Italian Venice: A History, by R. J. B. Bosworth

Despite popular wisdom, time did not stop in the Most Serene Republic after all, says Kate Ferris

August 14, 2014

Francis Fukuyama may have (erroneously) dated the “end of history” to be 1989, but many others had already decided that the “history” of a small watery city in a corner of Western Europe had concluded two centuries earlier. The premise that the history of Venice drew to a close with the arrival of Napoleon’s troops in May 1797 is a pervasive one; here, Richard Bosworth shows that it is entirely false.

In Italian Venice, he has determined to show that despite its relative neglect by academics, Venice’s modern history, following the fall of the long-lived city-state and its successive domination by French, Austrian and then (in its way almost equally foreign) Italian government, is just as engaging and important as the ebbs and flows of the Serenissima. In addition, he compellingly demonstrates that this modern history is every bit as etched into the physical spaces of the city and its familiar campi, calli and waterways as the histories of the medieval and Renaissance republic that are still visible in the churches, palaces and squares of the contemporary city. It is simply not the case, as one early modern historian of the city avowed, that “by 1700 Venice looked much as it does today”.

How to make Venice modern, or how to make Venice ‘live’ in the modern age, emerges as the central concern of the past two centuries

Indeed, the physical traces of Venice’s modern past are central to Bosworth’s book and are used as a way of drawing in the reader. One can imagine tourists – themselves inevitable protagonists of this narrative – using it as an alternative guidebook, carrying it with them as they meander the city, seeking out the statues, plaques, filled-in canals and contemporary constructions that testify to Venice’s modern heritage and which Bosworth deploys as openers to his chapters. Venice (like most places) is replete with “memory sites”, and he wants us to pay as much attention to the modern ones “as to the Tintorettos”.

There is a serious point behind the engaging vignettes and the focus on the inseparability of Venice’s physical spaces and its history. How to make Venice modern, or how to make Venice “live” in the modern age, emerges as the central concern of the past two centuries. Time and again, often in the face of efforts to introduce technological and industrial innovations, city leaders and commentators have been adamant that Venice is and must always be “com’era and dov’era” – how and where it was. Certainly this was the motto of those who rebuilt the collapsed Campanile in the Belle Époque years, just as it was for those who opposed the linking of the Venetian islands to the mainland first by a rail bridge (1846) and then by a road bridge (1932), and the massive (and polluting) industrial developments at Porto Marghera from the 1920s.

But it is an insistence on a version of Venice – one that looks always to its past – that did not reflect the viewpoint of other sectors of Venetian society, whether driven by Futurist, Fascist or capitalist imperatives, who wanted the city to wear its heritage more lightly and don the trappings of modernity. Nor does it accurately reflect what resulted from the meeting of these opposing currents. Put simply, Venice is not (only) a museum piece or a stage-set, unchanged since the 18th century. It is not exactly com’era and dov’era in the age of the doges. It has been subject to both continuity and tremendous change in its modern era. The city and its inhabitants (and visitors) experienced the tensions and challenges that other European towns and cities have faced, including the divergent pulls of tradition and modernity, the impact of industrialisation and then post-industrial renewal, nationalism and localism, the effects of world war, the political ideologies and often violence of Fascism, socialism and liberal-capitalism, the growth of environmental and ecological threats. The peculiarities of Venice as a city built on water, and of its history, mean that these tensions played out here in often distinct ways. So, not only has Venice’s “history” happily continued beyond 1797, but it is a past so contested that Bosworth writes not of one Venice but of many.

There is the Venice under Austrian “occupation”, peopled less by Italians-in-waiting than ambivalent getters-by-under-whichever-ruler, save for the dramatic 1848 revolution. (A “wait-and-see” attitude was also the accusation levelled by Giorgio Amendola at Venetian Communists’ resistance efforts in 1944.) There is the Venice of the holidaying international elite dedicated to luxurious leisure in a way that was surely only possible before the knowledge of humankind’s ability to mechanise mass death was made apparent by the First World War, a war fought close to the Venetian lagoon that saw its hotels converted into military hospitals and its population dwindle. There is the Venice that experienced a “softened” dictatorship in which Fascist pretensions to totalitarianism were only partly realised; that gave allegiance as much to Giuseppe Volpi, the “unofficial doge” of the interwar years, as it did to Mussolini; and that could adapt to make welcome such diverse visitors as Cole Porter and Adolf Hitler. And there is the Venice that embraced Christian Democracy (whose mayors governed from 1951 to 1975) but also found itself a host for neo-fascist cells during the anni di piombo (“years of lead”) beset by left- and right-wing political violence, and for the more farcical “seizure of the Campanile” by a breakaway faction of Veneto separatists on 8 May 1997, almost 200 years to the day that Napoleonic troops reached the city.

Tourists often get bad press in Venice for their poor comportment, unwillingness to spend, clogging of vaporetti and dwarfing of the resident population (in 2012 the average daily number of visitors, 59,000, was virtually identical to the resident population of the main islands). Bosworth, however, speaks out for the legitimacy of their presence, which he argues is not (only) detrimental but undeniably a constituent part of the city’s endless reinvention and reinvigoration. More widely, it is a credit to this book that it acknowledges the extent to which modern Venice – and our perspective on it – has been shaped by outsiders. John Ruskin, Henry James and Thomas Mann are the more obvious among these, but less cited contributors also find recognition here, including the ambulant traders from West Africa selling their sunglasses, scarves and knock-off designer bags along the city’s calli. For all that contemporary residents grumble about tourism, the idea of Venice as a universal city is one that has been voiced by Venetians themselves, not least in the aftermath of the destructive acqua alta that flooded the city on 4 November 1966 and swept away the city’s ancient flood defences (the murazzi), archival records, food supplies, animals and gravestones, inundating homes and shops and leaving behind oil and salt that began working its ruinous way into precious palaces and artworks. Letter writers to The Times have shared this sense of Venice’s universality. The leaders of the Venice in Peril fund, established in the aftermath of the 1966 flood, wrote that, “Venice belongs to us all. It is part of our own history.”

As with most books that aim to cover a significant span of history in just a few hundred pages, in Italian Venice, Bosworth has inevitably had to choose to miss out or gloss over some things. Nevertheless, this highly readable book skilfully captures detail at a human scale while surveying two centuries of political, social, economic and cultural history. It is also a history book with a contemporary mission, seeking to contribute to current debates about how Venice might best live in the 21st century.

The author

“I am a Sydney boy,” says Australian-born Richard Bosworth, senior research fellow in history, Jesus College, Oxford. “So sometimes I am called by my Italian colleagues il canguro della storiografia italiana. But thus coming from Mars (or nearby) lets me get away with some things my genuinely English colleagues cannot.”

His acclaimed works of modern Italian history appear under the name R.J.B. Bosworth, and the middle initials stand for James Boon. Bosworth explains: “I have an eternally lit candle in my room to AJPT [A.J.P. Taylor, the late 20th-century historian], and anyway, the three initials prove I am not an American.”

Was he a studious child? “I am afraid so. My dad was a professor of physical chemistry and I have a signed copy of his first book, Physics in Chemical Industry, presented to me when I was seven. By then our neighbours in suburban Sydney were already calling me the professor.”

Bosworth was also a keen cricket fan and youthful contrarian, and from an early age supported the national side of a country thousands of miles away. “I have loyally supported Pakistan through many vicissitudes since my mother gave me my first Wisden in 1955. I hate supporting anything that wins too often.”

As an undergraduate at the University of Sydney, Bosworth was “pretty solitary” until he met his future wife, Michal. “My father was dying messily of heart trouble. He in fact died at the beginning of 1964 just as my honours year was beginning.”

“Michal and I met in 1962 in a history class taught (well) by Ernest Bramsted, a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany and in 1963 we were thrown out of an Australian history class taught appallingly by a nameless Australian. I have done my best to avoid national and nationalist history since.”

When Bosworth undertook his doctoral studies at the University of Cambridge, he found himself in the city his parents had lived in during the 1930s. “My Dad did his PhD there and then stayed on at the Cavendish laboratories. They went back to Australia after the Munich conference, in my mother’s phrasing because ‘things were getting hot in Europe’. 

“For Mike and me it was a pretty odd place in 1966-69, since my college really did not know what to do with a married postgraduate. But then my nice supervisor, Harry Hinsley, said: ‘My dear boy, why don’t you go to Rome for a while?’ and, as they say in Asterix, alea jacta est.”

Until his retirement in 2011, Bosworth held a chair at the University of Western Australia, and from 2007 to 2012 also held a professorship at the University of Reading. The commute, he says drily, was fine.

“In the UK we lived in Oxford, where our daughter, Mary, was starting her career as a criminologist. Students at Reading, like all the undergraduates I’ve ever had the pleasure of teaching, were terrific, always ready and wanting to be engaged in contemplating things that mattered and matter.”

Of the Fascist leader who is the subject of Bosworth’s 2002 biography, which won five major Australian literary and historical prizes, he says: “I remain interested in Mussolini because he seems to me a bright boy who constantly made the wrong choice in life, and somewhere in his soul half suspected that he had done so. In any case, Edward Gibbon has always been my favourite historian (even more than A. J. P. Taylor) and he taught me sceptically to inspect the ‘crimes, follies and tragedies of humankind’. Fascism and not only Fascism fits that rubric well.”

Readers of his 2011 book Whispering City: Rome and Its Histories and his latest work will note his keen eye for both cities’ architectural heritage and what they say about the political climate in which well-known edifices were designed and built.

Asked if he has a soft spot for any Fascist-era buildings in either city, or believes instead that they are rightly to be scorned on aesthetic as well as political grounds, Bosworth observes: “I never think you can react so summarily to architecture or other forms of culture.

“I enjoy my Shakespeare without having the slightest desire to live under the appallingly corrupt and murderous regimes of Good Queen Bess and Weird James VI and I. In Italy my major weakness is probably for the Victor Emmanuel monument in Rome. I’m similarly rather fond in my wry way of the main state archives in their highly Fascist building at EUR in Rome.

“But also in my Venice book, one of the themes is that there is plenty worth seeing there of Fascist or Liberal or Republican Italy…and personally I’ve never been wildly taken by Veronese or Tiepolo.”

Karen Shook

Italian Venice: A History

By R. J. B. Bosworth
Yale University Press, 336pp, £25.00
ISBN 9780300193879
Published 21 August 2014

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