A recent triptych of reviews over at Open Letters Weekly would probably have been impetus enough, but there’s also the fact that it’s (on the calendar, anyway) the end of summer, and summer’s end was the last time I saw (or shall ever see?) Venice, the second city of my heart. I went to live there on the inspiration of a love affair, and I stayed on in appreciation of that affair’s surprisingly congenial sequel, and the whole time I had the most enviable of Venetian luxuries: a redoubtable old landlady who tolerated my dogs, guarded my privacy, and insisted on doing my laundry. I was so thoroughly enamored of my narrow, curving apartment (one of those inimitable ad hoc shapes native only to Venice) that I would pass whole days there in succulent, unaccustomed languor in the summer months, with hot breezes stirring the curtains and bright water-shadows dancing on the ceilings, well-fed dogs (my beagles and the strays I took in) sleeping peacefully all around me. I read Herodotus and Ovid and listened to the slush and suck of the thick green canal water just outside, the lazy traffic of my beautiful littlerio in the Dorsoduro.
I read no books on Venice, then, of course – but outside of Venice they’re unavoidable, and they persist in uncountable multitudes. Fond memories admittedly make me a softer touch for the purchase of such multitudes than I am on, say, Istanbul. I couldn’t resist, for instance, Life on the Lagoons, the chatty, charmingly credulous ‘spirit of the place’ 1909 best-seller by Horatio Brown, which mixes snatches of Venetian history with bits of folklore, the occasional ghost story, and plenty of, er, appreciation for the lusty, brawny gondoliers who plied their trade along the waterways and lagoon of the day. Brown and his gondolier Antonio Salin were fixtures of the city for many years (Brown dedicates Life on the Lagoons to Salin), and it’s safe to say Brown – fat and perspiring displaced scion of Scottish lairds – hoped that by some process of osmosis, he might grow to become Venetian, to somehow overcome that impediment that extracts such pity from Venetians: not having been born in Venice. For all his picture-painting enthusiasm (and vast historical knowledge), Brown never quite pulls it off, although his books on Venice were the toast of the Edwardian world.
American expat Gore Vidal would have understood that desire to become a Venetian by osmosis; he spent a good deal of his adult life living in Italy and was acutely aware of the allure of Venice. In 1987 he … commissioned? Inspired? Oversaw? Claim-jumped? … a book called Vidal in Venice, which consists of page after page of excellent photographs (one of the many rumors surrounding this odd book is that the photos were, to put it mildly, the point of the whole project) accompanied by copious vignettes from Venetian history, all packaged and polished by Vidal with his typically mandarin light touch. Most reliable seems to me to be the urban legend that the book was originally intended to be a “coffee table” thing only, with brief captions and running photo-commentary from Vidal, who then took it upon himself to flesh the thing out with more meaty renderings from the standard Lives of the Doges – the end product has always struck me as having an improvisational feel to it, a very alien feel to the great bulk of Vidal’s work. And in this case it works an undeniable magic, conspiring to make the whole performance feel impromptu, as though one were sharing an endlessly urbane walking-tour with the author.
The photos really are the key to Wright Morris’ beautiful little 1972 book Love Affair – A Venetian Journal, in which Morris, a now-forgotten novelist, book-reviewer, and damn fine photographer, burned through some of the obscene profits he got writing movie screenplays to take an extended, leisurely vacation in Venice, get to know the natives (he could be exceedingly charming when he wanted to), and take an ungodly number of photos of cats (they gravitated toward him in a weird and unseemly manner which never failed to bring him joy). There’s almost nothing in Love Affair that’s touristy or post-cardy; every page features a gorgeous, thoughtfully-composed shot of some unfrequented byway, plus a long paragraph of Morris’ wry, gentle prose – all of it designed to show readers a Venice they haven’t seen, one tourists seldom if ever see. Morris and his wife were good-natured souls, but even their prairie-born tolerance had its limits, and the crushing mass of tourists then booming everywhere in Venice brought them close to exasperation (“Why do the wrong people travel,” asked the century’s best songsmith, “while the right people stay at home?”).
For ten centuries, those tourists had been spellbound and urged to visit Venice by the gorgeous pictures they were constantly seeing, pictures of this strange and fabled city rising out of the sea. The vast gallery-clogging mass of those paintings form a genre of their own, and in 2007 the great Abbeville Press published a truly amazing thing: a massive (gorgeous, slip-cased) visual history of that genre, with wise (if slightly dazed) accompanying text by Georges Duby, Guy Lobrichon, and their colleagues. The pages are stiff and permanent; the coloring of the over 350 plates is incredibly vivid; the sheer scope of the thing is mind-boggling, even surpassing Abbeville’s magnificent History of Rome in Painting. The end result is a bit on the expensive side but, in this rare instance, entirely worth it – here, on page after page, readers can see the otherworldly waterscapes that were tempting visitors from all over Europe for so long that Venice became an institutional stopover on the Grand Tour. This is that rarest of things, a city that consciously embodied its own artistic representation – and in the pages of this book (a dangerously heavy book, a permanent adornment) show that process starting and then reaching full tide. It’s an astonishing work of art in itself.
Even those generally unfamiliar with the artistic history of Venice will recognize the pinnacle of that history: the paintings of Giovanni Antonio Canal, known to history as Canaletto. It’s a truism to say that in all the world of art, there’s nothing quite like the Venice pictures of this artist, pictures that seem to shimmer and gleam in a noon-day sun that hasn’t dimmed in four centuries, pictures that combine a photographic realism with the most skilled shaping of light by any artist in history. This book, Venice: Canaletto and His Rivals, wants to explode that truism – it’s the companion volume (by the great Charles Beddington) to a gorgeous exhibit that ran at London’s National Gallery, and its purpose is to show that Canaletto doesn’t stand alone, in his time or ours: he had rivals of very nearly the same talent-level (and business hustle) as himself, painters like Guardi, Bellotto, Marieschi, Vanvitelli, and Carlevarijs (the last of whom underwent a mini-renaissance in private sales specifically because of this volume). Although the book wisely cedes the top spot to Canaletto in the end, it conclusively demonstrates that he had a great deal of help selling the allure of Venice to any willing buyer.
Some of those willing buyers in Canaletto’s day were foreigners (now, they all are), people so struck with that allure that they wanted nothing more than to become a part of it (it’s a natural impulse – even those of us whose hearts have been permanently claimed by other cities can feel it’s pull). This is the point of Blake de Maria’s dense and extremely rewarding 2010 volume from Yale University Press, Becoming Venetian: Immigrants and the Arts in Early Modern Venice – that the middle-tier status of citizen (cittadini) in Renaissance Venice was open even to people not born in Venice … that it was in fact possible to become Venetian. Yale did a typically fantastic job on de Maria’s book: it’s oversized and stuffed with illustrations. But it’s de Maria’s strong, flowing prose that’s the main draw here: she’s every bit as good relating chunks of history as she is engaging in wonderfully insightful art-analysis (she also includes several highly detailed appendices on the generations of some famous Venetian families, including, probably because she’s something of a nerd, Giacomo Ragazzoni’s last will and testament … at seven double-columned pages … in Italian …). And her subject – the dream and the reality of becoming Venetian – is smartly chosen: it’s the fuel that powers virtually all those innumerable books on Venice.
These six are just the smallest insignificant fraction of that mighty library of books, although each worthy in its own way (if you’re in a buying mood, however, The History of Venice in Painting is the one to get, heavy and pricey as it is), each responding in its own way to that dream. Those of us who’ve been lucky enough to live in Venice (as opposed to visiting it) can feel the pull of that dream a little more sharply because we’ve tasted the reality before our true homes pulled us back. Books like these form nice garlands to the memory of those salt-air dalliances.