Monday, 9 April 2012

Saikia: The Venice Lido

The Venice Lido

Robin Saikia (2011) The Venice Lido, A Blue Guide Travel Monograph Somerset Books, London; 157pp.; ISBN 978-1-905131-50-1

Robin Saikia first went to Venice as a teenager, and after a night of partying and drinking on the beach, ‘awoke in the blaze and breeze of mid-morning, stripped and flung myself into the warm shallows of the Adriatic, where, in a specifically spiritual sense, I have remained ever since.’ What follows is an eclectic and rich account of the Venice Lido that traces fashion and foibles on the island and its shores from medieval times to the present.

For centuries Venice was a power in the Mediterranean and beyond, a power built very much on commerce, innovation and the establishment of banking, but always backed up with military might. The cluster of islands that make up the city remained largely impregnable due to the sea and marshlands that enclosed and protected it, until finally Napoleon ended the city’s existence as an independent state.  However, the myth, beauty and spell of Venice has endured.

Saikia details medieval customs that grew up with Venice and reinforced its own sense of destiny and uniqueness. Its twin commercial and military role in the Crusades symbolizes the practicality and inventiveness of the Venetians, coupled with a religious fascination with its patron saint. The city retains a strong mythology linked to St Mark and St Nicolas, and imagery and customs associated with them have been retained up to the present day.

Venice has always attracted artists and writers, and Saikia recounts in particular the visits of famous English figures, as well as Henry James and German writers seeking a sunny escape from their dark northern melancholy. Handsome gondoliers, the seaside and forests at the extremes of the island have attracted a fair share of gay tourists and intellectuals, at least from the early Victorian period and probably before. Death in Venice is but the tip of an interesting iceberg that has floated in this sea.

For a long time the Lido attracted Europe’s, and increasingly America’s, wealthy. They brought money and their eccentricities, allowing Venice to build luxurious hotels and to develop a cachet of glamour and excitement. Saikia provides an amusing account of a meeting there between Hitler and Mussolini in the years leading up to World War II, the two men so ridiculous that it makes you wonder why anyone trusted them. The Lido suffered a downturn during and after the war, only reviving with the rise of mass tourism from the 1960s on. What is striking is how the Lido continues to reinvent and reconstruct itself, empowered by its history yet using the past to continually innovate and move forward.

The Blue Guides are a small but growing set of short books that look at the history and culture of places to provide travellers with a deeper sense of where they are going. This book is not a travel guide in the conventional sense, but at the end there is an annotated list of interesting sights, contact details for services, and a set of small but useful maps of the full stretch of the Lido.

Saikia’s love of the place shines through his words and his stories, and he has done the Venice Lido a great service in conveying some of its richness and meaning. It is hard to finish this slim but engaging book and not want to pack your bags and head for a vaporetto.

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