Book Review: Venice - History of the Floating City

Venice: History of the Floating Cityby Joanne FerraroCambridge University Press, 2012Venice has inspired as many books as there've been fools to fall in love with the place - the number is vast, in scientific terms, a gazillion. There is no cataloging them all, let alone reading them all, but the nonfiction - the stuff that remains when we've decided to omit the countless romances and murder mysteries, that is - can be roughly grouped into three sub-species. One of these sub-species - by far the most numerous - no sooner gets your attention than it brings up the magic of Venice: these books are full of languid sunsets, handsome gondoliers, and the Bridge of Sighs. They're perennially popular with tourists (armchair and otherwise) and will therefore be with us in all their super-abundance until the last thin spire of the city has sunk beneath the placid waters of the Adriatic. The second sub-species isn't nearly so numerous or demonstrative (although it looks covetously at all those tourist dollars) - it exists solely to strike a cool, defiant tone toward ... you guessed it ... the magic of Venice. Instead, they're about the sham of Venice. Whether it be William Dean Howells, Mary McCarthy, or Peter Ackroyd, the writers of these books spend most of their time talking about grumpy natives, poor plumbing, and gawking tourists. They all go to the Lido and hate it. They all get kept awake at night by wailing cats. In the course of writing their books about Venice, they all complain about how many books have been written about Venice. This second sub-species of book is unfailingly fun to read - until the last chapter, when the supposedly cynical author always commences to fall under the spell.The third sub-species of Venice book is the rarest of the three (only a couple billion of them have been written in the last 1,500 years): books that aren't about the magic of Venice and aren't about the sham of Venice but instead are about ... Venice.

Such is veteran Venice researcher Joanne Ferraro's Venice: History of the Floating City, new from Cambridge University Press. Ferraro has been reading and writing about Venice for many years and is the author of 2008's jargon-prone but very, very good Nefarious Crimes, Contested Justice: Illicit Sex in the Republic of Venice, 1557-1789, and her latest work opens with a salvo seemingly designed to send the much-abused Common Reader speed-boating for the nearest mindless jazz festival:
... I have chosen to emphasize four themes that are timely and important in the postmodern age: the construction and evolution of identities; the multiculturalism of material life; social hierarchy; and gender as a cultural construction.
Even in such a brief warning, there are so many academic buzz-concepts the unwary reader will think he's stumbled into a beehive. But Ferraro's aims are salvaged by her methods: she is a comber of archives, a sifter of municipal records, and throughout this book (as throughout her earlier books, although never quite with this comprehensive a sweep to things) she buttresses her identity-constructions and her gender constructions and other such nonsense with tales of real people doing real things to other real people. Much of Venice: History of the Floating City comes as close to engaged, happy narrative history as a card-carrying academic can get without fear of ostracism. She consistently shows readers a Venice - indeed, many Venices - that they won't find in that super-abundance of dream-lagoon books:
Ordinary people, however, could afford little for their homes as most of their income went for subsistence. They made do with the bare essentials: a bed with modest linens, an iron pot or two for soups and stews with a hanging chain, cooking pans, water pails, lamp and candlestick holders for lighting, benches, and stools.
It's true that even in such moments, the just-arrived-from-Mars tone of academia can creep back in ("Clearly, consumption was a phenomenon of the well-to-do, who had surplus income for purchases beyond basic necessities"), but it's mercifully kept under control in these pages, which are otherwise crammed with fascinating observations about how Venetians of all ranks, er, constructed their lives and larger life of their famous city throughout the centuries. In anatomizing the "Myth of Venice," Ferraro always keeps in mind the mythologizers themselves - and their often bitter internecine strife:
On the eve of the 1630 plague, there were also festering sores in the Venetian leadership. In 1628, Ranieri Zeno challenged the authority of the doge, Giovanni Corner, a scion of one of Venice's oldest dynasties. Belonging to the "Longhi," the groupe of families that had held the dogeship regularly until 1381 but were then kept from high office until Corner's ascendancy in 1612, the doge's expanding influence raised alarm: his sons held both church offices and positions in the Senate, in violation of the laws of the Republic. Zeno, currying the favor of a disgruntled group of impoverished nobles, attempted to break Corner's hold over the Signoria. The reforming impulse, however, fell apart, and the dichotomy between rich and poor continued to cause rifts.
(The unintentional callousness with which professional jargon turns the real into the rarefied can be seen here in that reflexive use of "dichotomy" - there was no "dichotomy" between Venice's rich and poor. There was just a gap - or a gulf, if you're feeling righteous.)
There are earthquakes and plagues and storms to accompany the Republic's countless wars, and they rage always in the background of Ferraro's accounts of the calli and campi (whose "alleys and squares bore the names of those who labored and those who prayed as well as those who governed"), the nobles and nuns and weavers and wealthy merchant-princes whose daily dealings our author assiduously tracks through court records, building deeds, moulding old account ledgers - and a Bibliography that's so extensive it's almost worth the book's asking price all by itself. And there's a refreshingly cosmopolitan note regularly sounded: in these chapters, it isn't just the Polo family voyaging out ... it's the cultural influences of Persia and China flowing in.
Readers who like the Bridge of Sighs sub-species of Venice-books will find Ferraro's steady diet of intellectual carbohydrates not only uninviting but bewildering, and they will quickly wander back to the ghosts of the Rialto. That's a shame - they're missing some invigorating inquiries from this always-interesting author. But readers wanting more than tourist reductions - readers wanting some strong and detailed examinations of city's amazing past and people - will find a great deal to please them. This is Ferraro's best book and not to be missed.