Venice: A sea of troubles

Venice overview

Lovers of la Serenissima, the Venetian Republic, know you cannot round a corner in Venice without finding one of its almost 150 churches. Prayers might well be needed for the modern city, according to author RJB Bosworth.

- Reviewed by Robert Carver

Italian Venice: A history by R.J.B. Bosworth (Yale University Press)

Few of its many observers, analysts, and visitors have remained indifferent to the Serenissima. To John Ruskin it was "the paradise of cities"; to D.H. Lawrence, "an abhorrent, green, slippery city"; and for the Italian Futurist poet Marinetti, "a magnificent sore from the past" whose canals he would have had filled with the rubble of the demolished palazzi and museums. Venice lost its raison d'être as entrepôt between East and West when the Portuguese discovered the seaborne spice route to the Indies in the fifteenth century: since then it has been a living – and dying – museum city, a place of fashion, intrigue, fantasy, enchantment, dalliance, art – and above all of tourism.

Australian historian Richard Bosworth starts where most finish, with Napoleon's ending of the city's liberty in 1797. The doge is dethroned, French revolutionary laws and ideals promulgated: but does Venice really change? Are we watching a masked ball in Venice, where everything has remained essentially the same – "com'era, dov' era" (as it was, where it was) – or are the political undercurrents and social changes that have affected the rest of Italy just as prevalent in Venice? The fabric of the city, physical and moral, seems to be in endless decline; yet civic corruption and ineptitude are matched by an energetic self-reinvention. The Biennale art exhibition and the film festival offer a cultural renaissance in what was once a purely commercial city: and events such as the notorious 1989 Pink Floyd concert bring energy and chaos to this most sedate of milieux.

In the late nineteenth century Henry James and John Ruskin deplored the advent of the train and the vaporetto steamer, both, they claimed, destined to ruin the unique peace and tranquillity of the city; today, everyone wrings their hands over the ever-rising high tides that regularly flood the streets and squares, and the intrusion of the colossal cruise ships into the lagoon. Drugs, uncontrolled immigration, the Mafia, crime, pollution, bad food, poisoned fish, the grotesque over-swamping of tourism – Venice absorbs them all and seems to carry on regardless. If modern Venice is a failure it is a highly successful one.

Bosworth includes much omitted in the usual art-and-history accounts: trades unions, industry in Mestre, church prelates and politics, squabbles over restorations and modern architecture are all here. He ignores the long array of distinguished residents – Wagner, D'Annunzio, Ruskin, Ezra Pound et al. – but perhaps we have heard enough of them. The Lido gets in-depth coverage; Torcello, with its lovely Romanesque basilica and celebrated restaurant, doesn't get a mention.

It is hard to be dull writing about Venice but Bosworth comes close at times. Solvitur ambulando was a medieval expression for pacing about trying to solve a problem. Venice can really only be understood in the same way, on foot, in the back alleys. Bosworth's book smells of the lamp, the study and the archive. I would have sacrificed some of the piled-up erudition for an injection of pungent humanity.

Full review Successful Failure (The Tablet)

Travails of a modern city (The Economist)

Sink or swim (Literary Review)

Image of Venice from Wiki Commons.



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