Judith Mackrell Recommends the Best Venetian Reads
Venice is an island moored off the coast of reality, a city that floats on water but also floats in time.
Judith Mackrell's latest book, The Unfinished Palazzo, is a glorious, colour-filled portrait of the ruined treasure of Venice's Palazzo Venier dei Leoni and the three fascinating women who fell under its spell. It's also a love letter to the unmatched magic of Venice, a city of artists, creators, thinkers and dreamers. Here, exclusively for Waterstones, the author recommends her favourite reading inspired by the legendary City of Water.
Peggy Guggenheim always claimed that one of the two, great loves of her life was Venice - the city that for thirty years became her adopted home. “After your first visit” she wrote, "you are destined to return at every possible chance or with every possible excuse. There is no staying away for long." And it was partly because I came to share Peggy’s obsession with Venice and because I too wanted every excuse to return that I came to write The Unfinished Palazzo.
Venice is an island moored off the coast of reality, a city that floats on water but also floats in time. I know of no other place that draws you so seductively back into its past, especially if you allow yourself to become lost among its maze of tiny alleyways and especially if you walk it by night... Every part of the city feels haunted by ghosts and writing this book I discovered that the Palazzo Venier dei Leoni - the Unfinished Palazzo - has a rich and colourful gallery of its own.
Now known as the Peggy Guggenheim Museum - the coolly modern gallery that houses Peggy’s superb art collection - the palazzo actually dates back to 1750. It was commissioned by one of the city’s most powerful dynasties, the Venier family, but when the family’s fortunes suffered a catastrophic decline construction work on the palazzo was brought to a halt. What had been envisaged as a magnificent five storey dwelling, dominating the Eastern stretch of the Grand Canal, was left at just one storey high; and over the years it was occupied by a succession of increasingly straightened tenants and fell into increasingly sorry decay.
Its fortunes changed in the twentieth century, however, when it became home to three remarkable women; firstly the fabulously rich and eccentric Luisa Casati, who devoted her enormous fortune to transforming herself into a living work of art: secondly the scandalous English socialite Doris Castlerosse (great aunt of the model and actor Cara Delevingne) and finally Peggy Guggenheim, the pioneering collector and patron of modern art.
Investigating the stories of these women and discovering the links between them turned out to be fascinating detective work. But it was no less a pleasure coming to know Venice; and while my research was necessarily focused on Luisa Doris and Peggy I became happily side tracked into other versions of the city, and along the way accumulated a sprawling library of Venice inspired fiction and non-fiction. These are some of books I’d recommend, either as an introduction to the city or as a way of keeping your memories alive between visits.
Venice by Jan Morris
This is the best of all literary introductions to Venice. It’s a beautifully narrated history, describing how this once-brackish area of marshland was transformed into one of the most spectacular and powerful cities in the world. But it is also a kind of biography, crammed with anecdotes and insights that convey Venice’s singularly complex character, its blend of melancholy and gaiety, its ability to juggle the "grand inheritance" of its past with a canny instinct for changing times.. Morris’ description of the Rialto fish market - its "stalls lined deliciously with green fronds, damp and cool" and laden with "a delicately tinted … glistening mass of sea-creatures" will make you dream of a plate of lagoon-fished mullet, consumed in a small canal side restaurant during a soft and briny Venetian twilight.
Watermark by Joseph Brodsky
Most of us go to Venice in the spring or summer, yet it’s during the winter that the city comes into its own - when the crowds are gone, the sea mists roll in, and the nights become heavy with an ancient silence. For the Russian poet Joseph Brodsky this was the season when he felt the city’s mystery most acutely and in Watermark, a collection of forty eight essays or prose poems, he not only captures the city’s shape shifting moods but also his own emotions as he falls under its spell.
In the Company of the Courtesan by Sarah Dunnant
This is the second novel in Sarah Dunnant’s excellently researched trilogy about the lives of women in Renaissance Italy, and it focuses on the adventures of Fiammetta, a buccaneering and beautiful courtesan. Dunnant tells a rollicking good story , but the novel’s power lies in its vivid recreation of the Venetian world of Fiammetta and her fellow courtesans, a community of women who were renowned for their wit and learning, and who were intimate with both sides of 16th century Venice - the city’s shimmering luxury and its dark underbelly of poverty and plague.
The Bellini Card by Jason Goodwin
A very different Venice is evoked in this period detective novel. Goodwin’s unlikely hero is Yashim, a eunuch from the Ottoman court who possesses a rare aptitude for solving crimes, and in The Bellini Card he takes Yashim and his side kick to Venice in search of a lost Bellini portrait. The period is 1840 when La Serenissima is under Austrian occupation, its aristocracy has been stripped its powers and its economy is in serious decline. Goodwin paints a wonderfully convincing picture of the once-fabled city now playing for its life against a tense backdrop of international politics.
The Aspern Papers by Henry James
This classic Venetian novella is also something of a detective story as James tells the story of an American literary sleuth who comes to the city in an attempt to track down private documents belonging to a dead Romantic poet. The prose is sumptuous, - rich with the changing lights of Venice, the sounds of bells, swallows and gently splashing gondolas - but it is also a matchless portrait of the threadbare lives to which the Venetian aristocracy had been reduced by the late 19th century, eking out their days in palazzos, whose “motionless shutters become as expressive as eyes consciously closed” and forced to play host to the wealthy American visitors now invading their city.
The Brunetti novels by Donna Leon
James once described Venice as "an immense collective apartment” , which may be why the city has spawned such an entertaining variety of detective stories. The city’s compact geography makes it comparable to the country house settings of Agatha Christie’s novels and one of the most admirable of all contemporary Venetian detectives is Commissario Guido Brunetti, the wry clever and humane hero of Donna Leon’s novels.
Brunetti is a wonderful guide to the city, his crime-solving taking us far from the tourist sights and into the everyday working lives of real Venetians. Leon herself lived in the city for many years and reading her novels is like taking a walk through its streets, as Brunetti pauses in a local bar for cicchetti and a glass of wine; as he impatiently weaves his way through the tourist-clogged San Marco, or as he takes a moment to stop on a waterfront and gaze out at the panoramic beauty of the place he still loves to call home.
Dream of Venice by JoAnn Locktov
Venice is one of the world’s most written about cities, with its own thesaurus of clichés, and if it’s hard for authors to find a new angle on the place it is equally difficult for photographers. The Dream of Venice series however captures the city in fresh and even surprising detail; with images of intricately water-stained buildings, of children paddling in a flooded San Marco, of light and shadow playing under a tiny bridge that will speak to anyone who’s spent time wandering away from the tourist tracks of Venice.
But there’s also a quietly polemic subtext to this series, as editor JoAnn Lokatov aims to remind her readers that Venice is a real place - where people work, play, and raise families; and that it is now fighting for its survival against the threats of civic corruption, climate change and the unchecked numbers of visitors who are driving out the local population. In the third volume, to be published this Autumn, Locktov suggests that while “Venice has had the audacity to exist as a living city for over 1,500 years”, the question everyone should now be asking is “how much longer” it will be allowed to continue.