Venice: Pure City by Peter Ackroyd

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Venice: Pure City by Peter Ackroyd

Category: History
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: John Van der Kiste
Reviewed by John Van der Kiste
Summary: A history of Venice and its people, from prehistoric times to the present day and its uncertain future.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 512 Date: July 2010
Publisher: Vintage
ISBN: 978-0099422563

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Among Peter Ackroyd's recent works are 'biographies' of London and of the river Thames. Now he gives similar treatment to Venice, basically a history but enlivened with his elegant, literary style, and what a previous reviewer has called his love of 'psychogeographical investigation'.

Like many another place, Venice's origins are as good as lost in the mists of antiquity. In the opening chapter he tells us that the city had no perimeter, no outline, no roots, and in the absence of tangible origins, has always sought to create them, even to the extent of making them up where necessary. Is it genuine historical fact, or mere myth, that early Venetians were Christian exiles fleeing from pagan invaders? Or were they refugees making a home for themselves in the swamps and mudflats of the lagoon from the eighth century BC onwards? Legends, he says, represent the earliest form of poetry, and Venice is the place of legends. What we do know for certain, however, is that it was a collection of islands until the building of a railway bridge in the mid-19th century, and that it has been part of Italy since 1866.

There are many colourful, almost unique aspects to its history and its heritage. It is to some extent synonymous with flooding, a threat which has increased in frequency during recent years. (How it is likely to survive if the prophets of doom are right about global warming, he does not suggest – but he is more Kenneth Clark than Nostradamus). We also learn about its reputation for glass-making, since a guild of glassmakers was established in the 13th century, after which the craftsmen were forbidden to move to other parts of Italy, let alone reveal any of the secrets of their skills, on pain of death.

There are several unique things about Venice, and it can claim many firsts. Around the time of the renaissance, it was the showcase of the world, the centre of the trade in printed books. At one time there were more literate people in the city than in any other part of Italy (thus making the assumption that it was indeed part of the nation, though not yet formally recognized as such), and this resulted in the manufacture of the first spectacles, specifically for reading. By 1605 it was becoming known as 'the summary of the universe' because, it was said, all that the world contained could be found somewhere within it.

Naturally there is much to be said on Venetian art, with a discussion on the influence of Byzantine art from the 13th century onwards, followed by major names such as Giorgione, Titian and Tintoretto. Music is given its due, with several pages given to Vivaldi alone.

Eventually the real world intrudes. During the First World War, the Austrians come perilously close, and the port is closed for fear of enemy attack. Yet the city is not invaded, and does not suffer until the era of Mussolini and the active persecution of the Jews from 1943, culminating in the German army takeover and deportation of two hundred Jews, marking the end of a long period of historical tolerance. It is soon followed by a mass exodus of Venetians to the mainland, in pursuit of better paid jobs and less expensive housing. Yet Venice has always been in peril, and so far it has always endured. It is thankfully too soon for us to shrug our shoulders and write the city's obituary.

Much as I enjoyed this, in a way I find Ackroyd's study slightly remote. He tells us a vast amount about is subject, the plates are well chosen, and the chronology adds to its value as a work of reference. Yet while he luxuriates in wonderfully poetic descriptions of everything he remains oddly detached, as if reluctant to offer us anything in the way of personal opinion. Moreover there is no foreword or introduction, telling us how he has been in love with or fascinated by Venice, or how and why he came to write the book. This does not in any sense lessen his achievement – but it does leave me as a reader with something of a feeling of disengagement, of having studied the subject at arm's length. Yet this should not detract more than marginally from a magnificently researched and compulsively readable volume.

Our thanks to Vintage for sending a review copy to Bookbag.

For another title partly about modern Italy, you may also be interested in reading Barbarian in the Garden by Zbigniew Herbert.

Buy Venice: Pure City by Peter Ackroyd at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Venice: Pure City by Peter Ackroyd at Amazon.co.uk.


Buy Venice: Pure City by Peter Ackroyd at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Venice: Pure City by Peter Ackroyd at Amazon.com.


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