The Sea Upon Which a City Sits: ‘Venice Revealed’

[19 August 2010]

By Christel Loar

PopMatters Associate Music Editor

Historian and award-winning travel writer Peter Ackroyd is the guide for this gorgeous four part documentary series, based on his book Venice, Pure City. Venice Revealed affords its viewers a fascinating exploration of Italy’s most mysterious and magical city.

Divided across two discs, Venice Revealed begins with the episode entitled “The City as Architecture”, in which Akroyd relates the history of the founding of the city, delving into both its mythical lore and its more mundane, but no less interesting, origins. All of this is accompanied by hauntingly impressive cinematography. It’s tempting to turn off the sound and simply drink in the visual delights along the canals. The beautiful buildings seem to hover against the misty background and it’s immediately clear that the essence of the surrounding sea is inherent in every structure, even before Akroyd explains it. It is, after all the waves upon which Venice is dependent, the waves which are reflected in every facet of Venetian life, from its literal foundations to its artistic expressions.

Even the architectural styles resemble the sea on which the city sits. Uncovering the Byzantine and Romanesque influences that sit beside and sometimes beneath the Venetian Gothic, Rococo, and Renaissance styles is like sifting layers of sediment that mark ages upon the ocean floor. One expert interviewed compares Venice to a “multi-layered cake” where all of these influences can be clearly demarcated. In many places the lines are quite clearly drawn, such as with the Byzantine Basilica of St. Mark, which sits directly adjacent to the Ducal Palace, itself the “embodiment of Gothic”. In other architecture, styles mix and mingle a bit more freely due to Venice’s long-held affection for the mask. The facades of many buildings are just that. Thin layers of surface beautification—often on one side only—hiding the crumbling brick beneath like so much whitewash slapped on a canvas to conceal an earlier, perhaps inferior, painting.

While some of the buildings may be, or may have once been considered inferior behind their masks, the same cannot be said for the riot of artistic talent Venice produced and inspired. “The City as Art” shows that there is, indeed, not one speck of Venice that has not been represented in paintings. Though he covers Tiepolo, Giardi, Canaletto, and Titian, among other notables, Akroyd focuses of the frenzied genius that was Jacopo Tintoretto. That’s probably just as well, for it’s unlikely any other artist, before or since, so clearly captured,  and so perfectly personified, Venice in all its glory. A great deal of discussion in this episode is about the distinctly Venetian use of light in the artworks. The quality of the light, of course, is a direct result of the watery reflections. As the architecture is influenced by being built on the water, so the visual art mirrors the play of light upon the waves.

The third episode of Venice Revealed, “The City as Music”, once again touches on the sea’s significance within the lives and the art of Venice. It focuses almost entirely on Antonio Vivaldi who, like Tintoretto, is uniquely and intrinsically Venetian. In his great choral works and his operas, one can hear the repetitive echoes of lapping against ancient timbers, and the great rippling and swelling of the tide. This is the episode where you may want to close your eyes momentarily to let the choirs’ voices wash over you in a divine surge of sound. 

In the final installment, “The City as Theatre”, Akroyd refers to the roots of commedia dell’arte, and mentions operas (Venice was essentially the birthplace of modern opera), plays and film, but he concentrates on Carnival. It’s what Venice is most famous for, and it’s also the best example of the city’s devotion to theatre. The entire event is one extravagant, extended performance piece in which the whole city participates. Carnival is an active, evolving expression of the city itself and of its people, as every year the population puts on a new face and celebrates the enduring spirit of life and art.

Venice Revealed is a celebration of that endurance, as well. The documentary not only offers insight into the history of the city, but Akroyd also speaks with many experts, historians and preservationists about what it will take to maintain the city and all its invaluable cultural treasures far into the future. DVD bonuses include a 12-page viewer’s guide with an interview with Peter Ackroyd called “Remembering Venice”, the story of the Great Flood of 1966, and other sources for learning about Venice. There are also biographies of Venetian architects, artists, playwrights, and composers,  a “Venice on Film” feature, facts about gondolas and exclusive web extras.

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