“. . . Along with everything glorious and holy, there had to be exist its opposite: decay and death. For there to be light, there must be darkness, mystery.”
The Honeymoon by Dinitia Smith, 2016 (p. 125).
Venice is glorified as the perfect tourist city: no cars, no bikes—only water taxis and pedestrians. Although there are pedestrianized cities around the world, surely no other place like Venice exists? For centuries, tourists have been crossing the Academy Bridge, shopping on the Rialto Bridge, and taking gondola rides. That’s apparently what George Eliot, the pen name of Mary Anne Evans, did when she married a younger man and spent her disastrous honeymoon there. Smith’s novel, The Honeymoon, recounts their story. The plain Eliot, famous for her novels Middlemarch, Adam Bede, and The Mill on the Floss, booked rooms at the Hotel Europa along the Grand Canal and set out to visit the famous sites of the Doge’s Palace, St. Mark’s, and the Bridge of Sighs.
They also toured neighboring islands of Murano—for its famous Venetian glass—and Torcello—for its early Christian church, Santa Maria Assunta.
She was not the only famous writer to visit Venice. Henry James set Wings of the Dove in Venice. Hemingway hunted duck on the shallow waters of the Venetian lagoon and had it prepared at Cipriani’s on Torcello.
Eliot and her young husband could visit in 1880 numerous art galleries, one of the reasons why the Venice Biennale came into existence in the late 19th century to showcase Italian art. Now an international art show, the expansive venue comprises not only the Arsenal and the Gardens but also sites around the city that would be hard to cover even in the months that the exhibition is in place. At times it was difficult to discern what was art and what was not.
It seems ironic that the Eliot marriage was unsuccessful when Venice is home to one of the most daring lovers of any age, Casanova, who often used Carnivale masks to hide his identity and seduce his lovers. Ian Kelly’s Casanova: Actor, Lover, Priest, Spy uncovers this legendary Lothario. We can also recommend the films that feature Peter O’Toole as an aging Casanova and Heath Ledger as a younger version. Yet another film depicting that era, Dangerous Beauty, captures the woman’s side of the story: the courtesan. Similar to geisha in being well educated and skilled, courtesans who were successful were registered in a city book, and their “coming out” often took place in churches where potential male admirers might look around at the crowd during particularly boring parts of a sermon. An excellent novel of this era is Sarah Dunant’s In the Company of the Courtesan.
Venice oozes history. Other good reads that place Venice in historic time settings include these: The Spy of Venice (#1 in the William Shakespeare Thriller series by Benet Brandreth) and Sylvia Prince’s A Matter of Glass, which concerns the uncontested role of Murano as glassmaker during 17th century through today. Another historical novel is The Lion of Saint Mark: A Story of Venice in the Fourteenth Century by G. A. Henry. The novel The Gondola Maker by Laura Morelliso so inspired my husband that we had to seek out a master craftsman of the oarlock. The one he purchased resembles a Brancusi sculpture.
For mysteries, turn to Donna Leon’s popular contemporary novels that feature Commissario Brunetti, such as Death at Le Fenice.
Art-rich, yes. Atmospheric? Without a doubt. Although visits to museums rich in art is no doubt a requirement—the Academy; the Peggy Guggenheim; and, our personal favorite, the Ca’ Pesaro—we took a lot of pleasure from seeing the fish market and walking the byways, largely unpopulated, away from the main tourist haunts.
On the last day of our visit, we succumbed to the traditional tourist must do—the gondola ride—and as we pulled into our side canal, I saw a plaque, “Robert Browning died in this house,” the Ca’ Rezzonico, also now a museum. We had visited his home in Asolo at the beginning of our trip. His parting words, “Open my heart and you will see / Graved inside of it, ‘Italy.’” Although we had other venues to visit in Italy—the run of the Mille Miglia vintage car race in Ferrara; Ravenna; and Bologna—for me, it seemed that Venice brought the Italian portion of our trip full circle.
Note: This is a short list of books set in Venice. GoodReads offers 225 titles set in Venice! For more recommendations, see these sites: