In the era of the Grand Tour, Venice was the cultural jewel in the crown of Europe and the epitome of decadence. Though visited by only the lucky few, its seductive charms were shared with those back home through the art and literature it inspired. A new collection of essays edited by Professor Michael O’Neill, Dr Mark Sandy and Dr Sarah Wootton explores how Venice has been represented in Western culture since 1800.
Charles Dickens once described Venice as a “strange Dream upon the water.” With its combination of shimmering canals, historic buildings, and aesthetic splendour, Venice is an artwork in its own right; yet it has also been a constant source of inspiration for generations of artists. Venice and the Cultural Imagination demonstrates how each period has attempted to reimagine and revitalise the city in different media, drawing on the legacy of earlier representations and styles.
“The city brings dwelling, history, aesthetics and commerce into intimate connection with the multiple, evanescent play of light upon watery surfaces.”
Introduction to Venice and the Cultural Imagination
For example, Mark Sandy shows how Thomas Mann’s 1912 novel Death in Venice represents the city in a kind of nightmarish vision. Mann’s apocalyptic representation draws on the Romantic poets Wordsworth, Byron and Shelley, and their depiction of the fallen Venetian republic.
As well as linking literary writers across the centuries, the book depicts the way in which literature intertwines with other art forms. Sarah Wootton shows how Henry James’s novel The Wings of a Dove was inspired by Renaissance painters such as Titian, which in turn influenced the contemporary film adaptation of his book. Rebecca White similarly looks at the work of the writer, Daphne DuMaurier, which treats Venice as a kind of prison of the mind – something adapted into Nicolas Roeg’s film version of her novel, Don’t Look Now.
Other contributions connect Shakespeare to Byron through their respective visions of Venice; examine Venice’s rich heritage of opera and song; and explore how the city was imagined in the paintings of J.M.W. Turner, the criticism of John Ruskin, works by Charles Dickens, and the poetry of Robert Browning.
Finally, two essays examine how Venice was perceived by early twentieth-century writers. Jason Harding suggests that Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot drew extensively on fragments of earlier literature to create their new forms of poetry. Their writings represented the city as having by now become “a labyrinth of memories,” a mere spectacle for vulgar Europeans and Americans. Similarly, Pamela Knights shows how Edith Wharton, who is today best-known for her novels, first established her career as a cultural observer. When writing about Venice, Wharton was contemptuous of American tourists, guidebooks in hand, whom she labelled as “mechanical sight-seers.”
For these later writers in particular, Venice exists in a kind of frozen splendour, embodying both a myth of cultural majesty and also decline and decadence. This is why, although Venice is the focal point of the book, the themes of the topic spread more widely. Venice offers a kind of case study that “takes us close to the heart of Anglo American and European cultural predicaments; if it entices artistic responses, it complicates thoughts about the role of the artist; it prompts but challenges the notion that civilization, culture, and art have lasting or restorative power.”
The rich history, economic decline and ongoing artistic imaginations of Venice made it a key stop on the Grand Tours of the Romantic period 200 years ago. This collection of essays helps us to understand why it remains a prominent destination today – but it also reminds that even such a compelling city needs continually to be reimagined by art, lest it be perceived in a hackneyed and frozen way.
(Venice and the Cultural Imagination grew out of a series of lectures organised for 2009-10 by the Department’s Romantic Legacies and Dialogues Research Group, in response to Durham’s Institute of Advanced Study’s annual theme for the year, on Water.)