“This is a city of mazes. You may set off from the same place to the same place every day and never go by the same route” (p. 49).
That’s from The Passion by Jeanette Winterson, a novel set partly in Venice during the early reign of Napoleon. The book see saws between two narrators–one, Henri, cooks chickens in Napoleon’s kitchen, and the other, Villanelle, is the daughter of a Venetian boatman who makes her way by dealing cards and swindling people.
Winterson creates a lush, vibrant Venice peopled with florid characters of almost mythical proportions. I first read this book in 1996, after my first two trips to Venice. Because Villanelle confides that Venetian boatmen are born with webbed feet, I asked my gondolier friend Stefano the next year if this were true. “Web feet?” he repeated, wrinkling up his nose at me. “No, this woman is crazy.” Yet I didn’t stop loving the magical world Winterson had created.
Fast forward to 2015, and I’ve been to Venice over 20 times, read dozens of books on Venice and written three of my own. I got to thinking about The Passion again and decided to reread it. Isn’t this bit lovely?:
“Although wherever you are going is always in front of you, there is no such thing as straight ahead. No as the crow flies short cut will help you to reach the cafe just over the water. The short cuts are where the cats go, through the impossible gaps, round corners that seem to take you the opposite way. But here, in this mercurial city, it is required you do awake your faith” (p. 49).
However, I think I’ve ruined my own reading experience. I’ve read so much Venetian history that I can’t read fictional books any longer without the encyclopedia in my brain questioning everything I’m reading about. For example, Villanelle often deals cards at the gambling table in Piazzo San Marco. While it is true that Venetians loved to gamble, they did so indoors at ridotti, gambling salons usually in palaces owned by nobles. In these places, the only people allowed to deal the cards were the nobles themselves, though occasionally people gambled in their more private casini (small apartments for gatherings of friends for informal evenings or affairs). But in the 1700s gambling had gotten so out of hand and was bankrupting many noble families, with the result that the Senate closed the ridotti on November 27, 1774. This was long before the Venetian Republic fell to Napoleon in 1797, or when The Passion was set in 1804.
From what I’ve read of private lives of nobles during this time, they were mostly rather poor and scraped by on meager rations. Some people, primarily women, still ran literary salons for evening conversation, and occasionally these nights included a little light card playing, possibly for stakes, but this was a far cry from the organized gambling halls of thirty years before. I pulled out my Frederic Lane Venice: A Maritime Republic and John Julius Norwich, Paradise of Cities, plus did a little internet research, but I couldn’t find anything that described the type of gambling, luxurious lifestyles, or hedonism that Villanelle describes. Yes, that may have existed in the Venice of the mid- to late-eighteenth century, but not in 1804-5.
So then I asked myself–Why does it matter? I enjoyed reading The Passion very much, for its lovely almost poetic style, for its mythologized, magical world, and for a Venice that takes what I know and makes it something even greater. Who cares if Winterson plays loose with some facts? She’s writing fiction about made up characters, so it’s not defaming any real people (well, maybe Napoleon, though he apparently did like chicken). So I just need to learn to relax.
It would be a sad irony if, the more I learn about Venice, the more its magic is lost on me. I don’t gain anything by being pedantic, except perhaps a certain smugness, though I can’t say that’s a trait that I find endearing. I hope to continue to see Venice with stars in my eyes, to think that some of the boatmen (and women) have webbed feet, that when someone steals my heart they might actually keep it locked, beating, in a closet of a crumbling palazzo. I’d prefer to live in this world of possibilities and set aside the research side of my brain for the times when it’s more useful.