Francesco's Venice Hardcover – Jul 19 2005
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From Publishers Weekly
Shakespeare may not have known it, but Othello, the "Moor of Venice," may have been a dark-skinned Sicilian named Francesco da Sessa nicknamed "il capitano Moro" (the Moorish captain). This is just one of the old tales and legends that da Mosto, a historian and lifelong resident of Venice, intertwines with historical facts in this beautifully illustrated volume. Historical details abound: here are listed, for example, the exact measurements of a Venice gondola, still built to dynastically determined precision. Da Mosto, who hosted the BBC program on which the book is based and is descended from a patrician Venetian family, is the reader's tour guide, highlighting Venice's rich aesthetic, from its origins as a fishing and farming community to its present-day incarnation as a cultural center and tourist mecca. Glorious photos, including those of St. Mark's Cathedral and the Sala del Maggior Consiglio, complement the engaging writing that includes diary entries and letters from da Mosto's family. But it's the fascinating stories of famous courtesans and Renaissance painters who rebelled against the Church that help da Mosto draw the complete picture of the extraordinary city he calls home.
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"An enchanting, immensely readable, superbly illustrated introduction to the history and legends of Venice by a consummate insider." -- John Berendt, author of The City of Falling Angels "Francesco's Venice is a total delight... it's overflowing with fine photos, but it's also a lively, opinionated and thorough history of La Serenissima." Independent on Sunday "A natural presenter: unselfconscious, restlessly interested, vibrant, good-looking and steeped in the city." Observer "Francesco da Mosto is the BBC's latest engaging, enthusiastic TV historian...He has charm to burn and is an absorbing guide." The Daily Telegraph "sumptuous series" The Sunday Times --This text refers to the Paperback edition.See all Product Description
Top Customer Reviews
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
da Mosto intertwines Venice's history with anecdotes and 'secrets' that illuminate the mysteries that surround this most beautiful of all cities. His ability to relate not only the socioeconomic, military, religious, and patrician history, but to make each of his myriad topics rich in elegant language and a quiet humor results in a history book that reads like a novel.
The exquisite photography of John Parker provides views of St Marks, the Square, the gondolas, the canals, the maze of walkways and bridges all come alive. These are not the 'standard views' seen in travel books: these photographs find a solid place in da Mosto's description of art and architecture peculiar to Venice.
There may be many fine books on Serenissima, but this one rapidly ascends to the top of the list - for Venetians, for those who have fallen under Venice's spell as travelers, and for the armchair dreamers who will discover the spirit of the city as they approach the book as a history source. Highly recommended. Grady Harp, January 06
The first is that it is a fascinating history of the city of Venice from the point of view of a native-not simply a native but one whose family has been part of Venice for much of its existence. This personal engagement with the ancient stones of Venice and its people means that de Mosto can flesh out the big picture with intimate anecdotes that make the dates and people of Venice's past come to life. We can readily identify with a photo of a palazzo on it own merits, but how much more so when we learn that it is where our travel guide himself lives. The same is true of the familiar monuments of the city, when we hear of a da Mosto past connection with them. As the author says in the introduction, "One of my first memories is of looking at the vast da Mosto family tree with its intriguing sea of names. As stories were related to me throughout childhood I grew to realize that our past, as that of one of the oldest families of Venice, is inextricably intertwined with the city's."
The second is that the book is arranged according to themes based on the four ancient elements: Water, Earth, Air, Fire--plus one, Ether. Centering on these themes, we learn about the creation of the city itself, as it rose from a swampy collection of more than a thousand small islands. The sidebar pages are especially enjoyable as they tell the story behind the history. Da Mosto tells us of the importance of Venetian culture, commerce and exploration--not to mention the whole concept of a republican form of government that lasted 1000 years. We are told of Venice's incredible ability to continually rise as a phoenix from the ashes. And throughout the book we are reminded again and again of that ethereal quality of Venice that remains.
If you find this review helpful you might want to read some of my other reviews, including those on subjects ranging from biography to architecture, as well as religion and fiction.
Firstly, the book is replete with stunning photography by John Parker. These in themselves are enough to merit applause, but Francesco's text is a good read and full of personal insight. He clearly is no lightweight historian, but has delved deeply into his own and his city's past.
The book is in five chapters (one more than the TV series) with titles that explain much of the subject they contain: 1. "Water - From the Waters to the City"; 2. "Earth - The Boundaries of Land Enlarge"; 3. "Air - La Serenissima Evaporates"; 4. "Fire - Venice Burns Its Past"; and 5. "Ether - Life under Uncertainty".
There is a healthy dose of scepticism of traditions in relation to the early history of the city adopted by the author, and his own tentative assertions ring true. He is good on this period, whereas other histories skip over it lightly. He focuses on the physical origins of the city and its political beginnings. It was then not a matter of display or grandeur or empire, but trade, commerce and industry, especially where salt and fish were concerned. It was also a healthy sign that Francesco sheds doubt on the blindness of Doge Enrico Dandolo, the scourge of the Fourth Crusade to Constantinople.
He is also good on the Arsenale, which presently lacks any detailed history in English. It is still very much out-of-bounds to tourists, but it would have been nice, though, to have had plans of its development. And I have yet to see in print those marvellous birds' eye view drawings of the naval base before and after Napoleon's conquest. Francesco is also good on the subject of trade, such as the mechanics involved in sailing convoys, as well as their destinations (but, alas, no map, not even any line drawings of how a galley, a galleass or a navi would have looked like).
There is more emphasis on how Francesco's own family history has become intertwined with that of the city: this is, after all, Francesco's history of his birthplace! We learn of its involvement in the Tiepolo plot of 1310 and in that of Doge Marin Falier, the only doge to be sentenced to death, in 1355. Francesco provides personal reminiscences too about the first time he received his first communion in Saint Mark's Cathedral, about his first experience of a Titian painting, about witnessing the fire at the La Fenice opera house, and about his own home, which was the setting for part of Anthony Minghella's film "The Talented Mr Ripley." There is much more.
Many of these recollections appear in the numerous additional textboxes that populate the whole book. These allow the reader to focus in more detail on particular aspects, whether it's the doge's hat, robes and regalia, or the antics of Baron Corvo. Those boxes devoted to the language of Venice proved very useful to me. I always wondered why the Venetians often failed to pronounce the suffixes used elsewhere in Italy; Francesco explains that it is partly down to laziness.
There are, as one would expect, many links to the TV series. He repeats in the book his castigation of the bridge to the mainland as a folly; its name - Ponte della Liberta - he insists is ironical. But there are differences with the TV series too. For example, the painter Turner appears nowhere in its pages, but John Singer Sargent appears in his place.
Francesco's coverage of twentieth century Venice is a pleasure to read, as this is often an overlooked episode in its history, for understandable reasons. And yet, it has a richness of drama all of its own, especially in his family reminiscences of war and peace.
So why only four stars? On the negative side, Francesco mentions books in his introduction, but there is no bibliography to guide the reader further into the details of the subjects raised. And where are the maps? Maps of the lagoon would have been useful for placing the city in its geographical setting and for providing bearings in relation to many places named in the early chapters, such as Torcello, Aquileia, Grado, Ravenna and Chioggia.
This review is of the softback print. Unfortunately, there are errors arising from the reduction in size and pages from the original hardback, for example, the "see above" on page 107 is meaningless, as are the picture credits (although these can be worked out with a little patience). The index is good, but there is no entry, for instance, for either "Messeteria" or "Modone".
How does this book compare with the standard introduction to the history of Venice in English by John Julius Norwich? Although Francesco spends some time to accounts about the city's wars in the east and its political relations with the Italian mainland, there is by far a greater amount of information and history given to the development - architectural, social and economic - of the city itself. For example, space is given by Francesco to the paving of streets and the standard of cleanliness, to clothes and how nobles greeted each other - it would have been nice to have one of Longhi's pictures to accompany these social points; you will look almost wholly in vain for such details in Norwich's history. The downside is that there are only two paragraphs devoted to the role of Paolo Sarpi whereas the more political and wider geographical sweep of Norwich's book devotes a chapter or more to the workings out of the papal crisis of the early seventeenth century.
So, `you pays your money and you takes your choice', but if you are seeking an introduction to the city of Venice as opposed to an introduction to the politics and external relations of the city, then Francesco's must be the better buy. However so great Norwich's history is, it does spend more than half its time on the coasts of the eastern Mediterranean and the plains of Lombardy, rather than in the city itself (see my amazon.co.uk review).
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