Venice: Pure City [NOOK Book]

Overview

Peter Ackroyd at his most magical and magisterial -- a glittering, evocative, fascinating, story-filled portrait of Venice.

In this sumptuous vision of Venice, Peter Ackroyd turns his unparalleled skill at evoking place from London and the River Thames, to Italy and the city of myth, mystery and beauty, set like a jewel in its glistening lagoon. His account is at once romantic and packed with facts, conjuring up the atmosphere of the canals, ...
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Venice: Pure City

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Overview

Peter Ackroyd at his most magical and magisterial -- a glittering, evocative, fascinating, story-filled portrait of Venice.

In this sumptuous vision of Venice, Peter Ackroyd turns his unparalleled skill at evoking place from London and the River Thames, to Italy and the city of myth, mystery and beauty, set like a jewel in its glistening lagoon. His account is at once romantic and packed with facts, conjuring up the atmosphere of the canals, bridges and sunlit squares, the churches and the markets, the fiestas and the flowers. He leads us through the history of the city, from the first refugees arrivingin the mists of the lagoon in the fourth century to the rise of a great mercantile state and a trading empire, the wars against Napoleon and the tourist invasions of today.

Everything is here: the merchants on the Rialto and the Jews in the ghetto; the mosaics of St Mark's and the glass blowers of Murano; the carnival masks and the sad colonies of lepers; the doges and the destitute and the artists with their passion for colour and form -- Bellini, Titian, Tintoretto, Tiepolo. There are wars and sieges, scandals and seductions, fountains playing in deserted squares and crowds thronging the markets. And there is a dark undertone too, of shadowy corners and dead ends, prisons and punishment.

The language and way of thinking of the Venetians sets them aside from the rest of Italy. They are an island people, linked to the sea and to the tides rather than the land. 'The moon rules Venice,' Ackroyd writes: 'It is built on ocean shells and ocean ground; it has the aspect of infinity. It is the floating world... changing and variable and accidental.'This book, like a magic gondola, transports its readers to that sensual, surprising realm. We could have no better guide -- reading Ackroyd's Venice is, in itself, a glorious journey and the perfect holiday.


From the Trade Paperback edition.
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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Novelist and biographer Ackroyd (The Canterbury Tales) provides a history of and meditation on the actual and imaginary Venice in a volume as opulent and paradoxical as the city itself. Structured and organized with a fluidity that reflects its many-faceted subject, he launches his tour de force with the basics of Venetian geography, hydrology, and climate before turning to history and architecture. The narrative continues to develop around themes both usual and unexpected such as trade and gossip or subjects such as the city's fabled churches, its love of sexuality, and theater. As it glides along, it gracefully incorporates tidbits about such traditions as the cabins on gondolas and the masks worn during Carnival. How Ackroyd deftly catalogues the overabundance of the city's real and literary tropes and touchstones is itself a kind of tribute to La Serenissima, as Venice is called, and his seductive voice is elegant and elegiac. The resulting book is, like Venice, something rich, labyrinthine and unique that makes itself and its subject both new and necessary. (Oct.)
From the Publisher
"A loving yet clear-eyed celebration of the enigmatic icon on the Adriatic." —-Kirkus
Library Journal
Italo Calvino once wrote, "Every time I describe a city I am saying something about Venice." Maybe that's why Ackroyd's new book is more enjoyable than his recent Thames: The Biography. Nonetheless, it's more a string of essays than one coherent book. Ackroyd interweaves history with impressions (some quite apposite) on a host of topics about living in Venice: the light and color, Carnival, prisons, prostitutes, death, the Venetian republic's extraordinarily long existence, artists, and the claustrophobic life of the city. He writes exceptionally well at points: he's always been a master of the aperçu, and his comments on Venetian art and architecture in particular are perceptive though by no means original. His sources are often vague or missing altogether. He errs twice, calling Philippe de Commynes "an ambassador from fifteenth-century Flanders" and "a traveler from the court of Burgundy," when, by 1495, the year Commynes visited Venice, Commynes had served France, not Burgundy, for 23 years. Perhaps it's a minor error, but it leads one to wonder what others lie hidden in this largely undocumented description and history of Venice. VERDICT This is a pleasant read but too formless for anything more serious. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 6/1/10.]—David Keymer, Modesto, CA
Kirkus Reviews

The indefatigable chronicler of his native England's culture looks overseas to the magical Italian city on a lagoon.

In this impressionistic appreciation of Venice, Ackroyd (The Casebook of Victor Frankenstein, 2009, etc.) opens with a haunting evocation of the site as it appeared to fifth-century mainlanders fleeing barbarian invasions: "a solitary place, its silence broken only by the calls of seabirds and the crash of the billows of the sea and the sound of the wind soughing in the rushes." But the city would not remain silent for long. It was a center of trade for more than 1,000 years, as its ships brought the spices of the East to Europe and carried manufactured items in the opposite direction. Its position at the economic forefront faltered after the 16th century, when city authorities refused to compromise the standards of the luxury goods for which Venice was famous and lost out to the merchants of England and Holland, able to offer cloths and metals for less. But Venice reinvented itself as a playground for foreigners, trading on its dazzling art and architecture and its seductive music and theater to attract the hordes of visitors that still clog the Piazza San Marco today. Yet Ackroyd reminds us that this city of brilliant surfaces has always also been a place of mystery, of secrets and crimes concealed behind opaque facades. Mosaics and glass are its characteristic products; its greatest painters (Titian, Tintoretto) excel in color and drama, not psychological complexity; ditto the music of native son Vivaldi and the beloved comedies of Goldoni. The author affectionately portrays Venetians as intensely social and deeply conservative, creators of an oligarchic democracy that endured for centuries. Public life was as theatrical as the opera; little was at stake because nothing ever changed. There's no need to lament the city's contemporary role as a tourist attraction, writes Ackroyd, because "the tourist Venice is the essential, quintessential, Venice."

A loving yet clear-eyed celebration of the enigmatic icon on the Adriatic.

The Barnes & Noble Review

"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.

--Lauren Elkin

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780385531535
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 11/2/2010
  • Sold by: Random House
  • Format: eBook
  • Pages: 352
  • Sales rank: 640,366
  • File size: 12 MB
  • Note: This product may take a few minutes to download.

Meet the Author

PETER ACKROYD is an award-winning novelist, as well as a broadcaster, biographer, poet and historian. He is the author of the acclaimed non-fiction bestsellers, Thames: Sacred River and London: The Biography. He holds a CBE for services to literature.


From the Trade Paperback edition.
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Read an Excerpt

1

Origins

They voyaged into the remote and secluded waters. They came in flat-bottomed boats, moving over the shallows. They were exiles, far from their own cities or farms, fleeing from the marauding tribes of the North and the East. And they had come to this wild place, a wide and flat lagoon in which fresh water from the rivers on the mainland and salt water from the Adriatic mingled. At low tide there were mud-flats all around, cut through with streams and rivulets and small channels; at high tide there were small islands of silt and marsh-grass. There were shoals covered with reeds and wild grasses, rising just a little way above the waters. There were patches of land that were generally submerged but, at certain low tides, rose above the water. There were desolate marshes that the water only rarely covered. The salt marshes and the shore seemed from a distance to make up the same wide expanse, marked with ponds and islets. There were swamps here, too, as dark and uninviting as the waters that the tide did not reach. A line of islands, made up of sand and river debris, helped to protect the lagoon from the sea; these were covered with pine woods.

Although the lagoon was not far from the once great centres of Roman civilisation, it was remote and secluded. This was a solitary place, its silence broken only by the calls of the seabirds and the crash of the billows of the sea and the sound of the wind soughing in the rushes. At night it was the setting of a vast darkness, except in those patches where the moon illumined the restless waters. Yet in the daylight of the exiles' approach the silver sea stretched out into a line of mist, and the cloudy sky seemed to reflect the silvery motions of the water. They were drawn into a womb of light. They found an island. And a voice, like the sound of many waters, told them to build a church on the ground they had found. This is one of the stories of origin that the Venetians told.

The lagoon itself is an ambiguous area that is neither land nor sea. It is approximately thirty-five miles (56 km) in length and seven miles (11 km) in width, taking a crescent shape along part of the coast of north-eastern Italy. It was created some six thousand years ago, emerging from the mud and silt and debris that came down into the Adriatic from seven rivers. The principal among them--the rivers Brenta, Sile and Piave--carried material from the Alps and the Apennines; a city of stone would one day rise on the minute debris of mountains. The swamps and marshes and mud-flats are protected from the sea by a long and narrow bank of sand, divided into islands by several channels; the longest of those islands is now known as the Lido. The channels make openings in the barrier, entrances known as porti, through which the sea rushes into the lagoon. There are now three such porti at the Lido, at Malamocco and at Chioggia. These tides breathe life into Venice.

It is a continually various and unsettled scene, part mud and part sand and part clay; it is changed by tides, always shifting and unstable. There is a current in the Adriatic that flows up and down from the Mediterranean, and each of the porti creates its own distinct basin or force of water. That is why the appearance of the lagoon has altered over the centuries. There is one theory that, as late as the sixth and seventh centuries, the lagoon was essentially a marsh covered by water at high tide. In the nineteenth century, according to John Ruskin, there were times at low tide when it seemed that Venice was marooned on a vast plain of dark green seaweed. The whole lagoon in fact would have become dry land five hundred years ago, were it not for the intervention of the Venetians themselves. The lagoon is now simply another part of Venice, another quarter that happens to be neither land nor sea. But it is slowly returning to the sea. The waters are growing deeper, and more salty. It is a precarious place. Saint Christopher, carrying the infant Christ across the water, was once a popular saint of the city.

There have always been inhabitants of the lagoon. The wilderness could, after all, be fruitful. From the earliest times there were small pockets of people--fishermen and fowlers ready to take advantage of the abundance of wildfowl and marine life as well as the autumnal migration of the fish from the rivers to the sea. The marshes are also a natural place for the harvesting of salt. Salt was a valuable commodity. The Venetians were always known as a mercantile people, but the first stirrings of trade in this area began even before their ancestors had arrived.

The earliest tribes are lost in the darkness of prehistory. But the first recognisable ancestors of the Venetians inhabited the region surrounding the lagoon from the eighth century bc. These were the people who dwelled in the north-eastern part of Italy as well as along the coasts of what are now Slovenia and Croatia. They were known as the Veneti or the Venetkens; Homer refers to them as the "Enetoi," because there is no "v" sound in classical Greek. They were primarily merchants, as the Venetians would become, trading in amber and wax, honey and cheese. They set up great markets, like those which the Venetians eventually established. They traded with Greece, just as Venice would one day trade with Byzantium and the East. They specialised in the extraction of salt from coastal areas, in a way that anticipates the Venetian monopoly of salt production.

They dressed in black, which became the colour characteristically worn by patrician Venetian males. Hercules was the tribal hero of the Veneti, and became a legendary protector of Venice; he is the demi-god who acquires by labour what others claim by right. The Veneti traced their descent from Antenor, who led them from the ruined city of Troy. They were well known for their skill in seamanship, and were essentially a maritime people. They submitted, in marital and familial matters, to the authority of the state. These were the people who inhabited cities such as Padua and Altino, Aquileia and Grado. These were the exiles who came for safety to the waters of the lagoon.

Before the time of flight, the Veneti were thoroughly Romanised. By the second century ad they had made a pact with the powers of Rome. In the reign of Augustus the area of the lagoon was part of the Tenth District of Italy and then in the fourth century it became part of the eastern Roman Empire, the Byzantine Empire. The lagoon was already partly settled. On one of the islands, S. Francesco del Deserto, have been found the remains of a Roman port with pottery from the first century and wall plaster of the third century.

The port was no doubt used by those vessels sailing between Aquileia and Ravenna, bearing grain from Pannonia as well as goods and supplies from more distant shores. Amphorae have been discovered here, for the carriage of wine and olive oil that had come from the eastern Mediterranean. The larger ships would dock on the island, their goods then transported to smaller ships for the shallows of the lagoon. There must have been local pilots, therefore, to guide the craft through these exiguous waters. A walkway, dating to the second century ad, has been found beneath the nave of the basilica of S. Maria Assunta on the island of Torcello. Roman remains have been found at a great depth on the island of S. Giorgio Maggiore, and material from the first and second centuries has been discovered on smaller islands. Other finds, on other islands, can be dated from the fourth to the seventh centuries. It has been suggested that the outer islands of the lagoon could have been used as a station for the Roman fleet; it is conceivable, to say no more, that villas were constructed here.

Yet there was a fundamental change in the nature of the lagoon when the exiles from the mainland began to arrive in larger and larger numbers. There was no central exodus, but rather successive waves of migration that culminated in the late sixth century. The Veneti were escaping from invaders. In 403 Alaric the Visigoth descended upon the province of Venetia; in the words of Claudian, the historian of Rome, "fame proclaimed the march of the barbarian, and filled the land with terror." Aquileia and Verona fell, with many of their inhabitants fleeing to the safety of the islands. When the threat of Alaric had passed, some returned home. But others stayed, making a new life in the lagoon. In 446 Attila gained Roman provinces from the Danube to the Balkans and then, six years later, took Aquileia; Altino and Padua were also sacked. Once more the refugees from these disasters fled to the lagoon.

There was a pattern to their movement. The people of Altino migrated to Torcello and Burano, for example, while those from Treviso went to Rialto and Malamocco. The inhabitants of Padua sailed to Chioggia. The citizens of Aquileia moved to Grado, which was itself protected by marshes. They came with craftsmen and builders, with farmers and labourers, with patricians and plebeians; they came with the sacred vessels from their churches, and even with the stones of their public buildings so that they might build anew. But how could they build on such shifting ground? How could they build upon mud and water? It was possible, however, for wooden poles of from ten to a dozen feet in length to be sunk into the mud before reaching a layer of harder clay and dense sand that acted as a firm foundation. This was the "boundary" at the bottom of the lagoon. So there sprang up small houses known as casoni made from the wood of poles and boards, with pitched roofs of wattle and reed.

New towns, such as Heraclea and Equilio (Jesolo), were founded by the edge of the lagoon. On the islands were established village communities, with leaders consulting assemblies of the people. The Veneti may also have set up fortified encampments, in the event that the Huns or Goths decided to move against them. But the islanders were fractious and competitive; there was no unity in the lagoons. So in 466, just twenty years after the appearance of Attila, a meeting of all the Veneti of the lagoon was held at Grado. It was decided that each island would be represented by a tribune, and that the tribunes would then work together for the common good. They were, after all, facing the same dangers and difficulties--not least from the depredations of the sea. This was the first sign of the public and communal spirit that would one day manifest itself so clearly in Venice itself.

The Veneti were by the sixth century a defined presence in the region. They were paid to ferry people and goods between the ports and harbours of the mainland. They transported the soldiers of Byzantium from Grado to the river Brenta. They carried officials and merchants to Byzantium itself. Already they were known for their maritime skills. Their boats travelled up the rivers of northern Italy, trading salt and fish to the cities and villages en route.

The first description of these island people comes in a letter sent in 523 to their tribunes by a legate from the Ostrogoth kingdom then prevailing in northern Italy. Cassiodorus was asking them to transport wine and oil across the waters to Ravenna. "For you live like seabirds," he wrote, "with your homes dispersed, like the Cyclades, across the surface of the water. The solidity of the earth on which they rest is secured only by osier and wattle; yet you do not hesitate to oppose so frail a bulwark to the wildness of the sea." He was not quite accurate in his description; there were already some houses constructed from the stone and brick of the mainland. He went on to say that the Veneti "have one great wealth--the fish which suffices for you all. Among you there is no difference between rich and poor; your food is the same, your houses are all alike." Again, this was not quite true. Extant testimonials suggest that, even at an early stage in the development of the lagoon, there were rich as well as poor families. Cassiodorus then added that "your energies are spent on your salt fields; in them indeed lies your prosperity." In this, at least, he was right. And he added the significant detail of "your boats--which like horses you keep tied up at the doors of your dwellings." By good fortune one of these boats has emerged from the mud of the lagoon. Part of a rib of oak, and a hull of lime, have been found on the island of S. Francesco del Deserto; the boat itself dates to the fifth century. It was lying at a level that, in this period, would have been submerged except at times of low tide.

Yet Venice itself was not yet born. It is not shown in a fourth-century map of the region, in which the lagoon is depicted as a sea route without people. Venetian historians claimed, however, that the city was established at midday on 25 March 421, by a poor fisherman known as Giovanni Bono or John the Good. There are advantages to this theory, since the same date has been given to the vernal equinox, the Annunciation and the supposed date of the foundation of Rome. The triple coincidence, as well as the provident arrival of John the Good, is too good to be true; but it is part of the extraordinary Venetian ability to supplant history with myth. As the German poet, Rilke, said on a visit to the city in 1920, "as with mirrors one grasps nothing but is only drawn into the secret of its elusiveness. One is filled with images all day long, but could not substantiate a single one of them. Venice is a matter of faith."

In fact Venice emerged over a century later, after a series of invasions by the Lombards in the late 560s and early 570s. Once more the province of Venetia was overcome by alien tribes. Unlike the Huns, however, they did not wish to plunder and depart. They intended to stay and to settle. They overran what is now called in their name the region of Lombardy. Their arrival prompted a mass exodus of the Veneti. The bishop of Aquileia moved his see to the edge of the lagoon at Grado. The bishop of Padua removed himself to Malamocco, and the bishop of Oderzo sailed to Heraclea. These men were secular as well as religious leaders; they took citizens as well as congregations, ready to create new communities on the water. Burano and Murano were extensively settled, as well as smaller islands such as Ammiana and Constanziaca; these last two disappeared beneath the waves in the thirteenth century, swallowed up by the main enemy of the island people. They have never rested in their battle against the sea.

Venice was born in this flight from the Lombards. The most recent archaeological investigations have dated the first signs of human habitation to the second half of the sixth century and to the seventh century; these remains were situated in the neighbourhood of Castello, in the east of the city, and beneath Saint Mark's Square. There is evidence, too, that in these early years work had already begun on raising the surface of the land and reclaiming earth from water. The settlers fenced the soil with planks and poles; they drained the water; they laid down building rubble, or sediment, or sand from the dunes; they erected wooden palisades to resist the sea. It is the beginning of the city.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations

Map

I City from the Sea

1 Origins 3

2 Water, Water Everywhere 17

3 Mirror, Mirror 30

II The City of Saint Mark

4 The Saint Comes 37

5 Refuge 42

6 Against Nature 51

7 Stones of Venice 57

III Ship of State

8 "Let it be everlasting" 63

9 The Chosen People 72

10 The Prison House 79

11 Secrets 83

12 Chronicles 93

IV Republic of Commerce

13 The Merchants of Venice 101

14 The Endless Drama 120

15 Wheels within Wheels 137

V Empire of Trade

16 The Lion City 151

17 Cities in Collision 166

18 A Call to Arms 176

VI Timeless City

19 Bells and Gondolas 183

20 Iustitia 188

21 Against the Turks 192

VII The Living City

22 The Body and the Building 203

23 Learning and Language 215

24 Colour and Light 227

25 Pilgrims and Tourists 234

VIII The Art of Life

26 Hurrah for Carnival 243

27 A Divine Art 254

28 The Eternal Feminine 267

29 What to Eat? 283

IX Sacred City

30 Divine and Infernal 289

31 Of Belief 299

X The Shadows of History

32 Decline and Fall? 311

33 Death in Venice 328

XI City of Myth

34 The Map Unrolls 345

35 The Huddled Family 354

36 Moon and Night 362

37 While the Music Lasts 366

A Venetian Chronology 377

Bibliography 381

Index 387

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Sort by: Showing all of 11 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted November 11, 2010

    Too expensive

    Is anybody at B&N awake? The Nook cost is higher than the hardback and the CD versions? Perhaps there's a financial reason why this book isn't selling more copies?

    3 out of 9 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 2, 2012

    Halfway and not excited

    Maybe I am too unstudied in history, I am halfway through this read and it is not very satisfying. I am going to Venice as was hoping for a history of Venice by century with interesting anecdotes. This is more a study of the mindset of Venetians using obscure vocabulary without
    any particular timeline or interesting anecdotes.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted January 6, 2011

    Outrageous Price!

    What is up with B&N and the pricing of ebooks at $30.00...the ebook is almost the same cost as the hardback.... what happened to 9.99 ebooks???

    2 out of 6 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 3, 2012

    Write about the book!

    Keep your e-book complaints to yourself!

    1 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 8, 2012

    Here

    This the temporary feedback/question area until oct. 25th.~Lictios

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 22, 2012

    Songs for the play

    Mouth full of diamands
    Call me maybe
    What makes you beautiful
    Apple bottom jeans BE READY
    We found love LOOK AT THE DOOR!
    Glad you came NEW SONG

    0 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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    Posted April 9, 2011

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