Since its foundation, Venice has always existed in two dimensions. One is the city of brick, stone, water and mud, ‘in shape like a lute tacked together with bridges’ as John Evelyn beautifully put it, populated by a mixed Celto–Germanic race speaking – or mostly shouting – a guttural singsong version of Italian, messing about in boats and immemorially obsessed with making money by fair means or foul. The other is a vast cultural lumber-room full of dreams, fantasies, projections and desires, most of which say far less about the place itself than about the various psychic disorders of those (almost exclusively foreign) who articulate them. Since 1797, when Napoleon put an end to Venice’s role as capital of the world’s oldest independent state, later handing it to the Austrian Habsburgs, this elaborate wish-fulfilment has collided, often fatally, with the reality of the sons and daughters of St Mark and their beleaguered stronghold. What to do about Venice, practically, spiritually, artistically, is a question with which these three books engage, but not one they necessarily presume to answer.
Margaret Plant’s Venice: Fragile City is the most important among them, not simply for its exhaustive trawl through two hundred years of a unique urban experience, but for the lavish multiplicity of its perspectives. After La Serenissima’s fall, celebrated by the wearing of Phrygian bonnets, a Liberty Tree in the