Venice: From European center to theme park

"Venice: Pure City," by Peter Ackroyd. Doubleday, $40.

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This affectionate, weighty tour of a singular city is more personality profile than straightforward history. For a chronology of Venice, refer to the back of the book, where the fluent author Peter Ackroyd provides one.

Thoughtful, thorough and insightful, the author is at least as much interpreter as historian. He bring this iconic city to vivid life, explaining the derivation of the word "gondola," delving into the travels of Marco Polo, intelligently analyzing Venetian artists such as Tintoretto and Titian and providing an informative character sketch of the extraordinarily prolific Venetian composer Antonio Vivaldi.

While "Venice" is by no means an orthodox traveler's guide, it's a wonderful introduction to a city that has cast a particular spell since the fifth century, when it first took shape.

Mr. Ackroyd, who also wrote what he called a biography of London, is a learned, extraordinarily well-read Englishman who in "Venice" crafts a portrait so vivid it's aromatic -- not always a good thing there. At its best, his book is intoxicating. It also is exhaustive.

Why is Venice a "pure city"? Because, the author suggests, it arose organically when its original inhabitants, the Veneti, in flight from barbarians, essentially willed it into being as a refuge. Also, it is a city both without boundaries and extremely limited since it is built on water and essentially defined by water.

Its island, stand-alone stance made Venice a political and economic power through the 17th century, Mr. Ackroyd recounts, dubbing it "the ultimate city defying nature and the natural world."

In "Wheels Within Wheels," a chapter on Venice's pre-eminence in the early 17th century that in his typical fashion scrambles trade, polity and art in a historical souffle, he argues it had become a paradigm of European culture:

"One may claim plausibly that the first industrial revolution occurred in Venice rather than in England, with the management of shipbuilding, glass-making and mirror-making. It was the first center of commodity capitalism, the focal point of a vast urban network that spread across Europe and the Near East; it was a city dependent upon, and also sustaining, other cities."

Venice is a bridge between East and West, a city in which Christianity and Islam crossed but never quite reconciled, he points out. Its texture blends both cultures, as do its mores.

It is a place where the individual is subordinate to the group, where conformity is highly prized.

He spends too little time on today's Venice, a city, rather, a condition, explored with mixed results by John Berendt in his 2006 book "City of Falling Angels," that Mr. Ackroyd suggests has become a kind of theme park. While its population exceeded 100,000 in its heyday, it's now around 60,000.

"It has been claimed that in twenty-five years, at the current rate of dispersal, there will be no native Venetians left in the city," he writes. "It will be a city of tourists and of those who serve them."

And so, in Mr. Ackroyd's skillfully chosen words, Venice becomes a place of pathos more than wonder. Magnetic, shimmering, alluring and pungent, it's an emblematic city that spawned magnificent music, art and architecture, a city of tolerance that discourages political protest, a place that continues to reinvent itself against the uterine nature of its environment.

Such images and concepts course through Mr. Ackroyd's book naturally, much like the currents of the lagoon that constitute Venice's unique thoroughfares.

Carlo Wolff is a freelance writer based in Cleveland.


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