Sep 2008 Journal
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Three perspectives on Venice
‘Once did she hold the gorgeous East in fee;/And was the safeguard of the West: the worth/ Of Venice did not fall below her birth,/Venice, the eldest Child of Liberty.’ So begins Wordsworth’s poem ‘On the Extinction of the Venetian Republic’ (1802), written in reaction to the Napoleonic occupation which in 1797 had marked the end of the proud city’s independence. Wordsworth’s lament for the fall of ‘La Serenissima’ recalled the city’s dominance over the trade routes to the East on which its fabled wealth and power were founded. He also used the ‘democratic’ elements in the Venetian constitution – the Doge owed his office as head of state to election, not royal birth, and his powers were constrained by the city’s central body of government, the Signoria – to depict Venice as a freedom-loving victim of Bonapartist tyranny, and thus as an example to Britons fighting to preserve their freedoms from the French.
The British have been captivated by Venice - from Turner, Browning and Ruskin to John Julius Norwich and Jan Morris - and so have the Germans, who have tended to associate the city with concepts of art, beauty and perfection of form. Goethe visited Venice during his Italian journey (1786-88), the model for the many voyages of discovery made by German writers and artists seeking inspiration from the Classical culture and civilisation of the Mediterranean South; Wagner, who died in the Palazzo Vendramin overlooking the Grand Canal, loved and was inspired by Venice.
The most famous evocation of Venice in German literature is, of course, Thomas Mann’s novella Der Tod in Venedig (Death in Venice) (1912), widely known through Luchino Visconti’s 1971 film, starring Dirk Bogarde. Mann drew on his own visit to Venice in 1911, but could also build on an established tradition of German writing about Venice, notably the finely crafted collection of sonnets, the Sonette aus Venedig, by the homosexual poet August Graf von Platen (1796-1835), who visited the city in 1824.
The subject of Death in Venice is art - art and its striving after beauty, both seen as deeply ambiguous and double-edged phenomena. For when the writer Gustav von Aschenbach encounters the beautiful Polish boy Tadzio at the Hôtel des Bains on Venice’s Lido and falls prey to a homosexual infatuation that lays low all his powers of resistance, moral and ultimately physical, he is also encountering, incorporated in human form, the ideal of perfect formal beauty that he has been struggling to recreate as an artist in his works. In other words, it is perfect beauty of form that destroys Aschenbach; it is art that kills him, not the cholera epidemic that struck Venice in 1911.
The opposition of art to life is the central theme running through Mann’s early works, where ‘healthy’ life and conventional morality are contrasted with art, crime, disease, immorality, perversion and death, all seen as ‘unhealthy’ aberrations from the path of solid bourgeois normality. Aschenbach had in his younger days indulged in the moral relativism typical of ‘decadent’ writers of the fin-de-siècle, with its potential for undermining established moral values. To escape this risk of immorality, he aspires in later years to create works of art that achieve a Classical perfection of form, a formal symmetry and beauty that carry the edifying appearance of purity, nobility and harmony, thus seemingly exerting a morally elevating effect on his readers; extracts from his later works are duly reprinted in school textbooks, a bitter irony in view of the truths revealed in the course of the novella.
For the impact of pure beauty is not moral at all. Formal beauty is conveyed to us through our senses: its appeal is sensuous and its effect aesthetic; it cannot be judged by moral criteria or pressed into the service of moral values. Aschenbach’s ideal of art is therefore at best morally neutral; it can easily lurch into moral ambivalence or even downright immorality. Aschenbach begins by deluding himself into believing that he is admiring Tadzio disinterestedly, purely as an exemplar of formal beauty; he ends by following him through the litter-strewn, fly-blown, disease-ridden alleyways of Venice in a degrading state of voyeuristic sexual obsession.
Setting the tale of Aschenbach’s downfall in Venice is Mann’s masterstroke. For Venice is renowned for its beauty, but also for the corruption that lurks beneath its surface. The magnificent façade that the city presents to those who approach it by sea is deceptive, its seemingly uplifting nobility of aspect concealing a hinterland of decaying buildings and cutthroat commercialism, as well as a longstanding reputation for libertinism and sexual licence. In the novella, this element of hidden corruption is epitomised by the cholera that is breeding unseen in the stagnant waters of Venice’s canals, a lethal menace tainting the very heart of its diseased beauty, and the worse for the fact that the municipal authorities are covering the epidemic up to protect their tourist trade. Aschenbach senses a complicity in crime, recognising that the city’s guilty secret makes it the appropriate backdrop for the illicit passion to which he has himself succumbed.
Mann memorably describes Venice as the ‘flattering and suspect beauty’ (‘die schmeichlerische und verdächtige Schöne’), as a city ‘half fairytale, half tourist trap’. He also highlights the Byzantine influence on its architecture, which he uses to characterise the city as one of the ports where the East gained entry to Western Europe. Apart from evoking Venice’s history of relations with the East, this also refers to the route taken by the cholera epidemic, which spread from its sources in the Ganges delta in India via the trade routes of Asia to the coastal cities of the Mediterranean.
But this incursion of the East into the settled realm of Western civilisation also has a mythical dimension: the tigers that Aschenbach imagines lurking in the miasmic undergrowth of the delta swamps are also the tigers that drew the chariot of Dionysos, god of wine and intoxication, on his path from India to Greece. Dionysos, however, represents the elemental, irrational, instinctive forces in human nature that can erupt, as they do in Aschenbach’s case, overwhelming the rationality and disciplined moral order of Western civilisation; art, too, for all its ordered beauty, originates in the deeper, chaotic well-springs of inspiration and intuition. The cholera finds its way to Venice, as the tigers of Dionysos find their way to Aschenbach.
Jewish links with Venice
The Jewish perspective on Venice is very different. For Jews, Venice carries strong negative associations of stigmatisation and marginalisation alongside its aura of beauty. It was in Venice that the world’s first ghetto was created, in 1516, to house the city’s Jewish population separately; an influx of Jews fleeing from persecution in Spain after 1492 probably caused the city authorities to take this step. The area, in the Cannaregio district of the city, took its name from a foundry, ‘geto’ in Venetian, that had been located there. Jews were confined to the ghetto at night and had to wear identifying marks when they left the ghetto by day. The name was subsequently given to areas throughout the world where Jews were confined, and the practice of requiring Jews to wear distinctive badges or caps also became widespread. As the Jewish population of Venice grew, reaching over 5,000 in the mid-seventeenth century, the ghetto expanded from the original ‘ghetto nuovo’ (‘new ghetto’) to the confusingly named ‘ghetto vecchio’ (‘old ghetto’, though dating only from 1541).
Venice’s association with antisemitic attitudes and prejudices is reinforced by the most celebrated work of fiction to which it gave rise, Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. The figure of Shylock - model for so many antisemitic caricatures - and the raw antisemitism expressed by the play’s Christian characters, remain deeply problematical, even disturbing, for Jews seeing or reading the play. For all the evidence in the play that Shylock is what a hostile gentile environment has made him, for all the eloquence of his plea for Jews as human beings – ‘If you prick us do we not bleed?’ – there remains in him, the Jew, an apparently irreducible core of villainy.
Readers of this journal may be interested to know that two Jewish scholars who had fled to Britain from Germany after 1933 produced memorable studies of Shylock after the war. One was the drama critic Hermann Sinsheimer, who had made his name in pre-Hitler Berlin. The other was Rabbi Ignaz Maybaum, who took Shylock’s unwavering confidence in the sanctity of a legally binding contract – the contract guaranteeing him his pound of flesh, should his loan not be repaid – as the basis for his arresting characterisation of Shylock as ‘the tragic champion of the law’.
By the Second World War, the Jewish community in Venice had greatly declined in numbers. Following the surrender of Italy to the Allies in September 1943, the Germans occupied Venice and deported some 200 Jews to the extermination camps. The names of the victims are commemorated on a monument in the ghetto; though two synagogues in the ghetto remain in use, Jews now live scattered across the city.
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