Venice and the Veneto: Books and Videos
***Venice, Jan Morris, 1974. One of the great travel writers of our age, Morris was initially a correspondent based in Venice. This, I think, is her best book as well as an excellent analysis of the Venetian character, which hasn't actually changed over the past 60 years!
Venice Observed, Mary McCarthy, 1956. Here is another classic study of a city although with more of a historical and often lyrical bent.
Venice for Pleasure, J. G. Links, 1966. This is a truly delightful companion guide to Venice. Links gently leads his readers through narrow alleys and over crooked bridges, all the while expressing his often irreverent opinions about everything along the way. And, yes, I'm a sucker for the slightly creaky guidebooks of an earlier era.
The Stones of Venice, John Ruskin. Art historian John Ruskin and his wife Effie visited Venice in the mid-19th century. His musings, both brilliant and mad, laid the foundation for a "Venetian Revival" throughout Europe. I do not suggest that you peruse all 39 volumes but rather that you find a collection of selected passages. Effie in Venice, edited by Mary Lutyens (1965), is a collection of letters home during the couple's sojourns
Death in Venice, Thomas Mann. This bittersweet novella about youth and age and the timeless beauty of Venice is perhaps the best known work of literature with a Venetian setting. Also quite wonderful if you can handle raunchiness is Geoff Dyer’s more recent novel Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi. It takes its inspiration from Mann’s novel, but believe me, it is not for the faint of heart. Lots of sex and drugs.
The Aspern Papers, Henry James. This novella about an unscrupulous scholar who will stop at nothing to get his hands on a set of letters takes place in Venice. James, who masterfully captured a sense of time and place in all his works, gives a wonderful description of 19th century palazzo life. James's memoirs of his time spent in Italy are collected in his Italian Hours.
***Italian Neighbors, Tim Parks. In my opinion this is the very best of the popular "foreigner living in Italy" genre. Parks is witty, smart, and very perceptive about what makes Italians tick. Parks and his Italian wife live in a town near Vicenza. I am also a great fan of his Italian Ways, a book that examines how Italian trains and their timetables reflect attitudes and prejudices in Italian society. Very smart and clever indeed!
Giotto: The Scrovegni Chapel, Padua, Bruce Cole. This beautiful book published in 1993 by George Braziller gives a brief history of the chapel followed by photos and descriptions of individual scenes in the fresco cycle.
***In the Company of the Courtesan, Sarah Dunant. Historical fiction at its best: the tale of a dwarf and his mistress who escape Rome during the sacking in 1527 and set up shop in Venice. Equally good is Dunant’s more recent Sacred Hearts, a romance set in a Ferrarese monastery.
Uniform Justice, Donna Leon. Or anything else by Leon. Good detective fiction set in Venice.
***A Venetian Affair, Andrea di Robilant. This fascinating and remarkable book comes out of a stash of love letters from the 18th century that were recently uncovered in a Venetian palace. The lovers, Andrea Memmo, a Venetian aristocrat, and Giustiana Wynne, the daughter of a British diplomat, are historical figures, and their illicit love affair was the stuff of high gossip during their lives. Thus these letters come to us as if by magic, from a dazzling world long gone by.
**The Perfect House, Witold Rybczynski. A great way to get a handle on Palladio. Rybczynski, a noted architecture and design critic, made a pilgrimage to the Veneto to understand Palladio. This book is the outcome. It’s charming, anecdotal, idiosyncratic, and well worth reading, given how many of the villas we will visit.
Palladian Days, Sally Gable. This is written by a couple from Atlanta who actually bought a Palladian Villa, the Villa Cornaro. It’s a sort of This Old House in the Veneto. If you’re looking for a meatier introduction to Palladio, try James Ackerman’s Palladio.
Venetian Stories, Jane Turner Rylands. Rylands is the wife of the former director of the Peggy Guggenheim museum in Venice. Her collection of short stories is both delightful and wise, in an old fashioned sort of way.
Watermark, Joseph Brodsky. The Russian poet spent winters in Venice for nearly 20 years. This collection of essay-poems captures beautifully the magic of the city.
Don't look Now (1973). A psychological thriller about an art historian (Donald Sutherland) and his wife (Julie Christie). Much of the movie is set in a dreary yet luscious Venice. It's one of my very favorite films.
Death in Venice (1971). This beautifully photographed film by Luchino Visconti is a sympathetic and fitting adaptation of the Thomas Mann novella.
Summertime (1955). Another beautiful film--how can you go wrong in Venice?--about a spinster (Katherine Hepburn) on holiday who falls in love with a shopkeeper (Rosano Brazzi).
Casanova (2005). As one critic writes, “this frothy, oddly bloodless film does a disservice to the colorful life of Casanova.” Still, with Heath Ledger in the staring role, it’s good fun. And it has some great shots of Venice.
William Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice (2004). It was Al Pacino’s lifelong dream to play Shylock. He does a darn good job in this loyal adaptation of a classic high school text. (That amply bears revisiting.)
The Tourist (2010). This crazy romp with Johnny Depp and Angelina Jolie is good fun. And it was filmed in Venice though the city was entirely chopped up and reassembled in the cutting toom. The Venetians are still talking about Angelina sightings.