Tiziano Scarpa could not have a more Venetian name. One thinks of Tiziano Vecellio – Titian, Venice's most renowned Renaissance painter. And of Carlo Scarpa, the innovative 20th-century Venetian architect. That this Scarpa is a writer of great imagination and wit is known to anyone interested in contemporary Italian writing, and with this translation of his idiosyncratic "guide" to his hometown, he will gain favour among English-speaking lovers of Venice the world over. To write originally about Venice must be one of the greatest challenges a writer can take up. Every year, hundreds of books on the city are published, but none resembles this one.
The shape of Venice on a map has often been likened to a fish, but has any previous writer asked his readers to take this claim literally? "How did this marvellous beast make its way up the Adriatic and fetch up here?" the author asks. "It could set off on its travels at any time, it could call in just about anywhere, following its fancy... Dalmatia this weekend, Istanbul the day after next, summer in Cyprus."
The principal chapters follow the parts of the body as they encounter the reality of the city: feet, legs, heart, hands, face, ears, mouth, nose, eyes. Scarpa drops the metaphor of the fish but continues in his hyper-real yet conversational style, with a mixture of observation, recollection and scholarship, to plunge the reader into the strangeness of this city built on stilts in a vast lagoon.
I am writing this in Venice. Last night, I noticed an odd sloping shelf-like object protruding from the corner of an intersection near my flat. If it weren't for Scarpa, I would never have known that this is an antique device to keep men from peeing at street corners, "designed to send the splashes flying back against the uncouth urinator". This morning, walking through the misty squares, I would not have thought to look up at a capital on a column of the ducal palace, whose carvings depict, in tender detail, "the saddest and most heart-rending love story ever told".
Scarpa warns his readers to beware the lethal "aesthetic radioactivity" projected by the buildings and paintings of Venice. I fear his sharp eye and quick ear can only make that bewitching disease more acute, helped by Shaun Whiteside's felicitous translation.