From the palazzo-lined Grand Canal to the sharp cobra-prow of the gondola, the images of Venice are instantly recognisable. In her acclaimed portrait – part history, part guide book – Jan Morris covers a thousand years in the life of this unique city of the waters.
There is no better guide to the city’s true character than the ever-inquisitive Morris. Stand with her on the high arch of the Rialto and re-capture Venice’s triumphs and failures in an instant; wander the jigsawing calles and feel the sensuous nature of this city of polished marbles, rich velvets and golden horses. The supreme sea-power of her day, mistress of trade routes to the Orient, once Venice was the centre of civilisation.
The power of Venice has long since declined, but, as Morris poignantly observes, its allure never wanes: ‘wherever you go in life you will feel somewhere over your shoulder, a pink, castellated, shimmering presence, the domes and riggings and crooked pinnacles of the Serenissima’. Her intimate knowledge of Venice past and present, expressed in prose as evocative as the city itself, gives us a new understanding of this most mysterious of places.
Jan Morris reflects on the touch of serendipity that first brought her to Venice and sparked a lifelong fascination with ‘the most beautiful city on the face of the earth.
One of the happiest things that ever happened to me occurred in a tent in the Po Valley in Italy one day at the end of 1945. I was an undistinguished subaltern in a very distinguished armoured regiment, the 9th Queen’s Royal Lancers, and we were soon to be transferred from Italy to the Middle East when I was ordered to report to our commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel K. J. Price, dso, mc at his headquarters tent.
Jack Price was the perfect image of a British cavalry colonel, a Welsh landowner with impeccable manners and loyalties, so instinctively polite that he rose from his chair to receive even the least impressive of his junior officers. When he received me that afternoon his courtesy was tinged, I thought, with melancholy, as though he had bad news for me; and by his own staunch standards, so he had.
The thing was this, he said. We had a few weeks to kill before we sailed for Egypt, and headquarters had instructed him to detach temporarily one of his subalterns for extra-regimental duties. He very much regretted that it must be me. No, no, he assured me, I would be back with the 9th in time to sail, and it was no reflection of course upon my own conduct or future military prospects, but in the meantime, well, he hated to say it, it was a rotten thing to have to do, but he was very much afraid that I would have to leave the regiment for a time, and go and help run the recently commandeered motorboats of Venice.
Help run the motorboats of Venice – what a fate for an officer of the 9th Queen’s Royal Lancers, known since the Indian Mutiny as the Delhi Spearmen, who had lately fought their way so in defatigably from Alamein to the Po! The colonel assured me that almost before I knew it, I would be back as regimental intelligence officer, a plum job for the hopelessly unsoldierly likes of me – but in the meantime, well, he could only say that he was very, very sorry to have to do this to me.
I did not, however, have to wipe away a tear as I saluted the dear man. Help run the motorboats of Venice! I had no idea what the task would entail, but the very sound of it, pace Colonel Jack, made my heart soar with expectation, and, in the event, that regretful order proved a seminal event of my life. Helping to run the motorboats of Venice turned out in the end to make me a sort of honorary citizen of the most beautiful city on the face of the earth, and to give me the profoundest pleasure for the rest of my days.
Helping to run the motorboats was not an onerous responsibility. I shared a house on the island of Giudecca with a similarly ill-used subaltern from the Queen’s Bays, and spent most of my time wandering, loitering, pottering about and wondering spellbound through the streets and canals of the city. As it happened, it was to prove my Venetian habit for ever after, and when in 1960 I came to write my book about the place, this idle and hedonistic attitude coloured it throughout. It was not a book strong on architecture, on art, or even on history, but it was impregnated with a sense of young and easy-going delight, and I like to think that it has been sharing my long-ago pleasures with its readers ever since.
It is, as it were, a book written from the back seat of a requisitioned motorboat, with a glass of white wine precariously beside me, and my feet on the seat in front in a decidedly unregimental manner.
So that interview under canvas on the Po influenced my whole life, but here’s an odd thing: I remember with gratitude always the chance it gave me to link my life once and for all with Venice, but I remember no less thankfully the kindness of Jack Price that day, or the golden fellowship of the friends with whom, when the time came, I sailed away from the Serenissima to the shores of Araby.