Friday, November 25, 2011

The Eighteenth Century: Venice

Continuing my investigation of the eighteenth century, I return at last to Venice, which at that time was the home of Casanova. Russell Davies, in a recent series based on Casanova's memoirs for TV, portrayed Venice as a place of masquerades and sumptuous silken clothing, which from my reading seems to be an accurate evocation.

Before unification, Italy consisted of several city-states or regions, and Venice was one of the more influential. I read a little about the city in John Julius Norwich's History of Venice, but his focus tends to be political and there is little from the modern era, so I decided to try elsewhere. A google search produced Venice in the Eighteenth Century by Philippe Monnier.

Philippe Monnier was from Geneva and certainly loved the place. His prose is rich, maybe a little too rich, and after a short while it began to seem like hyperbole. This helped to give an impression of what must have been (and still is) an extraordinary place. The Venice of the eighteenth century had had a glorious past, but was now on the cusp of decline, but even so continued to indulge in months-long carnivals and masquerades. Like the population of the Western World at the beginning of the twenty-first century, the inhabitants of Casanova's Venice were relying on promises and times past. I suppose it could be read as an analogy for how we live now. The aim, Philippe Monnier says, 'The aim was to live contentedly and carelessly, not thinking of tomorrow.'

Marriages, like those in England and France of the time, seemed to be ones of convenience rather than love, and it was common for women of all classes to have a cavalier as a companion. A cavalier would be secured on the same footing as a doctor or confessor, and would be expected to be a shadow at her side. He would carry her gloves, her handkerchief, and her lap dog. He would be on hand to call a boatman, and supply spare change and visiting cards (when these were required), and sharply reprimand anyone he considered to be insufficiently respectful. There were some that questioned the morality of this arrangement; but apparently the husbands were all quite happy with it, and saved them the bother of accompanying their women on tiresome social engagements.

A large proportion of women did not marry, but entered convents which were decidedly unchaste. Monnier records concerts and nuns with low necklines and pearls hiding (only partly) behind screens.

Just as now there were many poets and authors, and the entire population had what Monnier considered to be a natural appreciation of music, opera, theatre and comedy. Most people played a musical instrument and took dancing lessons, and as well as bursting into song at the slightest provocation (in parts) played out dramas (presumably of both the intentional and unintentional sort) in the piazzas and lanes during everyday life. It seemed to be a place determinedly dedicated to the pursuit of pleasure.

The book ended with the following sentiments, which I have summarised:

Venice has been losing empire since the discovery of America. One by one the ports have been lost. Poverty can be seen in the buildings with cracking house fronts and gaping walls and boarded up windows. Galleries have been emptied of their treasures. Everything is for sale. Patricians have lost rank. They are becoming poorer, their cloaks threadbare, and their lace discoloured.

The poorer the city grows, the more extravagant she becomes. The factories may be deserted; but the hundred and thirty-six casini and the five thousand Venetian families receive company every evening, and their drawing rooms are crowded.

As Venice declined so France was poised to rise, and in the century after that it was the turn of England, and then, after that, the USA. Just as Anjet Duvekot says it is all one big merry-go-round...


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