432 pages, Anchor, ISBN-13: 978-0307473790
Venice: Pure City is Peter Ackroyd’s love-letter to the Queen of the Adriatic, and there can be few people (Venetian or no) who know Venice better than he…at least, that’s what I think it is, for as to his motivations for writing this book he is silent: there is no introduction or conclusion informing the reader as to why he decided to write the book or, having made such a momentous decision, what he was trying to achieve. In spite countless ideas, musings, opinions and tangents, the result of all of his labors comes over as strangely impersonal. Now, really, who doesn’t love books on Venice? Such a peculiar and miraculous (and devilish) a place was made to be written about, but anyone who reads Ackroyd’s book may well find that he never buys another: these 376 pages constitute a Venetian encyclopedia, answering as they do virtually every question on the subject that one could possibly wish to ask; about Venice’s origins (few people realize that the most sumptuously beautiful city in the world began as a shithole); about the huge importance of its patron saint; about its painting, sculpture and architecture; its trade and commerce, and its constant struggle against the Turks; about its courtesans and carnivals, its pilgrims and tourists; and there are some brilliantly perceptive reflections about the Venetians. Then again. After wading through all of that, one may not feel like reading another word about Venice – ever again.
When describing the beginning of the city Ackroyd is as eloquent as could be hoped for, using a broad palette of words to paint a verbal picture of the early years of the floating city: the watercourse twisting past islets that became the Grand Canal, the palisades among the dunes, the huts of wattle in the marshes, and on and on. Islands were lost to the sea, centers of power shifted, and gradually the city solidified and Venice was finished, in a way London would never be: “The first stone of the great bridge across the Grand Canal at the Rialto was laid on 31 May 1585. The creation of Venice was complete”. That is as about as chronological as it gets, however, for there is a kind of blurring of the timescale throughout, enabling Ackroyd to spread commentary throughout the book hither and yon with only the briefest of looks at the calendar. This also leads him to collapse centuries together and make strange historical judgements, like claiming when the Venetians outrageously sacked their sister-city Byzantium in 1204 and carried off the famous horses to adorn St Mark’s Basilica that this led to the fall of the city to the Turks in 1453 is, therefore, Venice’s fault is…peculiar (250 years is not the blink of an eye, after all).
Venice: Pure City is, then a reading experience rendered all the more agreeable by Ackroyd’s independent frame of mind and skill with words. If this volume is sometimes simultaneously less prescriptive and more grounded in Venice as it actually is, it more than makes up for it in range and realism where the temptation to romanticize is almost palpable.