Books worthy of a Doge’s Palace: The pick of non-fiction reading on Venice

Not many Venetians have written about their city – perhaps because they have to spend so much of the year trying to keep their feet – and their houses – dry.

Of course, many of the people you see working in Venice tend not to live in the part visible to tourists but come in from the hinterland. Most of the books that feature Venice – both fiction and non-fiction – are written by foreigners who have laid claim to a city they adore. However, there are exceptions, and when Venetians do get around to writing about their city, it’s very well worth reading. So that’s where we’re going to start.

Paolo Barbaro Venice Revealed ‘Introduces us to contradictory realities’

Paolo Barbaro grew up in Venice and, after working abroad for some years, returned to his native city to find it as beautiful and fascinating as ever. His Venice Revealed: an intimate portrait (1998, translation 2001) begins with him bringing his family ‘home’ by plane. The most romantic way to arrive at Venice is said to be by sea, but Barbaro’s description of approaching the city from the air is both moving and very real – the first sight being of the huge industrial zone.

           Beyond postcard Venice

But then, there it is, ‘the long, rose-coloured island in the perfect shape of a fish’. The children ( as always) are anxious to arrive, but Barbaro savours the moment to contemplate the city from the air and to introduce us to its contradictory realities, to some of what lies beyond postcard Venice.

Tiziano Scarpa Venice is a Fish ‘Some wonderful sections on the city’

His fellow Venetian Tiziano Scarpa has given us Venice is a Fish (2000, translation 2008). Practical and poetic, witty and wise, it’s a delightful wander around Scarpa’s own city – a sly kind of guidebook with all the boring bits left out. From it’s very opening I was ‘hooked’:

Venice is a fish, Just look at it on the map. It’s like a vast sole … On the map, the bridge connecting it to terra firms looks like a fishing-line: Venice looks as though it’s swallowed the bait.

And so did I – hook, line and sinker. (And plundered it for several extracts for the city-pick VENICE anthology.) I’d never noticed the fishy shape of the mapped city before, and anyone who can make me look with fresh eyes and see things I’d never seen before earns heaps of Brownie points from me. (I wasn’t surprised to learn that Scarpa won the Strega Prize for his novel Stabat Mater: more about that later.) He also calls Venice a tortoise – a brilliant image for the stone fabric of the city perched on the soft body of its muddy foundations. Scarpa gives strict instructions to throw ignore our maps and even the street signs pointing here and there, and just wander: it’s the best way of getting a feel for the city. ‘Getting lost is the only place worth going to.’ Highly recommended.

Hair-raising escape

Casanova The Story of My Life ‘Some wonderful sections on the city’

Giacomo Casanova (1725-1798) was born in Venice and his autobiography, The Story of My Life (1822), contains some wonderful sections on the city – though he resides in many other places, too, in the course of his scurrilously eventful life. My own favourite part is when, encarcerated in Venice’s famous prison (known as being ‘under the leads’), he manages the most hair-raising escape, along with a monk. It would seem like farce were it not for the fact that his life was at stake! A taster, as she emerge onto the roof:

I was  first to emerge; Father Balbi followed me. … Staying down on my hands and knees, I grasped my spike and, reaching forward, pushed it  forward diagonally into the gaps between one lead plate and the next. In this manner, raising each plate and then gripping its edge with my fingers, I was able to climb to the top of the roof. In order to follow  me, the monk hooke his fingers into the belt of my breeches, near the fastening; thus I suffered the unfortunate fate of a beast that must bear one burden and drag another, while ascending a slope made  slippery by fog.

(Various editions of Casanova’s lengthy – 3,500 pages plus – memoirs exist, but a very good selection – with plenty on Venice – is available in Penguin Classics.) And Casanova appears as a character in Michelle Lovric’s novel Carnevale, which we’ll meet later.

Jan Morris Venice 'It really is a classic'
Jan Morris Venice ‘It really is a classic’

 My first non-fiction encounter with Venice was when I was given Venice (1961) by Jan Morris. And it’s a book I still return to. It really is a classic – in fact, despite its age, it’s still reckoned to be the best book on the city. It defies easy categorisation. It isn’t a straightforward history book, but it does cover history. It isn’t a guidebook, though one would be lost in Venice without it. It illuminates so many aspects of the city and its people, and it all springs from a profound affection for and deep fascination with a place that captured the author’s heart in youth and to whom she has remained faithful. A palpable love – that doesn’t rule out honesty! – rises from every page. A snippet:

a multitude of tottering palaces, brooding and monstrous, presses towards its water-front like so many invalid aristocrats jostling for fresh air. It is a gnarled but gorgeous city … the whole scene seems to shimmer with pinkness,    with age, with self-satisfaction, with sadness, with delight.

The spirit of Carpaccio

Her love of the city has produced further books, including Ciao, Carpaccio: An Infatuation (2014). Morris’s introduction to this delightful little volume tells how, one evening, she was sitting by the fire in her Welsh home with a bottle of wine and a book of painting by the Venetian artist, Vittore Carpaccio (1460-1520) – an artist she’d long adored and with whom she felt a friendship across the centuries. In one painting she spotted a tiny ‘blob’ which, on closer inspection, turned out to be a miniscule but precisely rendered jay-like bird which she fancies is the spirit of Carpaccio himself, calling to her across the centuries.

Returning the greeting with a  ‘Ciao, Carpaccio. Come sta?‘, she decided to write a little book on the artist’s work, purely for pleasure. While illuminating his life and work, she also gives us plentiful details about Venetian life at the time. beautifully illustrated and an absolute delight to read (it’s always life-enhancing to travel with Morris!), this is a real Venetian gem.

Another informative delight from Morris is A Venetian Bestiary (1982), a kind of ‘tribute’ to the animals and birds of the city, with lots of fascinating more general information on the way. Her love for everything to do with the city shines from every page.

Joseph Brodsky Watermark ‘Brings the sensibilities of a poet to bear on the city’

One almost feels that Morris has earned the status of ‘Venetian by adoption’ – along with exiled Russian poet and Nobel laureate Joseph Brodsky (1940-1996), who actually died in his beloved Venice and is buried on the cemetery island of San Michele – along with his countrymen Igor Stravinsky and Serge Diaghilev. Like Morris’s  Venice, Brodsky’s Watermark (1992) covers many aspects of the city in its less than 150 pages.

He brings the sensibilities of a poet to bear on the city – its architecture, waterways, people, and everyday life – and, combining wit and elegance, created what is, for me, one of my favourite city books. Do try it!

John Berendt The City of Falling Angels 'An involving and informative book'
John Berendt The City of Falling Angels ‘An involving and informative book’

American  John Berendt took the title of his book on Venice, City of Falling Angels (2005) from a sign posted outside the great Santa Maria Salute church in the early 1970s: it said, ‘Beware of falling angels.’ (This was before their restoration – no longer any danger.) It’s a title that manages to blend ideas of glory and corruption – a fair enough take on the city, perhaps.

It was no doubt Berendt’s journalistic background that gave him the skills to get people talking, and in doing so reveal all sorts of things about the city – particularly in the wake of the great fire that destroyed the La Fenice opera house. It’s an involving and informative book, amusing and vivid.

We must mention the great classic on the architecture of the city, The Stones of Venice (1851-1853) by John Ruskin (1819-1900). It’s a bit heavy going for most modern readers but there are some lovely excerpts and illustrations in Sarah Quill‘s Ruskin’s Venice: The Stones Revisited (latest edition 2015), and in the earlier Ruskin’s Venice (1976) by Arnold Whittick.

 Venice Observed (1956) by American author Mary McCarthy (1912-1989) is an intelligent and personable visit to the city. Her interest is mainly in art and literature, and some of Venice’s history is dealt with as a background to this. Despite the books age, it remains interesting and enjoyable. The original book was illustrated, but some paperback editions do not contain these. Probably not the first book to reach for on Venice, but a worthwhile addition to anyone assembling a ‘Venice library’.

A beautiful palace

Judith-Martin- No-vulgar-Hotel
Judith Martin No Vulgar Hotel ‘A sense of what it’s like to live in the city in modern times’

Fellow American, journalist Judith Martin (best known for her ‘Miss Manners’ column), has given us a delightful introduction to many aspects of the city in No Vulgar Hotel: the desire and pursuit of Venice (2007).  The title is taken from Henry James’ novel The Wings of the Dove(see below): when Milly Theale decides to go to Venice she pleads to the person making the arrangements for her, ‘At Venice, please, if possible, no dreadful, no vulgar hotel.’ Part of a beautiful Venetian palace will suit her just fine …  Martin’s book takes in the art, architecture and people – resident Venetians as well as famous visitors. It also gives a sense of what it’s like to live in the city in modern times.

The same goes for Venetian Masters: under the skin of the city of love (2008) by accomplished young journalist Bidisha. She goes to stay with the wealthy family of an Italian friend in their sumptuous palazzo on the Grand Canal.

Bidisha Venetian Masters 'Honest, sassy, revealing and humanely interesting'
Bidisha Venetian Masters ‘Honest, sassy, revealing and humanely interesting’

She learns a lot about the Venetian way of doing things, but also discovers some of the worrying prejudices and ‘chilliness’ that lurks just beneath the surface of even the most sophisticated layer of Venetian society. Honest, sassy, revealing, and humanly interesting, but also with some fine descriptions of the city – which she clearly adores. (I especially relished the moment when she opens the shutters of her room on the first morning and looks out onto the view of the Grand Canal.)

We all have images of the traditional Venetian gondolier, but Kathleen Ann Gonzalez gets behind the clichés in Free Gondola Ride (2003), having interviewed a number of gondoliers about their lives. A valuable insight into ‘real life’ in La Serenissima.

Czech Surrealist poet Petr Kral has written what amounts to a love letter to Venice in his little book (less than 100 pages) Loving Venice (1999, translation 2011). Though steeped in a love and appreciation of the city, it’s possibly not the book to go to if you’re new to Venice, but those who know it well are likely to enjoy this rather different take on it.

Living in the place

A quick mention of three books each featuring a couple who up sticks and move to Venice, and write about the experience – in all its colours – of adapting to actually living in the place, rather than just being tourists there, which is a very different matter: The Venice Experiment (2011) by Barry Frangipane, The Venice Project (2013) by Philip Gwynne Jones and the delightful The Politics of Washing: real life in Venice (2013) by Polly Coles – humorous, honest, and almost guaranteed to increase your affection for the city.

Predrag Matvejevic The Other Venice ‘Lovely’

And before we get onto straightforward histories of the city, one last, lovely non-fiction book – The Other Venice (2004, translation 2007) by Croatian Predrag Matvejić , enhanced with photos by Sarah Quill. It’s a book that goes behind the obvious and oft described surface of the city, finding interest and beauty in aspects often missed or ignored by other writers. Maybe not the first book to consult before an initial trip to Venice, but a beautiful addition to one’s Venice library. It’s full of unexpected treasures – such as the tiny pet cemetery in the garden of the Guggenheim Museum, and a consideration of that ubiquitous aspects of waterlogged Venetian life: rust. I enjoyed it hugely.

Peter Ackroyd Venice: Pure City ‘A really wide-ranging history of the city’

For a really wide-ranging history of the city – and a most enjoyable read – you can’t do better than Peter Ackroyd‘s Venice: Pure City (2009). It begins at the very beginning with the first settlers fleeing marauding tribes, arriving at the lagoon and the mix of sandy islands and marshlands that would eventually turn into one of the greatest, most powerful and miraculous cities of Europe.

And every aspect of the city is covered in the spirit of good story-telling informed by erudition and lightness of spirit. Top reviewers have used words like ‘magnificent’, ‘absolutely wonderful’, ‘sparkling, witty scholarship’, ‘mesmerising’, ‘rich and meandering and wonderful’ – so it’s not just my opinion!

A classic history from an earlier time is A History of Venice (first issued in two volumes, 1977 and 1981, together in 1982, most recent re-issue, 2012 ) by John Julius Norwich. Before Ackroyd’s book, this was the history of Venice, and at nearly 700 pages you can imagine the magnificent detail it presents: a work of almost unimaginable dedication and love.

A history that covers a shorter – but key – period is Venice: from Marco Polo to Casanova (2012), by Paul Strathern. He approaches the history through the lives of people bound up with many aspects of the city. An original and enjoyable approach.

city-pick Venice 7 September


Heather Reyes is the editor of the acclaimed city-pick urban travel guide series and the editor of city-pick Venice, featuring over sixty writers on the city.

She is also the author of An Everywhere: a little book about reading (‘a brilliant travel guide to the city of books’ Helen Dunmore) and Bookworms, Dog-Ears & Squashy Big Armchairs: A Book Lover’s Alphabet (Reader’s Digest Book of the Month) and the novels Miranda Road (‘rich, poetic, painterly, wise and tender’ Maggie Gee) and Zade (‘tremendous verve and wit’, Jill Dawson). All the titles are published by Oxygen Books.

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Books worthy of a Doge's Palace: the pick of non-fiction reading about Venice
Not many Venetians have written about their city - perhaps because they have to spend so much of the year trying to keep their feet - and their houses - dry.
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Oxygen Books
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Malcolm Burgess and Heather Reyes are the publishers of Oxygen Books' city-pick series, featuring some of the best writing on favourite world cities. These include Berlin, Paris, Amsterdam, Venice, Dublin, London, St Petersburg, Istanbul and New York.

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