Our book today is a genuine stunner: Inside Venice by Toto Bergamo Rossi, with gorgeous photographs by Jean-Francois Jaussaud. The book is subtitled A Private View of the City’s Most Beautiful Interiors, and the folks at Rizzoli have pulled out all the stops in making it the Venice-themed coffee table book of the year.
It’s introduced with a winsome personal essay by filmmaker James Ivory, who writes about something – a perception, even a worry – that every newcomer to Venice will immediately recognize, the sense of two cities, one for looking at and another, much smaller and much more exclusive, for living in. Merchant recalls the first time he came to Venice (with the obligatory “no more than fifty dollars” in his pocket), looking up at the lighted windows of the grand palazzi, sometimes glimpsing people walking past those windows, living lives entirely out of reach of the tourist. And in the course of his essay, as his fame and wealth increase, he gradually shifts over to being one of those people up on the balconies, living their lives while outsiders file past down below.
But the shift doesn’t require money or fame – familiarity alone can manage it. Venice is a city under ceaseless assault, washed in waves of tourists in every day of every season, and this only intensifies the already inward-looking tendencies of the Venetian people. But if you stay long enough, dress and behave like an adult, and, with any luck, speak a bit of the language, that other Venice will open up to you, and you’ll find yourself reading Dante in gorgeous little home libraries, or sipping a delicious Valpolicella wine on a leafy terrace overlooking a quiet canal, or even living in a building two centuries older than your home country (with, alas, bathroom plumbing every bit as old).
If readers don’t have the means or the time to make the acquaintance of that other Venice, they now have the next best thing in the pages of Inside Venice. Toto Bergamo Rossi introduces each sprawling district of the city in general terms, as with the Dorsoduro:
A series of facades in different styles follow one after the other all the way to Ca Foscari, the outer limit of the Dorsoduro quarter, and now seat of the University of Venice. Once, valuable salt was unloaded from ships on to plain wooden rafts to be unloaded again on the Fondamenta della Zattere landing before being stored in the Magazzini del Sale. The old salt storehouses have since been converted into exhibition spaces.
And then he does just as his book’s description promises: he goes behind the grand facades, goes in through the water landings, up the renovated staircases, into the grand parlors and intimate studies and sunny outdoor decks of some of each district’s signature buildings, new and old. He’s talked with the current owners of several of these spaces, and he can discourse with easy familiarity on history of the spaces themselves:
The very old Giustinian family built twin palazzi sometime in the second half of the fifteenth century, probably with the collaboration of Giovanni and Bartolomeo Bon. The aim was to house two branches of the same family: the Giustinians called “dei Vescovi” occupied the palazzo bording on Ca’ Foscari, while the Giustinians “dalle Zoge” lived, until the mid-nineteenth century, in the palazzo currently owned by the Counts Brandolini d’Adda, who purchased it in 1876. Each palazzo has an independent ground entrance and a courtyard surrounded by high crenellated Gothic walls. Some of the rooms on the lower main floor conserve interesting stucco decorations executed by the school of Jacopo Sansovino, and a pictorial cycle by Palma il Giovane.
But of course the real highlight of Inside Venice isn’t verbal: it’s all those beautiful photos by Jean-Francoise Jaussaud, all shot with a light and airy warmth quite unlike the forbidding coldness of so many such coffee table books. I’ve slowly paged my way through more such books than I can readily count, and I can’t recall one I’ve liked better than this. And unlike so many of the books I talk about here on Stevereads, this one is brand-spanking new, just waiting there on the shelf of your nearest good retail bookshop, ready to part you from $60 of your hard-earned money. In this case, it’s well worth it.
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