Venice: Pure City

Venice: Pure City

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With Venice: Pure City, Peter Ackroyd is at his most magical and magisterial, presenting a glittering, evocative, fascinating, story-filled portrait of the ultimate city.

“Ackroyd provides a history of and meditation on the actual and imaginary Venice in a volume as opulent and paradoxical as the city itself. . . . How Ackroyd deftly catalogues the overabundance of the city’s real and literary tropes and touchstones is itself a kind of tribute to La Serenissima, as Venice is called, and his seductive voice is elegant and elegiac. The resulting book is, like Venice, something rich, labyrinthine and unique that makes itself and its subject both new and necessary.” —Publishers Weekly

The Venetians’ language and way of thinking set them aside from the rest of Italy. They are an island people, linked to the sea and to the tides rather than the land. This lat¬est work from the incomparable Peter Ackroyd, like a magic gondola, transports its readers to that sensual and surprising city.

His account embraces facts and romance, conjuring up the atmosphere of the canals, bridges, and sunlit squares, the churches and the markets, the festivals and the flowers. He leads us through the history of the city, from the first refugees arriving in the mists of the lagoon in the fourth century to the rise of a great mercantile state and its trading empire, the wars against Napoleon, and the tourist invasions of today. Everything is here: the merchants on the Rialto and the Jews in the ghetto; the glassblowers of Murano; the carnival masks and the sad colonies of lepers; the artists—Bellini, Titian, Tintoretto, Tiepolo. And the ever-present undertone of Venice’s shadowy corners and dead ends, of prisons and punishment, wars and sieges, scandals and seductions.

Ackroyd’s Venice: Pure City is a study of Venice much in the vein of his lauded London: The Biography. Like London, Venice is a fluid, writerly exploration organized around a number of themes. History and context are provided in each chapter, but Ackroyd’s portrait of Venice is a particularly novelistic one, both beautiful and rapturous. We could have no better guide—reading Venice: Pure City is, in itself, a glorious journey to the ultimate city.

Peter Ackroyd
Venice: Pure City


I would like to thank my two research assistants, Thomas Wright and Murrough O’Brien, for their invaluable work on this project. I would also like to extend my thanks to my editor, Jenny Uglow, and my copy-editor, Jenny Overton.

List of Illustrations

Section One

i1.1 Cristoforo Sabbadino, Map of Venice, c.1557. Archivio di stato, Venice/Cameraphoto Arte Venezia/Bridgeman

i1.2 Perspective plan of Venice (detail). Musée du Louvre, Paris/Cameraphoto/Bridgeman

i1.3 The mosaics in Saint Mark’s cathedral, late 14c. Alinari/Rex Features

i1.4 The Madonna, cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta, Torcello, early 13c. akg-images/Cameraphoto

i1.5 The Flood, mosaic in the narthex, western portico, of Saint Mark’s cathedral, 13c. akg-images/Erich Lessing

i1.6 Tintoretto (Jacopo Robusti), The Stealing of the Body of Saint Mark, 1562–66. Galleria dell’Accademia/Cameraphoto/Bridgeman

i1.7 The Lion of Saint Mark, 15c., Museo Correr/Bridgeman

i1.8 Monks praying to Saint Theodore, from a Mariegola, 1350. Museo Correr/Bridgeman

i1.9 Simon Marsden, The columns of Saint Mark and Saint Theodore, Piazzeta San Marco. The Marsden Archive, UK/Bridgeman

i1.10 Gentile Bellini, Procession on the Piazza S. Marco, 1496. Galleria dell’Accademia/akg-images/Erich Lessing

i1.11 Piazza S. Marco, c.1880–90. Roger-Viollet/Rex Features

i1.12 Gentile Bellini, The Miracle of the Cross on San Lorenzo Bridge, 1500. Galleria dell’Accademia/Bridgeman

i1.13 Francesco Guardi, The Departure of the Bucintoro towards the Lido on Ascension Day (detail), 1766–70, Musée du Louvre/Giraudon/Bridgeman

i1.14 Vittore Carpaccio, The patriarch of Grado heals a possessed man on the Rialto Bridge (detail), 1494 Galleria dell’Accademia/akg-images/Cameraphoto

Section Two

i2.1 Paolo Veronese, The Battle of Lepanto, 1571. Galleria dell’Accademia, Venice/akg-images

i2.2 Plan of the Arsenal. Museo Correr, Venice/Bridgeman

i2.3 Franceso Segala, a Venetian warship, on the Mausoleum of Girolamo Michiel, c. 1558–59. Basilica of Sant’Antonio, Padua/Bridgeman

i2.4 Sign for the Marangoni family of shipbuilders, 1517. Museo Correr/Alinari/Bridgeman

i2.5 Jan van Grevenbroeck, Dredging a Canal, 18c. Museo Correr/Giraudon/Bridgeman

i2.6 Jan van Grevenbroeck, An Oar-Maker from the Arsenal, 18c. Museo Storico Navale, Venice/Bridgeman

i2.7 Jan van Grevenbroeck, A Venetian Doctor during the Plague, 18c. Museo Correr/Bridgeman

i2.8 Jan van Grevenbroeck, Venetian Bellmaker’s Shop, 18c. Museo Correr/Bridgeman

i2.9 Venetian glass in the Pauly showrooms, Milan, 1910. Alinari/Rex Features

i2.10 Lace workers on Burano, 19c. Collezione Naya-Bohm, Venice/Bridgeman

i2.11 Ferdinando Ongania, A Venetian Courtyard, c. 1880. Museo di Storia della Fotografia Fratelli Alinari, Florence/Bridgeman

i2.12 A funeral gondola, 1880–1920. Collezione Naya-Bohm, Venice/Bridgeman

i2.13 Giovanni Pividor, The railway bridge across the lagoon, from Views of Principal Monuments in Venice, 1850. Bridgeman

i2.14 The remains of the Campanile, La Domenica del Corriere, 27 July 1902. Cameraphoto Arte Venezia Corriere/Bridgeman

i2.15 “Windows of the Early Gothic Palaces,” from John Ruskin, The Stones of Venice, 1851–3

Section Three

i3.1 Giovanni Bellini, Leonardo Loredan, Doge of Venice, c.1501. National Gallery, London/Bridgeman

i3.2 Joseph Heintz, Audience with the Doge in the College of the Ducal Palace, early 17c. Museo Correr/Bridgeman

i3.3 Pietro Uberti, Portrait of three lawyers, Orazio Bembo, Orazio Angarano and Melchior Gabriel, 1730. Palazzo Ducale/Cameraphoto/Bridgeman

i3.4 Jacobello del Fiore, Justice and the Archangels, 1421. Galleria dell’Accademia/Cameraphoto/Bridgeman

i3.5 The lion’s mouth. Palazzo Ducale/Bridgeman

i3.6 The Pozzi prison, from Vedute delle Prigioni, 18c. Museo Correr/Bridgeman

i3.7 Vittore Carpaccio, Dream of Saint Ursula, 1495, Galleria dell’Accademia/Cameraphoto/Bridgeman

i3.8 Pietro Longhi, The Tailor, 1742–3. Galleria dell’Accademia/Cameraphoto/Bridgeman

i3.9 Pietro Longhi, The Geography Lesson, c.1750–2. Galleria Querini-Stampalia/Bridgeman

i3.10 Pietro Longhi, The Perfume Seller, c.1750. Ca’Rezzonico, Museo del Settecento/Alinari/Bridgeman

i3.11 Madonna of Mercy, 16c. Museo Correr/Alinari/Bridgeman

i3.12 Paolo Veneziano, Madonna and Child Enthroned with Two Devout People, 14c. Galleria dell’Accademia/Cameraphoto/Bridgeman

i3.13 Giovanni Battista Cima da Conegliano, The Coronation of the Virgin, late 15c. Santi Giovanni e Paolo, Venice/Cameraphoto/Bridgeman

i3.14 Giorgione (Giorgio da Castelfranco), The Tempest, c.1506–8. Galleria dell’Accademia/Cameraphoto/Bridgeman

i3.15 Giovanni Bellini, Young Woman at Her Toilet, 1515. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna/akg-images/Erich Lessing

i3.16 Titian (Tizian Vecellio), Venus of Urbino (detail), before 1538. Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence/Bridgeman

Section Four

i4.1 Paolo Veronese, The Marriage Feast at Cana (detail), c. 1562. Musée du Louvre/Giraudon/Bridgeman

i4.2 Gabriele Bella, Concert by the girls of the hospital music societies in the Procuratie, Venice, 18c. Galleria Querini-Stampalia/Bridgeman

i4.3 Francesco Guardi, The Parlour of the San Zaccaria Convent, 18c. Ca’Rezzonico, Museo del Settecento, Venice/Bridgeman

i4.4 Pietro Bianchi, Cross-section of a theatre on the Grand Canal, 1787

i4.5 Alessandro Longhi, Carlo Goldoni, 18c. Casa Goldoni, Venice/Bridgeman

i4.6 Jan van Grevenbroeck, Venetian Noblemen in a Café, 18c. Museo Correr/Bridgeman

i4.7 Giandomenico Tiepolo, Pulcinella with Acrobats, fresco 1793. Ca’Rezzonico, Museo del Settecento/Alinari/Bridgeman

i4.8 Francesco Guardi, Three Masked Figures in Carnival Costume, c.1765. Museo Correr/Bridgeman

i4.9 Canaletto (Giovanni Antonio Canal), Regatta on the Grand Canal, 1735–40. Bowes Museum, Barnard Castle, County Durham/Bridgeman

i4.10 V. Ponga, Masked Ball in Saint Mark’s Square, 19c. Caffe Quadri, Venice/Bridgeman

i4.11 Gabriele Bella, Battle with Sticks on the Ponte Santa Fosca, 18c. Galleria Querini-Stampalia/Giraudon/Bridgeman

i4.12 Gabriele Bella, Game of Bowls in the Campo dei Gesuiti, 18c. Galleria Querini-Stampalia/Bridgeman

i4.13 Sir Claude Francis Barry Bart., RBA, The Bridge of Sighs, etching, c.1930. Private collection/Bridgeman/

i4.14 Cover of René Jeanne, Casanova, 1927, with photographs from Andre Volkoff 1926 film. Private collection/Archives Charmet/Bridgeman

i4.15 Hugo d’Alesi, travel poster for the Chemin de fer de l’Est, Paris to Venice, 19c. Stapleton Collection/Bridgeman

Part Titles. The vignettes, engraved by Dionisio Moretti, are taken from Antonio Quadri, Il Canal Grande di Venezia (1831)

Venice: Pure City

I City from the Sea

Venice: Pure City


They voyaged into the remote and secluded waters. They came in flat-bottomed boats, moving over the shallows. They were exiles, far from their own cities or farms, fleeing from the marauding tribes of the North and the East. And they had come to this wild place, a wide and flat lagoon in which fresh water from the rivers on the mainland and salt water from the Adriatic mingled. At low tide there were mud-flats all around, cut through with streams and rivulets and small channels; at high tide there were small islands of silt and marsh-grass. There were shoals covered with reeds and wild grasses, rising just a little way above the waters. There were patches of land that were generally submerged but, at certain low tides, rose above the water. There were desolate marshes that the water only rarely covered. The salt marshes and the shore seemed from a distance to make up the same wide expanse, marked with ponds and islets. There were swamps here, too, as dark and uninviting as the waters that the tide did not reach. A line of islands, made up of sand and river debris, helped to protect the lagoon from the sea; these were covered with pine woods.