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When writing, start at the beginning


The rise and fall and rise of Venice
John Julius Norwich Writer
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[Q] You wrote a very famous book about Venice.

Well, I wrote A History of Venice in two volumes. I mean, one was just a continuation of the other, because, you know... Venice was an independent republic for over 1000 years, time comfortably longer than that which separates us from the Norman Conquest, during which... during several centuries, of which it was the most powerful state in the Mediterranean and certainly the richest. That all went, say, in the 15th century, thanks, first of all, to the advances of the Turks all over the Eastern Mediterranean. And, secondly, of course, to the discovery at the end of the 15th century of the Cape route to the Indies, which meant that you could load... you could load one ship in London or Antwerp or wherever, Hamburg, and sail it all the way round to the Indies without unloading. In the old days, of course, you'd have gone through the Mediterranean, but when you got to the east side of the Mediterranean, you had to unload and either go down through the Red Sea, which is... was bursting full of pirates, or put it onto a shambling camel caravan that would take the next four years walking through Central Asia, you see. But, I mean, at least you could do it; you could get there, you could get to China. And then the... when the Turks mopped up the whole of the Eastern Mediterranean, that was no longer possible. So the Mediterranean became a backwater; it lost all its importance, and Venice suffered with it. And then came, really, came the great problem: with every year that passed Venice was getting poorer and poorer. Nobody wanted the Mediterranean anymore, nobody wanted the ships... It was known for its shipping, for its commerce. It was out of a job. Its occupation was done. And so what was it going to do?

And then, we don't know who, but some genius, I like to think, round towards the end of the 17th century, said, 'I know, we will make Venice the pleasure capital of the world; we will make it the Las Vegas of the world', which they did. This was, fortunately, coincided with the beginning of the Grand Tour. So everybody, all the rich, young milords, not only from England, but from all over northern Europe, would come out on the Grand Tour, you know, and they would make, on the whole, for Rome, which was obviously the... finish off their good-son classical education. But on their return journey, they would always stop in Venice, where the gambling was for higher stakes, the courtesans were more beautiful and experienced; where, if you were that way inclined, you could listen to opera, which was invented in Venice in the middle of the 17th century; and where, if you were English, of course, you would call on the Consul, Consul Joseph Smith, who had lived there ever since he was a child and knew everything and everyone, and happened to be Canaletto's agent. And Consul Smith would say, oh, you must come and see my friend, Canaletto, in his studio, because he's got some wonderful things, you know. And so you would go with Consul Smith to Canaletto's studio, and you wouldn't get out of that without a couple of rather large canvases, of which Consul Smith would clearly take his cut. And that's why there are a hundred Canalettos in England and about two in Venice, you know. But then they don't want them in Venice; they know what the place looks like, you know. But for the young English milords, they went back after three months or so in Venice, you know, with a couple of Canalettos and a mild dose of the clap, and, you know, I mean, for them it was the greatest year of their lives, and we've got all the Canalettos to prove it.

John Julius Norwich (1929-2018) was an English popular historian, travel writer and television personality. He was educated at Upper Canada College, Toronto, at Eton, at the University of Strasbourg and on the lower deck of the Royal Navy before taking a degree in French and Russian at New College, Oxford. He then spent twelve years in H.M. Foreign Service, with posts at the Embassies in Belgrade and Beirut and at the Disarmament Conference in Geneva. In 1964 he resigned to become a writer. He is the author of histories of Norman Sicily, the Republic of Venice, the Byzantine Empire and, most recently, 'The Popes: A History'. He also wrote on architecture, music and the history plays of Shakespeare, and presented some thirty historical documentaries on BBC Television.

Listeners: Christopher Sykes

Christopher Sykes is an independent documentary producer who has made a number of films about science and scientists for BBC TV, Channel Four, and PBS.

Tags: A History of Venice, Venice

Duration: 4 minutes, 41 seconds

Date story recorded: 2017

Date story went live: 03 October 2018