A History of Venice, John Julius Norwich
Having read your entry of September 17th entitled “We are here” you have emboldened me to provide a similar two-for-one contribution. I must admit that I have not, until recently, been a great lover of fiction in its broadest sense. I tended to read for fact – and as there is so much of it that I do not know I was content on my course. Recently things have changed. I am now pursuing a business degree and I do nothing aside reading for fact. At times it feels as though I am a good way through Harvard Business School’s oeuvre, which is neither true nor entertaining for the most part. My summer break gave me some much needed time and space for escapism. A late summer started with The Master and Margarita, regressed to The Idiot and then brought me to A History of Venice. Why the curious final stop? There are many reasons but possibly the easiest to describe is that I have completely fallen in love with the city. At first sight I was besotted and, having been lucky enough to live in Italy for a year, my feelings have deepened in exponential proportion to my many visits more recently. I understand that this is rather tragic (colloquial). Anyway, as anything that I love, I tend to like to learn as much as I can about it/them so that I can make the most of the relationship.
A History of Venice is a (rather lengthy) history book detailing the very beginnings of La Serenissima, The Most Serene Republic of Venice, in the 8th century through, Doge by Doge, to its forced conclusion at the end of the 18th. Whilst I understand that this might not be the standard content discussed on your site I can only encourage friends and acquaintances to read a chapter or two the next time you are in a suitable bookshop.
As a clear lover of the City and its history Norwich charts a purposeful course through time. Reflections on the city, the character of the inhabitants, aggressors in the form of Spaniards, Milanese, Holy Armies, Genoese, Neapolitans, Florentines, Hungarians, Austrians, Ottomans and French are treated with utmost objectivity and as a result this book is an absolute pleasure. This history is no indulgence for its author, it is written with the reader’s education in mind at all times and as a result it achieves its aim with aplomb. Not only is this achieved but it is also written rather beautifully. Norwich writes in classic British prose whilst never being verbose. Nor does he allow himself lengthy digressions into architecture, art or beauty where accusations of pomposity would be easy to level. That being said he does allow flashes of humour, certainly enough to enliven the read at more academic moments. In response to the secret expedition to Alexandria in order to steal the remains of Mark The Evangelist, Norwich proposes that “history records no more shameless example of body-snatching; nor any – unless we include the events associated with the Resurrection – of greater long term significance”.
In fact this book is so well put together that by the time that you reach Part Four: Decline and Fall your spirits sink with the book and with the city. As she loses Cyprus and Crete as colonies you are resigned as a reader to the conclusion. Then at that conclusion, Norwich’s excellent description of Napoleon’s schadenfreude toward La Serenissima leads you to yearn for the end, you imagine that your feelings are closely aligned those of oligarchic states creaking under the weight of wealth, loose morality, laziness and corruption that it experienced in its dotage. The author asserts near to the end that Venice “like any great beauty, she was acutely conscious of the effect that that beauty had on others; and she used it to the full”, and through his skilled commentary that beauty continues to bewitch the reader. Or at least it did me.
Following Norwich’s tome, I took on the altogether easier challenge of reading Brodsky’s Watermark. This book is a collection of short stories, a poem or any other classification that one would care to make. At a length that would make Of Mice And Men look like a leviathan it contains brief thoughts, reflections and anecdotes from the author’s many winters spent in Venice. Similar to Norwich, but very much like me, he is a clear lover of the city although no historian. A good proportion of the focus, if not all of it, is on the city’s effect on the eye and the eye’s metaphysical significance in its role as conduit-in-chief to its beholder.
I allowed myself to read some criticism of Watermark. In fact I sought it out primarily as I have so many conflicting feelings about the book. To some, the historical and cultural errors of the date of the aforementioned body-snatching and references to churches as cathedrals is enough to denounce the content. Other readers take issue with the uninitiated attacks on Ezra Pound, his widow or indeed the fairer sex in general. That being said, the majority clearly support and appreciate these candid and at times beautiful tales of a great writer in the greatest city.
Watermark is the antithesis of A History of Venice. It is pure indulgence, unadulterated dogma, subjectivity and frequent portentousness: “My notion of Eden hinges on neither weather nor temperature. For that matter, I’d just as soon discard its dwellers and eternity as well. At risk of being charged with depravity, I must confess that this notion is purely visual, has more to do with Claude than the creed, and exists only in approximations. As these go, this city is the closest”.
I asked myself why I should bother reading another man’s thoughts on Venice. Well, Brodsky’s are certainly better articulated than mine even if he was writing in his second language! Whilst his arrogance (he suggests that Watermark’s publication might have profound impacts on Venice’s success as a tourist destination) is at times insufferable, there are enough splendid passages to keep the reader interested. There are a beautiful couple of pages where, beginning from the Book of Genesis, he deduces in mock-scientific logic a true quality of the city:
“ ‘And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters’ to quote a famous author who visited here before. Then there was that next morning. It was Sunday, and all the bells were chiming…I always adhered to the idea that God is time. Or at least His spirit is. I always thought that if the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the water, the water was bound to reflect it…It is as though space, cognizant here more than anyplace else of its inferiority to time, answers it with the only property time doesn’t posses: with beauty. And that’s why this water takes an answer, twists it, wallops it and shreds it, but ultimately carries it by and large intact off into the Adriatic.”
Whilst this rambling, at times repulsive, little book with its terribly abrupt conclusion may not exactly endear the author to its reader, it contains some of the wonderful thinking and writing that in conjunction with a visit to the city (preferably in Winter) is an essential companion. And if you find yourself disliking Brodsky too much, you can at least comfort yourself in the knowledge that he was no prophet. His strong assertions in the book about the financial health of Kodak and of the prospect of the Biennale and Venice as a center for modern art have proved to be embarrassingly incorrect.