Our book today is the oft-revised The World of Venice, originally written by the great British historian and travel-writer James Morris, then revised by him, then substantially re-written when he become Jan Morris, and then revised by her as well – it’s as touched-up as a water-damaged Tiepolo, as fluid and gorgeous a thing as the Floating City to which it’s one of the finest tributes ever written. Morris has been an indefatigable world traveller and has brought a typewriter along for every square foot of it – male or female, clearly one of those individuals who need to express everything in words (and of course it doesn’t hurt to be paid). Not that it would matter in this case: it sometimes seems like Venice could elicit inspiration from a rock. Certainly it’s drawn books from great heaping hordes of humans over the last thousand years – a mountain of books, books beyond number, which makes the truly remarkable ones all the more remarkable. We can assume that The World of Venice has reached its fixed form, and in that form it’s one of the remarkable ones.
Venice is a quicksilver city, and Morris is wonderfully sensitive to its moods. Time and again in The World of Venice there are vignettes of sharp and localized insight, as when Morris’ boat breaks down and he needs a little help:
But if I was cynical then, I am less so today, for now I know Venice better, and have no doubt that if I had entered some slatternly dockside tavern that evening, and put my case to the ill-shaved sinner behind the bar, he would have lent me the money in a trice, and thrown in a glass of sour white wine as a bonus. Compassion really is a powerful emotion among the simpler Venetians. In the eighteenth century the idea of pain was so insufferable to them that even characters in a play, if they happened to be killed, had to take a quick posthumous bow, to reassure the anxious audience, and accept its sympathetic cries of ‘Bravo i morti!’ This is a melancholy city at heart, and its inhabitants are constantly shaking their heads in pity over some pathetic new evidence of the world’s sadness. When a visitor from Bologna was drowned in the Grand Canal one evening, my housekeeper was almost in tears about him the next day; and when a funeral goes by to the cemetery of San Michele, you may hear the onlookers muttering to themselves in condolence: ‘Oh, the poor one, oh, dead, dead, poor thing – ah, away he goes, away to San Michele, il povero!’
The sensitivity extends to the comprehensive experience of Venice, the sneaking feeling that there are as many cities as there are people to see them. The place is magical, yes, but it’s also seedy; it’s had to exist all these centuries, getting food, getting drinking water, fighting enemies, conducting vendettas. For Morris, those two cities are superimposed on each other like an optical effect:
For if you shut your eyes very hard, and forget the price of coffee, you may see a vision of another Venice. She became great as a market city, poised between East and West, between Crusader and Saracen, between white and brown: and if you try very hard, allowing a glimmer of gold from the Basilica to seep beneath your eyelids, and a fragrance of cream to enter your nostrils, and the distant melody of a cafe pianist to orchestrate your thoughts – if you really try, you can imagine her a noble market-place again. In these incomparable palaces, East and West might meet once more, to fuse their philosophies at last, and settle their squalid bickerings. In these mighty halls the senate of the world might deliberate, and in the cavernous recesses of the Basilica, glimmering and aromatic, all the divinities might sit in reconciliation. Venice is made for greatness, a God-built city, and her obvious destiny is mediation. She only awaits a summons.
With the caveat that not everybody hears the summons or wants to make it:
But if you are not the visionary kind – well, pay the man, don’t argue, take a gondola into the lagoon and watch her magical silhouette sink into the sunset: still, after a thousand years, one of the supreme sights of civilization.
The World of Venice takes its place in the tradition of hard-headed reporting on the place, the ‘cabbages and canals’ school – the kinds of books that end up being the most poetic, often enough. Morris squints at Venice and, as all good travel-writers do, resists seduction right up until the moment when it’s most exquisite.
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