A comprehensive Venetian reading-list would run on for dozens of pages, and would include a vast number of out-of-print titles. Most of our recommendations are in print, and those that aren't shouldn't be too difficult to track down. Wherever a book is in print, the UK publisher is given first in each listing, followed by the publisher in the US - unless the title is available in one country only, in which case we have specified which country, or is published by the same company in both territories, in which case only the publisher is specified
Italo Calvino , Invisible Cities (Minerva; Harcourt, Brace). Characteristically subtle variations on the idea of the City, presented in the form of tales told by Marco Polo to Kublai Khan. No explicit reference to Venice until well past halfway, when Polo remarks -"Every time I describe a city I am saying something about Venice."
James Cowans , A Mapmaker's Dream (Sceptre; Warner). Engaging historical-philosophical fantasy based on the creation of Fra Mauro's famous map of the world, one of the great exhibits in the Libreria Sansoviniana.
Michael Dibdin , Dead Lagoon (Faber; Vintage). Superior detective story starring Venice-born Aurelio Zen, a cop entangled in the political maze of 1990s Italy.
Ernest Hemingway , Across the River and into the Trees (Arrow; Scribner). Hemingway at his most square-jawed and most mannered: our hero fights good, drinks good, loves good, and could shoot a duck out of the skies from the hip at a range of half a mile. Target of one of the funniest parodies ever written: E.B. White's Across the Street and into the Grill - "'I love you," he said, "and we are going to lunch together for the first and only time, and I love you very much."'
E.T.A. Hoffmann , Doge and Dogaressa (in Tales of Hoffmann , Penguin). Fanciful reconstruction of events surrounding the treason of Marin Falier, by one of the pivotal figures of German Romanticism. Lots of passion and pathos, narrated at headlong pace.
Hugo von Hofmannsthal , Andreas (Pushkin Press; Turtle Point Press). The last novel by a writer nowadays best known for his collaborations with the composer Richard Strauss. An interesting example of the use of Venice as a metaphor for moral decay, it charts the corruption of a naïve Viennese aristocrat in the slippery city - or, rather, it would have done, had Hofmannsthal finished it. As it is, most of the text consists of notes, which makes it something of an esoteric pleasure.
Henry James , The Aspern Papers & The Wings of the Dove (both Penguin). The first, a 100-page tale about a biographer's manipulative attempts to get at the personal papers of a deceased writer, is one of James's most tautly constructed longer stories. The latter, one of the three vast and circumspect late novels, was likened to caviar by Ezra Pound, and is likely to put you off James for life if you come to it without acclimatizing yourself with the earlier stuff.
Donna Leon , Acqua Alta (Pan; Harper o/p). Liberally laced with an insider's observations on daily life in Venice, this is the most atmospheric of Leon's long sequence of highly competent Venice-set detective novels.
Thomas Mann , Death in Venice (Minerva; Penguin). Profound study of the demands of art and the claims of the flesh, with the city itself thematically significant rather than a mere exotic backdrop. Richer than most stories five times its length and infinitely more complex than Visconti's sentimentalizing film.
Ian McEwan , The Comfort of Strangers (Vintage). A modern Gothic yarn in which an ordinary young English couple fall foul of a sexually ambiguous predator. Venice is never named as the locality, but is evoked with some subtlety and menace.
Caryl Phillips, The Nature of Blood (Faber; Vintage). Principally set during the Holocaust, this exploration of persecution and alienation interweaves the twentieth century with re-creations of sixteenth-century Venetian society, particularly the Ghetto.
Marcel Proust , Albertine Disparue . The Venetian interlude, occurring in the penultimate novel of Proust's massive novel sequence, can be sampled in isolation for its acute dissection of the sensory experience of the city - but to get the most from it, you've got to knuckle down and commit yourself to the preceding ten volumes of À la Recherche . The best English translation is D.J. Enright's revision of the pioneering Kilmartin/Scott-Moncrieff version, published in six paperback volumes (Vintage; Modern Library).
William Rivière , A Venetian Theory of Heaven (Sceptre in UK). Pleasant, undemanding story of marital woes and emotional confusion, with expertly evoked Venetian setting.
Frederick Rolfe (Baron Corvo), The Desire and Pursuit of the Whole (Da Capo, o/p). A transparent exercise in self-justification, much of it taken up with venomous ridicule of the English community in Venice, among whom Rolfe moved while writing the book in 1909. (Its libellous streak kept it unpublished for 25 years.) Snobbish and incoherent, redeemed by hilarious character-assassinations and gorgeous descriptive passages. One of the few books by an Anglophone to be saturated with a knowledge of the place. Unfortunately, the Da Capo paperback is currently out of print, leaving a very expensive hardback as the only one in the catalogue.
Arthur Schnitzler , Casanova's Return to Venice (Pushkin Press in UK). Something of a Schnitzler revival followed the release of Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut , which was adapted from a novella by this contemporary and compatriot of Freud. This similarly short and intense book also explores the dynamics of desire, but from the perspective of a desperate man who is rapidly approaching the end of his life.
Michel Tournier , Gemini (Johns Hopkins). Venice is just one of the localities through which the identical twins Jean and Paul (known to their parents as Jean-Paul) are taken in this amazingly inventive exploration of the concept of twinship. It might be flashy in places, yet Tournier throws away more ideas in the course of a novel than most writers dream up in a lifetime.
Barry Unsworth , Stone Virgin (Penguin; Norton). Yet another story of the uncanny repetitions of history - this time an English expert in stone conservation begins to suspect that his emotional entanglement with a sculptor's wife is a recapitulation of a past liaison. The gobbets of scholarly detail sit uncomfortably alongside the melodrama of the plot.
Salley Vickers , Miss Garnet's Angel (HarperCollins/Carroll & Graf). Desiccated spinster (a Marxist as well, to make matters worse) is awakened by Venice to the finer things in life - a somewhat hackneyed tale, but Vickers has a sound knowledge of the city and its art, and displays a light touch in her recreation of the place.
Jeanette Winterson , The Passion (Vintage; Grove). Whimsical little tale of the intertwined lives of a member of Napoleon's catering corps and a female gondolier. Acclaimed as a masterpiece in some quarters.
Art and architecture
James S. Ackerman , Palladio (Penguin; Viking). Concise introduction to the life, works and cultural background of the Veneto's greatest architect. Especially useful if you're visiting Vicenza or any of the villas.
Svetlana Alpers and Michael Baxandall , Tiepolo and the Pictorial Intelligence (Yale). This brilliant book analyzes with exhilarating precision the way in which Tiepolo perceived and re-created the world in his paintings, and demolishes the notion that Tiepolo was merely a "decorative" artist. Though they devote most space to the frescoes at Würzburg, Alpers and Baxandall discuss many of the Tiepolo paintings in Venice and the Veneto, and their revelatory readings will enrich any encounter with his art. The reproductions maintain Yale's customary high standards.
Patricia Fortini Brown , Venetian Narrative Painting in the Age of Carpaccio (Yale). Rigorously researched study of a subject central to Venetian culture yet often overlooked in more general accounts. Fresh reactions to the works discussed are combined with a penetrating analysis of the ways they reflect the ideals of the Republic at the time. Worth every penny.
Richard Goy , Venice: The City and its Architecture (Phaidon). Published in 1997, this superb book instantly became the benchmark. Eschewing the linear narrative adopted by previous writers on the city's architecture, Goy goes for a multi-angled approach, devoting one part to the growth of the city and its evolving technologies, another to its "nuclei" (the Piazza, Arsenale, Ghetto and Rialto), and the last to its building types (palazzi, churches, etc). The result is a book that does full justice to the richness and density of the Venetian cityscape - and the design and choice of pictures are exemplary.
Alastair Grieve , Whistler's Venice (Yale). Bankrupted after his libel action against Ruskin, Whistler took himself off to Venice to lick his wounds. He ended up staying for a year, having been inspired by the city to produce some of his finest work. Grieve's methodical and deeply researched book - yet another beautifully produced Venetian title from Yale - reproduces the fifty etchings and one hundred pastels that Whistler created in that year, juxtaposing them with photographs and other images of the locales in a way that elucidates the artist's way of working, and builds up an absorbing portrait of the city in the late nineteenth century.
Paul Hills , Venetian Colour (Yale). Seductive colour has always been seen as a pre-eminent characteristic of Venetian painting and applied art, but this handsome book, subtitled "Marble, mosaic, painting and glass 1250-1550", has some interesting angles on a subject you might have thought had been exhausted long ago. Hills discusses the production of dyes, pigments and works of art in the context of the Republic's mercantile culture, relating aspects of pictorial style to the social history of Venetian costume, for example, and explaining how black came to be the most luxurious of hues. First-class illustrations, as is usually the case with this publisher.
Paul Holberton , Palladio's Villas (John Murray). Excellent survey of the architectural principles underlying Palladio's country houses, and the social environment within which they were created.
Deborah Howard , The Architectural History of Venice (o/p); Jacopo Sansovino: Architecture and Patronage in Renaissance Venice (Yale); Venice & the East (Yale). The former is a fine introduction to the subject (and should soon be back in print), while the latter's analysis of the environment within which Sansovino operated is of wider interest than you might think. Howard's latest book, Venice & the East , is a fascinating and characteristically rigorous examination of the ways in which the fabric of the city was conditioned by the close contact between Venice's merchants and the Islamic world in the period 1100-1500. It's a truism that San Marco and the Palazzo Ducale are hybrids of Western and Islamic styles, but this splendidly illustrated study not only has illuminating things to say about those two great monuments - it makes you look freshly at the texture of the whole city.
Peter Lauritzen and Alexander Zielcke , The Palaces of Venice (Laurence King, o/p). Lauritzen knows Venice as intimately as anyone currently writing. This is a rich blend of social and architectural history, and Zielcke's photographs are outstanding.
Michael Levey , Painting in Eighteenth Century Venice (Yale). On its appearance in 1959 this book was the first detailed discussion of its subject. Now in its third edition, it's still the most thorough exposition of the art of Venice's last golden age, though it shows its age in concentration on heroic personalities - Giambattista Tiepolo in particular.
Ralph Lieberman , Renaissance Architecture in Venice (Abbeville, o/p). Lieberman illustrates the complex development of architecture in fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Venice through a chronological survey of key buildings, but annoyingly calls a halt at 1540. Authoritative without being pedantic.
John McAndrew , Venetian Architecture of the Early Renaissance (o/p). Definitive study of its subject by one of the very few writers to have studied Venice's buildings with anything like Ruskin's concentration. A beautiful book, but expensive even second-hand.
Tom Nichols , Tintoretto (Reaktion Books). Ever since Vasari wrote his life of the artist, Tintoretto has been presented as an artist who flouted all the conventions of Venetian painting. This in-depth study overturns that somewhat romanticised notion, to reveal a figure who was both a radical and a populist. By far the best monograph on Tintoretto in English.
Filippo Pedrocco and M.A. Chiara Moretto Wiel , Titian - The Complete Paintings (Thames & Hudson). The text is worthy rather than stimulating (there's a lot of discussion of technique, but little social context), but every surviving picture in Titian's colossal oeuvre is reproduced in colour, and the interpretations of individual paintings are as sound as you'd expect from two of the world's leading experts on the subject.
Terisio Pignatti and Filippo Pedrocco , Giorgione (Rizzoli). Expensive monograph on the most enigmatic of the great Venetian painters. Not especially acute in its observations, but very thorough, very nicely produced, and better than the other in-print titles devoted to Giorgione.
Sarah Quill , Ruskin's Venice: The Stones Revisited (Ashgate). Prefaced by four brief but informative essays on Ruskin and Venice, the core of this book is a judicious selection of short passages from The Stones of Venice and other works by Ruskin, with excellent illustrations for every excerpt. Most of the pictures are crisp colour photographs of buildings and architectural details, but the book also includes some of Ruskin's own watercolours and drawings.
David Rosand , Painting in Sixteenth-Century Venice (Cambridge University Press). Covers the century of Giorgione, Titian, Tintoretto and Veronese as thoroughly as most readers will want; especially good on the social networks and artistic conventions within which the painters worked.
John Ruskin , The Stones of Venice . Enchanting, enlightening and infuriating in about equal measure, this is still the most stimulating book written about Venice by a non-Venetian. Sadly, you'll have to scour the second-hand bookshops to get hold of the full three-volume edition, as the only editions in print are abridgements, the best of which is published by Da Capo.
John Steer , A Concise History of Venetian Painting (Thames & Hudson). Whistle-stop tour of Venetian art from the fourteenth to the eighteenth century. Skimpy and undemanding, but a useful aid to sorting your thoughts out after the visual deluge of Venice's churches and museums, and the plentiful pictures come in handy when your memory needs a prod.
Anchise Tempestini , Giovanni Bellini (Abbeville). Deeply knowledgeable overview of the work of the first great Venetian Renaissance artist, with copious full-colour plates. No other currently available book does justice to him.
John Unrau , Ruskin and St Mark's (o/p). Ruskin discarded around 600 pages of notes and drawings of San Marco when he came to prepare the text of The Stones of Venice ; using this material, Unrau has produced a book that is as illuminating about Ruskin as it is about the building. A fine selection of watercolours, paintings and photographs complements the text.
Ettore Vio (ed.), St Mark's Basilica in Venice (Thames & Hudson). Edited by the man who is the current proto of San Marco (ie the person in overall charge of the building's conservation), this lusciously illustrated paperback gives you an informative close-up tour of the fabric and contents of Europe's most ornate cathedral, from the carvings of the façade to the goldwork of the treasury.
Fernand Braudel , The Mediterranean in the Age of Philip II (University of California). Vast, magisterial analysis of the economics and politics of the Mediterranean in the second half of the sixteenth century, with Venice rarely off the stage. Braudel's deployment of masses of raw material (population statistics, contemporary chronicles, trade documents) requires prolonged and unwavering attention.
Patricia Fortini Brown , Venice and Antiquity (Yale). Subtitled "The Venetian Sense of the Past", this fascinating book explores a subject that strangely no-one has tackled in depth before - the ways in which an imperialist city with no pre-Christian past went about classicizing its self-image. Drawing on a vast range of cultural artefacts, from the great monuments to private manuscripts and medals, Brown adds a new dimension to the history of Venice between the thirteenth and the sixteenth centuries, the city's Golden Age. It's not easy going but the effort is worthwhile, and superlative pictures go some way to leaven the text.
David Chambers and Brian Pullen (eds.), Venice: A Documentary History, 1450-1630 (Blackwell, o/p). A fine anthology of contemporary chronicles and documents, virtually none of which have previously been translated. Invaluable for getting the feel of the city in its heyday.
Robert Finlay , Politics in Renaissance Venice (o/p). Subverts a few received ideas about the political tranquillity of La Serenissima, and is laced with anecdotes about the squabbling, scheming aristocracy. Though not the first book you'd read after your holiday, it explains the mechanics of power in Venice with great clarity.
Christopher Hibbert , Venice, The Biography of a City (Grafton, o/p; Norton, o/p). The usual highly proficient Hibbert synthesis of a vast range of secondary material. Very good on the changing social fabric of the city, with more on twentieth-century Venice than most others. Excellent illustrations too - but, bafflingly, it's currently out of print on both sides of the Atlantic.
Frederic C. Lane , Venice, A Maritime Republic (Johns Hopkins, o/p). The most authoritative one-volume socio-economic history of the city in English, based on decades of research. Excellent on the infrastructure of the city, and on the changing texture of everyday life. A rather more arduous read than John Julius Norwich's populist history (see below), which is presumably why it's slipped out of print.
Jan Morris , The Venetian Empire: A Sea Voyage (Penguin). Anecdotal survey of the Republic's Mediterranean empire, with excursions on the evidence left behind. More a sketch than an attempt to give the full picture, it bears the usual Morris stylistic imprint - ie, a touch too rich for some tastes.
John Julius Norwich , A History of Venice (Penguin; Vintage). Although it's far more reliant on secondary sources than Lane, and nowhere near as compendious - you won't learn much, for example, about Venice's finances, which is a major omission in a history of the quintessential mercantile city - this book is unbeatable for its grand narrative sweep.
A Venetian miscellany
Pietro Aretino , Selected Letters (Penguin, o/p). Edited highlights from the voluminous correspondence of a man who could be described as the world's first professional journalist. Recipients include Titian, Michelangelo, Charles V, Francis I, the pope, the doge, Cosimo de' Medici - virtually anybody who was anybody in sixteenth-century Europe.
Helen Barolini , Aldus and his Dream Book (Italica Press). The innovative printer and typographer Aldus Manutius was a crucial figure in the culture of Renaissance Europe, but for every thousand visitors to Venice who have heard of Titian there's perhaps one who knows anything of Aldus. This concise, elegant and scholarly study deserves to rectify that situation, and is copiously illustrated with pages from the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili , a recondite allegory that was the most beautiful book Aldus - or anyone else for that matter - ever published. The complete Hypnerotomachia is now available in English from Thames & Hudson, in an edition that's in the same format as the original and reproduces all 174 of its woodcuts; it's a fine piece of publishing, but the lay reader is likely to find the text somewhat abstruse.
Joseph Brodsky , Watermark (Hamish Hamilton, o/p; Noonday). Musings on the wonder of being in Venice and the wonder of being Joseph Brodsky, Nobel laureate and friend of the great. Flashes of imagistic brilliance vitiated by some primitive sexual politics.
Giacomo Casanova , History of My Life (Johns Hopkins). For pace, candour and wit, the insatiable seducer's autobiography ranks with the journals of James Boswell, a contemporary of similar sexual and literary stamina. The twelve-volume sequence (here handsomely repackaged into six paperbacks) takes him right across Europe, from Madrid to Moscow. His Venetian escapades are covered in volumes two and three of Willard Trask's magnificent translation.
Roberta Curiel and Bernard Dov Cooperman , The Ghetto Of Venice (Tauris Parke, o/p). Prefaced by a concise history of the Jewish community in Venice, the main part of this lavishly produced book is a synagogue-by-synagogue tour of the ghetto.
Milton Grundy , Venice: An Anthology Guide (De la Mare). A series of itineraries of the city fleshed out with appropriate excerpts from a huge range of travellers and scholars. Doesn't cover every major sight in Venice, but the choice of quotations couldn't be bettered.
Henry James , Italian Hours (Penguin). Urbane travel pieces from the young Henry James, including five essays on Venice. Perceptive observations on the paintings and architecture of the city, but mainly of interest in its evocation of the tone of Venice in the 1860s and 70s.
Henry James , Letters from the Palazzo Barbaro (Pushkin Press; Turtle Point Press). Palazzo Barbaro was the home of the Curtis family, whose circle of friends included not just Henry James (who was a frequent guest in the house) but also John Singer Sargent, James Whistler and Robert Browning. Consisting primarily of letters by James (some of them previously unpublished), this engaging little book also contains correspondence from the Curtis family, and creates a vivid composite portrait of life among the city's expatriate American community a hundred years ago.
Ian Littlewood , Venice: A Literary Companion (Penguin; St Martin's Press). Wide-ranging anthology of writings on the city, including many pieces that will be unfamiliar to all but the most scholarly devotees of Venice.
Giulio Lorenzetti , Venice and its Lagoon (Lint). The most thorough cultural guide ever written to any European city - Lorenzetti seems to have researched the history of every brick and every canvas. Though completely unmanageable as a guidebook (it even has an index to the indexes), it's indispensable for all those besotted with the place. Almost impossible to find outside Venice, but every bookshop in the city sells it.
Mary McCarthy , Venice Observed (Penguin; Harcourt, Brace). Originally written for the New Yorker ; McCarthy's clear-eyed and brisk report is a refreshing antidote to the gushing enthusiasm of most first-hand accounts from foreigners in Venice. The UK Penguin edition combines it with her equally entertaining The Stones of Florence .
James Morris , Venice (Faber; published in the US as Jan Morris's The World of Venice , Harcourt, Brace). To some people this is the most brilliant book ever written about Venice; to others it's revoltingly fey and self-regarding. But if you can't stomach the style, Morris's knowledge of Venice's folklore provides some compensation.
Tim Parks , Italian Neighbours (Vintage; Fawcett). One of the more worthwhile additions to the genre defined by AYear in Provence , Parks's book is a sharp and engaging account of ex-pat life in a village near Verona.
John Pemble , Venice Rediscovered (Oxford University Press). This is one of the most engrossing academic studies of the city to have appeared in recent years, concentrating on the ever-changing perceptions of Venice as a cultural icon since it ceased to exist as a political power. An eloquent writer, totally uninfected by the preciousness that overcomes so many writers on Venice, Pemble unearths stories missing from all other histories.
Dorothea Ritter , Venice in Old Photographs 1841-1920 (Laurence King, o/p; Little, Brown, o/p). A well-researched and beautifully presented book, packed with rare images of Venice spanning the years from the birth of photography to the birth of mass tourism. The cityscapes have barely altered, but the scenes of everyday Venetian life come from another world.
A.J.A. Symons , The Quest for Corvo (Quartet; Ecco, o/p). Misanthropic, devious and solitary, Frederick Rolfe was a tricky subject for a biographer to tackle, and Symons' book, subtitled An Experiment in Biography , makes the difficult process of writing Rolfe's life the focus of its narrative. An engrossing piece of literary detective work, and a perfect introduction to Rolfe's Venetian novel, The Desire and Pursuit of the Whole .
Stefan Zweig , Casanova: A Study in Self-Portraiture (Pushkin Press; Turtle Point Press). A fascinating study of Casanova's life and autobiography, offering a persuasive analysis that differs strikingly from the clichéd image of Casanova as a real-life Don Juan - in fact, Zweig presents him as the very antithesis of Don Juan the misogynistic seducer. Though brief, this is the best book on its subject.
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