Venice: Pure City (book #64)

Peter Ackroyd, 2009.

A big chunk of thematically-organised detail. I suspect if one were wanting a “proper” history of Venice one might be frustrated, but for mental roaming, dreaming and literal and metaphorical pictures, it’s great.

Bits I liked:

Venice in the ninth and tenth centuries was a garden city, where pigs roamed about the streets and where pastures and gardens interrupted the vista of houses and churches. There were districts with the epithet ‘In the Marsh’ or ‘In the Wilderness’ or ‘In the Seaweed’. The citizens travelled on horseback along the main street, the Merceria, and tethered their animals to the great elder trees which flourished in what is now the Piazza S. Marco … There were flat wooden bridges, without steps, connecting the islands. There were trees along the banks of the canals. On the surrounding islands there were meadows where sheep and cattle grazed; there were vineyards and orchards; there were ponds and small lakes.

I looked up the legend he tells about the Roman city of Altinum. He says (and the source seems to be the Altino Chronicle, though I can’t find this online) that the people of Altinum were threatened by invasion. God told them to look at the stars, and they (or their reflections in the water) led them to the lagoon. I found another version of the legend in this terrible poem:

The Pigeons of Altino


FOR three long days the people prayed
“Lord! whither shall we go?

Shew us Thy will, grant us Thine aid,
And save us from the foe! ”

Uprose the pigeons then in flight
The people all among;
The parent birds held safe and tight,
Clasped by their beaks, their young.

Those brave wings quickly cleft the air
Across the blue lagoon;
They sped unto an island bare,
A lonely sandy dune.

“‘Tis there, for sure,” the people cried,
“That God our home has willed;
‘Tis there, the birds have testified;
There let us plant and build.”

A-many towers were builded there,
To guard yon island shore;
The birds, that earned both love and care,
Are sacred evermore.

Caroline, Lady Lindsay.

The islands and sand-ridges, out of which Venice was made, seemed to the first settlers like the backs or dorsi of slumbering whales; one area of modern Venice is still called Dorsoduro or hard back.

He quotes Burckardt that “Venice can fairly make good claim to be the birthplace of statistical science”.

Reynolds apparently – can’t find this online – scraped down one / some of Titian’s paintings to try to work out how he got glowing tones.

Very few women in the book, though he does say “Of course women and children were part of this enormous [textile] trade. The workshop knows no gender. Despite the severe restrictions placed on the movement and freedom of patrician women, the females of the lower orders were treated as fuel for the fire of the Venetian economy. Women were employed as printers and sail-makers, ironmongers and chimney sweeps”.

“The first known collections were Venetian, dating from the fourteenth century.”

Always “on the last day of the Carnival, a figure disfigured by syphiltic sores was pushed around in a barrow”.

He quotes a Venetian invitation to dinner: “come and eat four grains of rice with me”. Looking this up, I found William Howells’s Venetian Life (1867). This is a good (and patronising) bit:

[I had] no deeper joy than I won from the fine spectacle of an old man whom I saw burning coffee one night in the little court behind my lodgings, and whom I recollect now as one of the most
interesting people I saw in my first days at Venice. All day long the air of that neighbourhood had reeked with the odors of the fragrant berry, and all day long this patient old man–sage, let me call him–had turned the sheet-iron cylinder in which it was roasting over an open fire after the picturesque fashion of roasting coffee in Venice. Now that the night had fallen, and the stars shone down upon him, and the red of the flame luridly illumined him, he showed more grand and venerable than ever. Simple, abstract humanity, has its own grandeur in Italy; and it is not hard here for the artist to find the primitive types with which genius loves best to deal. As for this old man, he had the beard of a saint, and the dignity of a senator, harmonized with the squalor of a beggar, superior to which shone his abstract, unconscious grandeur of humanity. A vast and calm melancholy, which had nothing to do with burning coffee, dwelt in his aspect and attitude; and if he had been some dread supernatural agency, turning the wheel of fortune, and doing men, instead of coffee, brown, he could not have looked more sadly and weirdly impressive. When, presently, he rose from his seat, and lifted the cylinder from its place, and the clinging flames leaped after it, and he shook it, and a volume of luminous smoke enveloped him and glorified him … “

Does make one wonder a bit how scholarly Ackroyd is, that a quote like this seems only to be evidenced in one source; but of course it may be attested all over the place that I haven’t found, and as I said he is more concerned with myth than fact (no footnotes).

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One Response to “Venice: Pure City (book #64)”

  1. maglinty Says:

    ‘Mental roaming’ – I like that.

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