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Check It Out

Courier Article by David Locker
Sunday, March 21, 2004

Venice Explored Through Links to Its Romantic Past

The republic of Venice has, for a thousand years, withstood would-be conquerors and enjoyed a degree of civilization comparable to ancient Athens. Its sailors and merchants were renowned throughout the world.

But like most empires, it grew soft and complacent with a false security that rested on feelings of superiority and invincibility. The leading citizens became primarily seekers of pleasure instead of businessmen. They would rather gamble and love than work.Venice is a melancholy city. Its ruins are like the abandoned wedding ceremony of a jilted bride. Yet it remains one of the world's most popular tourist destinations, as well as a haunt of authors and the subject of a continuous stream of books.

Paradise of Cities: Venice in the 19th Century by John Julius Norwich (Doubleday, 2003).

Norwich has written many books on Venice, including the standard history of the city-state. His latest begins when the city's independence ends, after Napo-leon's easy victory in 1797.

Norwich wears his learning lightly. He presents Venice to us through the eyes of some of its most prominent foreign visitors and residents.

First, we accompany a businesslike and conscientious Napoleon on his daily rounds. Though we cannot forgive the French for their cruel desecration of the city, we must be impressed by the shrewdness and ability of Napoleon.

We also see 19th-century Venice through the eyes of the eccentric English art critic John Ruskin, the debauched Lord Byron, the gentle and faithful poet Robert Browning, the romantic composer Richard Wagner and the elegant and astute American novelist Henry James.

Not least, there is Norwich's portrait of Frederick Rolfe, Baron Corvo. Rolfe is one of literature's oddest cases. Author of Hadrian the Seventh, the tale of a failed priest who becomes pope, Rolfe was undoubtedly one of the most prickly and unlikable geniuses to ever pick up a pen. The library also has the biography of this strange man by A.J.A. Symons, The Quest for Corvo.

A Venetian Affair by Andrea Di Robilant (Knopf, 2003).

The author's father bequeathed to his son a packet of letters from Andrea Memmo and Giustiniana Wynne, the famous 18th-century Venetian lovers.

Memmo was a scion of one of the most prominent families of Venice. Giustiniana was the daughter of a woman who, though connected to the English nobility, was encumbered with a questionable past. If Memmo were to marry her, he would ruin his political ambitions and isolate himself socially.

Skillfully interspersing the lovers' letters with a fast-moving narrative, the author demonstrates how Memmo applied his considerable tactical and diplomatic skills to the problem of maintaining a covert courtship.

After it is revealed that Giustiniana's mother had given birth to a son in her wayward youth, the Wynne family leaves Venice in disgrace for Paris and London.

In Paris, Giustiniana becomes involved in a scandal with the infamous Casanova. Eventually, Memmo marries someone else and becomes a Venetian senator.

Of course, it is Giustiniana who suffers the most in the long run. She marries an older Englishman who dutifully dies soon after their marriage, but she loses touch with herself and falls into gambling and frenetic living. She uses her writing talent, so abundantly displayed in her love letters, to become a successful author.

The Aspern Papers by Henry James (Oxford, 1983).

Henry James published this story, one of his better ones, in 1887.

The protagonist is a scholar and ardent admirer of the great writer Jeffrey Aspern, most probably based on Lord Byron. He is on the trail of a batch of letters in the possession of one of the poet's lovers, who is now old and living a quiet life with her niece in Venice.

We find out how far the scholar is willing to go to gain his prize. He is willing to sell his soul but not, it turns out, his body.

David Locker is a librarian with the Evansville-Vanderburgh Public Library. The opinions expressed in this column are personal and do not reflect policies or official recommendations of EVPL.