Our books today are two unconventional little hand-sized guidebooks to the marvellous city of Venice, 1966′s very popular and often-reprinted classic Venice for Pleasure by J. G. Links and Another Venice from the year 2000 by Jacopo Fasolo.
Of course these two books are two little bits on a towering heap of Venice guidebooks – hundreds and thousands of such books of every shape and price have been manufactured over the last two centuries – but these two are interesting on one level for the subtle ways they stand in opposition to each other. Links’s book has a Canaletto painting on the cover and is chock-full of black-and-white photographs and reprints of the many classic works of art and architecture, whereas Fasolo’s book features only his own drawings, for instance, but there’s a more fundamental difference. When he wrote his book half a century ago, Links set out a fairly revolutionary approach to sightseeing for his readers, namely eschewing the gaudy, booming gondola industry and hoofing it:
There is not a building in the city proper that cannot be reached on foot and the spread of cafes on land has done much to compensate for the loss of amenities on the water. This being the case, it seems only sensible to walk in Venice; nowhere else will the walker be so well rewarded, and the streets, hard though their surface appear, have a miraculous spring in the paving which makes fatigue almost impossible.
Whereas Fasolo comes down firmly on the other side: “To see the buildings of this “other” Venice, you will have to climb into a boat and silently glide along the city’s remoter canals, those without foundations.”
They nevertheless share some things in common (aside from making sure they hit all the big sites and top-notch churches, that is), not only with each other but with virtually all other Venice guidebooks ever written. All such books have to begin with a kind of aesthetic decompression sequence; they have to reassure their readers that their initial impressions of Venice might not – horrors – be entirely favorable. Links tells a familiar story:
Let it be said at once, many people are disappointed in Venice. ‘Do you know what he said to me when he came back from Venice?’ a distinguished old gentleman asked me once; ‘he said he was disappointed! I must say I envied him his power of imagination.’
And he’s plainspoken and funny about the way the city regularly overwhelms its visitors:
Very few travellers seem to enjoy their first visit to Venice. They are awed, dazzled, overwhelmed by its appearance. Its sights arouse their admiration, or, sometimes, their disgust. They marvel at its art, grow incredulous as they learn its history and thank heaven fasting for its existence. Above all, they are exhausted by it; physically, mentally and emotionally, its assault is too much for the ordinary human being to withstand in the few days usually at his disposal. He flees to Florence, where everything has its feet firmly on the ground.
Fasolo opens his own little book with a quote from Rainer Maria Rilke, written way back in 1907 and summing up some of the same visceral reactions:
It almost seems difficult for me to admire this Venice: you have to start at the beginning to learn. Its marble is ashen, a pallid grey, as luminous as the edge of a coal that has just stopped smouldering. How inexplicable are the red of the walls and the green of the shutters; so restrained and yet impossible to ignore; it is the past, but in the fullness of flight; it is so pale, just as people turn pale as their emotions increase.
The water breathes in unison with the ocean, permeates every nook and cranny of the city, constituting its roads and walkways and infusing the buildings with an ever-changing light, reflecting their image and constantly forging new forms. Each step is punctuated by exceptional motifs and a wealth of sensations that the ever-mutating situations of the light and water surfaces multiply and extend to the very limits of the surreal.
He’s entirely right about that surreal quality of the city proper, just as Links is entirely right about the incredibly limiting effects of having only a few days to take it all in – and the two elements together can make Venice a very frustrating place for visitors, a frustration little guidebooks like these two do relatively little to ease. I’ve been very lucky in my own experience with Venice: I’ve had the chance to soak in that surreal light-shifting quality at leisure (and in all seasons, which is equally crucial), and I’ve had the luxury of time. When I re-read things like Another Venice or Venice for Pleasure, I’m reminded of the luxury, and of the crowds of hurrying tourists I used to watch scuttling from church to church in the sweltering summer months. Probably some of those tourists had one of these books stuffed into their backpacks, and maybe they perused those books in just the right circumstances: in an comfortable chair, on a lazy afternoon, back in Iowa.