(by Christine V. Courtney) (2017)
Venice is of a set, in that it is a Great City, but it is also sui generis, a brilliant bauble set amid a swamp, a rococo castle in the air, an ornate pagoda floating on water. Venice and its inhabitants, whether citizens or arrivistes, spell romance on a myriad levels, and pose a historical jigsaw of massive scope and complexity, so it makes sense to wander its narrow streets and sail its intricate waterways clutching some sort of evocative Baedeker. Our favourite Venetian history is the massive Folio tome (merging two volumes) by John Julius Norwich (1982), but that’s too heavy to take on a gondola.
Cue Ms Courtney and her sumptuous anthology of Venice, with all or much of its geographical, architectural, poetical and painterly allure. Whilst we must declare that not all of the poems work, and some do not work at all, the attempt to synthesise the Great City’s depth of feeling is laudable, and overall, it does work. Part of that is the wit and discreet taste with which images are presented alongside text or verse (mainly free verse); but the book is more besides. In its roughly linear fashion it serves as a mnemonic as well as a guide, reminding us that Venice stands for Terror as well as Beauty.
“A mosaic of people
Cypriots and Greeks,
Jews and Christians,
fakirs and freaks
have wended their way
through labyrinthine streets:
trudged over bridges
threaded through crowds
balanced on duckboards
waded through water,
to turn her wheel.”
There is finery from Masters such as Canaletto, Titian, Tiepolo, Bellini, Veronese, Dürer and Tintoretto. Oh, and Turner, if you care. And the passing parade includes St. Mark, Marco Polo, Mehmet II, Queen Caterina, various Doges, Veronica Franco, Shakespeare (who probably didn’t visit), Cervantes (who did), Goldoni, Galileo, Elena Piscopia, Vivaldi and Verdi and Wagner, Casanova, Napoleon (‘boo’), Farinelli, Mark Twain, Byron, Thomas Mann, Stravinsky, Hitler and Hemingway (but strangely, hardly any sign of Ruskin). From the high to the low, a representative sample of the famous, notorious, and obscure float easily through the fetching pages.
“Across her Bridge of Sighs,
men have left the life of love,
laughter, and fresh air.
Crossed into despair
locked in dungeons:
all hope snuffed out
in the dank
eclipse of eternal night.”
There is a touch of melancholy here, of course, for Venice has been slowly dying for centuries. It hangs on grimly but could be heading the way of Atlantis, a submerged, watery legend.
Death and morbidity abounds. There’s this magisterial tribute to Wagner, dead in Venice in February 1883:
“the stranger calls in the dying day
to dim the rays, to snuff his light.
Wagner’s lifetime of creativity
paid the ferryman in full.”
This is a book for anyone who has had the luck to see Venice; for anyone intending to go to Venice, and for the rest of us who dream of Venice. It’s a Valentine worthy of its recipient.
“A gondola’s adrift
‘neath a listless moon
rocking on wavelets
of a breathless lagoon.”[Note: To purchase a copy, contact Sea Witch Images at 117 Lipson Street, Port Adelaide, South Australia. Tel (08)8447 5000]
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