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A writer in Venice

A writer in Venice is spoiled: there is nowhere, in this city where the streets are water, you can wander without encountering beauty; not a corner which does not promise some Gothic curl or Renaissance flourish, to captivate the eye and nourish the imagination.

Mary McCarthy's VENICE OBSERVED, suggests that, essentially, there are two kinds of people: those who, temperamentally favour the sunlit brio of Florence, or those who are drawn by the misty reserves of Venice. Like Mary McCarthy I am incurably for Venice. I went there first as a young woman, arrogantly assuming that a place which attracted so many could have nothing special to say to me. People often ask me if there is anything autobiographical in my novel MISS GARNET'S ANGEL. In fact I gave to my heroine the experience I had on first encountering St Mark's. Having arrived by train I walked from the outskirts of Venice, and as I came closer to the city's heart, the Piazza S. Marco - where the Doges set out to wed the sea with rings - I felt my foolish prejudice falter. I remember stopping, as Miss Garnet does, on the wooden Accademia bridge, and seeing the dome of S. Maria della Salute, like a vast soap bubble breasting the Grand Canal, and when I reached the edge of the Piazza, and saw the basilica, like a great pearl adorned with gilded waves of angels mounting to the sky, I fell in love and, happily, have never recovered.

It was on that first visit, too, that I found the Chiesa dell' Angelo Raffaele, and the series of paintings by the elder Guardi which tell the tale of Tobias who travels to Media unaware he accompanied by the Archangel Raphael. This ancient tale, beloved by Renaissance artists, became the story which underpins Miss Garnet's. The Angelo Raffaele is in a part of Venice which few tourists penetrate. The church of the Carmini, a little way along the water-from the Angelo Raffaele, is one of the voluminous Venetian churches with a rich, ghostly interior, and it has my favourite of all the representations of the Tobias story: a Cima altarpiece of the nativity, where Tobias stands with his dog and his fish, holding a kindly Raphael's hand.

Raphael is linked with this part of Venice, near the Maritime Station, because he was the totem of the sailors whose ships came from the East, bringing spice and silk and also the Black Death. Raphael is the angel associated with healing and it was this which gave me the idea that he arrived along with the plague, as a kind of cosmic compensation and companion to ills.

Perhaps because it is a meeting of land and sea, East and West, material and spiritual wealth that Venice

  Death of Venice - Thomas Mann    

evokes this sense of the close connection of contraries: between good and ill, light and dark. Two great novelists, Thomas Mann, in DEATH IN VENICE, and Henry James, in THE ASPERN PAPERS and one, THE WINGS OF THE DOVE, which has influenced me, make Venice the background of love, duplicity and folly. The extraordinary sea-light and the evanescent mists convey a shifting quality which reflects the moral ambiguity of their characters and the prevalence of loss in human relationship. (Perhaps this is why it also prompts thoughts of murder: Shakespeare's OTHELLO; Donna Leon; Michael Dibdin.) Hemingway's ACROSS THE RIVER AND INTO THE TREES is another Venice novel which deals with loss - the hero comes there to die but first to revisit the place and persons he has learned to love there. Love and death, the themes of my own book, are the two major preoccupations of literature and find objective resonance in the atmosphere of Venice.

  A History of Venice - John Julius Norwich as  

But no writer would be without writers on the city itself. The greatest is Ruskin, but only a well-muscled fanatic would cart his STONES OF VENICE there. Better take Sarah Quill's THE STONES REVISITED a digest of Ruskin's Venice with stunning photographs. For expertise my twin bibles are John Julius Norwich's erudite HISTORY OF VENICE and Jan Morris's elegant VENICE. I don't know if it was the inimitable Joe Links who said that you shouldn't have a guidebook in Venice because it is important to be lost there, but his VENICE FOR PLEASURE is an eccentric unguidebookish guide. For me, though, there is no substitute for Hugh Honour's VENICE, which combines aesthetic taste with digestible scholarly detail. If I packed nothing else to go to Venice I would always take my Honour.

Salley Vickers © 2001
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Further Reading
Click on a title to order through




THE ASPERN PAPERS Henry James (Penguin)

DEATH IN VENICE Thomas Mann (Penguin)


Non Fiction:

THE STONES REVISITED (Ashgate) Sarah Quill

HISTORY OF VENICE (Penguin) John Julius Norwich


VENICE FOR PLEASURE (Pallas Athene) Joe Links


VENICE (Faber) Jan Morris

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Salley Vickers