BookBlast reviews Venice Noir: The Dark History of the Lagoons by Venetian writer, cultural journalist and radio presenter, Isabella Panfido, translated by Christine Donougher. Winner of the Latisana per il Nord-Est Prize and the Gambrinus Giuseppe Mazzotti Prize.
A truly unique city built on a series of low mud banks between the tidal Adriatic, La Serenissima has charmed, fascinated and ensnared legions of romantics, visitors, artists and writers for centuries . . . Proust, Henry James and Thomas Mann . . . Muriel Spark, Lesley Blanch and Janet Todd . . . Anita Brookner, Daphne du Maurier and Donna Leon to name but a few.
“Island and isolation: the desire to live in harmony with the other, and the instinct to dominate; security within borders and the need for new conquests. The island is the objective correlative of human nature, and maybe of love.”
The islands have had different uses through the centuries: monasteries, gunpowder factories, prisons, quarantine stations for plague and disease, hospitals, cemeteries and hideaways. The lagoon holds many secrets.
The Venetians have a strong connection with the lagoon and the sea: they are islanders. The pages of Venice Noir are populated by star-crossed lovers, nuns, geographer monks and fishermen . . . artists, historic figures, Doges, Popes and merchants. Most of all, it is the women of the lagoon to whom Isabella Panfido pays tribute.
Humans are sensitive to the fears and uncertainties of their time, and their need to understand is the wellspring of folkore, myth and legend. Each generation attempts to explain what lies beyond the limits of its knowledge and what is tangible. Some beliefs withstand the test of time while others wither and die, or end up being ridiculed. To confront the power of Nature, and attempt to find the key to its mystery, means turning to a power that for centuries humans have believed transcends it: the power of the supernatural. The island stories in Venice Noir are full of it.
San Secondo is the home of the shrine to a tortured martyr subsequently sanctified as Sant’Elmo who “continues to protect sailors and keep them safe.” It is also the resting place of the miracle-working body of San Secondo “former patrician, bishop and defender of the city against the Lombards.” The waters surrounding the island are filled with fish, the earth is fertile, and the miraculous Giacciolo Pear Tree flowers every spring – even though the island’s fortunes have fluctuated more wildly than those of its neighbours, ending in decay and neglect.
“As a prosperous trading centre with links to the mainland interior, in particular the marketplaces of Tressera and Campalto, the new city of Murano could count on its resources of then white gold from the saltworks, located in the north-western part of the island, in the area where a few centuries later the church of Santa Maria degli Angeli was erected [. . .] Thanks to its economic power Murano acquired exceptional rights.”
Cattarina is born in 1610, the daughter of glass master Alise Giandolin. A phenomenal beauty with green eyes, tawny hair and flawless milky white skin and ruby red lips, she is married off to an elderly extremely wealthy Venetian nobleman. So far so good: until the day the devil does his work, and a moment of shocking transmogrification takes place during the couple’s daily visit to the Cappella della Maddelena.
“It was rumoured that on some summer nights the lamps on the prows of the gondolas making their way to and from the cavana (boat shelter) of the convent on Sant’Ariano illuminated the stretch of water that separated the island from the nearby islet of La Cura as if it were broad daylight. It is well known that passion – and passion is not love – is ignited even in the hearts of those who are most observant of the rules, and if the object of desire is inaccessible, then that ardour becomes immeasurably intense; so it is not surprising that ardent young lovers should not be put off by a few hours vigorous rowing for the sake of joining their paramours in the seclusion of Sant’Ariano.”
One of the convent’s beautiful young mistresses has regular visitations from her paramour, until her treachery with a Frenchman inspires a most unusual serpentine form of revenge.
Fisolo is a tiny speck of an island, “home to crabs and seagulls”, a useful link in the chain of defence of the Queen of the Adriatic. It is also the resting place of a pair of runaway lovers whose little boat is blown apart by a sudden storm.
The touching story of the crab fisherman of the island of Sant’Erasmo – known as the garden of Venice, famous for its purple artichokes and rowing champions – illuminates the interconnectedness of humans and nature in the past, and the vastly different unsustainable farming methods of today.
The legendary Lido – an exclusive stretch of sand which stretches for seven miles along the Adriatic, protecting the city’s lagoon from being drowned by the sea – was established in the 1850s as one of Europe’s first beach resorts. Renowned a century ago for being the playground of the rich and famous, film stars, celebrities and wealthy locals once enjoyed the island’s sun, sea and sand until the fabled luxurious grandeur was corrupted and tarnished by greed and speculation.
Venice is not just the legendary historic city, or the islands most visited by tourists (Murano, Burano, Torcello). It is also Lio Piccolo, Poveglia, San Clemente, San Giorgio in Alga, San Michele . . . we hear how the “sole surviving copy of the Koran printed in movable type in Arabic,” ended up in the library of San Francesco della Vigna . . . see a strange cloud whip up the waters of the lagoon lying before San Zorzi, said by the locals to be a sign of divine displeasure . . .and dream of lost worlds, and other worlds, other than our own.
To read about the folklore, myths and legends of the lagoon replete with an insider’s knowledge is not so usual. Venice Noir is a declaration of love for the islands and their inhabitants, and the sacred, inviolable waters of the Lagoon. It is neither straight history, nor a tourist guide, or pure fiction, but a poetic amalgamation of all of these. Translator Christine Donougher captures the luminous musicality of the original with impressive fluidity. In the words of Van Morrison, “Let your soul and spirit fly into the mystic” as you read.
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