew tacky carnival masks or mood-shots of gondola beaks reflected in muddy ripples, with Vivaldi mandolins wittering cosily over the soundtrack, but it aint gonna happen, alas. How about the areas of La Bella Dominante most visitors are too rushed or incurious to explore? When was the last time you saw a camera crew on the Giudecca or up by the Arsenale, zooming in on the Madonna dell’Orto’s apocalyptic Tintorettos or those wacky marble tapestries adorning the Gesuiti? They might even film a few ordinary Venetians, among the handful still clinging on along the canals, engaged in the increasingly arduous business of trying to live modern lives inside Europe’s biggest historical theme-park.

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Peter Ackroyd’s Venice, Pure City, the latest televisual harbinger, promises something slightly less cliché-ridden. This is a personal interpretation of the place, both as human artefact and cultural concept, in which the author manages nevertheless to appear quite miraculously unobtrusive. Readers not deterred by the cheesily faux-narrative opening — ‘They voyaged into the remote and secluded waters. They came in flat-bottomed boats, moving into the shallows’ etc — will be captivated soon enough by Ackroyd’s talent for conjuring inspired generalisations from a bizarre flotsam of detail. This book is neither a chronicle nor a travelogue, offering instead a kind of progress report on Venice’s relentless persistence over 1,500 years. As in his studies of London and the Thames, the approach combines a painterly eye for colour and composition with the excitement of a botanist or a zoologist tracking down a species hitherto unknown to science.

The Ackroydian Serenissima is a town of polished façades and mirror-images, a look-at-me affair of performance and disguise, gifted with seemingly infinite resources of rhetoric, gesture and scenic effect. All this is scarcely new. The verdict of one early 20th-century traveller that it represents ‘the tragedy of a surface that has been abandoned by its foundation’ is by now a favourite trope among modern writers on Venice. For Ackroyd, however, such superficiality generates enchantment, intensifying the place’s ‘unknowability’. He revels in the pageant of illusion engineered by hoisting palaces, churches, bridges and quays onto elemental tree trunks hammered into the Adriatic mud and in the use of Istrian limestone as a mock-marble gala dress for the red brick core of most Venetian buildings. After all, he reasons, ‘what is Venice but an endless parade ?’

More sentimentally inclined Venetophiles may wince at such sardonic realism. How can dreamers among silent calli and grass-grown campi accept Ackroyd’s notion of an authentic Venice made manifest by the surging tourist ant-heaps around the Rialto and San Marco? In the Piazza itself, he brushes aside Effie Ruskin’s fancy of a vast gaslit drawing room or her husband’s hand-wringing over 19th-century Venetian indifference to the sublimities of the basilica and Palazzo Ducale. His preferred medieval vision is of butchers’ shops on the Piazzetta, brocaded senators paddling through pools of urine under the palace arcades, caged prisoners dangling from the Campanile and occasional public beheadings between the two tall columns by the waterfront.

Fantasy and spirituality, it seems, are at a discount in a realm of merchants and hucksters. Though its parishes teem with miracles, from the Madonna walking down the Grand Canal to St Mark rescuing a slave from the gallows, Venice’s piety, selective and pragmatic, failed to convince successive popes. The Renaissance brought fine printing but no memorable poetry. Even painters like Veronese or Tiepolo set out their sumptuous stalls ‘like hawkers in a market’.

De-romanticising Venice, Ackroyd encourages us to admire its unquenchable instinct for survival. ‘There has never been a time’, he declares, ‘when Venice was not in peril’ as a city essentially defying nature, kept alive by its people’s stout competitiveness and nourished by their passion for light (Ackroyd on ‘the numinous as luminous’ is coruscating), their love of mockery and their insatiable hunger for the spectacular and the bizarre. The danger comes no longer from marauding Genoese or Turks but from timid, corrupt bureaucrats, the ravages of mass tourism and inexorable assaults from that very same sea the Doges ceremonially married on Ascension Day. Combative, omnivorous and beady-eyed as ever, the author has no trouble in persuading us, nevertheless, that the ‘pure city’ is not ready quite yet to collapse into its primal mud.

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated

Tags: Architecture, Artists, Decay, Italy, Non-fiction, Venice