Venice by Marie-José Gransard

Reviewed by Harriet

VeniceI’ve been to Venice twice in my life, both times for regrettably short visits, but unforgettable ones. You can’t help being swept away by the beauty of the place, and on top of that there’s the history – I spent a bit of time studying Byron, who lived there for a while, and so was fascinated to look for the places where he and other famous people from the past had lived. The regular guidebooks will give you a limited amount of information, but if you really want to get a grip on the full picture, you are going to need this deceptively compact book.

Marie-José Gransard has lived in Venice for eleven years, and every year since then she has researched and taught a series of seminars on the city and its culture. This book is the result of that intensive but obviously enjoyable process. It’s divided into six main sections: Faith, Art and Politics; Haven and Inspiration; Illusion and Disillusion; The Grand Tour; Lust and Love; and Death and Mystery. Within each section we learn the histories and dwelling places of those who chose either to make Venice their permanent home or spent a significant amount of time there. A map at the beginning enables an identification of the places referred to, while at the end there’s a glossary of Venetian words and phrases, a complete list of the people and their locations, a chronology ranging from 421-2008, and a comprehensive list of further reading. Nothing if not thorough, then!

I stood in Venice on the Bridge of Sighs,
A prison and a palace on each hand;
I saw from out the wave her structures rise
As from the stroke of the enchanter’s wand.

So wrote Byron, ‘probably the visitor Venice remembers most’, in about 1816. He lived there for three years, writing prolifically and living an undoubtedly dissolute life. He took a lot of exercise, having a horror of gaining weight, and frequently swam from his Palazzo Mocenigo up the Grand Canal to the Lido, where he rode his horse on the beach for hours before swimming across to the Island of St Lazzaro, where his gondolier picked him up with dry clothes.

Whether the bisexual Byron had any leanings towards his gondolier is not known, but if he had, he would certainly not have been alone. In the 18th and 19th centuries, with homosexuality outlawed in Britain, Venice provided an appealing and tolerant haven. The city was full of attractive and apparently available young men, and there were numerous cases of Englishmen who formed close and lasting relationships with their gondoliers, including the poet and art historian John Addington Symonds, the poet A.E. Housman, and the writer Horatio Brown. But of course many heterosexual relationships also flourished, some long lasting, others fleeting, such as those of probably the most famous libertine of them all, Giacomo Casanova, who was born in Venice and lived there for considerable parts of his life.

It’s not all lust and love here, though these do tend to overflow from the confines of their designated chapter. Numerous artists and poets found their inspiration there, people fled there from repressive regimes, wealthy young men stopped there on their obligatory Grand Tours, and more besides. And of course many people died there, some of them by choice. ‘This is a place to die beautifully’, said Virginia Woolf after visiting it on her honeymoon, a sentiment apparently shared by many. Wagner, Browning and Ezra Pound did die there, of natural causes, but the city seems to have attracted an unusually high percentage of suicides. It’s also the scene of Heinrich Mann’s famous novel (later a celebrated film) Death in Venice, and contemporary crime writers such as, most famously, Donna Leon, have made it the location of large numbers of murders.

There’s so much more in this compact but hugely informative little volume, but you’ll have to read it for yourself to find out. It’s definitely for anyone who’s planning a trip to the city anytime soon – or for anyone who already knows Venice but would like to get better acquainted.

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Harriet is one of the editors of Shiny New Books.

Marie-José Gransard, Venice: A Literary Guide for Travellers (I.B.Tauris, 2016). 978-1780769837, 316pp., hardback.

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