'I envy you, writing about Venice,' says the newcomer. 'I pity you,' says the old hand. One thing is certain. Sophistication, that modern kind of sophistication that begs to differ, to be paradoxical, to invert, is not a possible attitude in Venice. In time, this becomes the beauty of the place. Once gives up the struggle and submits to a classic experience. Once accepts the fact that what one is about to feel or say has not only been said before by Goethe or Musset but is on the tip of the tongue of the tourist from Iowa who is alighting in the Piazzetta with his wife in her furpiece and jeweled pin. Those Others, the existential enemy, are here identical with oneself. After a time in Venice, one comes to look with pity on the efforts of the newcomer to disassociate himself from the crowd. He has found a 'little' church - has he? - quite off the beaten track, a real gem, with inlaid coloured marbles on a soft dove grey, like a jewel box. He means Santa Maria dei Miracoli. As you name it, his face falls. It is so well known, then? Or has he the notion of counting the lions that look down from the window ledges of the palazzi? They remind him of cats. Has anybody ever noticed how many cats there are in Venice or compared them to the lions? On my table two books lie open with chapters on the Cats of Venice. My face had fallen too when I came upon them in the house of an old bookseller, for I too had dared think that I had hold of an original perception.
-- Mary McCarthy, from "Venice Preserved" in Venice Observed
Despite the fact that her first chapter is an insistence that nothing original can be said of Venice anymore, I always find myself looking to Mary McCarthy's Venice Observed as one of the great volumes on Venice. It's a lovely dip into the history and atmosphere of the world's most fascinating city. I've read this before, so this time, everything had a familiar feel to it... perhaps like a lot of Venice (or any city) when you make a return trip... and since I'm planning to go back to Venice next month, it seemed like a good thing to re-read.
The book is divided into small, self-contained chapters that focus on different elements of Venice's history or the author's experience with the city, always focused on the city and the people within it. McCarthy has a lovely way of strolling through the lessons in an effortless fashion, a font of Venetian wisdom. Even if she might have some small criticisms, she is always aware of the magic of the city, the thing that enchants us all, even if it's just a construct for tourists. The city has been a touristic location for four hundred years, after all. Its very existence is improbable and yet it continues to delight, spinning a history of the fantastic and surprising. Many of her observations, indeed, took root in my mind and stick with me as I think of Venice. In particular, her descriptions of qualities that took root in Venetian character, such as the Venetian's inventive and clever nature (the result of a city "with nothing of its own," and so it had "to steal and improvise"), or their complicated relationship with Rome on a political and religious level ("The pope was in Rome, and God was in heaven, but they were in Venice."), and that Venetians focus on "applied reason" (there are no real Venetian writers or philosophers -- "Venetians printed books but seldom wrote them"). She discusses the fairy tale nature of the city (and how people tend to be surprised that Venetians were so money-oriented, but what are fairy tales except stories filled with treasure and gold?) and spends a great deal of time on the many people who have painted the city.
McCarthy's prose is beautiful and detailed. Despite its short length, this really isn't a book one can gobble down with speed -- or at least one should not. It should be savored and the reader should take time to think about each chapter, lest they blend together and the nuggets of illumination be forgotten. Ideally, one might be the perfect companion to a drink while sitting in a Venetian square... because when one looks up from this book, that is the only view one wishes to look upon. One yearns for Venice after reading this book, and while the longing for Venice might always accompany those who have visited that magnificent city, there's something rather painfully delicious about piquing that hunger with books like this that make the city come alive in one's mind.