‘Venice’ by Jan Morris


Non fiction – paperback; Faber and Faber; 336 pages; 1993.

I am not a great fan of travelogues or travel memoirs, because I often think they don’t really make sense, or resonate strongly enough, unless you have been to the places depicted. For instance, it’s all well and good to read a travel tome about Australia and how terrible the flies are in the desert, but until you’ve actually experienced flies swarming around you and crawling into every face crevice it really doesn’t mean anything — you think you know but you really have no idea!

I decided to read Venice in preparation for a week-long stay in the Italian city. I had been to Venice several years ago, so felt I knew a bit about the city and its famous landmarks, which is why I wasn’t so bothered about reading this memoir. I’d done the homework already, so to speak.

Broken into three sections — The People, The City, The Lagoon — Venice is not a chronological history of the city but a meandering look at its past, present and future. Nor is it a guidebook, though it does contain a mine of information about what to see and where to go.

I think The Times probably described it best when they said it was “a classic love letter to Italy’s most iconic city”, because it is, indeed, a beautiful missive dripping with exquisite descriptions. I found it an enormously engaging and evocative read by an accomplished writer who really knows how to string a simile or two together.

Venice is a cheek-by-jowl, back-of-the-hand, under-the-counter, higgledy-piggledy, anecdotal city, and she is rich in piquant wrinkled things, like an assortment of bric-a-brac in the house of a wayward connoisseur, or parasites on an oyster-shell.


There are palaces to see everywhere, and precious churches, and bridges, and pictures by the thousand, and all the criss-cross pattern of antiquity that is picturesque Venice, mocked by the materialists, sentimentalised by the Romantics, but still by any standards an astonishing phenomenon, as fruity as plum pudding, as tart as the brand that flames about its holly.

In fact the writing throughout this superb book is sublime (much like Venice itself) and I would quote entire chapters here, except it’s probably better if you just took my word for it and got hold of a copy of Venice for yourself.

It’s a beautifully written and researched book, jam-packed with anecdotes and all kinds of historical fact. Whether you have been to Venice or not, I’m sure once you have read Jan Morris’s delightful memoir you will be clammering to book your flights!


4 thoughts on “‘Venice’ by Jan Morris

  1. But saying that it doesn’t really resonate if you haven’t been there is like saying that if you are reading a fiction piece about a woman with polio, it doesn’t mean anything unless you have experienced polio.


  2. Very true, Kate, but this is just one of my reading ‘quirks’. I think I’m much tougher and more judgemental about non-fiction books than fiction books.


  3. Morris’ “Venice” reminds me of a love letter to a very old and crotchety beloved Aunt … we all admit the carbuncles and warts and odd wrinkles, but also know that they are just the thin veneer on something far deeper that has moved through history from ‘pretty’ or ‘lovely’ to ‘beautiful’.
    I love Venice not only because I used to work just outside of the city and could visit frequently (and did), but because it is, as a city, one of the world’s places of absolute change … you can arrive on wheels to the station, and then going through the station is a complete transformation, for you walk out to the world of water.
    There are silly signs along the canali saying ‘no Skateboarding’, for example … a skateboard would not take you 3 metres.
    There are no direct ways in Venice. There is ambiguity in Venice. Throughout 1500 years of history Venice has always been open to the ‘other’, the different, the foreign (sometimes with a wary eye, always with the confidence born of long, long history and a defensible position buoyed by great military might).
    Read the book then go! Venice will not disappoint you if you let her work at her speed. As Cavafy said about Ithaca,
    “…Hope the voyage is a long one.
    May there be many a summer morning when,
    with what pleasure, what joy,
    you come into harbors seen for the first time;
    may you stop at Phoenician trading stations
    to buy fine things,
    mother of pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
    sensual perfume of every kind—
    as many sensual perfumes as you can;
    and may you visit many Egyptian cities
    to gather stores of knowledge from their scholars.
    Keep Ithaka always in your mind.
    Arriving there is what you are destined for.
    But do not hurry the journey at all.
    Better if it lasts for years,
    so you are old by the time you reach the island,
    wealthy with all you have gained on the way,
    not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.
    Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey.
    Without her you would not have set out.
    She has nothing left to give you now.
    And if you find her poor, Ithaka won’t have fooled you.
    Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,
    you will have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.


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