IT hardly matters that Venice has long been transformed into a floating museum, sagging under the weight of its own commodification.
To anyone who has ever gone there it remains, as Jeanette Winterson once put it, flamboyant, mercurial and mysterious. From the Byzantine domes of San Marco to the shipyards of the Arsenale, this is a city that entirely saturates the senses. Which is one of the reasons Paul Strathern’s latest popular history earner is so frustrating: Venice seems to do a vanishing trick.
It’s not that he doesn’t spin out a big narrative about La Serenissima, the city-state republic that endured for the best part of a millennium, until Napoleon knocked it off in 1797. Strathern tracks from 1295, when Marco Polo returned after his journey to the Mongol Empire, his adventures and their marketing a scene-setter for a city built on trade, hubris and myth-making. Next we hear of the 14th-century struggle for supremacy with the seafaring Genoese, about Venice’s domination of commerce between Europe and the East and expanding imperial reach. Then the ship starts to turn around. The Turks, under Mehmet II, seized Constantinople in 1453, the Venetians fled, and in the next century the Ottoman encroachment into the Mediterranean swallowed up the Peloponnese and Cyprus, acquired by marriage alliance in the 1460s. Trade continued, but back-foot diplomacy replaced real power and decline had set in.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with any of that – though a timeline page would have been useful to string together the key events and characters. But it reads a little like a series of padded Wikipedia entries. After many chapters of high politics and naval intrigue, all in Strathern’s sometimes wooden and occasionally bumptious prose, Venice itself lies gasping for the oxygen of “thick description”, as the anthropologist Clifford Geertz called it. Colour, in other words; the textures of both politics and of daily life, storytelling from the Doge’s palace and from street level.
What was the life of a Venetian like? Walk us inside his home, tell us what he bought, how he organised charity, where he went to pray. Religion was fundamental to the “spirit” of Venice too, but it’s virtually absent here. Or tell us something more about the shipbuilders of the Arsenale, the men who were the industrial muscle of Venetian power and whose mass territorial fist-fights on the city’s bridges were part of the republic’s ritual lifeblood until the late 17th century. I longed for Strathern to give us a taste of the civic life that tens of thousands of visitors see represented when they stand in front of the scenes of San Marco and the Rialto Bridge by Gentile Bellini and Carpaccio in the Accademia gallery.
In fact it’s when Strathern turns to art – poorly shoehorned into a chapter on Venice’s struggles with other Italian states in the early 16th century – that disappointment turns to irritation. Giorgione’s paintings might well have an “enigmatic quality that lends itself to a number of interpretations”, but you won’t be able to see what Strathern describes and judge for yourself because the images are not among those reproduced.
Towards the back of the book, the “marginalised” – Jews and women – get brief chapters, and Strathern pursues his quarry through sketches of characters such as the rabbi, gambler and writer Leon of Modena, who stands for cultural interaction between Christians and the ghettoised Jewish community; or he gives us the story of the rise and fall of the celebrated Veronica Franco, who exemplifies the precarious life of the courtesan. Such potted biographies bring these chapters to life, but Strathern clearly struggled to place them in the book as a whole. Plenty of fascinating material escapes him, too: it was in Venice, in 1600, that the first substantial works by women – Modesta Pozzi and Lucrezia Marinella – against the natural superiority of men were published.
The Spirit of Venice feels rushed. Nobody expects a popular history writer to be a specialist; that’s not the point. But it’s not unreasonable to want them to take in more of what the specialists produce. With Death in Florence, his last book, Strathern could wind the narrative around a single protagonist, the radical preacher Girolamo Savonarola. This time a deeper synthesis was called for. There’s little chance of Venice losing its mystery here.
The Spirit of Venice
By Paul Strathern
Jonathan Cape, 368pp, £25
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