Venice - Tales of the City


Michelle Lovric’s anthology about the city has been described as ‘delightfully unhackneyed’. Instead of rounding up the usual suspects – foreigners writing about Venice – she has looked deeper into La Serenissima’s own literary history, translating into English for the first time many delightful and moving poems and stories.

If Venice is a museum, her rooms are the most beautiful in the world, and her exhibits still very much inhabited. In this anthology, the voices of today’s Venetians mingle with those of their ancestors, just as they still do on the streets of the city. Recite a few words from Arnaldo Fusinato’s 1849 masterpiece ‘Addio a Venezia’ and almost any Venetian will declaim not just the rest of the stanza but the whole stirring poem, reproduced here in English for the first time.

The laments of the fifteenth-century diarist Marino Sanudo are today repeated in Il Gazzettino, almost word for word, week by week. The Venetians are still well served by their vast repertoire of ironic and earthy proverbs. The warning cries of the gondoliers are the same; the greeting gestures the locals reserve for their own kind are unchanged; identical seasonal delicacies – frittole, galani, musk melons – perfume the air at the same times of year.

It is these things, and the pleasure Venetians have taken in them since time immemorial, that are the stuff of this book. Where possible, they are described by native writers, in hymns to hot chocolate, paeans to dried cod, private letters, diaries and memoirs.

Who better to conjure up the hedonism of eighteenth-century Venice than notorious native sons Lorenzo da Ponte, Carlo Goldoni and Giacomo Casanova?  Or to describe the pretensions of Venetian literary life than Goldoni’s arch-rival Carlo Gozzi? Who else but Baffo could describe San Marco as the place to find ‘bitches of all breeds/who go there to wag their tails…’, parading themselves in such a manner that the poet can scarcely restrain himself from pinching them.

Who better than Doge Francesco Morosini and historian Pompeo Molmenti to describe the fantastical origins of their own city?  The bluestocking Dogaressa Giustina Renier Michiel explains why pigeons haunt San Marco to this day. Riccardo Calimani describes the near-extinction of the Venetian Jews in the Holocaust.

Other voices, some now long forgotten, describe uniquely Venetian joys and tribulations. Here are the astonishing lyrics to the songs the workers sang as they drove down the piles that form the foundation of the floating city. A sixteenth-century merchant bemoans his six-year run of unspeakable ill-fortune on the high seas. Veronica Franco, the courtesan-poetess, implores a friend not to set her daughter up as a prostitute in Venice: ‘do not allow the flesh of your poor daughter to be slaughtered and sold, and to become yourself her own butcher’.

The secret city also reveals herself in her ancient documents: the original ‘wanted’ poster for the perpetrators of a legendary crime, the brutal murder attempt on the saintly Paolo Sarpi; a Renaissance treatise on how to detect the signs of possession by demons (if someone cannot eat the flesh of a goat for thirty days, for example). In the expense-book of the artist Lorenzo Lotto we see what it cost to undress a potential life-model ‘only to look’.

Also included are pieces that were written for the entertainment of the Venetians themselves: the tale of the wicked nuns and their exhausted gardener; the original and much darker account of the Moor of Venice upon which Shakespeare based his Othello




 ‘The refreshing thing about this anthology is that it is dominated by the Venetian perspective, a perspective that invokes a living city rather than a museum. Spurning the usual sentimental or nostalgic rhapsodies about a dying city, Michelle Lovric has opted for a wonderful array of Venetian proverbs … extracts from Venetian historians and famous writers such as Goldoni and Casanova, poems, fiction and earthy songs sung by the men who drove the wooden piles into the subsoil of the lagoon … If there is such a thing as a ‘real Venice’ you’re more likely to find it here than in your average guide book.’ Age 

‘As long as it stands above the waters of its lagoon, Venice’s charms will continue to seduce its visitors. I can’t easily think of another book that might so beguilingly lead the newly succumbed to prolong their engagement with this most promiscuous of lovers.’ Independent 

‘If you’re planning a first trip or you’re already one of Venice’s many lovers, then this collection will make a great companion.’ Times Online

'There have been many miscellanies of writings on the subject of Venice, but Lovric – who lives in the city and knows the city intimately – has unearthed some fascinating pieces that have eluded other anthologies.'
The Rough Guide to Venice and the Veneto

Hot Chocolate has been one of the supreme indulgences in the city for centuries. Not hot chocolate as sold in fashionable chains of coffee-shops in England and America: Venetian hot chocolate is another experience entirely. With the consistency and colour of a mud bath, this beverage is more food than drink, richer than the swarthiest chocolate mousse, recalling a time when chocolate was so highly valued that ten cocoa beans were worth one rabbit, one hundred a slave and twelve a night with a courtesan.

Of course chocolate’s charms have been serenaded by the city’s creative talent: Pietro Longhi painted the society lady drinking her morning chocolate in bed, Casanova describes travelling with sticks of chocolate in a strong box, and the poet Antonio Sforza, the maestro of Luisa Bergalli, wrote this effervescing poem to his favourite drink. It was published in Rime di Antonio Sforza, 1736.

Sforza also dedicated a poem to a well-known chocolate-lover of the eighteenth century, the portrait painter Rosalba Carriera, whose house, near the Guggenheim, is marked with a plaque on its Grand Canal wall. Rosalba was famed for her delicate pastel portraits, many of which can be seen in the Accademia Galleries. 

Sonnet in Praise of Hot Chocolate

Let it never be said that,
before going to bed
I don’t put my right
and my left hand together
without saying a requiem
for that good Christian
whose family gave him
the name Columbus.
Not just because he found
pure silver and gold,
because for me he did
that in vain;
Not because he conquered lands
for the Spanish king –
since I’m not so fond
of the Spanish myself.
But simply because he brought
from the new world
the sweet blessed potion
that we call Chocolate.
And for that I have a
greater devotion than
have the Certosine Friars
for their wine-drenched fry-ups.
It has no beginning or end,
the love that I have for the
daughter of cocoa,
of cinnamon, sugar and vanilla;
I would go three hundred miles
barefoot just to drink a
little cup of it,
I would pawn my Breviary
and my robe.
Truly my guts
are (
and I wouldn’t like to tell you
any wickedness) for chocolate
like a pig’s lusting after acorns.
I would give up all beverages,
I would give up tocai, and malvasia
and the whole genealogy of wines
if I could only be given
that holy liquor which
touches my heart,
which only to name it
makes my mouth water.
But there are lots of idiots
who believe that the Gods’ ambrosia
would be a better drink than Chocolate …
He who never tries it could not believe
how many blessings it has for us,
delivering us first of all from all evils,
apart from death …
My soul, dead and buried,
will go begging that my flesh,
turning under the earth
until it becomes earthenware
shall not be made into plates or urinals
but instead into little royal cups
for holding Chocolate
So that after death
I shall be still in my beatitude.

Antonio Sforza (eighteenth century)
taken from Venice - Tales of the City
copyright © Michelle Lovric 2003

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