Venice: Pure City

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


As Ackroyd reminds us, Venice may be unique, butit’s hardly singular: “The Latin term for Venice was always Venitiae.” Venice must be thoughtof as essentially plural, “a federation of islands or cities.” Beginningwith the founding of the city by a group of refugees fleeing the Huns, Ackroyddescribes Venice as a “various and unsettled scene (…) always shifting andunstable.” This is why, according to Ackroyd, the progress of Venetianhistory is one long attempt to find stability and continuity in the midst ofthis mutable landscape. Over time, entire islands were submerged, destroyed, oroverwhelmed by plague. For Ackroyd, the secret nature of the Venetians can bediscerned in this environment. There would always be, he suggests, “somewherein the Venetian soul, the threat of punishment and disaster.”


At some moments in Venetian history, this led tosome rather draconian law enforcement measures: a culture of informants andbetrayal reigned in the city, resulting in a dialectic of surveillance andconcealment. The consequences, Ackroyd points out, could be felt even at theheart of Venetian governance: when foreign ambassadors would make diplomaticproposals, whether in peacetime or in war, the doge “was forbidden by lawto make any specific reply”; he could only “float in generalities,”according to Sir Henry Wotton, a 17th-century English ambassador tothe city. The portrait Ackroyd offers of the city’s legal system is socapricious that one wonders how Venice managed to maintain control over itssizable 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 pointsout 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 unimaginablecompound of billions of marine creatures.” This gives the reader a freshtake on the relationship between the city and its watery environment. He issensitive to the city’s protean qualities, as when he puts his finger on thespecial beauty of the pigeons infesting the Piazza San Marco: “The birdsare part of the spirit of the place. They are the grey stone come alive andrendered soft to the touch.” But Ackroyd elaborates these themes inlanguage that is sometimes too overblown to take seriously: “A thousandcities of Venice comprised the city, just as a thousand flames may make up onefire.” Groan.


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