- Venetian Reflections
With its dazzling facades and waterways, Venice has a way of reflecting visitors' own expectations for the city. After token disapproval, the eighteenth-century adventurer Ange Goudar happily proclaimed that Venetians indulged in vice of every sort without shame. John Ruskin read the fall as divine punishment, with the Venetians he observed—"knots of men of the lowest classes, unemployed and listless, [who] lie basking in the sun like lizards"—direct descendants of the eighteenth century's degenerate maskers (The Stones of Venice, 2:76). James Fenimore Cooper's dismissal of Venetian governance, which he called "a narrow, a vulgar, an exceedingly heartless oligarchy," was vintage Americana (The Bravo, 340). In Tropic of Venice, Margaret Doody proposes a critical reading of such tropes about the Venetian past, while including herself in the long tradition of travelers who have discovered in the city unmatched wealth, mystery, and wonder. The two registers of the book, which appears in the University of Pennsylvania Press series Personal Takes, enliven and humanize the subject, but they fit together uneasily at times.
Doody confesses to having been strongly shaped by the nineteenth century's tropes of Venice: as a place to suffer or die; a place of erotic mystery; a labyrinth, a mask, a play of color and light; as repulsive, ruined, or darkly menacing; as feminine, illusory, or liberating. "I am still trying to puzzle out why I love Venice so much," she writes, "an inquiry that has expanded to larger questions: 'What exactly is Venice? Why is Venice so important to us?'" (17). Tropic of Venice offers a meditation on the ways the city has come down to us through novels, plays, poetry, and film, interspersed with Doody's own impressions and experiences. The latter are by turns engaging and eccentric. We hear twice about the "devastatingly handsome" boatman Doody hired to take her around the islands; she states and restates her condemnation of the "stupidest thing done so far," the deepening of [End Page 619] the Grand Canal to accommodate cruise ships; and she spins a theory, based in part upon nose-structure and a taste for polenta, that ancient Carthaginians were the original settlers of Venice (272, 135). Given her reverence for the city, Doody's tone in describing its artists might strike some as uncharacteristically trivializing, despite the winks intended to excuse the indulgence. She twice refers to the "sassy little angels" in a Bellini altarpiece who remind her of Shirley Temple (199, 241). Bellini's Saint Catherine recalls Susan Sarandon. Giorgione was "a party animal," and Titian's Venus with a Mirror is, "like Madonna (the 1980s performer), . . . 'a material girl'" (210, 247). As accounts of Doody's own reactions, the observations cannot be faulted, but they tend to grate when read alongside her eloquent and occasionally stunning accounts of, for instance, the shimmering play of light on Venetian surfaces or Giandomenico Tiepolo's sketches of Pulcinella ("the unidentifiable and unplaceable self, caught up in an act and acting absurdly, in a world that is itself absurd but manifests an underlying menace") (236).
Tropic of Venice has much to offer the literate traveler seeking a serious and spirited guide. Doody's range is immense, and her writing is vibrant and musical. References tumble forth amiably (Henry James, Patricia Highsmith, Ian McEwan, John Profumo, Petrarch, Erica Jong . . .), as the city's well-known visitors share space with lesser figures. Doody's inclusion of excerpts from Michelangelo Mariani's soaring book Le Meraviglie della città di Venezia (1666) is a gift. Doody is a convincing anatomist of her own and others' responses. As an archaeology of the dominant tropes, however, the book is less successful, largely because Doody never wholly separates her own experiences from those she aims to penetrate. She presents Byron's highly influential condemnation that mixed pity with scorn without mentioning the Napoleonic propagandist Pierre Daru and his self-serving Histoire de la R...