on 23 January 2005
Francesco da Mosto's book brings together the threads of history and culture so marvellously presented in his eponymous TV series with a flair for communication that is neither patronising nor overly highbrow - somehow he strikes a balance which is a refreshing change fom the third-hand anecdotes that litter the pages of many guide books. Just when you begin to feel just a little fatigued by the weight of all that history, he drops in a little titbit from his own family's extensively documented accounts and any fatigue is suddenly alleviated. More importantly, unlike many other so-called guides to the city, he asks the awkward but agonisingly relevant question - what will become of Venice? By addressing concerns for its future through the kaleidoscope of its past, Francesco da Mosto has achieved something very unusual - to have breathed a little life into a destination, and a history, that seemed pickled in Aspic until comparatively recently. I've lived and worked in the Veneto for more than a decade and I find myself increasingly asking the kind of questions that da Mosto demands of himself and his readership. Essential if you're going there to live and work, recommended if you're popping over for a holiday, and worthwhile even if you have just a passing interest in chunky coffee-table books about glorious Italian cities.
on 7 November 2004
To see Venice, which is all that tourists do, brings a wave of emotions. Da Mosto brings the reality of Venice into sharp focus. Its pleasures and its pain is there for us to experience - but we cannot do this alone. This is why the book is unique and precious; it opens one's eyes to witness Venice as it was and as it is. Go to Venice - then read the book - then go back to Venice and feel, smell, touch, hear and taste our history, his history! Only a true Venetian could work this kind of magic. The book's perspective is the point of this work - pssionate, truthful and as near as one can get to the soul of the place. There may be clichés - but who faced with such a task could give expression in mere words - Da Mosto puts his spirit into the work - and his spirit is 100% Venetian!
This is the accompanying book to the TV series, but so much more too!
Firstly, the book is replete with stunning photography by John Parker. These in themselves are enough to merit applause, but Francesco's text is a good read and full of personal insight. He clearly is no lightweight historian, but has delved deeply into his own and his city's past.
The book is in five chapters (one more than the TV series) with titles that explain much of the subject they contain: 1. "Water - From the Waters to the City"; 2. "Earth - The Boundaries of Land Enlarge"; 3. "Air - La Serenissima Evaporates"; 4. "Fire - Venice Burns Its Past"; and 5. "Ether - Life under Uncertainty".
There is a healthy dose of scepticism adopted by the author of traditions in relation to the early history of the city, and his own tentative assertions ring true. He is good on this period, whereas other histories skip over it lightly. He focuses on the physical origins of the city and its political beginnings. It was then not a matter of display or grandeur or empire, but trade and commerce and industry, especially where salt and fish were concerned. It is also a healthy sign that Francesco sheds doubt on the blindness of Doge Enrico Dandolo, the scourge of the Fourth Crusade to Constantinople.
He is also good on the Arsenale, which presently lacks any detailed history in English. It is still very much out-of-bounds to tourists, but it would have been nice, though, to have had plans of its development. And I have yet to see in print those marvellous birds' eye view drawings of the naval base before and after Napoleon's conquest. Francesco is also good on the subject of trade, such as the mechanics involved in sailing convoys, as well as their destinations (but, alas, no map, not even any line drawings of how to distinguish a galley, or a galleass from a navi).
There is more emphasis on how Francesco's own family history has become intertwined with that of the city: this is, after all, Francesco's history of his birthplace! We learn of its involvement in the Tiepolo plot of 1310 and in that of Doge Marin Falier, the only doge to be sentenced to death, in 1355. Francesco provides insightful personal reminiscences too about the time he received his first communion in Saint Mark's Cathedral, about his first experience of a Titian painting, about witnessing the fire at the La Fenice opera house, and about life in his own home, which was the setting for part of Anthony Minghella's film "The Talented Mr Ripley." There is much more.
Many of these recollections appear in the numerous additional textboxes that populate the whole book. These allow the reader to focus in more detail on particular aspects, whether it's the doge's hat, robes and regalia, or the antics of Baron Corvo. Those boxes devoted to the language of Venice proved very useful to me. I always wondered why the Venetians often failed to pronounce the suffixes used elsewhere in Italy; Francesco explains that it is partly down to laziness.
There are, as one would expect, many links to the TV series. He repeats in the book his castigation of the bridge to the mainland as a folly; its name - Ponte della Liberta - he insists is ironical. But there are differences with the TV series too. For example, the painter Turner appears nowhere in its pages, but John Singer Sargent appears in his place.
Francesco's coverage of twentieth century Venice is a pleasure to read, as this is often an overlooked episode in its history, for understandable reasons. And yet, it has a richness of drama all of its own, especially in his family reminiscences of war and peace.
So why only four stars? On the negative side, Francesco mentions books in his introduction, but there is no bibliography to guide the reader further into the details of the subjects raised. And where are the maps? Maps of the lagoon would have been useful for placing the city in its geographical setting and for providing bearings in relation to many places named in the early chapters, such as Torcello, Aquileia, Grado, Ravenna and Chioggia.
This review is of the softback print. Unfortunately, there are errors arising from the reduction in size and pages from the original hardback, for example, the "see above" on page 107 is meaningless, as are the picture credits (although these can be worked out with a little patience). The index is good, but there is no entry, for instance, for either "Messeteria" or "Modone".
How does this book compare with the standard introduction to the history of Venice in English by John Julius Norwich? Although Francesco spends some time to accounts about the city's wars in the east and its political relations with the Italian mainland, there is by far a greater amount of information and history given to the development - architectural, social and economic - of the city itself. For example, space is given by Francesco to the paving of streets and the standard of cleanliness, to clothes and how nobles greeted each other (it would have been nice to have one of Longhi's pictures to accompany these social points); you will look almost wholly in vain for such details in Norwich's history. The downside is that there are only two paragraphs devoted to the role of Paolo Sarpi whereas the more political and wider geographical sweep of Norwich's book devotes a chapter or more to the workings out of the papal crisis of the early seventeenth century.
So, `you pays your money and you takes your choice', but if you are seeking an introduction to the city of Venice as opposed to an introduction to the politics and external relations of the city, then Francesco's must be the better buy. However as great as Norwich's history is, it does spend more than half its time on the coasts of the eastern Mediterranean and the plains of Lombardy, rather than in the city itself (see my amazon.co.uk review).