Book review: 'Venice: Pure City' by Peter Ackroyd

Los Angeles Times

The works of man are many and wondrous, but if I had to pick one that most completely embodies the concept of the sublime, it probably would be the autumnal view from the terrace of Venice's Gritti Palace, across the Grand Canal, to the great church of Santa Maria della Salute — though I'm not sure I ever could satisfactorily explain precisely why.

In the long years of its decline and decay, Venice always has managed to evoke both the rhapsodic and the mysterious.

Thus Evelyn Waugh has his Charles Ryder in " Brideshead Revisited," glimpsing it for the first time, muse: "This was my introduction to the baroque."

Sent there on assignment, the American writer Alexander Woollcott is supposed to have cabled his editors: "Venice interesting. Story prospects uncertain. Streets inexplicably filled with water."

In "Venice: Pure City," Peter Ackroyd — the marvelously erudite and staggeringly industrious English writer — is the latest of his countrymen to appraise the experience of what remains of La Serenissima. John Ruskin doubtless would be the most famous of his predecessors, since his three-volume "Stones of Venice" changed not only the course of 19th century criticism, but also that of art and architecture in the English-speaking world.

Ackroyd's interpretation is at once less prescriptive and more grounded in Venice as it actually is — and has been. Readers familiar with his previous "biographies" of London and the River Thames will recognize the method here, which is to compile an encyclopedic amount of general and arcane factual information and then to arrange it less chronologically than thematically — much as one might encounter it in the course of a long walk over fascinating terrain in the company of a knowledgeable but never pedantic companion. It's an experience rendered all the more agreeable by independent turn of Ackroyd's critical imagination and lapidary quality of his prose. If this volume — the 32nd Ackroyd has produced — sometimes lacks the physical specificity that gave his earlier books a special illumination, " Venice: Pure City" more than makes up for it in range and realism where the temptation to romanticize is almost achingly palpable.

The subtitle draws on Ackroyd's insight into Venice's origins as Europe's first willed city, a place brought into being by the marsh dwellers who bartered salt for the wherewithal to pound an urban space into the lagoons and islets of an Adriatic marshland. Like Los Angeles, in other words, Venice is one of those great cities that does not exist because it sits at the confluence of great rivers, is situated alongside a great natural harbor or sits astride important trade routes; Venice was willed into being and wrested the advantages of all those things from its industry.

Ackroyd is particularly good — and particularly enlightening — on Venetian origins. The city really began to take shape as exiles from the barbarian invasions coincident with the fall of Rome settled on the lagoon's islands and set themselves up as traders and go-betweens for goods brought in from the sea. It was a commercial city from the start and its people instinctual merchants — with all that entailed. The sea would remain so important in the city's psyche that its ruler, the Doge, would symbolically marry the ocean each year on the feast of the Ascension.

The distinctiveness of Venice's identity would determine much of its subsequent history and Ackroyd shrewdly draws attention to the fact that Venice actually traded for a patron saint — Mark — rather than retaining the one assigned it by tradition, the far less illustrious St. Theodore. Venetian merchants lent a sympathetic ear to Egyptian Copts anxious about the fate of the relics of their founding father, Mark the Evangelist, after their country fell into Muslim hands. The canny Venetians offered to carry the saint to safety and eluded "Saracen" customs officials by putting his corpse under pork and cabbage. Back in Venice, the relics were given into the care of the Doge rather than the local bishop as custom dictated. This produced two things that would benefit the Serene Republic for centuries to come — a spiritual seal approval for temporal power and a counterbalance to Rome's claims of primacy in all things, since while the Vatican had the Apostle Peter, Venice had the Evangelist Mark. Checkmate.

"Venice: Pure City" brims with this sort of insight and anecdote, particularly with regard to the city's long and fruitful interchange with Byzantium, a relationship that would cast a unique and decisive influence over both aesthetics and culture. Given the book's reach, it seems like quibble to harp on small errors, but Igor Stravinsky died in New York and the Eastern Emperor Alexius Comnenus (Alexio Komenos) surely was gone by the Fourth Crusade. When it comes to the visual arts, Ackroyd's assessments can be a trifle quirky. He finds the Venetian portrait tradition, for example, curiously lacking any "personal character." In fact, as just one of many contrary examples that come to mind, Catena's great portrait of Andrea Gritti, the Doge who built that palace, depicts a face that is the apotheosis of calculation.

On the other hand, Ackroyd's evocation of Venetian light — and of the role distinctive building materials, like terrazzo and Isturian limestone play in refracting it through both memory and art — fits lovingly and convincingly into the rhapsodic tradition.

As Ruskin at his most lucid put it in volume two of "The Stones of Venice": "The world is full of vulgar Purists, who bring discredit on all selection by the silliness of their choice; and this the more, because the very becoming a Purist is commonly indicative of some slight degree of weakness, readiness to be offended, or narrowness of understanding of the ends of things."

Venice, as Ackroyd so vividly portrays it, is the still-living rebuttal to vulgar purism.

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