More than a century ago, Henry James declared that there was nothing more to be written about Venice—the subject had been exhausted—but hundreds of books on La Serenissima have been published since then. Here is one that is as arresting as a first encounter with Venice, as seen by Riccardo de Cal, a photographer of rare sensitivity, with brief comments by 36 architects and architectural writers, Dream of Venice Architecture. It’s an odd mix of familiar and obscure names, some of whom know the city intimately, and a few who enjoyed a passing affaire. There’s even a journalist who has never been there. One feels sorry that he has denied himself a unique experience but he—and many others—might prefer de Cal’s vision to the reality of Venice today. For this unique creation is mismanaged by corrupt bureaucrats who line their pockets as the city decays. Obscenely large cruise ships erode foundations that have survived for centuries, hordes of day trippers litter the canals and deface ancient stones. Shopkeepers peddle trash to the pizza-munching crowd, and the Piazza San Marco has become as overpopulated as the New York subway at rush hour. And the waters are inexorably rising. Barring a miracle, Venice will follow Atlantis into the deeps.
The good news is that a few individuals and institutions are struggling to save Venice from the vandals. And because most visitors spend only a day in the city, trudging from the station to the Rialto to San Marco and taking the vaporetto back, it’s easy to escape the crowd. These unpeopled images demonstrate that the genius of place lies less in the celebrated monuments and palaces that line the Grand Canal, than in the back alleys and shadowy porticoes, crumbling facades and telling details. To appreciate the city’s beauty, linger in a tiny campo where neighbors bustle and children play around the stone well. Venture out at night when the city’s stillness is disturbed only by water lapping the quays. Go in winter when mist shrouds the buildings and the gondolas are snugly wrapped. And, at any season, spend a few hours in the Foundation Querini Stampalia, with its library, Guardi paintings, and marvelous interventions by Carlo Scarpa. You’ll probably have it to yourself and it perfectly expresses the timeless magic of Venice.
Dream of Venice Architecture. Edited by JoAnn Loctov. Photography by Riccardo de Cal, Bella Figura Publications, $26.99.