The Venice Myth: Culture, Literature, Politics, 1880 to the Present, by David Barnes

Richard Bosworth on the revolutionaries, Romantics, tourists and Fascists that have shaped the Italian city

January 15, 2015

This short book springs from a recent doctorate, and the conception does show. The writing can creak: “Trieste famously featured…in Winston Churchill’s famous ‘Iron Curtain’ speech”; Fascism “figured in the salvific repository of this record of history”. The argumentation can be fixedly studious; it is remarkable how many theorists find place in some 160 pages of text. Given this original sin, then, despite its alluring title it is hard to imagine The Venice Myth surpassing a narrowly scholarly readership.

Yet with those limits the book carries plenty of interest. As David Barnes promises in his introduction, in a sweep across high cultural writing since the fall of the Venetian Republic in 1797, he will address not the familiar story of a “city of fantasy, imagination, dream, romance and eros” but rather one of “cannon-fire, assassination, blackshirts and violence”. In grounding his writers in their meeting with “revolutionary nationalism”, Fascism, anti-Semitism and the ambiguous local post-war version of capitalism, Barnes intends to have “the classic ‘Venice myth’…challenged and questioned by finding links to forgotten histories, contexts and political movements”.

In pursuing such ambition, Barnes – even while admitting that often it seems that “the moment the city moves from fantasy to reality, it dissolves” – focuses successive chapters on romantics, “revolutionaries” (of the nationalist kind), tourists (of the genteel pre-1914 kind), and then two on Fascists before a final and catch-all chapter on the post-war era. The book’s keenest attention is reserved for John Ruskin and Ezra Pound, illuminating their complex engagement with the city. Ruskin, we learn, should not be written off as a reactionary. Rather, Barnes maintains, “Ruskin’s Venetian works are shot through with the revolutionary energy of 1848; they are implacably and strikingly political”. The Great Victorian may have thought he was “making purely factual statements” about medieval architecture but, actually, his mindset was forged in “the context of revolution and nation-building”.

Even more palpably, Pound, in his Cantos and other writings, was being prompted by his personal contact with, and literary reading of, such pro-Fascist writers as Gabriele D’Annunzio and Filippo Tommaso Marinetti. He was equally engaged with Fascist Venice, a complex place marked by both the Mussolinian version of radical revolution and its role as the international showcase (vetrina) of a dictatorship dependent on tourist monies and mostly anxious not to alienate the age’s “best people”. Pound, Barnes argues, was stirred by “a mythology of Venice as both homecoming and renewed, utopic vision”, a place of art, beauty and “history” and of Fascist racial revolution.

A breathless final chapter breaks from the previous concentration with English-language writers to evoke the Venetian thoughts of a slew of post-war intellectuals, including Jacques Derrida, who holidayed with his family on the Lido in 1965 and thereafter drew opaque parallels between the Venice he had discerned and Los Angeles.

Your reviewer is a historian and, in reading Barnes, I peered across a disciplinary border. Such activity is always risky, and inevitably I found cause to wonder whether a literary theorist knew enough history (in my definition) to be making so many generalisations about the dynamic role of my discipline in Venice. Similarly troubling is Barnes’ avoidance of much reckoning with the actual people of the city (today necessarily including the mass tourists who, each day, number as many as do Venetian residents). Yet my academic passport should not blind me to other worlds. Barnes is right to read a city that lives on in myth and reality. Venice remains an irresistibly fertile source of words, words, words (and some other things).

The Venice Myth: Culture, Literature, Politics, 1880 to the Present

By David Barnes
Pickering & Chatto, 192pp, £60.00 and £24.00
ISBN 9781848935105 and 9781781444849
Published 1 December 2014

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