La Serenissima’s story: Venice in fiction down the ages (Column: Bookends XLIII)

By Vikas Datta (09:16)
Most cities have a close connection with water – they may be built astride a river, around a lake, on the seashore or have a canal network, but one city outdoes all.

“To build a city where it is impossible to build a city is madness in itself, but to build there one of the most elegant and grandest of cities is the madness of genius,” said Russian author Alexander Herzen about this settlement built on over 100 islands on a marshy lagoon. But Venice is much more than an architectural rarity; it has had a considerable cultural effect, inspiring an array of renowned literary figures from Shakespeare to Hemingway, and Lord Byron to Vikram Seth as a setting for their most memorable creations.

Venice itself can boast of two icons as far as accounts of activities like adventurous travel and (serial) romantic escapades are concerned – and both, Marco Polo and Giacomo Casanaova, are among the most famous in their chosen work/inclination. But among the first outsiders to feature it was William Shakespeare, who based two of his most famous plays there.

Of these, “The Merchant of Venice” (1596) is potentially troubling to the modern audience because of its theme of anti-Semitism with the money-lender Shylock’s potentially lethal condition for lending money to Antonio (the merchant of the title).

On the other hand, it also has one of the most moving quotes against racial prejudice – by Shylock: “…Hath not a Jew eyes? hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as a Christian is? (Act III, scene 1)”.

And then, there is “The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice” (1603) with its ageless themes of racism, blind love, uncontrollable jealousy, callous betrayal, fierce revenge and repentance, and inspiring other works, including a Bollywood film.

One of Venice’s most famous sons was the Baroque composer and master violinist Antonio Vivaldi and one of the best depictions of the Red Priest (due to his hair colour, not political leaning) is in Barbara Quick’s “Vivaldi’s Virgins” (2007).

Told as the imagined life of real life Anna Maria dal Violin, his pupil at a cloistered orphanage, and her quest to discover her parentage, the novel is a dazzling picture of the Venetian republic at the height of its splendour – and decadence – in the early 18th century.

Venice also inspired the the Romantic period’s finest poets – be it Byron: “Venice once was dear,/The pleasant place of all festivity,/The revel of the earth, the masque of Italy” (Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage), Shelley : “Underneath Day’s azure eyes,/Ocean’s nursling, Venice lies..” (“Lines Written among the Euganean Hills”) and even Longfellow: “White swan of cities slumbering in thy nest/White phantom city, whose untrodden streets/Are rivers, and whose pavements are the shifting/Shadows of the palaces and strips of sky” (“Venice”).

And then, Wordsworth’s tribute in “On the Extinction of the Venetian Republic” (caused by Napoleon): “Once did she hold the gorgeous East in fee;/And was the safeguard of the West: the worth/Of Venice did not fall below her birth,/Venice, the eldest Child of Liberty..”

The city has continued to form the stage, wholly or partly, in myriad works, both literary and popular, including Charles Dickens’ “Little Dorrit”, Henry James’ “The Aspern Papers”, an evocative tale of a publisher’s attempt to get his hands on letters of a deceased poet from his old girlfriend, Thomas Mann’s “Death in Venice”, Daphne du Maurier’s “Echoes from the Macabre”, Ernest Hemingway’s lyrically tragic “Across the River and Into the Trees”, Patricia Highsmith’s psychological thriller about an amoral con-man “The Talented Mr Ripley” and not the least, Vikram Seth’s “An Equal Music”.

Jason Goodwin, author of the Yashim series about the eponymous eunuch serving the Ottoman sultans in the 1830s, sets one of the books, “The Bellini Card” in Venice, as Yashim and his friend, the Polish envoy to Istanbul, search for a famous painting coveted by the sultan.

Present-day detectives have not bypassed the city, with one of its wayward sons – Michael Dibdin’s languorous Aurelio Zen, whose adventures take him all over Italy – returning home in “Dead Lagoon” while Donna Leon’s Commissario Guido Brunetti attempts to solve varied crimes, and the more difficult task of ensuring justice, across nearly two dozen books of his series.

Bringing the circle around is Erica Jong’s “Shylock’s Daughter” (1987) which sees an American actress in Venice – “the city of mirrors, the city of mirages, at once solid and liquid, at once air and stone” – for a film festival, transported back in time to become heroine of a new theatrical venture by an enigmatic young playwright – Will Shakespeare!

La Serenissima (The Serene One) doesn’t seem to stop being a stage for the human condition in all its hues any time soon.

(07.12.2014 – Vikas Datta is an Associate Editor at IANS. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at vikas.d@ians.in)

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