imely reader perks for 2010. Just in time for Carnival, here are two quite various and enticing works on Venice. The main course is Peter Ackroyd‘s freshly-angled, and uniquely lucid urban biography, “Venice: Pure City,” Chatto & Windus, London, 2009. For a side-dish, a food-rich compilation by the acclaimed author of the Commissario Brunetti/Venetian mystery series, Donna Léon, “A Taste of Venice: At Table with Brunetti,” William Heineman, London, 2010.
Isn’t this the season when winter blues take fantasy leap to that most ancient, longest, citywide Mardi Gras revelry — this year Feb. 6-16, in Venice, of course. Where calle and campi are thick with pantalooned Punchinellos in great-beaked masks, and hooded figures in crimson velvet robes gaze from black lace eye masks. A time for la Serenissima to celebrate herself. Exactly what Ackroyd and Léon intend.
While you’re Venice dreamin’, you’ll be wise to put Ackroyd’s fully indexed and illustrated volume on your permanent reference shelf. And find a handy spot for Léon in your kitchen. From pole positions 180° apart, each focuses on that watery archipelago of 117 islands that is as tenacious in survival as in tradition. One describes a city’s assiduous organic evolution from water-borne debris to great mercantile and trading state. The other provides local food talk and ageless home-kitchen recipes. Herbs, courtesy of lagoon islands. Spices from the old Venetian Spice Trade Route.
Of the two, Ackroyd is the big hitter up to bat… Though he’s a prize-winning, prolific multi-genre writer, his huge strength lies in biography. He’s an info digger with a keen sense for time lines. See his best-selling volumes on Cromwell and Milton.
Shrewdly, he calls such work “historical sociology.” He moved from people to cities. First “London: The Biography” (2001). With this same fascination for “the spirit of place,” he now tracks the geological and population accretions that combined over centuries to fight back the invading sea, and create Venice.
Guarantee: Nobody, really, has ever tackled the Venice job so thoroughly and convincingly. Though data-drenched, Ackroyd’s work is as crystal clear as blown Venetian glass. (Also derived from the sea.) And, he reminds, never forget the wonderful Venetian paintings – works by artists such as Veronese and Tintoretto. Aren’t they all about flowing color, form and flux? Like the sea.
Ackroyd begins: with detriti rushing into the lagoon from seven freshwater land rivers. Through pre-history, forming small islands of silt, marsh grass, and shoals. From the sixth century of the Common Era, refugees from the north, the Veneti, took permanent shelter here and began the millennia Venetian tradition: constantly reclaiming land, building canals, developing intricately diplomatic merchant trade, and cannily protecting this floating home from invader. A diligent job, which formed local character: energetic, optimistic, city-proud… crafty, and ambiguous. Any surprise that the masking now limited to Carnevale, was once a yearlong Venetian diversion?
Here’s Ackroyd’s question: given the city’s fluid origins, how to define it? Didn’t that task fall to the city itself? By creating origin-fables, even inventing tales of divine will and intervention. From early documents and paintings, Venice began to market its own image.
Today, its merchant trading days over, Venice now sells itself. With grandiose flair. Its biographer details how astutely Venetians have evolved an early Christian 1200s celebration into the upcoming 2010 Carnevale, a world tourism attraction. A sensual, sumptuous feast. For nothing is more down to earth in its enjoyment of itself than this city written in water.
By coincidence — or is it publisher savvy? — Donna Léon’s collection of Venetian recipes (by Léon friend Roberta Pianaro) and foodly chapters make earthy supplement to Ackroyd’s biography. Over decades her Brunetti series has followed this detective as he walks the reader through Venice’s innards. Attuned to practical, daily realities, Brunetti enjoys long Italian meal breaks in his wife Paola’s kitchen. Her traditional recipes here feature fresh lagoon herbs and foodstuffs, found at the famed Rialto Market. But…they also include Oriental, even South American spices, introduced during Venetian trade route dominion.
Try the tiny veal and prosciutto meatballs made with fresh root ginger, grated. Add crushed chili flakes to stewed rabbit.(Yes, chili: that hot peperoncini imported to Italy through Venice’s American trade routes).
These are Venetian home meals… far removed from offerings in the grandly predictable four-star restaurants (the usual capesante, anyone?)
If collaborator Pianaro sets out the volume’s recipes, it’s Léon who first introduced them into fiction, at Brunetti’s table. Her food book goes beyond recipe. Léon’s crafted prose evokes conversation with lagoon fishermen on the seasonal catch. One fine chapter involves a trip to the Island of St. Erasmus, where farmers explain the sea-rich minerals that give unique flavor to plums, peaches, and the long list of Venetian artichoke types, often unknown outside the lagoon area. The true taste of Venice.
So… Two new books on Venice. One, a soon-to-be-classic urban biography, to feed the mind. The other, to nourish the body. Better than that?