Venice: tales of the city, by Michelle Lovric

A promiscuous lover of 13,000 saints
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The Independent Culture

Many people have had the happy idea of collecting writings about Venice, but Michelle Lovric's new anthology has virtues, and faults, peculiar to itself. Let us begin with some virtues. She has managed to squeeze into 448 pages more than 100 selections, divided into a baker's dozen categories, together with two groups of brief quotations and a myriad of pithy Venetian proverbs.

Many people have had the happy idea of collecting writings about Venice, but Michelle Lovric's new anthology has virtues, and faults, peculiar to itself. Let us begin with some virtues. She has managed to squeeze into 448 pages more than 100 selections, divided into a baker's dozen categories, together with two groups of brief quotations and a myriad of pithy Venetian proverbs.

The reading that must lie behind this dazzling accomplishment is forbidding. Not only must she have read much more than she included, but each author is given a biographical preface, and their excerpts given context and point. In fact, these prefaces are at times longer than the writings.

Which brings me to one of the book's few faults. These beguiling excerpts leave me wanting to read much more from the original texts. Further reading is made easier by an extensive bibliography; but Lovric's anthology functions better as a sampler than a reader. You find yourself reading just a few pages, as there is no opportunity to get stuck into a long, satisfying passage.

The book opens with an unfortunate mis-dating, as Lovric dates the accomplishments of the navel hero, Francesco Morosini, 200 years previous to the events. Morosini was born in 1616, not 1416; won election as doge in 1688, not 1488, and died in 1694, not 1494. Lovric might also have mentioned that in the course of reconquering Attica from the Turks, his gunners blew up the Parthenon.

Among my favourite discoveries is a diary entry by the nobleman Marino Sanudo, in the aftermath of an earthquake that shook Venice in 1511. To propitiate an unhappy divinity, Venice's religious leaders declared that there should be prayerful processions and a three-day bread-and-water fast. Sanudo observes, with an irony worthy of Voltaire commenting on the 1755 Lisbon earthquake, that he "applauds these thing as an aid to piety and good conduct; but as a remedy for earthquakes, which are a natural phenomenon, this was no good at all".

In large part, writers on Venice have employed a single literary form, the lover's words of endearment. Unsurprisingly, there is much of that here. From Herman Melville in 1857 jotting down, "Rather be in Venice on a rainy day, than in other capital on fine one" to tributes to the gondola, hot chocolate, Carnival and even the city's famous prostitutes, there is no shortage of extravagant praise. There is also the occasional discordant note. Mark Twain voiced a tourist's tired lament after another afternoon spent admiring treasures: "We have seen 13,000 St Jeromes, and 22,000 St Marks, and 16,000 St Matthews, and 60,000 St Sebastians, and four millions of assorted monks, undesignated."

As long as it stands above the waters of its lagoon, Venice's charms will continue to seduce its visitors. I can't easily think of another book that might so beguilingly lead the newly-succumbed to prolong their engagement with this most promiscuous of lovers.



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