The Spirit of Venice: From Marco Polo to Casanova

Roger Crowley looks at an alternative history of the Republic of Venice, told through the stories of some of its most colourful characters

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Reviewed by: Roger Crowley
Author: Paul Strathern
Publisher: Jonathan Cape
Price (RRP): £25

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For John Julius Norwich, one of the difficulties of writing about Venice was its instinctive horror of the cult of personality. When compared with the wider Italian Renaissance, the republic’s history seems short of colourful, engaging characters. Paul Strathern takes up the challenge. He aims to modify the sense of Venice’s cool impersonality with a history told through the lives of a rich succession of its participants in the centuries from Marco Polo to the republic’s final collapse at the hands of Napoleon.

It’s an approach that has both plusses and minuses. Strathern certainly makes Venice appear a more human place. Across these pages pass galley commanders and doges, chancers, heroes, villains and human oddities.

He includes visitors as well as natives, whose fates are often curious or tragic. There is Marin Falier, the only doge to be executed for treason; the poignant figure of Caterina Cornaro, queen of Cyprus, whose life was cynically manipulated for state ends; the condottieri (mercenary leaders) Carmagnola and Colleoni; the gambling genius John Law and Mozart’s librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte – who was banished from Venice and ended up as
a Philadelphia grocer.

One of Strathern’s particular strengths is the emphasis he places on the republic’s cultural and intellectual vitality in mathematics and science in addition to music and art. Giordano Bruno and Galileo find their place here, and Tartaglia, who discovered a way of solving cubic algebraic equations and demolished rivals in mathematical contests, as well Titian, Tintoretto, Monteverdi and Vivaldi.

Padua, within the ambit of Venice’s territory, particularly emerges as a centre of Renaissance learning, where new ideas about the physical world are generated and fiercely debated. This is a welcome corrective to more soft-focussed views of the city’s past.

Strathern also sketches out fascinating aspects of the social life of Venice. The fate of women of a certain class is brought vividly to life. Some are immured in convents and create scandal. Others take the perilous path of the courtesan. Among other groups of outsiders, he shows how the Jews were both carefully controlled in their ghetto (a Venetian word) but were also indispensable to the city’s economic life as money lenders.

There are, however, downsides to this book’s approach. At times it resembles a series of amiable, but loosely linked pen portraits. Attempts to draw out the essence of Venice from these are somewhat perfunctory, and the sketch of the city’s narrative history in a book of this length means that coverage is intermittent or sometimes reduced to quick summary. The style could be crisper. Overall there’s an old-fashioned feel to the structure – a throwback to a 19th-century ‘glimpses from history’ model of writing.

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The Spirit of Venice is aimed squarely at the general reader. If you want an entertaining read on Venice this book has much to offer. It certainly resists many of Venice’s more decorous cultural mythologies. If, however, you already know a certain amount about the city’s history, you may come away a little disappointed.