Jan Morris: Venice

Ordered by my best friend as a gift in preparation for a trip to La Serenissima in 2020, it finally arrived in 2021, two weeks shy of Venice’s 1600th founding anniversary! It is disappointing that the trip got postponed and that the book took over a year to get delivered because of the pandemic, but part of me is glad that I did not return to Venice without having read this! The details in this book are so rich and they would enrich any traveler.

Jan Morris writes beautifully, intimately, but most of all, truthfully; sometimes even bluntly. She takes us not merely along the lesser known nooks of Venice but also through the unvisited alleys of her tumultuous and mysterious history. “Nothing in the story of Venice is ordinary!”

I especially find it fascinating that even though my readings of late have been focused on the East, Venice is usually part of the narrative.  After all, “In Venice, as any gilded cockatrice will tell you, the East begins.” A major part of the Silk Route, Morris also notes that it is, in fact, the only Christian city marked in Ibn Khaldun’s map.  It will not come as a surprise that my favorite chapter is the seventeenth — Arabesque, because “the allusions of Venice are arabesque.”

Reading this already felt like a return and the book made it possible for me to be there — “through literary proxy,” as Gaston Bachelard would say.  It should also teach the reader about how and how not to travel: “Alas, the truth is that most visitors to Venice, in any case, move among her wonders mindlessly, pumped briskly through the machine and spewed out along the causeway as soon as they are properly processed.” Morris writes, too, of how the city’s “ingrained sadness is swamped with an effulgence of money-making.”

But despite its faults and tourism’s faults… it is still Venezia, which, according to Morris, is “an amphibious society peculiar to herself”; “half land, half sea… somewhere between a freak and a fairytale”; “a sexy city”; “a melancholy city at heart”; “a hall of curiosities.”

“A synonym for music,” echoes Nietzche.

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