Monday, July 7, 2014

Mary McCarthy on Venice

On my quick trip to the architecture biennale in Venice, I read Mary McCarthy's breezy but highly entertaining book from 1961, Venice Observed.

Here are some of my favorite lines:

"The rationalist mind has always had its doubts about Venice.  The watery city receives a dry inspection, as though it were a myth for the credulous -- poets and honeymooners."  (p. 173, Penguin Edition, 1972)

"Among Venice's spells is one of peculiar potency:  the power to awaken the philistine dozing in the sceptic's breast.  People of this kind -- dry, prose people of superior intelligence -- object to feeling what they are supposed to feel, int eh presence of marvels.  They wish to feel something else."  (p. 174)

"There is no use pretending that the tourist Venice is not the real Venice, which is possible with other cities -- Rome or Florence or Naples.  The tourist Venice is Venice:  the gondolas, the sunsets, the changing light, Florian's, Quadri's, Torello, Harry's Bar, Murano, Burano, the piegeons, the glass beads, the vaporetto.  Venice is a folding picture-post-card of itself." (p. 177)

"Nothing can be said here including this statement) that has not been said before.....One accepts the fact that what one is about to feel or say has not only been said before 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 jewelled pin." (p. 181)

"A commercial people who lived solely for gain.  Ruskin tried to show that this started with the 'degenerate' Venetians of the Renaissance, who sold their birthright for a mess of architectural pottage.  He pictured Gothic Venice as a holy city flowering in its churches and its convents, in its religious processions and ceremonies -- a sacred garden tended by humble artisans, supervised by upright doges, and defended by brave captains.....Poor Ruskin, with his slide-rule and his ladder, a worshipper of the pragmatic fact, who was always flying int eh face of the facts of life and of recorded history, for the sake of a vision." (p. 189)

"Venice, unlike Rome or Ravenna or nearby Verona, had nothing of its own to start with.  Venice, as a city, was a foundling, floating upon the waters like Moses in his basket among the bulrushes."  (p. 194)

"But why should it be beautiful at all?  Why should Venice, aside from its situation, be a place of enchantment?  One appears to be confronted with a paradox.  A commercial people who lived solely for gain -- how could they create a city of fantasy, lovely as a dream or a fairy-tale?This is the central puzzle of Venice, the stumbling-block that one keeps coming up against if one tries to thin about her history, to put facts of her history together with the visual fact that is there before one's eyes."  (p. 195)

"A wholly materialist city is nothing but a dream incarnate.  Venice is the world's unconscious:  a miser's glittering hoard, guarded by a Beast whose eyes are made of white agate, and by a saint who is really a prince who has just slain a dragon."  (p. 196)

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