“The summary of the universe”: thoughts on Venice in the words of Peter Ackroyd

I visited Venice for the first time recently, and wanted to set down some impressions: partly on the nature of the city itself, partly on its history of collections, archives, printing, and recording knowledge. However, I found that these ideas were expressed more evocatively than I could ever manage by Peter Ackroyd in his ‘Venice: Pure City’. So here are Ackroyd’s words in italics. The photographs are mine, except where noted.

Liminality and time, night and silence, maps and labyrinths
There are many legends and superstitions of the sea within popular Venetian lore. It is a shifting city, between land and sea, and thus it becomes the home for liminal fantasies of death and rebirth… Venice as a city of transit, where you might easily be lost among the press, a city on the frontier between different worlds, where those who did not ‘fit in’ to their native habitat were graciously accepted… Venice was always a frontier. It was called ‘the hinge of Europe’. It has the essence of a boundary – a liminal space – in all its dealings. It is a perpetual threshold. It is half land and half sea. It is the middle place between the ancient imperial cities of Rome and Byzantium … Goethe described it as ‘the market place of the Morning and the Evening lands’ by which he meant that the city, poised between west and east, is the median point of the rising and the setting sun… It was a frontier, too, between the sacred and the profane. The public spaces of the city were liminal areas between piety and patriotism. The boundaries between past and present were ill-defined.

Our colleague Ian Rodwell has noted other views of Venice as a liminal space in a post on his Liminal Narratives blog.

Yet time seems to shift in the city. The tokens of various periods appear together, and various times modify one another. In Venice there is no true chronological time; it has been overtaken by other forces. There are occasions, indeed, when time seems to be suspended; if you enter a certain courtyard, in a shaft of sunlight, the past rises all around you… The city is so old, and so encrusted with habit and tradition, that the people can be said to fit within its existing rhythms… It has often been said that Venice cannot be modernised. More pertinently, it will not be modernised. It resists any such attempt with every fibre of its being…. It can hardly be doubted then, that Venice still exerts some strange power over the human imagination. To walk around the city is to enter a kind of reverie. Water instils memories of the past, made all the more real by the survival of the ancient brick and stone.

Photo by Lyn Robinson

The night and silence of Venice are profound. Moonlight can flood Saint Mark’s Square. Venice is most characteristic at night. It has a quality of stillness that suits the mood of time preserved. Then it is haunted by what it most loves – itself. The doorways seem darker than in any other city, lapped as they are by the black water.

The secret city takes the shape of a labyrinth. It is a maze that can elicit anxiety and even fear from the unwary traveller. It lends an element of intrigue to the simplest journey. It is a city of dead-ends, and of circuitous alleys: there are twisting calli, and hidden turnings; there are low archways and blank courtyards, where the silence is suspended like a mist. There are narrow courts that terminate in water. The natives do not lose their way, but the traveller always gets lost. It is impossible not to get lost. But then suddenly, as if by some miracle of revelation, you find that for which you have been searching …. But, then, it is unlikely that you will ever find that place again.

The bureaucracy of Venice was one of the wonders of the western world. Everything was committed to writing, as the overflowing archives of modern Venice will testify. At a time when other cities, or other nations, had only the most rudimentary internal organisation Venice was already a model of administrative expertise.

The Venetians were obsessed with their history. They produced the largest body of chronicles in the Italian world. Extant from the fourteenth century are more than a thousand such texts.

It is wholly to be expected, therefore, that the Venetian archives are the second largest in the world. Only the archives of the Vatican are more extensive. Yet none are more rich or more detailed than the Venetian papers. Some date from the ninth century. Everything was written down, in the hope that older decision and provisions might still be useful. .. The Archivo di Stato, just one of the many official archives, contain 160 km of files and documents. When the German historian Leopold von Ranke first came upon them in the 1820s he was, like Cortez on a peak in Darien, staring at an ocean; from his encounter with the papers sprang the first exercise in what was known as ‘scientific history’. They are still an infinite resource for contemporary historians and sociologists….

A very ambitious digital humanities project is currently beginning, using digitization and machine learning to text mine these archives, revealing information on many aspects of Venetian society through the centuries.

Photo by Lyn Robinson
One resident of Venice has been celebrated, if that is the right word, as the first of all journalists. Pietro Aretino came to Venice from Rome in 1527 [and] wrote pasquinades or flysheets that were distributed everywhere in the city, and he refurbished the form of the giudizio or almanac … It is not perhaps surprising that the first newspaper in the world, the Gazzetta, emerged in Venice at the beginning of the seventeenth century. At various times in the following century one of the first modern journalists, Gasparo Gozzi, published L’Osservatore Veneto and La Gazzetta Veneta.

There was a passion for collecting in Venice; anything, from Roman coins to freaks of nature, could be taken up and placed in cabinets and cupboards… The first known collections were Venetia, dating from the fourteenth century. But the obsession with studioli or curiosity shops just grew and grew. [A Venetian collector] Federigo Contarini aspired to possess a specimen of everything or being ever created… During the course of the seventeenth century possession became more specific and specialised. … The whole world could be purchased and displayed …There was a market for antiques and a market for landscape paintings; there was a market in natural marvels, such as the many-headed hydra valued at six thousand ducats, and a market in ancient musical instruments…. The last great Venetian collector, Conte Vittorio Cini, died in 1977.

The Venetians have never been known for their commitment to scholarship, or to learning for its own sake; they are no inclined to abstract inquiry, or to the adumbration of theory… There was no concern for dogma or theory. There was no real interest in pure or systematic knowledge as such; empirical knowledge was for the Venetians the key to truth… There was no university in the city itself. The absence might seem a singular omission for any city-state; but there of course was no university in London either, that other centre of trade and business… There may have been no great poetry in the city, but there were important texts on hydrostatics and geography, on hydraulics and astronomy. The Venetians also possessed a practical inventiveness, in pursuits as different as glass- and instrument-making.

The real intellectual success of Venice, however, came in practical manufacture of books. The first licence to print was issued in 1469. Just eighteen or nineteen years after the invention of moveable type printing by Johannes Gutenberg, the Venetian senate announced that ‘this peculiar invention of our time, altogether unknown to former ages, is in every way to be fostered and advanced’. In this, the senators were five years ahead of William Caxton… The Venetian authorities had sensed a commercial opportunity, and the city soon became the centre of European printing. They created the privilege of copyright for certain printed works in 1486; it was the first legislation for copyright in the world. .. It was only right and natural that Venice should become the pioneer of that trade, Venice, in 1474, was said to be ‘stuffed with books’ … At the beginning of the sixteenth century there were almost two hundred print shops, producing a sixth of all the books published in Europe… The printers of Venice also became masters of musical printing, map printing and medical printing, spreading information around Europe. Books on the human anatomy, and on military fortifications, were published. Works of popular piety, light literature in the vernacular, chapbooks, all issued from the city of the lagoon.

Image by image
Cadore, BAC gallery, rio S. Polo
In 1605 Venice was described as ‘the summary of the universe’, because all that the world contained could be found somewhere within it: if the world were a ring, then Venice was its jewel…. Peggy Guggenheim once said that when Venice is flooded it is even more truly beloved… Venice has always been in peril, its existence most fragile. It is a man-made structure relying on the vicissitudes of the natural world. Yet it has endured.

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