Venice: Pure City

"It is a curious fact," writes Peter Ackroyd, "that in Venice public matters were held in inviolable secrecy, while private affairs became public knowledge almost at once." Venice: Pure City testifies to the paradox at the heart of a locale that has long balanced a love of spectacle, fashion, and luxury with an ever-present anxiety over looming threats from enemies both natural and human.


As Ackroyd reminds us, Venice may be unique, but it's hardly singular: "The Latin term for Venice was always Venitiae." Venice must be thought of as essentially plural, "a federation of islands or cities." Beginning with the founding of the city by a group of refugees fleeing the Huns, Ackroyd describes Venice as a "various and unsettled scene (…) always shifting and unstable." This is why, according to Ackroyd, the progress of Venetian history is one long attempt to find stability and continuity in the midst of this mutable landscape. Over time, entire islands were submerged, destroyed, or overwhelmed by plague. For Ackroyd, the secret nature of the Venetians can be discerned in this environment. There would always be, he suggests, "somewhere in the Venetian soul, the threat of punishment and disaster."


At some moments in Venetian history, this led to some rather draconian law enforcement measures: a culture of informants and betrayal reigned in the city, resulting in a dialectic of surveillance and concealment. The consequences, Ackroyd points out, could be felt even at the heart of Venetian governance: when foreign ambassadors would make diplomatic proposals, whether in peacetime or in war, the doge "was forbidden by law to make any specific reply"; he could only "float in generalities," according to Sir Henry Wotton, a 17th-century English ambassador to the city. The portrait Ackroyd offers of the city's legal system is so capricious that one wonders how Venice managed to maintain control over its sizable empire for several centuries.


Venice: Pure City presents a thickly mythologized city of metaphors, reading the city as a vast semiotic network of mirrors, waters, stones, lions, bells, boats, and masks. At times this method succeeds, as when Ackroyd points out that the famous stones of Venice are made of limestone quarried in Istria, which "comes from the action of the sea, made up by the unimaginable compound of billions of marine creatures." This gives the reader a fresh take on the relationship between the city and its watery environment. He is sensitive to the city's protean qualities, as when he puts his finger on the special beauty of the pigeons infesting the Piazza San Marco: "The birds are part of the spirit of the place. They are the grey stone come alive and rendered soft to the touch." But Ackroyd elaborates these themes in language that is sometimes too overblown to take seriously: "A thousand cities of Venice comprised the city, just as a thousand flames may make up one fire." Groan.


Encyclopedic and engaging, Venice: Pure City is worthwhile reading for the unrepentant lover of Venice; however, those who find the cultivation of the myth of La Serenissima grating would do better to seek out a more playful engagement with the city, such as Jan Morris's Venice, or the masterful poetic imagining of Calvino's Invisible Cities.

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