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3.8 out of 5 stars
3.8 out of 5 stars
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A work of synthesis and integration as Peter Ackroyd reads everything that has been written about Venice rather than uncovering new sources or conducting original research, but what he adds to the material is a poet's imagination in making metaphorical connections which colour his - and our - view of this version of Venice.

This is often more like a collection of thematic essays rather than a linear 'biography' of the city: some of it is relatively well-known - the Venice of the nuns and courtesans, the masked balls, the slavery, banking and trade of nascent capitalism; but there are nice illuminating moments too.

Some of the connections can feel a bit forced - Venice is both parsimonious and lavish, according to which idea Ackroyd needs in the moment; both conservative and radically innovative; both patriarchal and allowing women an unprecedented freedom. And my biggest criticism is that there is a defiance of a sense of historicism here as we whizz from the sixteenth- to the nineteenth century often in a single sentence: as if Venice is timeless, somehow outside of time, always the same despite the changes in the world outside.

All the same, this is a gloriously pleasurable read: a book that has absorbed a lot of information and reconstituted it via Ackroyd's vision.
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on 1 May 2017
love it
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on 9 July 2015
I bought this after a visit to Venice becuase I wanted to learn more about the city. I enjoyed this book and got a real sense of the culture and history behind the city as it stands today. I would say that, if you are looking for a history packed with facts and detailed stories then this might not be the book for you. I would consider it a rather romantic and poetic account of Venice during its existence, which can feel a little vague in parts.
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on 2 February 2011
As a Venetian living in London, I have picked up this book out of nostalgia...and because all books (written in Italian) about Venice I have ever read were essentially aimed to display the knowledge of the author! What Peter Akroyd does in this book, is to organise the content in themes, making historic fact more "digestible" for the reader, because everything follows a logic path. Dates bore me to death, so for me, this way of getting information really works. This is, even if founded on solid historic background, quite an emotive book, that makes you see how this amazing city evolved and giving a sense of what life in the city must have been throughout centuries. Only somebody with a huge sensibility and intelligence could have written so delicately, capturing all nuances of my hometown. On quite a few passages, I almost felt I was there, hundreds of years ago, walking inside that "big mosque" that is the Basilica. Absolutely unmissable.
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on 10 August 2011
Ackroyd's writing tends to be a matter of love or hate judging by these reviews. What some might call descriptive, evocative eloquence others will find flowery, long-winded and unclear. Unfortunately, I found myself leaning more towards the latter opinion.

The sheer concentration of adjectives and high-flown metaphors makes you almost suspicious that Venice's story isn't exciting enough on its own without having to be padded out with purple prose. There is no doubt Ackroyd knows his stuff, but the facts and the story which should speak for themselves are obscured by metaphors to satin silk and mirrors and glass and whatnot that are as cliched as they are distracting.

Perhaps I'm a bit too much of a philistine in failing to understand the power of Ackroyd's detailed verbal portraits, but whether you love his style or hate it, I feel quite safe in saying that this book can be quite difficult to get through at times.
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on 4 September 2009
Yes, this is magisterial, beautifully written - but, typically of Ackroyd, too many questionable sweeping assertions sometimes impede the flow of what should be a rollicking good read. For every "wow!" there is a corresponding "huh?" It can be argued this is what makes Ackroyd unique.

If you know and love Venice, you'll enjoy this. If you don't, it will pique your curiosity. And you might agree with Shakespeare's Holofernes: "Venetia, Venetia, chi non ti vede, non ti pretia!" (Venice - whoever doesn't see you, doesn't esteem you.)

Let's start with the "wow!" Wide-ranging, learned and instructive. As with his London: The Biography, Ackroyd dives headfirst into the water surrounding Venice's 117 islands, fishing for primal origins and finding it an elemental metaphor for the city. Chapter 2, "City of St Mark," deals with the refugees who settled there. Then comes the golden age of state power, commerce and trade. This also embraces the merchants of the Rialto and the Jews in the Ghetto.

By Chapter 6, Ackroyd is back in rhapsodic mode, with "Timeless City," including ruminations on the bells. The next section, "Living City," humanises the city, with fascinating subsections on Body and Buildings; Learning and Language; Colour and Light (fabulous work with the artists including Bellini, Tintoretto and Titan); and Pilgrims and Tourists. Then Ackroyd moves on to carnival and carnal aspects, including the "Eternal Feminine" (virgin and whore). Similarly, Sacred City considers heavenly and hellish aspects - which seem to win out in "Shadows of History" with its Death in Venice theme.

And now for the "huh?" factor. There's a lingering suspicion about some of the connections: is the mirror-like surface of the Lagoon like glass, which, conveniently made in Murano, stands as a metaphor for the City? Does Venetian satin, conveniently called watered silk, like the watery and "undulating" floor of St Mark's, echo the water surrounding the whole city? Are the pinky green stones of the buildings the colours of flesh and bone, thus personifying the entire urban building fabric? And is watery Venice a place of "liminal fantasies of death and rebirth?"

Some will be inspired, others irritated. But there's no denying Ackroyd's learning, creativity, gusto and grace.
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VINE VOICEon 1 November 2009
I am a great admirer of the work of Peter Ackroyd. Ever since I read `Hawksmoor`
I have sought out all I can of his writing whether it be fiction or non-fiction. I was therefore looking forward to his most recent publication `Venice`. Sadly I can only say I was disappointed.
Perhaps Peter Ackroyd is best known for his numerous books about London. This would be understandable since each of them is outstanding in its own right, together they are a monument to one man`s love and appreciation of one of the greatest cities of the world. Unfortunately the samew cannot be said for `Venice`. Perhaps my expectations were set too high. I read the book looking for the spark to ignite the narrative-it did not happen. Throughout I could not help thinking the author`s heart was not in the writing nor, more surprisingly, the city.
In fairness, the fault could be all mine because I had recently re-read Jan Morris`s book of the same name. Reading Morris`s book had been a pleasure from start to finish simply because the author made me feel the same way about the city. This never happened with Peter Ackroyd`s book. Too often I felt the latter book had been written to a formula. The layout of the chapters are similar to those of Morris`s book. Was this accidental or deliberate?
I admit this is a partial view and I do not really want to dissuade anyone from reading Peter Ackroyd. All I would really suggest is that if you are a newcomer to Peter Ackroy`s work choose another of his books and if you want a book about Venice read the one by Jan Morris
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on 20 September 2011
I am a fan of Ackroyd's and was looking forward to this book as a bit of a tangential take on the general history/travelguide book of Venice. I tried hard to lull myself into it - glass of wine, log fire - but to no avail. I grew more and more irritated by the author's stream of consciousness approach in a series of insubstantial and unsubstantiated string of essays which seem to have bypassed any editor - or maybe the editor had just gone into a coma by this stage and thought anything by Ackroyd was sure to sell, so why bother. Any chance of a refund?
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 26 July 2013
This is a thoroughly enjoyable biography of Venice. I found the writing style very engaging, and I learned a lot about the city and its history. Although the book is organised into themes rather than as a chronological history , it is easy to follow the development of the city from the middle ages from up to the present day, through this vivid and entertaining account. There is quite a collection of characters in the pages; Tintoretto, Vivaldi, Marco Polo, Casanova, Canaletto, Saint Mark, and Napoleon all feature in the narrative, and all contributed in their own way to what is a unique and fascinating place.

The author, Peter Ackroyd, makes clear that the pursuit of wealth and trade underpinned Venetian society, and this single minded focus facilitated, and was supported by, relative stability of government and life.

I found this to be a real pleasure to read, and it has certainly motivated me to visit Venice again as soon as possible
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on 18 February 2013
I bought this book after having read Ackroyd's impressive "Life of Thomas More" (published 1991), and have now been left wondering what happened to Ackroyd in the meantime. His book on More is tight and compelling, whereas this one is as sloppy as they come. The most infuriating thing about "Pure City" is that in this book, at least, Ackroyd enjoys a good over-generalization just as much as the Marquis de Sade enjoyed a good smacking.

Let me give you one of the most egregious examples. The last chapter of "Pure City" is supposedly about Venetian music, its character, and its part in the life of the city. But the chapter is essentially about one particular composer, Vivaldi, and mentions - in passing - but one other Venetian composer (Galuppi). Vivaldi may indeed be the best-known Venetian composer, but can we generalize from him to ALL of Venetian music? Ackroyd does exactly that, and claims not only that Vivaldi was the "acme" of Venetian music, but that Venetian music is marked by a "ferocious gaiety", and "provokes astonishment and admiration, rather than contemplation. Yet it could also be unruly and abrupt, with sudden and unexpected turns both in melody and harmony. It is often eccentric or extravagant. It sometimes relishes strangeness, or what were known as bizzarria. It has an eastern flavour."

Now anyone with a deeper knowledge of Venetian music than that which comes from owning a recording of the Four Seasons will see the problem here. To give just the easiest of counter-examples: Giovanni Gabrieli was surely more "Venetian" in his musical education, and had more influence on later musicians both in Venice and in the rest of Europe, than Vivaldi. And yet if, when listening to Gabrieli, you are struck by anything resembling "ferocious gaiety" or "bizzarria", then you will need to get your head checked. Why did Ackroyd insist on including this chapter in the book, when it appears that he has never bothered to listen to music by more than one Venetian composer?

At least Ackroyd's over-generalizations about music can be disputed. Other statements in "Pure City" are so vague as to lose all possible meaning. Try this paragraph: "From the 14th to the 18th centuries Venice became the city of luxury goods. Luxury may be defined as a form of erotic display, a deep response to the refinements of sensation. It suggests delicacy and rarefied pleasure. One need hardly add that it encourages further and further consumption. We need many things as the staples of life, but we desire even more. Desire lies in the open mouth of the consumer. Venice has always been known as a sensual city, whether in the ubiquity of its courtesans or in the lush canvases of its painters" etc. Perhaps the wine I drink is not as airy-fairy good as Ackroyd's, because for me, the only information contained in this paragraph is: Venice had something to do with luxury goods. Can YOU see what Ackroyd means when he writes that "desire lies in the open mouth of the consumer?" Or how about these two gems, from captions for the book's illustrations: "Glass is material sea." "In Venice oil paint can be liquid music."

Even when Ackroyd's thinking in "Pure City" is not as sloppy as the above examples, he often couches his thoughts in sloppy prose. Describing Venetians' devotion to the Virgin, he writes that "There were artists who did nothing else but execute cheap images of the Madonna known disparagingly as madonnieri." Ackroyd's placement of "madonnieri" in this sentence would lead you to believe that the images were called by this name, while in reality the word - with its "iere" ending - refers to the artists who created them. A simple change in word order would eliminate the ambiguity, and I bet Ackroyd is old enough to remember the days when a sentence as slipshod as this one would never have made it past a Year 10 English teacher.

Or for just one final, glorious example, look at this passage about collecting: "Private collecting was a Venetian phenomenon of the 16th and 17th centuries. It created new forms of demand, and new methods of accumulation; it made the act of possession intrinsically worthwhile. The consumer could pose as the connoisseur. The sybarite could become a humanist saint. He was called a virtuoso. The first known collections were Venetian, dating from the 14th century. But the obsession with studioli or curiosity shops just grew and grew."

What could Ackroyd possibly be trying to achieve by putting the 14th century after the 17th century here? Did this book even have an editor?

In short, if you are in prison and your keeper offers you nothing to read but "Venice: Pure City," then by all means open it up. Otherwise save your money for books whose authors take their work seriously.
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