Friday, 18 March 2011

Jan Morris's 'Venice'

I've been trying to satisfy my 'obsession' with Venice by reading Jan Morris's book Venice, first written in 1960 in the persona of James Morris, Morris tried to update it in 1970 and realised that it was not updateable. Much has changed, but much remains the same. La Serenissima has come through a dark period (lasting, however you make your calculation, for 150 or 750 years). It has now settled into a fairly secure future as the 'must see' wonder of the tourist world.

The Book is a "highly subjective, romantic, impressionist picture less of a city than of an experience." (Jan Morris) It is a book to cherish as much as Venice itself. and I would like to quote a short passage to illustrate the wonders therein:

"The church in Venice, though, is something more than all things bright and beautiful. It is descended from Byzantium, by faith out of nationalism: and sometimes to its high ritual in the Basilica of St Mark there is a tremendous sense of an eastern past, marbled, hazed and silken. St Mark's itself is a barbaric building, like a great Mongolian pleasure pavilion, or a fortress in Turkestan: and sometimes there is a suggestion of rich barbarism to its services too, devout, reverent and beautiful though they are.

In Easter week each year the Patriarch and his clergy bring from the vaults of the church treasury all its most sacred relics, and display them ceremonially to the people. This ancient function is heavy with reminders of the Orient. It takes place in the evening, when the Piazza is dark, and the dim lights of the Basilica shine mysteriously on the gold mosaics of its roof. The congregation mills about the nave in the half-light, switching from side to side, not knowing which way to look. A beadle in a cocked hat, with a silver sword and the face of a hereditary retainer, stands in a peremptory eighteenth-century attitude beside a pillar. The organ plays quietly from its loft, and sometimes there is a chant of male voices, and sometimes a sudden hubbub from the square outside when the door of the church is opened. All is murmurous and glinting.

A flash of gold and silver from an aisle, a swish of stiff vestments, the clink of a censer, and presently there advances through the crowd, clouded in incense, the patriarchal procession. Preceded by flurrying vergers, clearing a way through the congregation, it sweeps slowly and rheumatically up the church. A golden canopy of old tapestry sways and swings above the mitred Patriarch, and around it walk the priests, solemn and shuffling, clasping reverently the celebrated relics of St Mark's (enclosed in golden frames, jewelled caskets, crucifixes, medieval monstrances). You cannot see very well, for the crowd is constantly jostling, and the atmosphere is thick; but as the priests pass slowly by you catch a queer glimpse of copes and 'Poi Cristiani' 79 reliquaries, a cross set with some strange sacred souvenir, a fragment of bone in a crystal sphere, weird, ornate, elaborate objects, swaying and bobbing above the people as the old men carrying them stumble towards the altar.

It is an eastern ceremonial, a thing of misty and exotic splendour. When you turn to leave the great church, all those holy objects are placed on the rim of the pulpit, and all those grave priests are crowded together behind, like so many white-haired scholarly birds. Incense swirls around them; the church is full of slow shining movement; and in the Piazza outside, when you open the door, the holiday Venetians stroll from cafe to cafe in oblivion, like the men who sell Coca-Cola beneath the sneer of the Sphinx."

Visit Venice whenever you can (Winter is best if you actually want to SEE things; Summer will do for the excitement, heat, crowds and colour). If you can't get there, read Jan Morris's wonderful book.

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