By Ray Greenblatt
I have read a number of books about Venice. Joseph Links’ Venice for Pleasure (1966) describes the facades of the city. E.V. Lucas’ A Wanderer in Venice (1914) analyzes the paintings there. Wm. Dean Howells’ Venetian Life (1866) comes close to depicting the people, but his sentences are convoluted.
However, Jan Morris’ Venice (1974) brings the city, people, essence vividly to life. And her style is quite poetic. As a matter of fact, I can make a case that one typical chapter “The Seasons” from that book can prove my point to the fullest extent.
With a unique simile Morris begins her discussion of spring: “Spring floods into Venice like a tingling elixir or a dry martini.” The Venetians have lasted through the winter: “There is a sense of discomforts survived and prosperity to come.” Although it is a city made mostly of stone, nature potentially abounds: “Streaks and flecks of green appear in the city at last, softening its urban stoniness.” “The very pavements of the city seem to be cherished and revived.”
“The ponderous mansions are burgeoning with flower-pots, canary-cages and varnish.” Morris loves to use a series to give life to an object: “Bits and pieces of gondolas hang fresh-painted on it walls, totems of May—shiny seats, velvet cushions, a brass sea-horse dangling from a window-knob, a black walnut panel propped against a door.”
The economy of Venice truly comes to life with foreign visitors; Morris animates the concept with personification. “Now the massive tourist machine of Venice greases its cogs and paints its upper works for the summer.” Massive liners begin to arrive. “The first cruise ship of the year anchors tantalizingly in the lagoon, bright with awnings, with a scent of the Aegean to her funnel vapors, or a thin flicker of rust from the Hudson river.”
“The first tourists parade the Piazza, wearing tarbooshes, Maltese slippers, Spanish skirts or burnooses, according to their earlier itinerary.” “If you want to book a room the receptionist no longer greets you with cheerful informality, as he did a month ago, but cocks a sophisticated seasonal eyebrow, turns a supercilious page.” Later on we shall see how different winter is from spring.
Morris can write pure Romantic prose, an eyelash away from poetry. “And sometimes, in the Venetian spring, you awake to a Canaletto day, when the whole city is alive with sparkle and sunshine, and the sky is an ineffable baby-blue. An air of flags and freedom pervades Venice on such a morning, and all feels light, spacious, carefree, crystalline, as though the decorators of the city had mixed their paints in champagne, and the masons laced their mortar with lavender.”
It is now summer when tourists dominate. “With a thud, a babble of voices and a crinkle of travelers’ cheques, summer falls upon Venice.” Morris’ poetics about Venice can be comical. “Her chief function in the world is to be a kind of residential museum, a Tintoretto holiday camp.” “The waiters of the Piazza brush up their brusquest manners.” Morris can be as acerbic as the topic she is describing.
The center of town can be the most vicious, but “as you custom farther from that avaricious fulcrum,” things calm down. “Souvenir stalls spring up like garish fungi.” Morris sometimes employs actual speech: “The cry of ‘Gondola! Gondola!’ follows you like an improper suggestion down the quays.” Bits of history are alluded to: “Enough people peer into the horrors of the dungeons each morning to make Casanova’s head reel.”
But it’s the concept of tourism in all its manifestations that takes her most drubbing: “The guides and guide books presuppose an unflagging whip-lash energy in their victims.” “Venice is one great itchy palm.” A photographer is always around to take your picture: “His old tripod camera (which stays in the Piazza all night, like a shrouded owl on a pedestal).”
“Thus through the loose gilded mesh of the city there passes a cross-section of the world’s spawn.” She does not mean that last word in a derogatory way; she is truly fond of tourists for their variety and desire to see a fabulous city. She is excellent in defining national types:
“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 Indians are marvelously fragile, exquisite and aloof.”
“The Australians are unmistakable.” (She doesn’t say how!)
“The Canadians are indistinguishable.”
“The Russians no longer come.”
“The Chinese have not arrived yet.” (Remember this is nearly fifty years ago.)
“Here a jolly soul from Iowa, every ounce a tourist, from the enameled ear-rings dangling beneath her bluish hair to the tips of her pink- varnished toe-nails.”
“Many a poor holiday-maker staggers home at the end of a day’s pleasure as though she has been grinding corn on a treadmill.”
With so much beauty around, Morris wonders if tourists can absorb it all. “Seen against so superb a setting, art and nature exquisitely blended, Man can seem pretty vile.” A mysticism hovers over the city. “The shadowy Merceria, with its glittering shops, falls away out of the sunshine like a corridor of treasure.” Venice is personified as a grande dame. “She lives for flattery, and peers back at her admirers with an opal but heavy-lidded eye.”
Autumn does not exist in Venice, according to Jan Morris. When the tourists leave after the summer, the Serenissima, a personal word for Venice meaning ‘serene,’ turns inward to count profits and take stock: “To see the Serenissima without her make-up on, try getting up at three in the morning one foggy February day, and watch the old lady reluctantly awakening.”
Morris would be one of the few persons to get up at that awful hour, but she wants to experience the essence of all Venetian moods: “You are deposited plumb in the middle of an almost disused nowhere, so deathly silent is the place, so gagged and pinioned with mist.” “The fog marches in frowardly from the sea.”
“So the day comes up again, pinkish and subdued, a Turnerish, vaporous, moist, sea-bird’s day.” He often creates painterly scenes: the preciseness of Canaletto or the energetic massing of Turner. “In winter Venice wakes up at her edges.” “The fringes of the city curl, and color, and bust into wintry flame.”
In the stillness of winter one can now see parts of Venice like one wanders in an antique shop: “Lamplight shines sullenly among the alleys, and sometimes picks out, with a gleam of wet masonry, half a sculptured saintly nose, the tail end of a carved peacock, a crown, a crest, or a crab in a medallion.” Alliteration is strong. “A smell of eels, apples, onions and cheap tobacco”–listen to the sounds that link those items.
Other than sights and smells and nearly tastes, Morris hears things as a poet who scans her lines: “Allowing the echo of your steps to retreat around a corner.” Do you hear your own steps or those of someone else? Certainly you can also feel the cold and dampness emanating from Morris’ poetic prose.
“So Venice sits huddled over her inadequate stoves, or hugger-mugger in her cafes.” “The great hotels are closed or moribund, their echoing foyers haunted only by a handful of disillusioned millionaires and leathery ladies of intrigue.” “The myriad cafes are raising their shutters, and their bottles, coffee-machines and sugar containers stand sleepily shining in the mist.”
“Inside Santa Maria Zobenigo the twisted baroque angels of the altar look down compassionately upon an early Mass.” “There may even scurry by, wrapped in worn wool, with a scarf over her nose and mouth and a string shopping-bag in her hand, some solitary poor conscientious soul off to clean a heartless office or buy the first cabbage of the dawn. Marvelous fresh phrases: “heartless office” and “first cabbage of the dawn.”
“The nights are vaporous and tomb-like.” Yet, at this time of year the most activity occurs by the lagoon: “A chatter and clutter of life beside the wharves.” “Two hulking cement barges labor up the Grand Canal, their four oarsmen shouting to one another, grand, slow and heavy in the gloom, like ancient galleys.”
“Sometimes a layer of snow covers the city, giving it a certain sense of improper whimsy, as if you were to dress a duchess in pink ruffles.” And yet, this could be the presentiment of Christmas: “Venice feels less like a grand duchess than a buxom landlady.’” Every passing barge seems full of bottles, or parcels, or little firs from the mountains, and every child in Venice seems to trail a red balloon.”
Relatives always abound at Christmas: “The interminable reminiscences of immaculate uncles.” Listen to Morris’ choice of “i” which ties words together. And church is integral: “Permutations of clergy, gold and crimson and misty with incense.” And we conclude with this ‘epic’ sentence: “The favorite melody of the day is passed from shop to shop, from square to square, down one dark alley to another, like a cheerful watchword in the night.” Morris’ philosophy of the city is woven smoothly into her descriptions.
Jan Morris knew Venice very well. She lived there with her growing family, returned many times, and learned a rough Italian. Although she never wrote a book of poetry, her prose was rich with poetic technique. She did the same in her books ranging from Trieste to Oxford; she captured the mystique whatever she described. A mystery surrounded her as well for she transitioned from a man to a woman halfway through her life; she died this year at age 94, living a truly complete life.
You can find the book here: https://www.amazon.com/Venice-Jan-Morris/dp/0571168973
Ray Greenblatt is an editor on the Schuylkill Valley Journal. His book reviews have been published by a variety of periodicals: BookMark Quarterly, Joseph Conrad Today, English Journal, the Dylan Thomas Society, and the John Updike Society. His new book of poetry, Nocturne & Aubades, is newly available from Parnilis Press, 2018. Ray Greenblatt has two books out for 2020: UNTIL THE FIRST LIGHT (Parnilis Media) and MAN IN A CROW SUIT (BookArts Press).