This is the accompanying book to the TV series, but so much more too!
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).