Does Venice exist? The city of lagoons and mystery has long been little more than hallucination and façade, a “virtual reality” recreated stone by stone to satiate the desires and fantasies of a culture-hungry tourist mass. The Venetian Republic died a political death in 1797, but, as John Pemble incisively documents in his book Venice Rediscovered, the artistic fascination with Venice led to its poignant afterlife as modern myth and stagnant backwater. Pemble decodes the alchemy of this conversion, from “yesterday’s highbrow conceit into today’s middlebrow cliché.” Beneath the cool surface of his prose one hears occasional echoes of Rabelaisian laughter, as the Doges’ carnival becomes the capitalists’ sideshow.
Early travelers regarded Venice without particular sentiment, remembering the despotic cruelty of the vanquished Venetian Republic and its sinister Council of Ten. Later visitors saw the city as, in John Ruskin’s words, “a miracle that could not be reworked, a dream that could not be redreamt.” A scaffolding of current concerns had been erected over the city’s slow-motion disintegration. The second half other 19th century enshrined Venice as the capital of exquisite decadence and Romantic ruin, a twilight city perpetually on the verge of being washed away. It embodied Europe’s fantasies of its own extinction and the aesthete’s dream of merging art with life. Chief among Venice’s mythmakers were a procession of Anglo-Saxon writers, historians and connoisseurs—including Lord Byron, Henry James, Ruskin and John Addington Symonds—who celebrated the city’s magnificence while simultaneously reinventing its meaning.
Pemble skillfully describes the ways in which successive generations of historians reinterpreted Venice based on their own contemporary agendas. British scribes drew frequent parallels between Venice’s fate and the possible fate of the British Empire; echoing English statesmen, they argued that Venice would have preserved its greatness if it had followed a policy of “splendid isolation.” As Venice became an increasingly popular destination, Venetian history was rehabilitated. Paintings once dismissed as gaudy were reappraised as priceless masterpieces. Venice’s legacy of criminal subterfuge and routine torture became a footnote to a far more glorious past. In modern Italy, the invasive rule of the Doges served as a model for the birth of fascism.
For artists, Venice in the late 19th century functioned similarly to Tangiers in the 1950s and 1960s: it was an “interzone,” a place devoid of politics, situated between the West and the Orient, where aesthetes and deposed nobility could hobnob and pursue the sexual satisfaction that eluded them elsewhere. It was perhaps this aspect of Venetian expatriate life that caused the French poet Guillaume Apollinaire to characterize the city as “the genitals of Europe.”
Europe’s relationship to its own past changed during this era, and Venice embodied this change. The ravages of the Industrial Revolution made the cognoscenti aware of the built past as a precious resource, something to preserve from the destructive forces of history and safeguard for future generations. After the tower of the Campanile at St. Mark’s crashed to the ground in 1902, funds were immediately secured to build an exact replica on the spot, to forever disguise the calamity. “When people spoke of restoration they now meant making the new look old, not making the old look new,” Pemble writes, in a typically compact epigram. On a smaller scale throughout the city, such rebuildings and alterations had been going on for decades, as the Venetians colluded in the transformation of their city into a museum, in exchange for the ever-increasing flow of tourist revenue.
Anglo-Saxon authors and European connoisseurs successfully engineered the appearance of stopped time in Venice, but their victory was a sterile one. Preservation proved at least as fatal to the city as modernization would have been. This failure constitutes the ironic heart of Pemble’s thesis, as the artists who sought to salvage Venice ended up equal partners in its destruction. If Venice Rediscovered were a detective novel, the Venetophile artists would be the criminal masterminds. Their cult of the sublime acted on the city as embalming fluid. The “art for art’s sake” credo of the Romantics encouraged the counterfeiting of the city’s exquisitely decaying structures, and the writers’ mythologizing of this decay proved all too alluring to the newly leisured classes.
By the beginning of the 20th century, James’s “refuge of endless strange secrets, broken fortunes, and wounded hearts” had been transmuted from a vital organism to a specimen preserved under glass. Ruskin’s books and Byron’s poems became the stuff of guidebooks, a cattlecall to millions of tourists looking for an escapist destination that mingled culture with pleasure. The once deserted Lido became a popular beachfront. Palazzos were converted into casinos and luxury hotels. By 1928, D.H. Lawrence could dismiss the city as “a monument to Mammon and the fleshpot of a mindless multitude.” The artists had moved on.