Venice by Jan Morris


This audiobook provided me with a nice long spell of pleasing listening. Jan Morris' desultory ruminations on that wonderful city were perfect for unfocused listening. As others who have written about it have said, it's not a book for undertaking a systematic study of the city, but you do learn much about Venice.

Some of the treasured moments of this book are below:

A list of the "minor monuments" and secondary wonders of the city precedes the exhortation to see the well-known sights of the city. That list includes advice to inspect the dustbin barges, tickle the cats' whiskers, sample the roast eel, count the trains on the causeway, attend an Armenian mass, and look a dozen lions in the eye.

Here's a funny review of the various nationalities of visitors to Venice in the summer:

Thus through the loose gilded mesh of the city there passes a cross section of the world's spawn and it is one of the pleasures of summer Venice to watch the sea monsters streaming by. Germans appear to predominate for they move in regiments, talk rather loud, push rather hard and seem to have no particular faces, merging heavily into a jolly sunburnt volkswagen mass. The Americans are either flamboyant to the point of repulsion in crimson silk or gently unobtrusive in drip-dry cotton, the one kind sitting studiously in a trattoria with its intelligent children and its large scale map, the other vigorously décolleté, violently made up and slightly drunk at a corner table in Harry's Bar…. The French are nearly all delightful, whether they are scholarly elderly gentlemen with multi-volume guidebooks or students of existentialist sympathies with purple eyelids and no lipstick. The Japanese are almost obliterated by their mountainous festoons of photographic equipment…. The Australians are unmistakable.  The Canadians are indistinguishable. The Russians no longer come. The Chinese have not arrived yet.

The lion statue awards, akin to the high school "most likely to succeed" type of awards are priceless: 

The most enigmatical is the floridly maned lion outside the gates of the Arsenal whose rump is carved with Nordic runes. The most confident is the new lion that stands outside the Naval School at St. Helena, forbidding entry to all without special permission from the Commandant. The most athletic looks sinuously past the Doge Foscari on the Porta de la Carta. The most threatening crouches on the facade of the Scuola di San Marco, his paws protruding, ready to leap through the surrounding marble. The most reproachful looks down from the clock tower in the piazza more in sorrow than in anger as though he has just seen you do something not altogether creditable beneath the arcade.

Venetians love their family histories, especially those of the Doges. When the family name of one of the Doges dies out, it is considered a tragedy. I love this story of the Justinian family:

During the Twelfth Century wars every male member of the family, bar one, was killed in battle or died of the plague. The single exception was a Justinian youth who had become a monk, and lived an austere life in a convent on the Lido. All Venice was distressed at the possible extinction of the Justinians and a public petition was sent to the Pope asking him to release the monk from his vows. Permission was granted, the reluctant layman was hastily married to a daughter of the day's Doge and they dutifully produced nine boys and three girls. When their job was done and the children were grown up, the father returned to his monastery and the mother founded a convent of her own on a distant island of the lagoon. As for the house of Justinian, it flourished ever after. A Justinian was almost the only Venetian to maintain the dignity of the Republic in the face of Napoleon's bullying and today there are still eleven Justinian palaces in Venice, a striking memorial to monkly self-denial.

The is my second Jan Morris book — Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere which was also quite wonderful.

Jan Morris, Venice, originally published in 1960, 337 pages (I listened to the audiobook). Available at the UVa library and from Amazon. 

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