I’m reading Venice: Pure City by Peter Ackroyd and enjoying it a lot. I visited Venice briefly back in 2001, and my wife and I are heading there again for a longer stay later this year. I wanted to get some of the city’s history under my belt before seeing it again, and I’m really glad I found this book. Here are some snippets I couldn’t help reproducing (from different chapters):
The concept of the maze or labyrinth is an ancient one. It is a component of earth magic that, according to some authorities, is designed to baffle evil spirits. The Chinese believed that demons could only ever travel in straight lines. It has also been said that the dead were deposited at the centre of mazes. That is why they retain their power over the human imagination. The labyrinth of classical myth is that place where the young and the innocent may be trapped or killed. But the true secret of the Venetian maze is that you can never observe or understand it in its totality. You have to be within its borders to realise its power. You cannot see it properly from the outside. You have to be closed within its alleyways and canals to recognise its identity.
The scheme of house numbers is difficult to understand; in each sestiere they begin at number one and then snake through every street until they finish. They reach into the thousands without the benefit of any reference to street or square. The names affixed to the streets seem in any case to be different to the names printed in the maps of the city. In fact the reality of Venice bears no relation to any of the published guides and maps. The shortest distance between two points is never a straight line. So the network of Venice induces mystery. It can arouse infantile feelings of play and game, wonder and terror. It is easy to believe that you are being followed. Your footstep echo down the stone labyrinth. The sudden vista of an alley or a courtyard takes you by surprise; you may glimpse a shadow or a silhouette, or see someone standing in a doorway. Walking in Venice often seems as unreal as a dream or, rather, the reality is of a different order. There are times when the life of the past seems very close – almost as if it might be around the next corner. The closeness of the past is embodied in the closeness of the walls and ways all around you. Here you can sense the organic growth of the city, stone by stone. You can sense the historical process of the city unfolding before you. There is a phrase, in T. S. Eliot’s Gerontion, to the effect that history has many cunning passageways. These are the passages of Venice.
Anyone who has tried navigating the calle of Venice will understand what Ackroyd is saying there. I found this such a compelling passage that I just had to savour it, keep it, and share it.
And then today I ran across this:
There is no scene in Venice that has not already been painted. There is no church, or house, or canal, that has not become the subject of an artist’s brush or pencil. Even the fruit in the market looks as if it has been stolen from a still life. Everything has been “seen” before. The traveller seems to be walking through oils and watercolours, wandering across paper and canvas.
How wonderful is that? Every chapter is filled with marvellous writing and imagery like this. It’s really getting me in the mood for our trip.