- Purchase/rental options available:
Eighteenth-Century Studies 35.4 (2002) 656-659
[Access article in PDF]
Reflections and Refractions of Italy in Britain
University of Virginia
John Eglin. Venice Transfigured: The Myth of Venice in British Culture, 1660-1797 (New York: Palgrave, 2001). Pp. 262. $45.00 cloth.
Clare Hornsby, ed. The Impact of Italy: The Grand Tour and Beyond (London: British School at Rome, 2000). Pp. 260. $79.95 cloth.
It is difficult to imagine that John Eglin has left a single stone (read: literary, political, architectural, travel, pictorial, theatrical text or practice) unturned in his assiduous study of the meaning of Venice for Britain over the long eighteenth century. Eglin's aim in examining such a wide variety of representations of the Serene Republic is to inform readers "about the relationship between [End Page 656] politics and culture, and more specifically about political culture and cultural politics" (6-7). He succeeds admirably.
The book begins tracing the evolution of the Venetian myth and counter-myth (positive and negative visions of Venice) in Britain from the seventeenth century to the first part of the eighteenth. Eglin stresses the extreme pliancy of the metaphor, however, cautioning that while much literature falls into "Venetophilia" and "Venetophobia" categories, the actual political and cultural discourse that emanated from this literature was much more multivalent. Whigs were not unequivocally wedded to the optimistic Anglo-Venetian analogy, while Tories manipulated the counter-myth to very specific purposes. Using images of Venice's contemporary decay as a foil, they aligned Britain with the Italian city's illustrious past, and thus constructed Settecento Venice as a cautionary tale. Eglin coins the term "Venetotropism" to describe this synthesis, or protean exploitation, of both positive and negative conceptions of Venice.
After a detailed exposition of the trajectory of myth and counter-myth in Britain's constitutional and political consciousness, Eglin turns to eighteenth-century culture. He demonstrates how Whigs used Venetian models to consolidate their notion of civil society, or "politeness," foundational to their cultural program. English Palladian architecture partook of classical connotations of rural integrity (as opposed to metropolitan corruption) and functioned therefore to situate its inhabitants, Whig politicos and civil servants, in a "landscape of virtue." The English masquerade made use of the complex "cultural semiotics of masking" belonging to Venetian carnival. For its mixing and leveling of classes and gender, the carnival/masquerade was conceived as a model for the enlightened commonwealth—Venetian license was thus transformed into social utopia. The Society of Dilettanti likewise adopted many Venetian cultural practices in its practice of polite "sociability."
In his chapter on Venice's role in the context of the Grand Tour, Eglin conducts a very instructive examination of the phenomenon of the Grand Tour itself, explicating its principal features as well as past and current theoretical positions on its social function. He elucidates gaps in modern scholarship on the Grand Tour, which neatly substantiates his subsequent assertion that British perceptions of Venice changed as did the composition of the tourist populations visiting the city. He provides fascinating treatments of travelers' responses to Venetian nobility, religiosity, and sexual custom. Despite this in-depth cultural investigation, however, Eglin's stated goal of exploring Venice as "the linchpin of [the Grand Tour's] pedagogical (and ideological) manifest function" does not lead to distinct conclusions (72-73). This is probably due to the extreme polyvalence ofVenice in this context; it offered myriad positive and negative examples to its visitors.
"Venice Depicted: The Politics of the View" deals with British mediation on the City of Lagoons through the paintings of Venetian landscape scenes so popular throughout the century. Eglin refines and augments current scholarship on Canaletto by focusing on the complex issues involved in the acquisition (and not simply the production) of his paintings. He shows a fine scholarly sensibility as he clarifies the practices of painting and collecting, and what he wisely terms "the politics of display." He also treats Canaletto's sojourn in London, comparing British demand for his London townscapes as opposed to his Venetian works. In the final analysis, however, this section is slightly...