Venice: Pure City, Peter Ackroyd, Chatto & Windus, 416pp, £25
Venice is light. Her finest painters have tried to capture it, yet the victor ludorum was not Venetian. The city inspired the greatest of the Impressionists, Turner. In his canvases, water and stone are sublimated into air and fire. As Peter Ackroyd reminds us in his new work on the city, Venice: Pure City, the English essayist Walter Pater wrote that “all art constantly aspires to the condition of music.” Venetian artists often painted musicians; Bellini’s sublime altarpiece in San Zaccharia is only one example. But Turner achieves the fusion. His brush is the conductor’s baton—he is Dionysus—as the whole city is swept up in Terpsichorean ecstasy, dancing to the music of the spheres.
Venice is water, which by no means always obeys the dance-master. Every year, the doge would throw a gold ring into the waters of the lagoon, to renew the city’s marriage with the sea. But the sea was never a contented bride.
One late February, on the far side of the Dorsoduro, Venice’s second-largest island, I am the only tourist in sight. The others have too much sense to watch a black-grey sky allying with a green-grey sea to fill the air with damp and rain: to probe and menace the stone embankment. Well-wrapped, Venetians scurry by, seeking refuge, and thus reminding us of their city’s origins.
Venice was a refuge. In the early sixth century, as the Italian peninsula was constantly expiring towards the condition of barbarism, refugees from the chaos of the mainland found their way to a shelter which seemed likely to remain unviolated, since no- one would covet it. Amidst a lagoon, on muddy, marshy islands, the first Venetians built their humble dwellings.
Then—as so often in early eras of Northern civilisation—hardship and danger stimulated effort and creativity. To survive the perils of the sea and repel the ones from the mainland, the Venetians had to become the masters of the water. To rise above brutish subsistence, they had to turn their mudflats into fields and a city. They did both. They also established links with Byzantium, where Roman culture was preserved, and enhanced. By the ninth century, Venice was becoming a regional superpower, its strength resting on ships and on gold.
Venice was money. However embellished, it could never be self-sufficient, and its inhabitants had greater ambitions than that. They achieved them, by brains and trade. Venice became one of the greatest entrepots in history. When the Mediterranean was still the centre of the earth, Venice was that sea’s commercial capital. From all over the known world, goods and merchants found their way to the lagoon. Out of the splendour of the markets grew the splendour of the buildings, and of their inhabitants.
But the Venetians remained true to their mercantile origins. Although the city’s riches financed an aristocracy, it was a bourgeois aristocracy. His sexual ambivalence apart, Shakespeare’s Antonio was typical. However much he was accepted as a grandee, his wealth, his status—and his life—depended on the fate of his argosies.
Venice was civic patriotism and civic obedience. That is unusual. A cooped-up populace, the ever-visible contrast between poverty and abundance, the easy transmission of excitement and anger: cities encourage political turbulence. Not Venice. Although the authorities had teeth, they could also rely on consent. From earliest times, and despite an oligarchic constitution, Venice had little difficulty in commanding the allegiance of its citizens. As in Periclean Athens, a man found fulfilment in the service of his city.
Venice is the truculent uncertainty of the human condition. Venetians were often accused of impiety. By the standards of their time, they certainly practised religious tolerance, and they did not take much notice of the pope. Indeed, they were happy to wage war on the papal dominions. The city was regularly excommunicated and never seemed to care. Like the Pope, its cardinal archbishop was a patriarch. Rome had Peter. But Venice had Mark. Why should an Evangelist defer to a fisherman?
Yet Venice was often at war and sometimes in danger of losing. Fed on human waste, the stagnant waters of the lagoon bred plagues. When they were threatened by defeat or disease, the Venetians would embellish old churches or build new ones. In prosperous times, religion was just another sumptuary display. But when death crept across the waters, pride turned to fear; Venice turned to prayer.
In recent decades, those who adore Venice have joined in the prayers. The city is in peril. The foundations are sinking, the sea has never been subdued and industries on the mainland pollute the air with acids which attack the stone-work. The young are leaving the city. Today, the population has shrunk to below 70,000; less than a quarter of the 15th- century figure. In decline, Venice is as beautiful as ever, but it has taken on the fragility and pathos of old age. Giorgione’s “La Vecchia” has come to symbolise the modern city. This is all captured in Peter Ackroyd’s pages. There are some factual errors (the date of Sultan Suleiman’s death, the Christian name of the protagonist in Thomas Mann’s “Death in Venice,” the date of the founding of the Bank of England), and the lack of footnotes is irritating. One would wish to know more about some of the incidents that Mr. Ackroyd describes. But those are mere cavils. Our author’s love of Venice has lent wings to his prose, and he passes the essential test. To work, any book on Venice must fill the reader with an overwhelming desire to drop whatever he is doing, rush to the nearest airport and arrive in the city full of joyous expectation, to wander and wonder and worship.
Venice is beauty. Set off from St. Mark’s Square, and get lost. That is surprisingly easy, however well you think you know the city. As you meander, you will come across vistas which will make you gasp with delight. That is surprisingly easy, however often you have visited the city.
Gradually guide yourself to the Church of the Frari, on the Dorsoduro. On arrival, walk to the west end. Go back four and a half centuries. It is a feast day. The patriarch is there, as is the doge and everyone who is anyone. The church is filled with incense and music. Process down the nave, in reverend step with the ghosts of the great ones. With them, raise your eyes to the church’s most exalted treasure, Titian’s “Assumption of the Virgin.”
There is no finer portrait of a female. In the hour of her death, divested of ailments and frailty, the Virgin is once again the tremulous young woman of the Annunciation. As she received Gabriel with fear and awe, so she greets her Son, who is calling her home to be Queen of Heaven. The Frari’s full name is Santa Maria Gloriosa Dei Frari. Titian’s painting justifies every syllable of that Gloriosa.
Just around the corner is the Scuola Di San Rocco, where Tintoretto established his claim to rank with the greatest. English critic John Ruskin thought that the “Crucifixion” in the Scuola was the greatest painting of all. The concept may be absurd. In that context, the judgment seems plausible.
It is now time for refreshment. Venice has never been famous for its cuisine. One might have thought that some of the world’s greatest chefs would have brought their skillets to this unparalleled location, but that has not happened. As a result it is easy to be disappointed. Harry’s Bar is only the worst example of a restaurant which trades on its fame. It will produce a perfectly competent dinner, which would be dear at half the price. It is not one-third as good as Harry’s Bar in London.
Just off St. Mark’s Square is Do Forni, famous for seafood. It never turns down a booking. With luck, you will sit down only three-quarters of an hour after the time your booked for. Once, arriving, I met the then British Ambassador Sir Tom Richardson, who was leaving. We had a chat. As soon as he departed, the bowing and scraping began. Suddenly, my table was not good enough. A free glass of prosecco accompanied me to the better one. The ensuing meal was superb: the best food I have eaten in Venice. It is so irritating. They can do it if they try. But why bother, when the supply of tourists is endless?
There is at least one restaurant which never fails. Stand in front of the Accademia gallery. Turn left, then right, then first left. You will come across Ai Cugnai. It is run by tiny old girls with arms like chicken bones. Despite all evidence to the contrary, they are convinced that any man who crosses their threshold must be a starveling in desperate need of sustenance. They will provide it. They do not have much English, but if you manage to explain that you want to eat local specialities that are particularly good today, you will not be disappointed.
There is so much to see. But do not miss Torcello. Eleven kilometres from San Marco, it was the original settlement. Fourteen hundred years later, it retains some of the spirit of that fearful, dark-age frontier, as if the inhabitants are still straining their eyes for an early warning of the Lombards’ galleys. From the Campanile, you can just pick out the dim shadowy towers of the main city. That is a good view for a wintry day, when the lagoon is at its bleakest. It brings home, as no amount of reading can, the implausibility— the absurdity—of the lagoon as a site for a great city.
Finally, Venice is enchantment. She may no longer hold the gorgeous East in fee, but in this city, East and West have made music together—made love together—to create a unique aesthetic, a unique harmony. Sit in St. Mark’s Square and contemplate the Basilica. To paraphrase Pater, all Venetian architecture constantly aspires to the condition of champagne. In St. Mark’s, aspiration is transcended into triumph.
Enjoy it while it lasts.