Venice Is Brilliant Inspiration for Any Writer—and Also Hell
Venice is “the ultimate romantic fantasy capital on the verge of extinction.” Its beauty has seduced—and frustrated—generations of artists, including this author.
Before the historic flood of 1966, people rarely spoke about Venice sinking. That flood, triggered by a storm surge across Italy whipping up wind and water, increased high tide to over six feet and left nearly the entire city underwater.
The 1966 calamity still holds the ominous record; it peaked at 76 inches, two inches higher than the tragic flooding that struck Venice this past November. Beyond the immediate devastation, the flood radically changed the city’s identity forever. No longer was it merely the ultimate romantic fantasy capital. It now came with extremely modern psychological baggage—the ultimate romantic fantasy capital on the verge of extinction, the spectacular beauty on the way to the morgue.
That’s the Venice we know today, the drowning museum swarmed by tourists who offer more harm than help. No wonder so many writers have been drawn to La Serenissima and have used it as a backdrop for their stories. The problems of the world are baked into its atmosphere, as complicated and unresolvable as its famous labyrinthine streets.
I stayed in Venice many times and for many seasons to research it as a locale for my new novel, A Beautiful Crime. I did not want to contest or correct the historical record or even imagine I could capture it in the round, to use an art term. I just wanted to get my slice of it right. Ultimately, I think the Venice depicted in the book is one in a state of crisis, caught in the jaws of a mighty shark: the old romance of it is disappearing and people are scrambling to hang on to whatever magic is left.
Leave it to Thomas Mann to get the city right. In a sense, he predicted the Venice of our age, or at least diagnosed our schizophrenic need to smother it with our love and attention even at the risk of death. Death in Venice was published in 1912, based off of the author’s own vacation on the Lido the year before where he spotted a handsome Polish boy in the dining room of the Grand Hotel des Bains.
Through the course of the novella, the middle-aged, aristocratic, inspiration-starved Gustav von Aschenbach becomes increasingly fixated on the beautiful nymph-like Tadzio, to the point that he ignores warnings of the fatal cholera epidemic sweeping through the brackish canals in order to keep in close proximity to the young man.
As far as allegories go, Mann’s is remarkably on point. Seduced beyond reason, Aschenbach can’t get himself to leave Venice. His obsessive hunger to worship at the feet of beauty becomes its own kind of death wish.
The same could be said for the leviathan of mass tourism today, which is only too aware of the havoc it wreaks on the fragile ecosystem of Venice but can’t square its destructive tendencies with its unchecked need to experience the city’s treasures firsthand. (The local government routinely proposes ventures like charging an admission fee to the city, but here’s an out-of-the-box idea: a small tax on every Instagram post, a surcharge added whenever the city’s location is tagged by a non-resident account.)
The irony of Venice is that it is being destroyed by our love for it. If it were less essential to the world, it might have a chance at survival.
I share my fellow traveler’s dilemma, because I, too, have trouble keeping away. There are cities that writers love, and cities that love writers. Venice is certainly the former—admirers include Shakespeare, Byron, Henry James, and Patricia Highsmith.
But Venice doesn’t open itself easily as a city for expat writers to set down roots, let alone a thriving literary scene. That might be due to the rigor of daily living conditions (its thorny, mazelike geography, the scarcity and expense of accommodations, the insurmountable swell of tourists).
Ezra Pound landed in Venice post-mental breakdown in the 1960s and stayed until his death; Joseph Brodsky would visit every winter on break from teaching in the United States, but made sure never to come in the ferocious, crowd-horded summers. (Both greats are buried on Venice’s cemetery island of San Michele.)
Writers, like the rest of us, tend to come to Venice for short durations, and the nature, breadth, and visual poetry of the city tends to give the visit a feeling of a lone pilgrimage, a voyage outside of time.
No wonder so many depictions of Venice in modern English literature revolve around vacations. The Westerner ferreting out trouble on a Venetian holiday is a well-worn plot line that goes back to mannered fin-de-siècle mainstays like Wilkie Collins’ The Haunted Hotel (1878) and James’ Wings of a Dove (1902).
It reaches its horror-suspense apogee in slim 20th century novels like Highsmith’s Those Who Walk Away (1967), Daphne Du Maurier’s Don’t Look Now (1971), and Ian McEwan’s The Comfort of Strangers (1981). In each case, the city’s confusing, misleading terrain mirrors the mindset of the visiting protagonists; thrust out of their comfort zones by a world that refutes rational order, the characters fall prey to seductive monsters and bouts of madness.
Twentieth century literature often treats Venice as a loophole to European Enlightenment, a vexing, carnivalesque locale in sharp resistance to the hyper-organized urban grid or sanitized suburban sprawl. So far, in the 21st century, writers have tended to fixate not on its potential for Aschenbach strokes of insanity but rather the opposite: its tempting Tadzio-like display of pure capitalistic spectacle.
No novel epitomizes this slick picture of Venice better than Geoff Dyer’s Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi (2005), where an embittered British journalist runs emotionally aground in a ridiculous, moneyed, hysterically farcical insider-art-world of the Venice Biennale.
Dyer’s Venice is one inhabited by name-dropping contemporary boulevardiers on the hunt for the latest shiny surface, a watery jet-set playground where “Venice had woken up and put on this guise of being a real place even though everyone knew it existed only for tourists.”
Instead of an exotic refuge from the drudge of daily life, Venice works as an asylum for those most at home surrounded by pretty, empty reflections. No loophole, Venice has become the ultimate exemplifier of materialism without end.
Whatever your take on the city, it’s damningly hard to capture it on the page. As any writer knows, the delight of writing about Venice with its sherbet-colored palazzos refracted in the waters of the Grand Canal is also its biggest obstacle.
Venice—because of its prismatic landscape of light and water—has always been a painter’s paradise. The 18th century Venetian painter Canaletto made an industry out of creating the ultimate postcard views of the city to sell to the English aristocrats on the Grand Tour; incidentally, prostitution was discreetly encouraged on the Grand Tour to ward off homosexuality among the young men around so much decadent art and beauty, and thus, Venice had some of the best brothels in Europe.
The city has been slightly less accommodating for filmmakers. In an interview I did last year with the Italian horror director Dario Argento, he stated that because of a slew of financial and practical considerations—namely navigating the bridges and canals with crew and gear and actors—he was never able to shoot a movie in Venice.
For writers, the difficulty lies less with the oddity of the geography than it does with overfamiliarity. How do you describe a city that’s already been over-described with so many gaudy adjectives for centuries? How do you make a place new that holds a permanent lease in the public imagination?
James noted this problem directly in his book of travel essays, Italian Hours (1909): “Venice has been painted and described many thousands of times, and of all the cities of the world is the easiest to visit without going there. Open the first book and you will find a rhapsody about it; step into the first picture-dealer's and you will find three or four high-coloured ‘views’ of it. There is notoriously nothing more to be said on the subject.”
In other words, even if you haven’t personally taken a gondola down the Grand Canal, because of its ubiquity in popular culture, you have. If a master like James felt defeated by the landscape, how will the rest of us fare with a city that hasn’t changed much aesthetically since his time?
Equally frustratingly, Venice refuses to sit quietly on the page and let its main characters get on with the plot. It has such a loud, unwieldy presence that it constantly threatens to overshadow all the other details. It isn’t merely the fact that a character never get into a car to move between locations. It’s that no simple stroll down the street is safe from the sudden appearance of a throng of German tourists all wearing feathered carnival masks.
To simply pretend the Venice of conspicuous consumption and budget tourism doesn’t exist is tantamount to portraying New York City’s Greenwich Village in the year 2020 without a single NYU student haunting the periphery. It’s a fiction of a fiction. No, Venice is like Tabasco sauce: it takes over, it becomes the flavor of the meal. You don’t write a book set in Venice. You write about Venice with characters set inside of it.
Mann’s classic might deservedly remain the ultimate Venice novel, with all the rest of us toiling in its long, elegant shadow. Still, my favorite piece of Venice fiction is an under-appreciated short story by Du Maurier that serves as a bawdy send-up of Death in Venice.
Written in late 1950s, “Ganymede” centers on a middle-aged, British classics scholar who arrives in Venice on a bachelor’s vacation. It isn’t long before this exacting visitor becomes smitten with a handsome, young waiter working at one of the outdoor restaurants on Piazza San Marco.
Our pompous protagonist feigns devotion to this Tadzio double on overwrought Mann-like aesthetic grounds; it’s clear, though, that pure lust is leading him to the same table on the square each night. In Du Maurier’s far less noble Venice, everyone is on the make. While the horny, self-deluded narrator attempts to get his hands on the boy, the boy’s extended family is out to get their hands on this man’s wallet—using young Ganymede as exquisite bait. Laughably, everyone’s fantasies are exploitable and potentially fulfillable in this tourist town.
“Ganymede” doesn’t end with a dying Aschenbach watching Tadzio frolic in the waves. Instead, Du Maurier concocts a ludicrous water-skiing accident in the lagoon after the narrator is suckered into footing an exorbitant lunch bill. The magic of Venice is precisely that, in art and in life, both endings are equally likely.
It’s easy to disrespect Venice. It’s easy, as we watch the world burn, to write off Venice as a soulless, unsavable Disney World. Venice breeds as many cynics as it does enthusiasts—I have yet to meet a person who is wholly indifferent to it.
I had the good fortune to live in Venice for several months back in 1999 when, out of college, I worked as an intern at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection. Yes, there was plenty of Geoff Dyer-esque outrageous, rampant, billionaire spectacle culture on display (arguably, most of it on loan from cities like New York, London, and Los Angeles).
But there is a real city beyond—or braided into—the illusory one, a city that takes more digging to find than a few peeks out of a hotel window and a walk over the Rialto Bridge en route to an art party. It’s a city that’s learned to survive by camouflage; it’s there because you don’t see it. It’s a city of some 50,000 residents, the population shrinking by approximately one thousand each year.
For most of us, Venice has always been sinking. And yet, I predict we’ll all be dumbfounded and more than a little regretful when it actually does.
Christopher Bollen’s A Beautiful Crime is published by HarperCollins, $28.99