Paradise of Cities: Venice and Its Nineteenth-Century Visitors by John Julius Norwich - review by Jonathan Keates

Jonathan Keates

A Portal To Eternity

Paradise of Cities: Venice and Its Nineteenth-Century Visitors


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‘It is not so gay as it has been, and there is a monotony to many people in its Canals and the comparative silence of its streets.’ When Byron wrote these words on Venice in 1818, the city might well have provoked the exclamation ‘Ichabod!’, for it was a place whose glory had departed. Twenty years earlier, as Napoleon’s troops burst, more or less unopposed, through the Veneto, the Most Serene Republic had cravenly voted itself out of existence. By the unworthy treaty of Campo Formio, the city and its mainland territories were handed over to the Austrians – though not before France had made off with everything moveable, horn salt and biscuits to ‘tons of hemp, des of rope, acres of canvas’ and finally the bronze horses of St Mark and the winged lion on top of a column in the Piazzetta.

Bonaparte’s Empire reclaimed Venice after further hostilities had led to Austria’s defeat at Austerlitz in 1805. Although the French built the handsome south-western range of the Procuratie surrounding Piazza San Marco, the Renaissance church of S. Geminiano was demolished in the process, joining the 32 others pulled down by the regime, which also suppressed 59 monasteries and convents and over 350 of the charitable institutions known to the Venetians as ‘scuole’. Mer Waterloo, devastated by starvation and disease after a long blockade, Venice returned to the Habsburgs, whose government sought to humiliate the city by promoting the port of Trieste as a commercial rival and trashing the Serene Republic as a monstrously repressive tyranny. Ths lstorical distortion, a piece of propaganda designed to highlight the Austrian Empire’s seemingly benign intentions, became known to Venetian patriots as ‘the Black Legend’.

Such sombre, near-ruinous perspectives of a once thriving emporium form the backdrop to the opening chapters of John Julius Norwich’s Paradise of Cities, in which Venice is observed through the prism created by the experiences of distinguished strangers who flocked to the lagoon in search of painterly light, silence in which to compose music, inexpensive grandeur.or forbidden love. Most of them settled there for good – like Rawdon and Horatio Brown (unrelated), who between them worked for over ninetv, v,e ars on the dis~atcheso f La Serenissima’s ambassadors – or else, like John Ruskin and Henry James, came for prolonged visits which wedded them spiritually and emotionally to the idea of Venice as muchas to its-substance.

This earthly paradise of aesthetes (and those with enough money to make an honest day’s work out of pleasurable mornings in the Biblioteca Marciana or showing off their Carpaccios to the Empress Frederick) was also a sublime portal to eternity, an idea symbolised by waterborne hearses to the walled island of San Michele and commemorative plaques flourishing the unique syntax and vocabularv of Italian civic solemnitv. Death. in its ‘lugubre gondola’, skimmed up and ddwn the r rand Canal. It called on Robert Browning taking to his bed at Ca’Rezzonico after catching cold at a performance of Carmen; on Richard Wagner, who was late for luncheon in the gloomy Palazzo Vendramin Calergi (now the Municipal Casino); on poor Constance Fenimore Woolson, fi-iend of Henry James, who threw herself from an upstairs window in a fit of depression; and on Baron Corvo, endmg a life of epic sponging, sodomy and paranoia whilst he was in the prosaic act of tahng off his boots.

Sensibly Norwich makes no attempt at generalising or extrapolating from his subjects’ experiences. While Corvo was picking up sailor boys, Horatio Brown was busy abstracting the Serenissima’s archives and giving Monday at-homes to the Anglo-American colony, with his mother, ‘a wonderful tottering dame of ninety in black satin, lace and damonds’, as hostess. Elsewhere John Singer Sargent pondered the dffering light which made the canals alternately like pea soup or julienne, and Henry Jarnes, as Constance Woolson’s executor, wrestled hopelessly with the task of trying to sink her dresses in the lagoon before speedng back to St Mark’s, leaving them bobbing in the waves ‘like great black balloons’. For all these visitors, the solace and inspiration afforded by the city Wed the promise of what John Addington Symonds, another ardent The collapse ofthe Venetophile, called ‘the Venice dream’, irnpe~ousto the ravages of cynicism or human ageing.

Written with unflagging zest, fluency and love for hs subject, Norwich’s book keeps the historical context firrnlv in view. His earlier two-volume historv of Venice had no space for more than a cursory mention of the city’s 1848 uprising against its Habsburg overlords, but he makes amends here with an exemplary short account of the whole tragic episode. Since Norwich has nothing to prove and no axe to grind, he is unafhd of acknowledgmg those occasional places where the text makes use of extensive borrowing, but even here the synthesis is slackenaccomplished with an elegance worthy of the splendid theme. A prodgal sprinkling of anecdotal detail adds sauce to the narrative. The following, from a memoir of Lady Layard, doyenne of the Enghsh community, by her nephew is irresistible: ‘Also we were taken on an inspection of the ancient island lunatic asylum, where Mrs Cavendish Bentinck, arrayed in chiffon and pearls, prodded a female lunatic in the buttocks with her parasol, exclaiming, “Do tell me, what is wrong with that one?”

The singularity of Venice, which nurtured and cherished these visitors, has fought long and hard for survival beneath the onrush of mass tourism. Instead of a trip to San Servolo in chiffon and pearls, we content ourselves with glass gondolas and ice creams at the Giardinetti. John Julius Norwich, declaring this to be ‘almost certainly my last Venetian volume’, is surprisingly upbeat about the city’s future in the context of rising pollution and repeated floods. Venice may crumble, sink or we poor Teatro la Fenice) burn, but, as this book shows, its grip on the heart and the imagination can never slacken

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