Venice: Pure City
By Peter Ackroyd
Chatto & Windus £25, 403 pages
FT Bookshop price: £20
Few authors are more immediately identified with their native city than Peter Ackroyd is with London. In the preface of his history of Venice he lists his previous works, nearly all of which are about or contain a large element of London – its history, its fabric, its people, its writers. He has read everything about the place and he’s walked all over it. So what’s he doing in Venice? And why now? Ackroyd doesn’t tell us, but the sticker on the dustjacket, “As seen on Sky Arts”, gives a clue – this is the book of the television series.
But there is more to Ackroyd’s Venice than commercial opportunity. In his works on London there is a sense that a city can materially affect the character and behaviour of its citizens, creating patterns of sensibility which persist over many centuries. Venice offers Ackroyd a chance to explore this psychogeographical idea beyond his usual territory, and he makes a good case in elegant prose.
This is partly a narrative history, from Venice’s earliest days as a refuge from Attila the Hun to mercantile dominance and the pragmatic creation of a commercial empire in the Mediterranean. The remainder comprises excellently illustrated chapters on aspects of the city and its culture – music, painting, architecture. Ackroyd’s observations on these subjects are shrewd: “There are now only 400 gondolas at work in the city. Only four are made each year. The boat cannot last forever. After 20 or so years of service ... it is taken to the island of Murano where its wood is used to kindle the flames of the glassworks. It becomes part of another city industry, its energy transformed into Venetian glass.”
I sense, however, a detachment here that never comes across in his work on London. For all its erudition there’s little physical engagement with one of the most sensually rich places on the planet.
From time to time, he makes sweeping generalisations which he then disproves a few pages later. For example, he claims that Venice has always been the most conservative of societies with a pronounced aversion to change. Yet later he notes “one may claim plausibly that the first industrial revolution occurred in Venice rather than England, with the management of shipbuilding, glass-making and mirror-making”. He also records Venice as being home to the invention of easel-painting, the first newspaper, the first copyright legislation, the first opera house and much else.
Ackroyd also claims that the work of Palladio, mid-16th century, added adornment to a city that would never willingly change again. This again is overstating the case. Though much of its ancient fabric remains, modernity has not been held entirely at bay. In the 19th century, a causeway brought the railway to the city and later buses and cars. Gondolas were replaced as the city’s means of transport by an elaborate network of vaporetti.
Though “timeless” is almost as common a description as “unique”, Venice is not yet a museum piece, it still lives and has a future. But Ackroyd’s book, for all its acuity, does not describe a living city.