Peter Ackroyd has the gift of transmuting other men’s sober research into the golden sentences that make his books on men and cities so irresistible, entrancing, occasionally weird but undeniably grand. His researchers, Thomas Wright and Murrough O’Brien, have toiled for Venice: Pure City, but it is Ackroyd who has turned their diligence into effulgent, mesmeric, satisfying prose.
The book opens with a heady evocation of the wild Adriatic lagoon in the aeons before there was a city, with its mud flats, salt marshes and sand banks, the preserve of fowlers and fishermen. In the eighth century BC there arose a scant trade in amber, wax, honey and cheese. An invasion of Venetia by Lombards led to wider settlement in the sixth century. ‘The settlers fenced the soil with planks and poles; they drained the water; they laid down building rubble or sediment, or sand from the dunes; they erected wooden palisades to resist the sea. It was the beginning of the city.’
Ackroyd traces the subsequent history of the city-state in chapters teeming with patricians, public executioners, map-makers, builders, artists, musicians, priests, pilgrims, gamblers, gondoliers, tourists and beggars. There are lively accounts of sacred sites, the Jewish ghetto, epidemics, panics, torture, carnivals, food and lewdness. He jolts his reader with