Magazine article The Spectator

Not So Serene

Magazine article The Spectator

Not So Serene

Article excerpt

VENICE, PURE CITY

by Peter Ackroyd Chatto & Windus, £25, pp. 387, ISBN 9780701184780 . £20 (plus £2.45 p&p) 0870 429 6655

Is there anything original left to say about Venice? Probably not, but that doesn't stop the books from coming, tied in, as they mostly now are, with a television series.

In this context I dream of programme-makers courageous enough to eschew tacky carnival masks or mood-shots of gondola beaks reflected in muddy ripples, with Vivaldi mandolins wittering cosily over the soundtrack, but it aint gonna happen, alas.

How about the areas of La Bella Dominante most visitors are too rushed or incurious to explore? When was the last time you saw a camera crew on the Giudecca or up by the Arsenale, zooming in on the Madonna dell'Orto's apocalyptic Tintorettos or those wacky marble tapestries adorning the Gesuiti? They might even film a few ordinary Venetians, among the handful still clinging on along the canals, engaged in the increasingly arduous business of trying to live modern lives inside Europe's biggest historical theme-park.

Peter Ackroyd's Venice, Pure City, the latest televisual harbinger, promises something slightly less cliche-ridden. This is a personal interpretation of the place, both as human artefact and cultural concept, in which the author manages nevertheless to appear quite miraculously unobtrusive. Readers not deterred by the cheesily faux-narrative opening - 'They voyaged into the remote and secluded waters.

They came in flat-bottomed boats, moving into the shallows' etc - will be captivated soon enough by Ackroyd's talent for conjuring inspired generalisations from a bizarre flotsam of detail. This book is neither a chronicle nor a travelogue, offering instead a kind of progress report on Venice's relentless persistence over 1,500 years. As in his studies of London and the Thames, the approach combines a painterly eye for colour and composition with the excitement of a botanist or a zoologist tracking down a species hitherto unknown to science.

The Ackroydian Serenissima is a town of polished facades and mirror-images, a look-at-me affair of performance and disguise, gifted with seemingly infinite resources of rhetoric, gesture and scenic effect. All this is scarcely new.

The verdict of one early 20th-century traveller that it represents 'the tragedy of a surface that has been abandoned by its foundation' is by now a favourite trope among modern writers on Venice. For Ackroyd, however, such superficiality generates enchantment, intensifying the place's 'unknowability'. …

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