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Venice by Jan Morris

Venice (1960)

by Jan Morris

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This is a richly written book by a British journalist who lived in Venice for many years, a mixture of a history, a tourist guide and real life journalistic observations. This melange did not quite work for me, partly because the book was written in 1960, and re-edited in the 70s, 80s and early 90s, and it often wasn't clear in which decade the real life observations were made, and just when a recently observed event or curiosity had actually taken place. This said, I still enjoyed it, as Venice is such a fascinating place, a republic for over 1,000 years with the trappings and excesses of a monarchy or empire, with a stark juxtaposition of beauty and grotesque horror; the contrast between its vulnerability to its local environment, and the fact that this isolation was also its strength for so long and prevented it being successfully conquered until Napoleon breezed in in 1797 and ended over 1,000 years of independent existence. Yet it cannot be said that the Venetians resisted this takeover; the Republic had been declining for the last two centuries or more and the Grand Council prosaically voted for the dissolution of the state by 512 votes to 30, with 5 abstentions. The author also covers the other islands in the lagoon and the coastal area, shedding light on some little known places and isolated communities, distinct from the city itself. She clearly loves Venice, but also recognises the contradictions and appreciates why others have taken an instinctive dislike to it. Perhaps unselfconsciously, she writes "More slush has been written about Venice than anywhere else on earth, more acres of ecstatic maiden prose. Venice is paved with purple passages" - parts of this book are also like this, and perhaps this encapsulates the extremes of emotions that this most contradictory of cities can evoke. ( )
  john257hopper | Feb 8, 2017 |
Inexplicably (perhaps), this book was a big disappointment to me. Years ago, I added it to a TBR list that I still maintain, after seeing it recommended as one of The Guardian's top 100 NF books. The endorsement read: "An eccentric but learned guide to the great city's art, history, culture and people." When I had the chance recently to get a copy of The Folio Society's edition I jumped. It's a lovely book.

But it was laborious to read.

Not a narrative, the book doesn't present a coherent, cohesive view of this altogether unique community. I do not feel like I got from the book anecdotes or nuggets of history that I can share, say in a conversation. It didn't imbue me with enthusiasm for Venice. That surprises me, but having read it, I can't view it as anything but a disjointed compendium of disconnected factoids. I didn't find a unifying thread; it's just a heap.

Moreover, there's no index, so you can't look up place names or artwork, individuals or definitions.

Last year, I read John Berendt's [City of Falling Angels], which I liked very much (and to be fair, I point out that a number of my LT acquaintances hold a view of it opposite to mine). Yes, it compiled a scattering of topics and people, but it had a narrative drive to it. I enjoyed reading it. I could--and did--talk about it. My report on it is here: https://www.librarything.com/topic/189318#5153692

I want to grouse about the book's visuals. The Folio edition has dandy color photos scattered throughout, but none have captions or IDs, right there on the page. Here and there, I surmised a connection between a photo and the adjacent text. But why not make the connection unequivocal? Folio charged a lot for the book. Yes, I discovered a list of the photos with cryptic identifications, but it's in the front, following the Table of Contents. Not satisfactory to me.

If you do tackle Jan Morris' [Venice], keep access to Google Maps handy. The Folio edition has a map of the island city, but it was of spotty use; I often could not find what I was looking for. Google Maps showed me the entire realm known as Venice. When Morris wrote about Murano, Mestre, Choggio, or the barrier islands of the Lido that protect the Venetian lagoon from the sea, I could see where they were, and grasp the immense size of Venice. And you can google specific landmarks and have them pointed out for you.
  weird_O | May 18, 2016 |
This book grew on me I have to admit. The enthusiasm was recognisable but the place - not always. ( )
  adrianburke | Jul 15, 2014 |
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An impassioned portrait of one of the world's most glorious cities.

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