Literary Highs and Lows

By Venetians, and About Venice

Othello and Desdemona by Antonio Muñoz Degraín

Compared to other Italian cities, literacy rates in Venice were high, although on the whole readers and the state were more interested in practical books than poetry. Petrarch left much of his library to the Serenissima, which promptly misplaced it. Although the 14th-century Travels of Marco Polo brim with marvels, the book is also very down to earth. Venetians could (and did) read Marco for tips on what to buy and sell in faraway lands.

Gutenberg had his first movable-type printing press running by 1450, but Venice, sniffing a money making opportunity, became the first place to print and sell books like any other commodity (it was also the first place to commercially manufacture spectacles, so people could read them). The Senate issued its first licence to print in 1469, announcing: 'This peculiar invention of our time...is in every way to be fostered and advanced.'

The city quickly became one of the key centres of European printing, and even into the 18th century printed half of all books published in Italy. Because Venice was not afraid of defying Rome and the Pope, it was a magnet for the new Humanism of the Renaissance Few did more to spread its ideals than the press of Aldus Manutius, which for the first time put relatively affordable editions of the classics into the hands of the many.

Two of the most influential figures were the two Peters, the all-round Renaissance scholar and poet of love Pietro Bembo and the clever, acerbic Tuscan transplant Pietro Arentino, joined by the likes of architecture writer Sebastiano Serlio, philosopher Giulio Camillo, author of L'Idea del Teatro (The Theatre of Memory)– a worked panned by his acquaintance Erasmus, but would form the basis of Frances Yates's 1966 classic, The Art of Memory.

It was the era of the great courtesan poets, notably Veronica Franco and Gaspara Stampa who wrote of love, and Venice. The Decameron-inspired fairytale collection, the Pleasant Nights of Straparola set on the island of Murano were read all across the city.But he was hardly the only one: early on the Venetians (who kept the most extensive archives in the world, after the Vatican) began to write about Venice itself. Francesco Sansovino's Venetia Citta nobilissima e singolare, a guide to the city published in 1581, is the distant ancestor to this app.

No work, however, was as influential and controversial as Paolo Sarpi's History of the Council of Trent (1619), a scholarly whistle-blowing account by a Servite friar of the Counter-reformation politics of the Roman curia.

The 18th century was another golden period in Venetian letters, synonymous with the memoires of Casanova; the latter in his younger days translated the Iliad and wrote plays. None of his efforts matched the success of the city's great rival playwrights Carlo Goldoni and Carlo Gozzi.

And Venice as seen by others...

It is a great pleasure to write the word [Venice] but I am not sure there is not a certain impudence in pretending to add anything to it. Henry James, Venice

There may very well be more books written about Venice than books by Venetian writers. Legions of ink stained wretches from Shakespeare (Othello and The Merchant of Venice) to Byron to Henry James (The Aspern Papers and The Wings of the Dove) and Evelyn Waugh (Brideshead Revisited) have sent their characters to Venice and have been unable to resist the challenge of describing Venice and leaving their mark on the city. For Boris Pasternak Venice was ‘swelling like a biscuit soaked in tea’; for Truman Capote 'Venice is like eating an entire box of chocolate liqueurs in one go.' DH Lawrence, who loved the dry desert of Arizona called Venice ‘an abhorrent, green, slippery city’ and sent Constance there in Lady Chatterly's Lover before Lawrence himself returned to Venice to die.

Longtime Venice resident Donna Leon's 24 books in the Commissario Brunetti series have introduced the city to millions of readers. Geoff Dyer's Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi places art critic Jeff Atman in the swirl of Venice at its most hedonistic during the Biennale.

Yet Venice is rarely flattered in fiction; its beauty and charms are often a trap and illness and death lurk just below its shimmering surface. In Voltaire's Candide, the young hero learns that all the beautiful women are whores and the gondoliers only sing in the hope of an extra tip; in Thomas Mann's Death in Venice famous author Gustav von Aschenbach becomes obsessed with a beautiful Polish boy, stalks him through the decaying, sickness infested city until he dies on the beach of the Grand Hôtel des Bains. In Daphne Du Maurier's haunting ghost story Don't Look Now a couple whose young daughter died meet a strange set of twins who 'see' the girl leading to the husband's demise. In The Comfort of Strangers by Ian McEwan, a British couple who get lost in Venice are rescued by a seemingly friendly stranger, who isn't anything of the sort.

In Dead Lagoon by Michael Dibdin, his detective Aurelio Zen finds disillusionment and corruption when he returns to his native city—the stagnant Laguna Morta a fitting symbol for the rot in Italian politics in the 1990s.

The strangeness of Venice makes non-fiction works as compelling as the fiction. Jan Morris's Venice, Mary McCarthy's Venice Observed and Peter Ackroyd's Venice: Pure City are all beautifully written studies on the city's character. John Julius Norwich wrote the classic history of the city up until its 18th-century fall. John Berendt explores the modern city's unusual, eccentric and often outrageous inhabitants, with the 1996 fire at the Fenice as the centrepiece in The City of Falling Angels.

In the end perhaps all descriptions meet in a soft centre, as in Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, in which Marco Polo describes the cities he had visited to Kublai Khan, only they sound like fairy tales. Finally Kublai Khan says:

“There is still one of which you never speak.'
Marco Polo bowed his head.
'Venice,' the Khan said.
Marco smiled. 'What else do you believe I have been talking to you about?'
The emperor did not turn a hair. 'And yet I have never heard you mention that name.'
‘Every time I describe a city I am saying something about Venice.’

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