In this very short book the author has managed not only to survey the interaction of social, artistic, economic, religious and political forces over the long course of Venetian history but to set the Piazza San Marco and its monuments as the independent variable of his narrative. Inevitably, the latter task sometimes leads to the stretching of a point but, for the most part, Fenlon convincingly depicts the Piazza as “the heart of the devotional and political geography of the city, and the heart of its ceremonial and ritual life” (p.22). As professor of historical musicology at Cambridge he brings to this work perspectives which are not often part of even academic studies of Venetian history. He has a fine instinct for deciphering the subtle iconography of the Piazza and its environs, and he employs it to good effect in constructing a remarkably variegated narrative.
This book is not intended as a contribution to the scholarly literature on Venice, and the author’s feat of compressing the extraordinarily rich and complex history of Venice into a short text is admirable. Nevertheless, certain omissions do strike one as surprising. Although the final chapter documents, with perhaps predictable references to Byron, Ruskin, Mann and Pound, the role of Venice as “a central locus for the European imagination” (p.157), the counterpoint to that theme is not mentioned. Yet the disdain which other Westerners from Gibbon to D. H. Lawrence felt for Venice (Gibbon described the Piazza as “a large square decorated with the worst architecture I ever yet saw”) calls attention to a broad range of issues which ought certainly to be considered in an evaluation of Venice’s cultural significance. It also seems surprising that Fenlon ignores another great architectural space in Venice whose history intersects at very many points with that of the Piazza San Marco itself and is almost as charged with complex historical and cultural significance, namely the Ghetto, the forerunner of all other such enclaves. Another institution that originated in Venice and then spread across the world is the quarantine; it is an integral part of the economic history of Venice and deserves mention.
Fenlon’s survey of the architectural history of the Piazza is a narrative with little analytic value. For example, he sidesteps the fundamental question of why the Piazza has the shape it has by merely remarking that “an L-shaped open field . . . was now remodeled” (p.51). The fact that the Piazza and the Basilica are on different axes is highly significant for any consideration of each of them, as well as of public spaces in Italy generally, but is not mentioned in this book; nor are the asymmetries of the Piazza, the Basilica, the Ducal palace and the Piazzetta. Important in themselves, these irregularities are highly-charged symbolically (as Ruskin and Goodyear fully understood) as well as suggestive of the distinctiveness of Venice’s history and culture, which is perhaps the basic theme of Fenlon’s book.
The rather too numerous errors in this book are perhaps explained by the fact that it was originally issued by a trade publisher in London, but they are not acceptable in a work that is now published by Harvard University Press. Among such errors one can point to the statement that Sansovino’s use of different orders on the façade of the Library was “unconventional” for his time (p.75); the mistaken reference to Serlio’s “treatise on architecture” published in Venice in 1537, rather than to the Fourth Book (p.75); or the description of the Loggetta as being “at the central point of the Piazza” (pp.79, 83). Instances of slip-shod editing are also rather more frequent than one would have wished: despite a reference in the text, the southern flank of the Piazza is not shown in the reproduction of Bellini’s painting (p.66); the fact that the view of the Piazzetta from the lagoon was reproduced on the set of a seventeenth-century opera is hardly “a useful reminder” that the Piazzetta was “a theatrical space for the frequent enactments of the rituals of the Republic” (p.86); and in a single sentence we are told that Manin’s coffin was placed “at the Piazzetta…at the foot of the Campanile” (p.161), an impossibility since the Campanile is not in the Piazzetta. The publisher’s carelessness extends to the final page where, in the listing of works in this series, “Keith Miller: St Peter’s” appears twice.
For all that this is not a book to be ignored. Small enough to fit the pocket, it is sufficiently entertaining and informative to keep one company over a Campari-and-prosecco Spritz — or better still, a zabaglione — at Florians. It does not however displace Jan Morris’s lovely book, let alone the enduring works of Ruskin. It is thoroughly readable and its bibliography of 16 pages is not only useful in its own right but attests to the author’s knowledge of the subject — which is, in any case, apparent on almost every page of the book. The seven-page appendix “Visiting the Piazza” is as useful a guide for the serious tourist as one is likely to find.