Italian Venice: A History

R.J.B Bosworth, Italian Venice: A History, Yale University Press, 2014.

R.J.B. Bosworth is addicted to the mingling and competing atmospheres that make up the history of Italian cities. In his book on Rome, Whispering City (reviewed here), he showed how the conflicting pasts of the ‘Eternal City’ were continuously rearranging themselves as one or other faction achieved control over the narrative. Here he applies the same approach to Venice, surveying the city’s history after it was absorbed into mainland Italy in 1866.

Bosworth’s survey is valuable because there is only one full-length English study of Venice’s recent history on the market, Margaret Plant’s Venice, Fragile City 1797–1997, also from Yale (2002). Plant’s is a rich and beautifully illustrated volume, Bosworth’s more penetrating and cynical, and the two together now give the Venice enthusiast a full perspective on a period that has traditionally been neglected in favour of the centuries of Venice’s greatness.

In 1866, the economy of Venice was in a precarious state with the Austrian port of Trieste a major rival for trade. Infant mortality was high and the poor, living on the lower floors of historic buildings, suffered from damp and overcrowding, with employment limited to traditional crafts. In the later 19th century some fresh opportunities were offered by cotton, tobacco and the Stucky flour mill (recently repurposed as the Hilton Hotel), as well as expansion on the mainland at Mestre but the city has never created its own sustainable economy independently of tourism. 31,000 Venetians were unemployed in 1931.

As a result two Venices co-exist throughout this book: the Venice of partying along the Grand Canal and the Venice of an underemployed local population locked in poor housing. While in his rented palazzo on the Grand Canal in the 1920s, the song-writer Cole Porter and his coterie of young Venetians were taking advantage of Porter’s wife’s absence to disport themselves in her dresses and snort cocaine, 40 percent of the population, according to an estimate of 1933, supplemented their diet with molluscs picked at low tide from the polluted rocks and mud. Typhus was endemic.

Yet Venice has always had competing identities. Was the city founded by refugees from Troy and so equal to Rome in antiquity or did it emerge under the patronage of the Virgin Mary on the Feast of the Annunciation in 421? The Patriarch Guiseppe Sarto, later pope Pius X, naturally favoured the latter. When the Campanile in Piazza San Marco collapsed in July 1902 without damaging the Basilica, he soon had a sacred image of the Virgin on the altar as a thanksgiving for her protection. This austere prelate set in place an uncompromising distaste for the frivolity of life in the palazzi of the Grand Canal. Yet once canonised, the visit of his embalmed body to Venice brought out massive crowds as it made its way up that same canal in a vessel rowed by eighteen oarsmen in 18th-century dress. Bosworth does well to remind us of the persistent Catholicism of a city that has provided three recent popes from its patriarchs.

One patriarch, Adeodato Giovanni Piazza, appointed in 1935, proved an adept supporter of the Fascist regime, celebrating its victories, applauding the alliance with Nazi Germany and mixing quotations from Mussolini with those of the gospels. Obsessed with swearing and the lascivious dress of women, Piazza was upstaged by the city’s most successful industrialist, former governor of the conquered Libya and Minister of Finance, Giuseppe Volpi, whose flaunting of Fascist culture in the shape of music and film festivals as well as the well-established Biennale, allowed him to claim that Venice was the vetrina or showcase of Italy and himself as ‘the last doge’. With such flamboyant propagandists for the regime, it was disappointing that police reports (well exploited by Bosworth) repeatedly showed the refusal of the city’s population to take on board, or even to understand, the transformation in attitudes required of them. When an attempt was made to exclude the polite, traditional lei, and replace it by the more militant voi, the gondoliers robustly replied that the language taught to them by their mothers was quite good enough. Eighty percent of the city’s Jews survived the war, many concealed by their neighbours.

As Mussolini’s regime crumbled, there was much reshuffling of allegiances. Venice had suffered badly in the First World War, bombed, and almost captured after the disastrous Italian defeat at Caporetto in 1917. The Second World War was ignored as much as possible and the façade of Fascism quickly abandoned on Italy’s surrender. Between January 1943 and January 1944, membership of the local Fascist party tumbled from 88,000 to 4,000. It was as if an acqua alta had receded without leaving much debris. Volpi was especially adept. Briefly imprisoned because of his adherence to Fascism, his contacts got him out of prison. Escaping to Switzerland, he then bought himself back to respectability by a large donation to the Resistance movement and the handing over of his newspaper, Il Gazzettino, to the Christian Democratic Party. The US general Mark Clark obligingly praised the city for its resistance to Fascism and its transfer of its facilities to the liberators intact. A bronze statue of La Partigiana, ‘the [female] partisan’, near the Giardini, now commemorates the successful resistance of the city to Fascism and Nazism.

The pressures are immense, even if a canny survivor, Massimo Cacciari, mayor of the city in 1993–2000 and 2005–2010, a former Communist philosopher who championed free enterprise once in power, proved able to manipulate them. However, the factions that support or oppose any attempt to change the fabric of the city, from the Calatrava Bridge to the Fondaco dei Tedeschi shopping centre, create the image of a petrified city edging, as often before in its history, towards extinction. The weight of the traditional refrain, com’era e dov’era, ‘how it was and where it was’, still grips Venice, supported not least by its more romantic visitors. Polly Coles’s Venice and the Politics of Washing (reviewed here) evokes the harassed lives of the remaining inhabitants. ‘Only God can now save us,’ remarked the former Marxist Cacciari.

In a concluding meditation, Bosworth notes how the primary narrative of the city’s past denies its contemporary history by focusing too heavily on a supposed past period of greatness (to which optimists believe the city can return). Perhaps in a tourist city, where so much energy is diverted to extracting profit from its visitors, this is inevitable; but Bosworth’s sober perspective is an important and informative one that can only add to a greater understanding of a city that risks being suffocated as much by literary gush (some fine examples quoted by Bosworth in his Introduction) as by the acqua alta.

Meanwhile behind all the cosmetic changes lurks the cumbersome and vastly expensive MoSE barrier, its completion long promised. The world waits to know whether it will solve the problems of flooding or, as some sceptics suggest, simply trap the river waters that run into the lagoon. The patriarch had better keep his sacred statues of the Virgin Mary at the ready.

Reviewed by Charles Freeman, historical consultant to the Blue Guides and author of the Historical Introduction to Blue Guide Venice.

A tale of three museums

Turkey has a comparatively long history in the business of setting up museums. As early as 1869 the decision had been taken to create a purpose-built Imperial Museum in Istanbul, grand enough to rival the Louvre in Paris. The idea was that provincial governors would fill it up by forwarding the best findings from their areas—from all over the Ottoman Empire, which was pretty extensive at the time. Under the leadership of Osman Hamdi Bey, a man of many talents, the scheme was very successful. Such was the success, in fact, that in places like Crete, the local assembly with jurisdiction over cultural affairs refused to grant excavation permits until the island had been freed of Ottoman occupation. It feared, quite rightly, that the finds would immediately be whisked off to Istanbul.

The rectangular building at Şanlıurfa

With the establishment of the Republic in 1923, the focus necessarily changed. Ankara was the new Turkish capital: Anatolia was centre stage. The Museum of Anatolian Civilisations willed by Atatürk—although  it opened well after his death—was to be the showcase for the true land of the Turks, the high plateau. There again the scheme was grand, well in tune with the intended destiny of what was then a rather run down, impoverished town. And once again the provinces, this time of the newly founded republic, supplied the artefacts to go in the display cases.

With the dramatic  development of Turkish archaeology in the wake of the salvage excavations linked to the country’s extensive dam-building programme, some local museums were also established—but on a small scale, truly provincial. All this has changed now. The three main cities of the southeast, Şanlıurfa, Gaziantep and Diyarbakır have joined in a race to outdo not only each other, but Istanbul and Ankara too.

In Gaziantep the Zeugma Mosaic Museum leads the way, with its caravan of concrete camels (for more on this, see Blue Guide Southeastern Turkey). It was opened in 2011. Stark and white, constructed in a bunker style, it must have looked very large when it opened just three years ago. But it will be dwarfed by the new Şanlıurfa museum.

Situated in the northern part of town, the Urfa project is on a different scale. For a start this is a double museum, with one main rectangular building and a sizeable circular construction next to it housing Hellenistic and Roman mosaics of exquisite quality. Westerners may be excused for thinking of ‘cathedral and baptistery’, but that was certainly unintended. If anything, the gigantic rectangular building (at least from a distance) looks like one of those mudbrick Mesopotamian temples with engaged pillars. Close up one can see that it is all built of limestone, partly clad with brass. Both museums are currently unfinished, and every time you make an enquiry, you get a different completion date. Signs of activity are muted. The building structures themselves are probably complete. The problem is the surroundings. Both structures sit in a landscape of utter desolation. Urfa has historically expanded towards the east. The northern part of town where the new museum is has never been an active or a busy area. The bus station was here and over time the district came to be occupied by shanty buildings, those gecekondu, ‘built overnight’ as the Turks graphically put it, and a cemetery. Now, however, the bus station has been relocated to shining new premises out of town. A four-lane highway has been driven through the district and the shacks have been bulldozed—at least partially. One can see where the demolition work came to a halt, the scars of unfinished work with more shanty buildings beyond. One cannot help making a parallel with the recent protests in Brazil about ‘world class facilities and world class services’. Even so, the people in Urfa are proud of their museum and, by the look of it, would rather have that than other amenities the money might buy.

Soon to be a restaurant: the Artukid palace in Diyarbakır.

In Diyarbakır the scene is similar and yet different. No new structure has gone up here. Instead the museum is part of an ambitious plan to renovate and spruce up the citadel overlooking the Tigris in the east of the walled town, specifically the older part, beyond the Artukid arch. Occupation here goes back to the beginning of time. Indeed it is only by exploring the area that one understands why Diyarbakır is where it is. Nowhere in the town centre does one catch a glimpse of the river. It is totally immaterial to the life of the modern town. Here on the extreme eastern corner of the citadel, however, or better still from the outside, one can see the precipitous basalt drop, affording a strategic location from which river traffic could be controlled. It all started here. Over time the citadel underwent many alterations and the final makeover was Ottoman, after which it was allowed to gently decay as the town expanded outside its walls to the north  and west. People moved in and the usual shanties went up. A large courtyard building was turned into a police station-cum-prison. Municipal open-air swimming pools resonated with the shouts of excited teenage boys. The countryside crept in as well. An old lady still had a cow tethered by her front door as late as 2011 and a chicken-farming business was set up outside, between the walls and the river. The coops are still there but the birds have flown. All this is set to change. Work has been going on for about a decade. The citadel is to be frozen in its Ottoman garb and the police station will be an archaeological museum (the awkward discovery of modern human skulls has been explained away; see Blue Guide Southeastern Turkey). Other buildings will house administration and services, a children’s museum, an art museum and other facilities. The beautiful Artukid palace is to be a restaurant, where one will be able to dine in style under the stars (mercifully the collapsed ceiling will not be reconstructed). Presently progress is slow, though, and the promised completion time of five months seems unrealistic. One looks around: workers are very few. They may wear Unesco-style T-shirts (Diyarbakır hopes to get the citadel listed as a World Heritage Site) but that does not seem to inspire them with Stakhanovite zeal. There is still much to be done. The museum area has been cleared of private buildings but not the rest of the citadel. Structures have been demolished, or half demolished, but people still live in them, at least judging by the peppers and aubergine skins strung up to dry in the sun and the neat piles of wood ready for the freezing winter. It would not be possible for officialdom to drive through that. There is only so much that authoritarian, top down planning can do. So far, a lot of money has been spent: recouping it through tourism will be a mighty challenge. Whatever benefits such grand schemes will accrue, they will not be for the people whose livelihood has been disrupted. They may even ask: why should the past dwell in a mansion and the present sleep in a shack?

By Paola Pugsley, author of Blue Guide Eastern Turkey, Blue Guide Southeastern Turkey and Blue Guide Turkey: The Black Sea Coast.

Rissëu

Rissëu is the local name given in Liguria to a peculiarly Genoese form of decorative cobblestone paving. The style was enormously fashionable in the 17th and 18th centuries; it is thought that it may have been inspired by Graeco-Roman mosaics which the maritime republic’s sailors encountered on their Mediterranean voyages. Or the tradition may be younger than this: there is an apparent kinship between Ligurian rissëu and the patterned pebble-stone paving of the Greek Dodecanese.

Photo by James Howells. ©Blue Guides.

One feature that the pebbles share is their rounded form. Each of them has been smoothed by the sea, which makes them easy to walk on. The bonding medium is lime mortar and porcelain powder. The stones are chosen for their size and colour: usually black and white, though occasionally red. The word rissëu is in fact Genoese dialect for ‘pebble’ and may derive from the French ruisseau, a stream or brook. Beautiful rissëu pavements can be seen throughout Liguria. The example pictured is a detail of the courtyard of Villa Durazzo, in Santa Margherita Ligure.

Other evidence seems to show that the custom is older still: neither Roman, nor Greek nor Hellenistic but Assyrian (roughly 800–600 BC). The pebbles are still water-smoothed, but not by the sea: these are river pebbles. There are at least two sites in Turkey with pavements of this sort. One is Tille on the Euphrates and the other is Ziyaret Tepe. Vast dam-building projects in Turkey mean that both floors will soon be under water (in fact, Tille already is). But there will be a reconstructed pavement in the new Diyarbakır museum (if and when it opens) and visitors will be able to walk on it.

©Blue Guides: Paul Blanchard, Annabel Barber, Paola Pugsley. For more on Liguria, the Dodecanese and eastern Turkey, visit our digital titles list here; to read about the new museum at Diyarbakır (and two other projected new Turkish museums), see here.

All aboard the Cheese Train

There are many lovely train journeys in the world, but this must be one of the loveliest: the route taken through the Alpine foothills of Switzerland by the Goldenpass. This winter, you can hop aboard the “Cheese Train” to watch traditional alpine Swiss cheese being made. Details are below.

The full route begins in Montreux, from the railway station just above the lake, and continues to Zweisimmen in the Bernese Oberland.

Very soon after Montreux the train begins to climb vertiginously, leaving the tall hotels and sombre boarding houses far below. The lake is spread before you, first on one side and then on the other as the train winds round. Perched on a ledge high above the water, a power station with its tall chimney looms on a ledge like a 21st-century monastery with its bell-tower. The water is a deep navy blue: jagged mountains garlanded with clouds soar above it. It is easy to understand why, in the days before one could simply snap a picture of the scene on one’s smartphone, travellers were moved to capture the scene in verse. “The clouds above me to the white Alps tend,” scribbled a breathless Byron, “And I must pierce them, and survey whate’er may be permitted, as my steps I bend to their most great and growing region, where the earth to her embrace compels the powers of air!” Quite so.

After Chamby (a request stop), Montreux is far below and you begin to hear cowbells, see fields scattered with baled-up hay and neat wood piles outside snug chalets, their balconies ablaze with geraniums. At Les Avants the train halts to wait for the one coming in the opposite direction. The station building announces that we have climbed to 972.76m (slightly over 3000ft).

Soon after this the train enters a long tunnel. When it emerges at the other end, it reveals a completely different landscape. This is the famous Oberland, or Pays d’Enhaut, an amazingly lovely region of luminous green pastures, leaping crags, hurtling waterfalls and forests of pine and red fir. It is here, in the high, scattered chalets, that Etivaz is made, the mountain cheese that rivals Gruyère for authenticity and flavour. In the high pastures, cheese is made in the chalets until October. Farmers rise to milk their cows at five. Cheese-making (in a copper cauldron over a wood fire) begins around seven. The milk is slowly heated and stirred, and the curds collected into a cheesecloth and placed in a circular press to make the smooth golden truckles of Etivaz. In winter, cheesemakers demonstrate their skill at a place called Le Chalet. For details of how to participate, see the Cheese Train section of the Goldenpass website.

After Rougemont, with its fortified church and former priory, French-speaking Switzerland ends and the German part begins. The trains stops at Saanen, with its airfield for the jet-setters of Gstaad, then Gstaad itself, and then Zweisimmen. The total journey time is around two hours.

Practicalities

There are three types of train on this route. The Goldenpass Classic is a reproduction of a 1930s luxury Pullman. The Goldenpass Panoramic has huge picture windows which allow you to see as much as possible of the view. There are also VIP coaches which you can book in advance, which are right at the very front of the train. Timetables posted at the stations tell you what kind of train operates when. If neither Classic nor Panoramic is indicated, the train will be a small, humble little thing, with a guard’s van equipped with lantern, stop sign, broom and snow shovel. In some ways these are the most authentic-feeling of all, though they tend to run only early in the morning or at night.

Information about prices, special offers, discounts and timetables can be found on the website here.

Snaking round the viaduct
Like a modern monastery with its bell-tower

And if you stop in Château d’Oex, be sure to visit the Musée du Pays d’Enhaut to see the extraordinary handiwork of J-J Hauswirth, a man of apparently little or no formal education who produced intricate and unbelievably delicate cut-outs or découpages, attaching his scissors to his hands with wires when he grew older and his fingers grew too thick.

National Gallery London to allow photography

This picture shows a likeness by the English portraitist Sir Thomas Lawrence of Amelia Angerstein and her son John Julius. There are two things that are significant about it. Firstly, the picture was taken on a telephone, in the Musée d’Art et d’Histoire in Geneva and no one bustled up to try and stop me: photography is allowed. Secondly, the little boy in the painting is the grandson of the Russian-born insurance broker John Julius Angerstein (buried in Greenwich), whose collection of Old Master paintings was purchased by the British government in 1824 to form the core of the new National Gallery in London.

And that same National Gallery has just announced that it is to allow visitors to take photographs of its artworks. Bravo the National Gallery!

The announcement hasn’t been greeted with such delight by everyone. A recent article in the Telegraph deplores the move, arguing that taking photos of paintings is a shallow consumerist response that fails to engage with the works of art in a contemplative, comprehending way. I disagree. Ruskin sketched what delighted him. Poets in the past attempted to translate captivating scenes into words. The human impulse to capture lovely things fleetingly experienced, like butterflies in a net, is extremely strong. The motive may simply be to take them home to enjoy them at leisure. Or perhaps to use them in some way to instruct others, to increase the sum of human knowledge and understanding. Nowadays we don’t use pen and ink or Pindaric periods; we use our smartphones. Being allowed to do so gives huge satisfaction to huge numbers of people. I am one of them.

The Telegraph article objects that if we want an image to take home, there are postcards in the gallery shop. What rot! I can’t use a postcard as my screensaver or tweet it in instant excitement to my followers. And nowadays, that is what people want to do with their images. Why shouldn’t they? Besides, there aren’t always postcards in the shop of the particular artwork that you want. Of if there are, the colour reproduction is so bad that it bears little resemblance to the original. Or it’s a zoomed-out reproduction of the whole thing whereas what you wanted was a zoomed-in shot of a tiny detail. Or all sorts of reasons why postcards aren’t the answer.

Postcards, also, are a commercial product. Before Wikicommons and public photography policies came along, that was the only access we had: postcards from the shop or a digital reproduction from an expensive image agency. Is that really the kind of relationship with art that the great founding fathers of our public collections wanted to foster? When Sir George Beaumont offered his collection to the nation on condition that the government also buy the Angerstein pictures, is that what he had in mind? A relationship between the country and its art that necessarily involves a cash transaction? I don’t think so. Freely available means freely available. So if I want to take a photograph, please don’t sniff as if I were a member of some grunt underclass of great unwashed, unable to respond to art on a cerebral level. If the hoi polloi want to take selfies in front of Sebastiano del Piombo’s Raising of Lazarus (National Gallery accession number NG1; its first ever painting), then good for them!

The National Gallery, John Julius Angerstein, Greenwich and much more besides, are covered in detail in Blue Guide London.

Artwork of the Month: August. Bust of Augustus Caesar from Aquileia

Augustus, ‘the revered one’, was the honorific title of Gaius Octavius, great-nephew of Julius Caesar and one of the most remarkable figures in Roman history. He has given his name to the month of August.

Having no legitimate heir of his own, Julius Caesar formally adopted Octavius, and he exploited this position ruthlessly when the Republic collapsed after Caesar’s assassination. His uneasy co-operation with Mark Antony soon turned to open conflict. Mark Antony had taken command of the eastern portion of the empire, and when he allowed himself to become entangled with Cleopatra, Augustus seized his chance to brand them both as enemies of Rome. In 31 bc their navy was routed at the Battle of Actium and both committed suicide.

Back in Rome, with wealth and success to his name, Augustus could easily have become a dictator. However, that was not his way. Despite the ruthlessness of his youth, he now showed himself to be measured and balanced. His favourite god Apollo was, after all, the god of reason. Knowing that the senate was desperate for peace, he disbanded his army and the senate in turn acquiesced in his growing influence. The title Augustus was awarded him in 27 bc and he gradually absorbed other ancient republican titles too, as if the old political system were still intact. Behind this façade he was spending his booty fast. He claimed to have restored no fewer than 82 temples in Rome. He completed the Forum of Caesar and then embarked on a massive one of his own, centred on a temple to Mars Ultor: Mars as the avenger of his adoptive father’s murder.

Augustus was keenly aware of the power of his own image. Not only was his temple adorned with a great bronze of himself in a four-horse chariot, but other statues, playing on ancient traditions, were distributed throughout the empire. Augustus appears in one of a number of stock guises: as military commander, veiled and pious priest, or youthful hero, as in the example shown here, a bust from the northern Italian town of Aquileia, where Augustus received King Herod in 10 bc and reconciled him with his two sons. One estimate puts the total number of statues of Augustus scattered around the realm at between 30,000 and 50,000.

The empire prospered under Augustus’ steady control: there was no challenge to his growing influence and poets such as Virgil and Horace praised his rule. A less lucky writer was Ovid, exiled to the shores of the Black Sea, allegedly for lampooning Augustus’ programme of moral reforms. In 2 bc the great leader was granted the honorary title Pater Patriae, ‘Father of the Fatherland’, an honour which left him deeply moved. He died in ad 14, and it was observed at his cremation that his body had been seen ascending through the smoke towards heaven. The senate forthwith decreed that he should be ranked as a god. By now the Republic had been irrevocably transformed into an empire, and emperors ruled it for the rest of its history.

This text extracted and adapted from Blue Guide Rome and Blue Guide Literary Companion Rome. ©Blue Guides. All rights reserved. For more on the town of Aquileia and its fascinating Roman and early Christian remains, see our e-chapter: Friuli-Venezia Giulia.