Saturday, December 12, 2015

Mary McCarthy's "Venice Observed": Book Review

Venice Observed

While this seems less known than its 1959 predecessor The Stones of Florence, I liked it more. McCarthy reveals in framing vignettes more about where she stays, and the irascible, over-familiar family she resides with. Also, the book is set up thematically in chapters that don't just roam over the abundant art, but focus on characters and topics that let this erudite author convey information better.

I am reviewing a large-format illustrated edition of this 1963 book. With end-notes on the art photographed, and short essay by an art professor, it better meets the needs of readers who are not as familiar with the considerable context necessary for appreciating the displays written about and shown. She starts by noting that no corner of Venice can be kept from the tourist, and that residents must share its passageways with all, for all must walk its labyrinth. She then tells of how the ideally placed port gained its "loot" and why it prospered and then declined. The fate of its Jews in the ghetto and the rise of the Most Serene Republic's "only thinker" the friar Paolo Sarpi enliven the tales told.

Its glory years with Giorgione and Carpaccio, Titian and Tiepolo follow. A trip to the islands of Murano and Burano conjures up their appeal, or the limits of such. McCarthy regales us from a time fifty-plus years ago when Burano's fisherfolk looked different than Venetians, and when beggar children still could be found in the ghetto. Her Venice already feels very distant to a traveler today.

This is dated, of course, but for the way it conjures up some of the theme-park ambiance of Venice, recommended. It's an elegant but accessible introduction, and with the notes, one can learn about the artists and architects responsible for forging this island kingdom out of marble against the salty sea.
(Amazon US 12-9-15)

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