“Venice pleases me as much as I expected – and I expected much”(1): Venice as a setting for historical novels

[published in Historical Novels Review, 44, May 2008]

Venice has been inspiring writers for centuries, enticing into them to its calle and piazze and entrancing  them, so they return again, and again – or indeed, never leave.  Many have tried to analyse this attraction: Muriel Spark, who lived in the countryside outside Florence, wrote that “Venice is a city not to inspire thought but sensations. I think it is something to do with the compound of air, water, architecture and the acoustics” (2).   Henry James called it “a sort of repository of consolations”, and of course there’s the old cliché that “there is absolutely nothing new that can be said about Venice”.  While it’s true that the city may have become one of the most clichéd settings for any novel, historical or otherwise, the wealth of material available ensures a steady stream of new additions (3).   There are one or two are highly authoritative online bibliographies on Venice in fiction (and non-fiction) which quickly confirmed my thought that the subject’s far too large to tackle in a single article.   So I’ll start with a caveat: this is a highly personal selection of the books that seem, to me, to capture the most fascinating qualities of the city, irrespective of the historical period they describe.

So what are these qualities? Well, they are often ambivalent: some see the splendour of Venice, others, like D.H. Lawrence see “an abhorrent green, slippery city”.  However, at the risk of being totally self-evident, the first is water and everything associated with it: Venice conjures up contrasting images of dampness and decay, and the brilliance of the sunlight’s dancing reflections on water and marble; billowing fog; the acqua alta, when Piazza San Marco disappears underwater; and the rain that can lash down until the leaden skies merge with the grey water and stone. Venice’s labyrinth of canals are famous worldwide, as is the way the city appears to “float” in the lagoon, as if by magic.  This symbiotic relationship of wood, stone and water is also at the heart of Venice’s marriage with the sea and the wealth accumulated by the state and individual families at the height of its dominion as a sea power and trading empire.

This leads to the second extraordinary quality of La Serenissima, the magnificence of the city which is a celebration of art and architecture, and the whole gamut of cultural refinements – above all, music – made possible by wealth and the stability of a rigid society ruled by its oligarchic system of government.  Venice has always been one of the most strictly regulated societies, yet it is equally renowned for its love of finery, its sensuality and its licentiousness.  This is the carnival city par excellence: masks were developed into an art form and fashion accessories, disguising illicit behaviour of many kinds. The reputation of its courtesans, the lucciole, was for centuries an even greater attraction.  As Jan Morris notes in his extraordinary book – worth reading and re-reading – there is “sex and susceptibility in the very air of the place” (5).

Lastly, Venice has always been associated with the darker sides of human nature and death: no one who has seen a Venetian funeral is likely to forget it.  Here come the clichés, tumbling out again, but it’s true that revenge, deceit, secrecy and intrigue seem more at home here, at every level, whether in politics or religion, or the spread of ideas.   As H.V. Morton wrote, “Centuries of guile, stealth, and spying had made Venice the most cautious community on earth, a state so secretive and suspicious that one rash word might ruin a man. It was typical of the Venetian attitude to women that an ambassador might take his cook his abroad, but not his wife. Venice did not trust its women: it had too many secrets” (6)

Moving on to the books themselves, The Lion of St Mark by Thomas Quinn  comes first in chronological order.  Venetian nobili were not expected to quarrel in public, but rivalries and feuds abounded and occasionally transgressed into out-and-out hostility.  Quinn has extensively researched the background to the Ziani and Soranzo families, whose members were bitter rivals over successive generations.  Set in the mid 15th century, this book provides a vivid account of Venice’s involvement in the fall of Constantinople in 1453 and its extraordinary attempts to stem the advance of the Ottoman Empire and to protect its lifeblood: its seaborne trade.  Quinn captures the wheeling and dealing nature of Venetian politics – personified by the disgraced Foscari, the only Doge to be deposed – and the uncertainties of trade where fortunes could be made or lost overnight, with ramifications that were felt right through society.  A page-turning plot makes up for hazy female characters, but the central figures are strong – particularly Antonio Ziani and his sidekick, the Greek dwarf Seraglio.

Sarah Dunant’s vibrant tale In the Company of the Courtesan is set in the first half of the 16th century at a time when the city was approaching the height of its power, a position that was reinforced by the disastrous Sack of Rome in 1527.  Told by Bucino Teodoldi, an enterprising dwarf who acts as her protector, the story centres on the beautiful Fiammetta Bianchini, who was immortalised by Titian as the Venus of Urbino.  Dunant highlights the contrast between Rome and Venice – “Rome made money selling forgiveness for sins, Venice grows fat on feeding them.” Venice is idealised by all who live there, and in particular by those, like Fiammetta, seeking to rebuild their lives after fleeing Rome.   Fiametta is helped by a mysterious women, the blind healer Elena Crusichi, and also by a network of patrons, including highly respectable members of Venice’s highest elites and others, like Pietro Aretino, renowned and feared for his wit, who lived by the “sweat of his ink”.  Through Bucino’s eyes, we see Venice in all its magnificence (“every cog in this wheel of state is well oiled and maintained, so that as long as the ships keep coming in and the money keeps flowing, who would want to live anywhere else?”).  Yet, it is also full of intrigue: “After sunset, the city shifts closer to nightmare”, peopled by strange characters who survive in the darkest and slimiest recesses of the canals, where the dark waters hide many secrets.

The turn of the 15th and 16th century is also the background for the events described in Michelle Lovric’s The Floating Book, one of a series set in Venice by this marvellously lyrical writer.   The Floating Book focuses on Venice’s role in the history of printing, and above all the contribution made by the German community, based at the Fondaco dei Tedeschi.  The two von Speyer brothers arrive in Venice with a Gutenberg press, whose “movable type” had brought about a revolution in printing.  Their aim is to sell these “fast books” to the city’s aristocracy and wealthy merchants.  Business is at best mediocre for a long while, and only becomes moderately successful after publishing a book of erotic poems written by the Roman poet Catullus for his lover Lesbia.  This strong erotic element is reflected in the important subplot focusing on the anti-heroine Sosia, whose sexcapades are recorded in lavish detail, as she leaves broken lives and worse in her wake.  Wendelin von Speyer and his Venetian wife, Lussieta, come across vividly, but Lovric delights in characterisation and some of her marginal figures are the most memorable.  Among the themes of the book, Lovric looks at Venice’s ambivalent attitude to foreigners and the problems of alienation.   Germans and other foreign merchants were only allowed to trade through their guild, and Jews – even doctors with the skill of Rabino Simeon, and above all, moneylenders – were obliged to wear yellow stars and – before the ghetto was established in 1516 – were not even allowed to remain in Venice for long periods.  Lovric is a connoisseur of Venice and this and her other novels, Carnevale and The Remedy, deserve a wider press.

The Passion by Jeanette Winterson is a hardly more than a novella, but the lucidity and magical quality of her writing will linger in your mind for weeks .   The overall impression of Venice is perfectly captured in the following lines: “Arriving at Venice by sea … is like seeing an invented city rise up and quiver in the air.  It is a trick of the early light to make the buildings shimmer so that they seem never still”.  The Passion is set in the early 19th century, just after the last Doge surrendered the city to Napoleon Bonaparte, who first plundered its treasures and then sold the city to the Austrians.  The Passion is a whimsical tale of the intertwining lives of a cook in Napoleon’s personal retinue and a female gondolier.  Winterson’s Venice is imbued with tales of magic and wonder: “A changeable city – it is not always the same size.  Streets appear and disappear overnight, new waterways force themselves over dry land”.   In this city of mazes and disguises, nothing is as it seems.

Lastly, for the twentieth century, I briefly wanted to mention two books, although both take liberties with the definition of a historical novel.  William Riviere’s A Venetian Theory of Heaven is worth reading for its poetic descriptions of Venice: Amedea, one of the central characters, loves to row and, lying in the bottom of her s’ciopon, she daydreams in the “brackish dazzle” of the lagoon, with its “sludgy creeks where only reed-cutters disturbed the curlews”, its “inlets rimmed with alder and tamarisk”, and its “acres of sea-lavender where rotting wherries lay”.  Riviere’s intimate knowledge of boats and his elegy to Venice informs the whole book, which is a study of the gradual breakdown of a marriage and the fickleness of human relationships.

It’s hard to write about Venice without mentioning Donna Leon, whose detective series featuring Commissario Brunetti and his wife Paola reveals as much about the city and its foibles as any of the above books.   Wilful Behaviour delves into the minefield of Italy’s war-time secrets, as Brunetti explores the misappropriation under Fascist rule of works of art owned by Italian Jews in a horrific case of double murder.

My apologies to all those readers whose knowledge of Venice far exceeds mine, or who have enjoyed any of the myriad other historical novels based in the city that I have completely passed over.  My aim was to offer a glimpse, one that by definition is partial and narrow. However, for those who have not yet visited the city, beware. As Tiziano Scarpa writes in his unusual guide to the city: “The geiger counter for aesthetic radioactivity reaches danger levels in the city centre.  Everywhere you look irradiates beauty” .  Venice can be lethal, but if you take time to read any of these books, you will at least be forewarned.


1 Lord Byron to his publisher John Murray, November 1816.
2  Muriel Spark, “Venice in Fall and Winter”, The New York Times, October 25, 1981.  Muriel Spark’s own novel, Territorial Rights, is set in Venice.
3  A recent addition is Barbara Quick’s Vivaldi’s Virgins, HarperCollins, 2007, which was highlighted in a review by Sally Zigmond in HNR, 42 (Nov.2007), p.25.   Highly recommended background reading is the riveting picture of convent life researched by Mary Laven, Virgins of Venice, Penguin, 2003.
4  See Jeff Cotton’s website: Fictional Cities http://www.fictionalcities.co.uk which includes a section on Venice. He also includes updates on his visits to the city, the latest being in October 2007.  This is a great site for all lovers of Venice with plenty of extra information.   The other extensive list (spanning all types of fiction) was compiled by Jonathan Glixon (Kentucky University) with additions by Adrienne de Angelis: http://www.efn.org/~acd/venicenovel.html. Another interesting selection appears in Overbooked: a resource for omniverous readers (http://www.overbooked.org/booklists/place/venice.html updated in October 2007).
5 Prostitutes were called fireflies because the law at one time decreed that each such girl must carry a red light at the prow of her gondola, Jan Morris, Venice, 3rd rev. edn, Faber & Faber, 1993, pp.47–48.
6 H.V. Morton, A Traveller in Italy, Methuen, 1964, p. 381.
7 Published by St.Martin Press, 2005.
8 Michelle Lovric, The Floating Book, Virago, 2003.
9 Jeanette Winterson, The Passion, first published 1996, new edition 2004.
10 Published by Hodder and Stoughton, 1992. A sciopon is a traditional Venetian rowing boat.
11 Published by William Heinemann, 2002.
12 Venezia è un pesce. Una guida by Tiziano Scarpa, Feltrinelli, 2000 [the quotation cited is the author’s own translation].  An English translation by Shaun Whiteside (Venice is a Fish: A Cultural Guide) will be published by Serpent’s Tail in 2008.

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