Jan Morris

Finished on 02.08.2021

My thoughts

I believe this is the first travel writing book I have read. I have always shied away from the genre, perhaps I thought it dry, lacking in plot or just light history made to be consumed on the beach. I am now ashamed of my ignorance. Venice is anything but dry, borning, or unintelligent.

The book sparkles with wit and joy, the at times giddy piling on of narratives, lived and from history is captivating and the prose is somehow dense with information and easy to read. This is a book about being in Venice, but really it is about how to enjoy life, which it turns out are very similar things.

This book came highly recommended and was touted as an exemplar of the genre. As an entry to travel writing this was a joy. Morris has the uncanny ability to weave together strands of personal experience, anecdote and history all the while maintaining a clear through line. This book is so dense in history of all kinds that one's head begins to spin. At times this can become almost comedic, in one memorable passage Morris decides to rank all the various lion statues dotted around Venice, the lion, representing the patron Saint of Venice, St Mark, is very much in abundance. In less skilled hands this detail would perhaps be mentioned as a statistic, or not at all, not with Morris.

We begin with the most majestic lion, and make our way through to the most deformed, all the while learning about real human experiences surrounding these stone icons. This device is not merely meant to lighten the mood, it serves as a way of giving us a tour of the city, a brief look into the stories of the most interesting lion statues and in the process uncovers a little more about the Venetian character. The tone also modulates between formal and personal very skilfully, the more historically told lion statue section is echoed by charming stories of how Venetians feel about cats and other animals, again told from both personally observed experiences and from through historic research. 

The author's love for the city and its surrounding area is clear, but it is the sort of love that allows for sharp criticism, like an old friendship, one in which there is no fear of saying it straight. We marvel at the past glories but also sigh in relief at the new found comforts of modernisation. We shake our heads at the encroachment of tourism, and look back fondly at the romantic ideals of a motor free city, bobbing quietly in the safe embrace of the azure lagoon. 

I was already a huge fan of Venice, but after reading this I want to return even more. I want to see the hidden gems for myself, to find the contested resting places of various relics, to drink bad wine and walk until my feet ache and to hop on a boat and visit the seldom seen fishing villages, the ones that inexplicably have a beautiful church with a famous fresco or two, and finally tor turn back and see Venice, in all its glory, as the sun sets.

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