The Spirit of Venice: From Marco Polo to Casanova by Paul Strathern

From TheBookbag
Jump to: navigation, search

The Spirit of Venice: From Marco Polo to Casanova by Paul Strathern

Category: History
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: John Van der Kiste
Reviewed by John Van der Kiste
Summary: A history of the first great economic and naval power of the modern western world, with the emphasis on its major personalities.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 354 Date: May 2013
Publisher: Pimlico
ISBN: 9781845951924

Share on: Delicious Digg Facebook Reddit Stumbleupon Follow us on Twitter

There are several ways of telling the history of the republic of Venice, which is generally regarded as the first great economic and naval power of the western world. Strathern has chosen to do so largely through the lives of various famous (and also infamous) people from Marco Polo in the late thirteenth century to what he calls its destruction, 'both political and symbolic', at the hands of Napoleon Bonaparte in 1797. On the whole, the major events such as its wars are covered fairly briefly. An exception, fittingly enough, is made in the case of a chapter on the war which began its decline in the fifteenth century, when it tried to hold Thessalonica against the Ottomans, and sent ships to help defend Constantinople against the Turkish army but found itself heavily defeated in the subsequent lengthy war, as a result of which it lost most of its possessions.

A colourful and entertaining array of characters passes through these pages. We meet the tragic fifteenth-century Caterina Cornaro, 'Queen of Cyprus', whose husband and young son were savagely butchered in a palace coup which culminated in her being deposed and exiled; the even more unfortunate Marin Falier, the doge (or chief magistrate), who was executed for treason in 1355 after trying to prise power from the ruling aristocratic families; the rather luckier John Law, an eighteenth-century Scottish economist and gambler who made and lost fortunes over and over again, and spent his last years in the city in poverty; and the notorious carnal adventurer Giacomo Casanova, whose exploits included fathering a son with his illegitimate teenage daughter, being imprisoned for heresy and executing a remarkable escape from gaol. Strathern leads us well through the lives of the great, the good, the bad and the downright unlucky.

As Venice declined as a political power, her reputation as a home of the arts and sciences flourished briefly, perhaps became even stronger by default. Ample attention is devoted to the talents of the mathematician Niccolo Fontana, later known as Tartaglia, who was noted for his skill at mathematics and for a way of solving cubic algebraic equations. Even more space, and rightly so, is given over to the composer Antonio Vivaldi, who was almost forgotten at the time of his death in 1741 and for many years afterwards, until a revival in the twentieth century; and to the painters Antonio Canaletto and Francesco Guardi, who would portray the city in all its breathtaking glory over and over again. Perhaps most interesting of all is the poet Lorenzo Da Ponte. Although he is best remembered as the librettist for three of Mozart's greatest operas, he led a colourful life. For a while he was a Catholic priest, yet led a dissolute life, was charged with 'public concubinage' and 'abduction of a respectable woman', and was banished from the city. He subsequently became a court librettist at Vienna where he was allegedly poisoned by a jealous rival after another ill-considered affair but survived, was expelled from there as well for – it is said – circulating a satire on the Emperor, and eventually ended up as a greengrocer in Philadelphia. He saw out his days in New York, aged eighty-nine, proof perhaps that he throve on his scandalous escapades.

There seems an inevitability in the decline and fall of Venice, which would become one of the victims of Napoleon Bonaparte. In 1797 he issued an ultimatum that the city fathers should surrender to his army or it would be destroyed. The book ends rather abruptly, telling us about the dismantling of the thousand-year-old republic, which in the last sentence of the book, 'was no more'. What it does not tell us is what came next. Although subsequent history might fall outside the main scope of the book, I would have thought that you and I as the reader might have been provided with a postscript as to what happened next. (So I might as well add that it became something of a European chess piece, briefly and somewhat confusingly French and Austrian in turn before becoming part of the then kingdom of Italy).

That caveat apart, this is an entertaining read on Venice and her past as home to, and as seen through, the eyes of several of its leading citizens and of its most famous immigrants. I certainly came across a number of interesting personalities in its pages for the first time, and for that reason alone the book was well worth my time.

If the subject interests you then you might also enjoy Venice: Pure City by Peter Ackroyd

Buy The Spirit of Venice: From Marco Polo to Casanova by Paul Strathern at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Spirit of Venice: From Marco Polo to Casanova by Paul Strathern at

Buy The Spirit of Venice: From Marco Polo to Casanova by Paul Strathern at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Spirit of Venice: From Marco Polo to Casanova by Paul Strathern at


Like to comment on this review?

Just send us an email and we'll put the best up on the site.