The indefatigable chronicler of his native England’s culture looks overseas to the magical Italian city on a lagoon.
In this impressionistic appreciation of Venice, Ackroyd (The Casebook of Victor Frankenstein, 2009, etc.) opens with a haunting evocation of the site as it appeared to fifth-century mainlanders fleeing barbarian invasions: “a solitary place, its silence broken only by the calls of seabirds and the crash of the billows of the sea and the sound of the wind soughing in the rushes.” But the city would not remain silent for long. It was a center of trade for more than 1,000 years, as its ships brought the spices of the East to Europe and carried manufactured items in the opposite direction. Its position at the economic forefront faltered after the 16th century, when city authorities refused to compromise the standards of the luxury goods for which Venice was famous and lost out to the merchants of England and Holland, able to offer cloths and metals for less. But Venice reinvented itself as a playground for foreigners, trading on its dazzling art and architecture and its seductive music and theater to attract the hordes of visitors that still clog the Piazza San Marco today. Yet Ackroyd reminds us that this city of brilliant surfaces has always also been a place of mystery, of secrets and crimes concealed behind opaque facades. Mosaics and glass are its characteristic products; its greatest painters (Titian, Tintoretto) excel in color and drama, not psychological complexity; ditto the music of native son Vivaldi and the beloved comedies of Goldoni. The author affectionately portrays Venetians as intensely social and deeply conservative, creators of an oligarchic democracy that endured for centuries. Public life was as theatrical as the opera; little was at stake because nothing ever changed. There’s no need to lament the city’s contemporary role as a tourist attraction, writes Ackroyd, because “the tourist Venice is the essential, quintessential, Venice.”
A loving yet clear-eyed celebration of the enigmatic icon on the Adriatic.