Venice is one of the most written-about and photographed cities. `There is notoriously nothing more to be said on the subject' wrote Henry James in 1909, and he wasn't the first to express that opinion. He went on to qualify the statement (of course!) and then to write some more about Venice.
It's bunk, of course, to say that there's nothing new to be written, not least because with the passing of time the changing attitudes to Venice (and much more) are reflected strongly in what is written.
But talk of changing attitudes cannot mask the constants, at least as perceived by outsiders - death, decay, decline and decadence have dominated the fiction set in Venice as long as there's been fiction. As Venice has been in visible decline from its empty but picturesque 18th Century pomp - and some, such as Ruskin, would say the 1480s - there's been a whole lot of decay to be charted.
The mid-20th Century was the boom time for `serious' contemporary fiction set in Venice. Wilkie Collins's The Haunted Hotel had got the spooky murder thing going and Henry James's The Aspern Papers began the crumbling decadence strand, but it was Barry Unsworth, Daphne DuMaurier and Ian McEwan, among many others, who later ran with both themes.
Less well known than Thomas Mann's Death in Venice, Louis Begley's Mistler's exit and Robert Dessaix's Night letters are also characteristic in having their central characters going to Venice to die. With the strength of this association it's not surprising that murder mysteries set in Venice load down the shelves in the English language sections of Venetian bookshops, despite the famously low levels of serious crime in the city. Donna Leon's Commissario Brunetti series is the famous force in Venice-set crime fiction, but Edward Sklepowich's wiiningly unfrantic Urbino Macintyre mysteries evoke warm memories of The Thin Man's Nick and Norah Charles. Michael Dibdin's detective Aurelio Zen was born in Venice (the letter Z in the surname is a dead giveaway) but his only documented visit is in the novel Dead lagoon, a wintry gem of Venetian writing.
Younger readers in need of dark post-Potter thrills are made welcome in Venice too. Cornelia Funke's playful The Thief Lord and Mary Hoffman's moving City of Masks both make magic of the more sinister side of Venice's reputation for the entertainment of younger (and older) readers. And then there's Michelle Lovric's The Undrowned Child, the first in a series. It's a dark and warm tale set in a dank Venice where mermaids cook curries and fantastic books change lives.
This affinity between Venice and darkness makes it even more surprising that relatively little Venice-set fiction has been set during the Second World War. The original Jewish ghetto is sited in Venice as a gift location, almost, to novelists, but only H. S. Bhabra's Gestures and Joseph Kanon's Alibi have really grasped the nettle of 20th Century anti-Semitism and Nazism in Venice. The former like a good old-fashioned novel of intersecting lives, the latter as a gripping thriller.
Lately there's been a certain falling off of fiction set in modern-day Venice and a swing towards the historical, particularly the 18th Century. But this is a fashion that's far from confined to fiction set in Venice, of course.
The republic's maritime prime is notably readably dealt with in Thomas Quinn's The Lion of St Mark and The Sword of Venice, and The Lion of Venice by Mark Frutkin tells the tale of Marco Polo's trip East. Venice's artistic renaissance history is oddly mostly dealt with through the exploits of modern-day art historians, who come across as somewhat unlovable individuals in David Adams Cleveland's With a gem-like flame and Juan Manuel de Prada's The Tempest. The few novels actually set during the renaissance period tend to concentrate on a strong woman's experience during repressive times - not a few nuns knocking around here.
For strong localised phenomena (and more nuns) we look to Casanova and Vivaldi, and the 18th Century Venice that they share. The very readable volumes of Casanova's own History of my Life have fed some equally enjoyable novels, including M.R. Lovric's Carnevale, and racy biographies, the most recent being by Ian Kelly. Andrea di Robilant's A Venetian Affair gives us more love and intrigue during this period.
But Casanova's world of debauchery and masked deception has recently given way to fictional accounts of the life of Antonio Vivaldi. You'll need both hands to count the number of late-noughties novels dealing with speculation regarding what one might politely call the composer's domestic arrangements. Not much is actually known about his life, and so the scope to invent, particularly with regard to his relationship with his young protégé's at the Pietà (and one Anna Giro in particular) is considerable. The best of these novels have been The Four Seasons by Laurel Corona, which features Vivaldi as something of a secondary, though charismatic, character whilst exploring the lives of two sisters left at the Pietà and Hidden harmonies: the Secret Life of Antonio Vivaldi by André Romijn, which concentrates on the composer and makes some wild guesses at the nature of his relationship with Anna Giro, but also deals deeply and revels in the music. And then sprint 2011 sses the much-anticipated publication of the English translation of Tiziano Scarpa's Stabat Mater - and actula Venetian's take on Vivaldi, seen from the point of view of one of his students.
Sharing Casanova's status as one of the essential primary sources is Marin Sanudo, whose diaries, recently collected plushly by Patricia H. Labalme and Larua Sanguinetti White in a book called Venice, Cità Excelentissima, show us a renaissance Venice rife with political intrigue, mostly. Also during this period Englishman Thomas Coryate provides some much less dry commentary, from a visitor's perspective. In the interests of research, he samples and describes Venetian food and prostitutes with equal gusto and wonderment ...
Jeff Cotton is a librarian and the creator of the Fictional Cities website.