Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Venice: Pure City by Peter Ackroyd

Vintage, 2010, 498pp

Venice. I confess that I've spent longer getting acquainted with the city through Ackroyd's book than in the actual place. Strange that it was on the sun scorched beaches of the Algarve that I got to know more about Venice than when we visited the place.

We were only there for a few days as May ebbed away and June began to flow. One half of a Rome/Venice  split break to celebrate our 25th wedding anniversary.

Sarah and I left having been entranced by the Serene City,  determined to drop by again sometime.

Revisiting Venice with Ackroyd as a guide has added retrospective depth and interest to our fleeting stay. 

If depth is the right word for a city intent on sliding down the surface of things.

Ackroyd peers through the mists of time to trace the myth-shrouded origins of Venice. Founded by people seeking refuge from Barbarian hordes, the city rose from the sea on the back of countless wooden piles, driven into the ocean bed.

Numerous islets were melded into one island city. Ancient rivers and streams became the arterial canals that made Venice throb with life.

The very existence of the city is an act of defiance against the forces of nature. The sea ever threatening to return it to the marshy bog from whence it came. The siren's call alerts Venetians to the danger of flood. In 1966, the year of my birth, a great tidal deluge saw the  waters rise by almost 2 metres, inundating many properties. Cue renewed fear and  foreboding over the city's future.

A sense of being under threat from the elements helped to unite the populace from the beginning, making the people willing subjects of an intrusive political system, headed by the doge. Only as a united body could they hold out against the sea. Against all comers.

Venice exists distinct from and above the sea. It must. Yet it could not exist apart from the sea. Its buildings are clad in limestone and marble, products both of the force of the sea. Venice is famous for its glassware, especially the island of Murano. Ackroyd describes glass as 'material sea'. The light captured on canvas by the great painters of Venice shimmers and glitters like light dancing on the waves of the sea.

From the start Venice was a trading city. Sea trade. Merchant ships sailed from east to west and back, laden with all manner of goods, exotic and ordinary. Vast fortunes were made. Venice became a hive of industry, building ships at unprecedented speed in the Arsenal.

The juxtaposition of East and West can be seen to best effect in Saint Mark's Basilica. A Roman Catholic Church replete with golden icons and Orthodox domes. The four horses that adorn the top of the entrance way were plundered from Constantinople at the time of the Fourth Crusade. 

Sliding down the surface of things. Venice was synonymous for its processions, carnivals and masked balls. Cassanova and all that. The politics of the city in its Republican heyday was as theactrical as any play or opera. Venice was a place to see and be seen. Today it's in danger of existing only to be gazed at and serve as a splendid backdrop for tourists' selfies.

Its empire was not the expression of some noble idea of bringing enlightened civilisation to other poor, benighted lands.Trade was all. Careful diplomacy and when necessary a striking show of arms were deployed to that end.

The chapters vividly describing Venice's voracious appetite for trade put me on mind of Revelation 17-18. There John the Divine ransacks the old prophets' denunciation of Babylon, Tyre and Sidon to depict Rome and through Rome, the world. Her rapacious trade, bloodthirsty violence and seductive harlotry made the city ripe for a fall. Venice too is here. She used to sell to the world, now she merely sells herself. The artists of Venice loved colour. Titian-like, John shows us 'a woman clothed in purple and scarlet, the great harlot who is seated on many waters.' Do the campanile bells ring at that description, I wonder?

Venice is the very epitome of a city. 'Pure City' as Ackroyd calls it. Cities are the pinnacle of human achievement. They show what is possible under what Calvinist theologians called 'common grace'. Venice had its finely tuned political system, innovative industries, magnificent architecture, high arts, and enriching trade. To this day it really is a dazzling place. But you can't help notice that there is something slightly impure about it. Murky, even. The city's focus is on itself, lost Narcissus-like in its own watery reflection. Appearance is everything. This is what the Bible calls the 'world', which is strangely attractive and yet repellent. Ackroyd can't quite hide his moral distaste for a city he evidently loves so much.

In one of his letters, John warns his readers not to love the world, 'the desires of the flesh, the desires of the eyes and pride in possessions'. 1 John 2:15-17. He could have been describing Venice. The same words could be used to describe all cities, towns and villages,  for they are each the sum of their fallen human parts. Few cities match Venice for stately grandeur, yet it floats precariously on a grimy bog.

You can get lost in Venice. Spirituality and literally. We did in the latter sense; traipsing around seemingly endless streets in search of Saint Mark's Square, but never seeming to get anywhere. It was comforting to read that  Ackroyd has had the same experience. Only on water is it possible to find your way around. Via speedy vaporetta.

Better still by taking a gondola ride. At night. The darkness punctuated by points of gentle light. The gondolier's friendly patter, 'This is the Bridge of is Marco Polo's house..I love my Venice.' The sound of water under the boat. The splashing of oar in canal. Then silence. At that moment Venice becomes the Serene City once more. You couldn't think of anything more romantic

But the moment of peace is only temporary. There is money to be made. We had to engage in negotiations before our ride. Not on the price. There is no negotiating on price. I didn't have enough Euros left. That wasn't a problem said our gondolier. He knew of a charge-free cash point on route and could pause to let me get some money out. He knew aright, and so we had our ride. 

Maybe he'd been 'had' by British tourists doing a runner before. I had no intention of doing so once we had finished the tour, but our perfectly affable gondolier seemed worried that we might. 'You pay me!' he anxiously cried out after us. There speaks Venice.

On my study wall hangs a fine print of Titian's portrait of John Calvin as an older man. At lest he looks old as depicted. Lined face, graying beard, thoughtful, melancholy eyes. Although I discovered after buying the picture that the image may not be that of the Genevan Reformer after all. Just some random old bloke. The words 'Giovanni Calvino' were added later, apparently. In Venice not even Calvin is all that he seems.

The city was happy to tolerate Protestants. Trade links were forged with Holland, Germany and England. Cromwell's ambassador hoped that Venice would come to embrace the Reformation. But it was not to be.

If Venice may be likened to a prostitute, somewhat incongruously the city was wholly devoted to worshipping the Virgin Mary. Images of her are everywhere; churches, bridges, public spaces, private homes. Although tetchily independent of the Pope in Rome, Venice was thoroughly Roman Catholic in its Marian piety. Ackroyd quotes the impressions of seventeenth century evangelical visitor to Venice, William Bedell, who complained of the 'multitude of idolatrous statues, pictures, reliques, in every corner'. Idols. What the Old Testament prophets denounced as 'whoring after other gods'.  Machiavelli commented that Italians were 'irreligious and corrupt', to which Ackroyd adds the rejoinder that Venetians were 'religious and yet corrupt'.

For all that, what is to compare with the city which sits in decaying splendor on many waters? Its maze-like streets,  weave through the city like corridors through time. Every building seems pregnant with history; from the old houses that flank the Grand Canal to the magnificent doge's palace. Saint Mark's piazza at night. Disclosing its beauty twice, once to the direct gaze of its visitors and again as reflected in the waters that gather darkly on its flagstones. While the music plays. If the stones of Venice echo the words, 'pay me' they also resound to the sound of of Vivaldi.

But this town is becoming like a ghost town. Tourists staying on the island way outnumber residents, many of whom have drifted  to the mainland. The population has dropped from 174,000 in 1951 to 55,000 today. If the trend continues there will be hardly any local people left on the island. Venice will cease to be a living city.  Little more than a glorified museum. Existing simply to be looked at. Sad, but maybe there's something quite fitting in that. Recent news reports speak of residents fighting back, however, putting up signs saying, "Tourists go away!" Understandable, no doubt. But like that's going to happen. Venetians of all people should know better than to try and hold back the tide.

Ackroyd is a fine guide to the city. He seems to have captured the very essence of the place. Even at its most solid in brick, glass and stone, Venice sits uneasy, foreboding; for its essence is that of the sea. Restless, fickle, devouring.

The author struggles to see any purpose in it all beyond the primal instinct to survive. He discerns no guiding hand of Providence determining the rise and fall of nations, only a bewildering coming together of innumerable causes. As Calvin would have told him, the Lord works through secondary causes to advance his will. But his ways are often a mystery to us and  admit no trite interpretation. The psalmist testified, 'Your way was through the sea, your path through the great waters; yet your footprints were unseen.' (Psalm 77:19).

Of one thing we can be sure. Contrary to its sometime vaunted claim, crumbling Venice is not the New Jerusalem. According to the Book of Revelation, that Pure City will not ascend from the sea, but descend from heaven, adorned as a bride for her husband. Then the sea will be no more. (Revelation 21:1-4). We read that the glory and honour of the nations will be brought to the City of God. (Revelation 21:26). Does that mean there is some hope yet for sea-lapped Venice?

The blurb on the back cover of Ackroyd's book suggests that reading it is a holiday in itself. Reading it while on holiday perhaps made it doubly so. But it's one thing to study Venice and quite another to see her. Before the sea is no more and the cites of this world sink to dust and dregs, we would like one day to return and gaze upon the forlorn beauty of Venice.

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