A leading authority on Venice offers a series of lovely, closely related essays on significant visitors to the city during the 19th century.
Norwich (Shakespeare’s Kings, 2000, etc.) begins with what is almost an apology for writing more about Venice and ends with a promise to publish no more. Let’s hope he changes his mind, for the subject is wonderfully rich, the chronicler gifted and knowledgeable. An early chapter features a swift history of the fall of the thousand-year-old Venetian Republic at the hands of Napoleon, followed by the destruction and cultural robberies visited on the city by the French and, subsequently, the Austrians. Then come sketches of some of the most significant non-Venetians who lived in and/or visited the city, beginning with Napoleon (who came only once, in 1807) and ending with Frederick Rolfe, a.k.a. “Baron Corvo,” whose naughty sexual escapades Norwich relates most amusingly. In between are old friends and new surprises. Among the former is Lord Byron, whom Norwich does not care for; among the latter is the fact that the author discusses Byron’s 1816 summer Godwin in Geneva with Shelley and Mary without mentioning Frankenstein and tells of the poet’s fatal adventure in Greece without mentioning Trelawny. Expected portraits hanging in this gallery of rogues and heroes include those of Ruskin, Wagner, Browning, Whistler, Sargent, and Henry James. Norwich recalls how James created The Aspern Papers, a novella he considers the finest of all fictions set in his beloved city; he also tells the story of James trying but failing to carry out the request of deceased friend Constance Fenimore Woolson to sink all her clothing in the lagoon. Less known to general readers, but nonetheless fascinating, are sketches of Rawdon Brown, Horatio Robert Forbes Brown, and Austen Henry Layard. Only a few overlong quotations occasionally impede the flow of the prose.
Engaging essays informed by first-rate scholarship and leavened with deep affection.