Our national love affair with Venice

For centuries, English writers and artists have fallen in love with Venice. Peter Ackroyd, literary Londoner, is the latest. Peter Popham celebrates the seductive city

There is, of course, nowhere like it in the world. It has been a magnet for tourists for half a millennium and remains so today, with something like 16 million of them pouring through Piazza San Marco every year. Yet the hordes of day-trippers have done no damage to the city's cachet as a swank destination. One Sunday morning earlier in the summer, the editor of The Sun, Rebekah Wade, and her then-fiancé, Charlie Brooks, jumped in a plane and flew to Venice – to have lunch at Harry's Bar. After a spot of sightseeing they flew straight back in the afternoon. Where else in the world has the solid-gold charisma to justify a jaunt like that?

Venice is the great seducer, the feminine city incarnate, risen like Venus from the waves and always threatening to sink into them again; demanding to be rescued, to be immortalised yet again by pen or brush, even though already, 250 years ago, one jaded visitor complained it was a city "about which so much has been said and written – that it seems to me there is nothing left to say".

Now it is Peter Ackroyd's turn to fall for Venice's charms: after staying loyal to London through a dozen books, he has finally strayed. It's a good career move. Despite all the things that make it unique, including the lagoon setting and its refusal to change, all cities lead to Venice, just as all roads lead to Rome. Lewis Mumford in The City in History called it the "ultimate city". Ackroyd prefers the accolade – for a place disgustingly smelly in the past and even today frequently unwholesome – "pure city." Both are on to something.

Wade, Brooks and Ackroyd are the latest in a long line of British visitors to honour "La Serenissima" – "the Most Serene City", as she unblushingly calls herself – with their adoration. The city has exercised a hypnotic charm for centuries. But one of the fascinating things that emerge from Ackroyd's book is how the nature of its appeal has changed, subtly but profoundly, over time.

***

Today, whether you are the editor of The Sun zipping down the Grand Canal in a speedboat or a more common British mortal arriving in a packed vaporetto, the charms are both obvious and subtle. There is the sheer sensuality of Venice in the summer, this "paradise of cities" as John Ruskin called it; the dream-like improbability of a city which floats on the water like an optical illusion, the incessant sweet shock of a place that seem too preposterous to exist. DH Lawrence, contrary as always, might dismiss it as an "abhorrent, green, slippery city", but Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, writing in the middle of the 18th century, expressed the majority view. Venice was "a great town," she wrote, "very different from any other you ever saw, and a manner of living that will be quite new to you."

If the ghost of Lady Montagu were to return, she would have little difficulty finding her way about. A great part of the charm of the place, appreciated from the moment one emerges from the railway station, is of a city which has refused to change. Venice is always "in peril", always apparently at risk of disappearing below the waters of the Lagoon; yet for centuries it has defied time by standing still. "A Venetian of the 16th century," writes Ackroyd, "if not earlier, would have no trouble in finding his or her way through the streets of the modern city. That is true of few other cities on Earth. The churches and markets are still in the same place. The ferries still cross the Grand Canal from the same stations that they used 500 years ago. The same religious festivals are celebrated. Of all cities, Venice is the one that most fully manifests continuity. It has become its reason for being. It is reassuring because it represents permanence and stability in a world of change; that is why it has become so important to variously concerned groups in England and America. Some of the cityscapes of the 16th century ... can still be identified in the contemporary city." In a "famous view by Canaletto" showing "the Campo S Vidal and the church of S Maria della Carità, it is possible to identify still-existing houses, a small bridge and a little canal. The painting is dated to 1727, so the territory has remained stable for almost 300 years."

Venice, where foreigners have come and gone for 1,000 years, has no illusions about their usefulness. "To love a foreigner," says one of the city's innumerable proverbs, "is to love the wind." The foreigner's value lies in what he brings with him, which, true to its mercantile roots, the city wastes little time removing. "For your Venetian," as Sir Politique explains in Ben Jonson's Volpone, "if he sees a man/Preposterous in the least, he has him straight;/... he strippes him."

Yet the same character acknowledges another paradoxical fact about the city. "All tooke me for a citizen of Venice," he boasts, "I knew the formes so well." Everyone feels bizarrely at home in the place. It requires only a day or two for the effect to be felt. You may be totally lost, stumbling down yet another sinuous calle, clambering over yet another little bridge, breaking in upon another brooding, deserted little campo, squinting at your farcically useless map. Yet it doesn't matter. Already the city's medicine is doing its uncanny work.

A lot of the magic resides in the silence. In centuries past it was the lack of dust which made Venice so weirdly wonderful. Today it is the silence: to wake in the morning knowing you are in a crowded city, and not to hear a single cough or roar or growl of an internal combustion engine. That alone is the worth the price of the air ticket.

Venice's silence has nothing in common with the silence of the countryside, because from the moment the first tree trunks were hammered into the marshes to fortify and enlarge the islands in the lagoon, Venice was the enemy of nature. It is, rather, a metropolitan silence: a bustling, commercial, intensely human silence, such as you may still find in the intestinal lanes of traditional Middle-Eastern souks (to which region Venice is close kin, thanks to its early trade routes with the eastern Mediterranean) but in few other places.

It was the brooding, melancholy silence of the densely-populated city that bewitched the English Romantic poets who arrived in Venice at the beginning of the 19th century, after the destruction of the Venetian Republic by Napoleon had put a bitter cap on 1,000 years of glory. Following that humiliation in 1797, when the Doge and his council capitulated in panic to French demands, believing invasion to be imminent, ordinary Venetians "retired in silence to their homes" to quote an official report to Bonaparte, "exclaiming with tears – Venice is no more! Saint Mark is fallen!"

It was the end of the most ancient government in Europe, and in the years that followed it really did seem as if the city was finished. "The general population diminished," Ackroyd writes, "as a result of epidemic sickness and migration. There had always been beggars in Venice, but by the beginning of the 19th century the poverty and mendicancy became the most obvious aspect of city life. It was estimated that a third of the population depended on charity." In the winter of 1816, one English visitor wrote: "Venice indeed appears to be at her last gasp, and if something is not done to relieve and support her, she must soon be buried again in the marshes from which she originally sprang. Every trace of her former magnifence which still exists only serves to illustrate her present decay."

And it was in these years that the Romantics arrived, finding in the city's decay rich metaphors for the melancholy emotions they were striving to evoke. For them that was the essence of the city's powerful charm: it had been magnificent, there was a tragic nobility in the way it refused to change or adapt; but the falling off from its prior glory was so steep that it looked as if at any moment it could crumble to nothing and slide below the waves, like the House of Usher in Poe's story.

"In Venice," [writes Byron in the fourth canto of Childe Harold's Pilgrimage] "Tasso's echoes are no more/And silent rows the songless gondolier/ Her palaces are crumbling to the shore/And music meets not always now the ear/Those days are gone ... "

Intimations of decay and collapse still cling to the city like a dark shadow; the city government's extraordinary failure during recent decades to confront the danger posed by the dramatically increasing incidence of what is euphemistically called acqua alta ("high water" or flooding) by agreeing to the building of flood gates to stem it lends substance to the view that the city has a death wish. (They are now being built in the teeth of the present mayor's stubborn opposition.) So that is another reason we come today, as Byron and Shelley and the rest came 200 years back. It's almost morbid. It could be our last chance (though one also knows this is just another of the seducer's ploys, and that Venice is no more at her "last gasp" today than she was in 1816).

But because the appeal of Venice as a magnificently mouldering relic has endured now for two centuries, it can blind us to the fact that, in the centuries before Napoleon, it presented visitors with very different things to admire. Today we love Venice because she so stubbornly embodies the past. But before the onset of her steep decline she was, for visitors from other European cities, a vivid embodiment of the future.

***

Venice is called the "ultimate" or the "pure" city because it is completely artificial, created out of nothing in the lagoon when residents of the mainland fled the pillaging of barbarians as the Roman empire collapsed. And because its very existence has always been at risk from the sea – it never had any reliable hinterland to fall back on in the event of disaster – it has always been on its mettle. It devised a unique system of government by merchant patriarchs, a mere 4 per cent of the population, to make domination by any one clan or family impossible. Lacking any agricultural land on which to grow crops to feed itself, it was forced from its earliest years to be a trading city. And by the 15th century it had become the trading city par excellence in the world.

All the tricks of mercantile capitalism were rehearsed and perfected in Venice before being picked up, copied and coarsened elsewhere. So when foreigners came trooping to the city in the Middle Ages and during the Renaissance, it was to see not a city pickled in aspic but an avant-garde place which was demonstrating, boldly and with stunning success, entirely new ways of getting rich and flaunting and enjoying the wealth created. It was in Venice that Europe's globalising urge was first made manifest. It "became the market of the world", writes Ackroyd. "Indeed it seems as if the whole world flocks there," wrote one flabbergasted visitor in 1494, "and that human beings have concentrated all their force for trading."

To Venice, Ackroyd writes, "came the wines of Crete and the cinnamon of the Indies, the carpets of Alexandria and the caviar of Caffa, the sugar of Cyprus and the dates of Palestine. Cloves and nutmegs arrived from the Moluccas by way of Alexandria; the camphor of Borneo was brought to the lagoon with the pearls and sapphires of Ceylon; the shawls of Kashmir lay beside the musk of Tibet, while the ivory of Zanzibar was unloaded with the rich cloths of Bengal."

With trade came fortune, and fortune, in this pressure cooker of a place, created culture for the enjoyment and flaunting of success. Venice became the cultural centre of Europe. The first theatre in Europe specifically designed for the performance of plays was built here in 1565. By the end of the 17th century the city had 18 theatres – for a population that was never more than 150,000 – at a time when London had only six and Paris 10. The world's first opera house was established in Venice. The city was always on the lookout for new, urban ways both of making money and of having fun. The first printing press was set up in the city within a few years of Guttenberg's invention, and five years before Caxton got to work. Within a few years, Venice became the centre of European printing. To protect the printed works pouring out of the city from plagiarism, the Venetians invented the notion of copyright, enacting the first copyright legislation in the world. To fund all this enterprise, Venetians pioneered modern banking, setting up a public bank in 1625, 107 years before the foundation of the Bank of England.

Venice became the quintessential European city because everything here had its price, everything was a commodity. With the wealth piled up by this philosophy Venice became the centre of fashion, the centre of carnival, and in the modern age it has had the genius to rediscover that raison d'être – transcending the gloomy, decadent appeal beloved of the Romantics – and become again a world centre of culture with its film festival, still rivalling those of Cannes and Toronto as one of the most important in the world, and its Biennales of Art and Architecture which suck in tens of thousands of upmarket visitors. The arrival in 2006 of the French billionaire François Pinault, who bought Palazzo Grassi on the other side of the Grand Canal from Venice's Guggenheim Museum for the display of his huge collection of modern art, is another indication of how brilliantly Venice has succeeded in rediscovering its core appeal.

And yet despite all that, the melancholy of Venice, the quality which hooked Byron and Henry James and Thomas Mann, remains as palpable as ever – even more so, in fact, as the population of native Venetians continues inexorably to dwindle. Perhaps it is the nagging sadness intrinsic to mercantile capitalism everywhere, the system – which Venice invented – that prices everything and reduces everything to a commodity.

Talk of the decline of Venice, Ackroyd argues, "is unwarranted. There may simply be transition. Venice merely changed its nature ... It has in effect marketed and sold its ultimate commodity – itself. Its history and memory have been transformed into luxury goods for the delectation of travellers and visitors. It traded in goods and in people; now, finally, it trades upon itself." And there is, in the end, something very sad about that.

Our kind of town: Britons in love with Venice

William Shakespeare

Never shy of setting his plays in Italian cities, the bard chose Venice for two of them: Othello and, of course, The Merchant of Venice.

Sir Elton John

Proud owner of a palazzo in the city, where he spent both his honeymoons (with Renate Blauel in 1984 and David Furnish in 2005). Has also performed there.

Robert Browning

Spent much of his life in Italy ("my university"), and loved Venice so much he gave Little Venice its name. Died in his son's palazzo, overlooking the Grand Canal.

JMW Turner

Visited the city repeatedly between 1819 and 1840. More than 50 oil paintings and twice as many water-colours attest to its impact on his life and work.

Henry James

The American-born British author wrote several of his masterpieces in the city, which features in such novels as The Wings of the Dove and The Aspern Papers.

John Ruskin

Art critic whose masterpiece, The Stones of Venice, celebrates the city's art and architecture, his love for which survived a disastrous honeymoon there in 1848.

Nicolas Roeg

Film director; the city played a starring role in his masterpiece, Don't Look Now. "Venice," he once said, is "a work of art which reveals itself slowly."

Lord Norwich

Historian and travel writer – and viscount – whose works include A History of Venice and Venice: a Traveller's Companion. Chairman of the Venice in Peril Fund.

Mary Hoffman

Bestselling children's author whose Stravaganza series of novels features the fictional city of Bellezza, which is similar in most respects to Venice.

Lord Byron

the "mad, bad"poet spent three of his most creative years in the city, after fleeing scandal in England; he celebrated it in, notably, Childe Harold's Pilgrimage.



Peter Ackroyd’s Venice: Pure City to be published by Chatto & Windus on 3 September at £25. Peter Ackroyd’s Venice, a new four-part series, starts on Sky Arts 2 HD and Sky Arts 2 on 6 September.

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