Paradise of Cities: Venice and its Nineteenth-Century Visitors by John Julius Norwich

Venice: playground for painters, writers and poets
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The Independent Culture

On 12 May 1797, after a thousand years of continuous rule, the Venetian republic succumbed to an ultimatum from Napoleon Bonaparte. The leading English-language chronicler of that long history has now turned his attention to the first century in which Venice was no longer La Serenissima, but just an insignificant part of the French and Austrian empires, and then of the newly united Italy.

It is John Julius Norwich's happy idea to view the 19th-century city as a background to the distinguished émigrés who settled there, charmed by its peace and beauty. After all, Venice's after-history, to this day, is sadly more renowned for what others do there (tourism, scholarship, festivals) than for anything it creates itself.

As long as the figures Norwich writes about are of interest, he holds the reader's interest. He begins with Napoleon, who, although he spent less than two weeks in Venice, made architectural and political changes that still resonate. His destruction of the western end of St Mark's piazza - to build a palace for his stepson, Eugène de Beauharnais, whom he installed as viceroy - entailed the demolition of the church of S. Geminiano.

He destroyed and looted a great deal more, including nearly all the bejewelled treasures of St Mark's, and the four bronze horses that had surmounted its main portal for 500 years (since Venice looted them from Constantinople). Napoleon may have inaugurated "ambitious projects which proved to be of lasting value", but was "responsible for more destruction and depredation than anyone else in Venetian history".

Lord Byron, the poet, who romanced (or philandered) his way through Venice, cuts a dashing figure, although Norwich confesses to not liking him. His story is "a good one"; but what it tells us about Venice is slight. That, too, is the case for Richard Wagner, the German composer, who, although he loved the city and wrote some of his finest work there, was too self-absorbed to absorb himself in its life.

John Ruskin, the English writer and painter, on the other hand, elevated the world's interest in the city's medieval architecture and helped preserve it. He also brought to London a positive craze in adapting its forms to Victorian building design: from London's St Pancras station to Oxford's natural history museum.

Robert Browning and Henry James, in literature, and James McNeil Whistler and John Singer Sargent, in painting, are major artists inspired by Venice who used that inspiration to determine how others viewed the city. Norwich is excellent in retelling their stories. He also includes the full text of Browning's delicious poem about 18th-century pleasure-seeking, A Toccata of Galuppi's.

With those names, the list of distinguished 19th-century figures comes to an abrupt end. The rest of the subjects in Paradise of Cities are of secondary importance: consuls, hosts, archivists and the unclassifiable writer Baron Corvo. For those with an insatiable interest in Venice, even their stories are absorbing; but it is hard to believe they will prove of much interest to others, even when told as well as they are by Lord Norwich.