Book Review: Venice from the Water
by Daniel Savoy
Yale University Press, 2012
Young Daniel Savoy is an assistant professor of art history, which is troubling. Academic art history as its practiced today is such a hopeless muddle of jargon and insularity that even Tom Wolfe considered it too easy a target (although he took his shots anyway, bless him). But Savoy is an assistant professor of art history at the mighty Manhattan College, as much a bastion of true humanism as can be found in this tawdry world – and for his new book, Venice from the Water, he’s got the imprimatur of Yale University Press, one of the greatest scholarly publishing operations we’ve got.
Yale’s done a very pretty job with Venice from the Water (as has our author, since many of the book’s most arresting photos are his own) – this is much the prettiest of all the Venice-books published this afternoon – but even so, a reader opens the thing with trepidation, wondering how long it’ll take for the word ‘hermeneutics’ to rear its ugly head. Art historians these days (or always? after all, not much of Ruskin is comprehensible) are trained to look searchingly into art and architecture – and then write gobbledegook about what they find. Even in the roborative atmosphere of Manhattan College the temptation to revert to type must be strong – it’s like the most delicious Spike moments from Buffy the Vampire Slayer: will he stay our hero, or will the fangs pop out?
Those readers will feel the bite on the very first page:
The thesis of the present book is that this impression of Venice [as an “otherworldly island city”] was the desired effect of an elaborate system of urbanism whose purpose was to mythologize the city in the eyes of visitors … in dialogue with the natural properties of their aquatic space, I propose, the builders of medieval and early modern Venice devised a series of water-oriented urbanistic practices to shape the visual and metaphoric image of their city from the open waterways of the lagoon to the narrow canals of the island proper.
So: pretty bad, centering around ‘urbanistic,’ which occurs throughout Savoy’s book despite the fact that it isn’t a word. Nor is ‘urbanism,’ in the sense of a word actually meaning something. Nor can anybody other than Aquaman have a ‘dialogue’ with the ‘natural properties of aquatic space’ (which means, I think, water). Nor is there any point to that ‘early modern Venice’ business – the book is 99 percent exclusively concerned with Renaissance Venice, which isn’t ‘early modern’ in any recognizable, helpful meaning of the term.
But like Tosca and “The Matrix,” Venice from the Water recovers quickly from its dismaying opening salvo, mainly because Savoy has an utterly fantastic core idea, and despite his propensity for blocky prose, he clearly enjoys exploring that idea.
The idea is simple but fascinating: until the mid-19th Century construction of the abominable railway-bridge across the lagoon to the city, Venice was approachable exclusively from the water – and the Venetian powers that be knew that and consciously exploited it. The method was purely visual (tempered by the temporal, of course – on the water, it takes time to get from A to B), and those Venetian grandees figured out early on in the city’s long history that they could benefit by controlling the narrative of what visitors saw as they approached – literally controlling it, as Savoy demonstrates through a convincing knowledge of the city’s building codes over the centuries. Owners of all those waterfront palazzi faced civic (one feels horrifyingly certain Savoy would want to say “urbanistic”) restrictions that would make a Manhattan co-op board look like a Haight-Ashbury love-in, and it all served one main purpose: to underscore again and again the “myth of Venice”:
That God consecrated Venice on the waters of the lagoon was fundamental to Venetian mythology. This notion may have arisen from early legends of the divine providence of the city, an axiom of Venetian rhetoric among medieval chroniclers and fifteenth-century Venetian government officials.
Savoy does a fast-paced and wonderful job of illuminating the practical, real-world benefits the city could reap from reinforcing the idea that it really did rise from the water whole and beautiful, serenely floating above mere terrestrial concerns (such serene-floating being the perfect position from which to reap positively obscene profit, as Microsoft and Jimmy Buffet could attest).Venice from the Water takes readers on a canal- and lagoon-level tour of the city and makes canny use of photos-in-sequence to show even the most land-lubber of readers how your whole perception of the place changes with the water. It’s an altogether eye-opening performance, and the end-result is a Venice book worth keeping and re-reading.
Or, as Savoy might put it:
Rooted in part in the belief that the spatiovisual conditions of the canals are trans-historical and transcultural, the argument of this book may garner some final support in the aquatic domain of modern Venice.
Or not. Sigh.