building a library
Building a Library 43: Companion Guide to Venice, by Hugh Honour
Robert Harbison picks 50 books that should feature in any architectural library.
Companion guide to Venice
By Hugh Honour, 1965/1999
How to explain the magic of guidebooks? A book presented as a series of walks sounds tedious; yet in the right hands it is ravishing, like a novel you can act out for yourself. No one ever does it exactly as the guide advises though, which is one of the beauties of the form: you can skip parts you’re not interested in, or stop in the middle and leave the whole thing behind.
A writer plans the routes meticulously; for a reader they have the freshness of a random wander, without the usual boring stretches and dead ends.
With Honour, you’re probably not tempted to skip the introductory chapters, but you should. Guidebooks are only truly themselves in the nooks and crannies: Honour’s best intimations of the essential flavours of Venice occur in passing, or in the interstices between a florid church and a forlorn little museum.
His sequences are full of surprises: a prim little Anglican church, former centre of expatriate life, then Peggy Guggenheim’s collection, a glimpse of a courtyard Ruskin liked, Horatio Brown’s house (pausing for a quick evocation of his writing about Venice), cancelling him out with “a more important memory” of Ignatius Loyola, who ministered to incurables nearby.
I disbelieve the guide here: Brown isn’t less significant than the saint for the lover of Venice, and the book specialises in dissolving hierarchies, demonstrating that the repair of gondolas (which need a thorough scraping every three weeks) is as gripping as the hoarding of masterpieces.
Not quite perhaps, but there is room in this guide for both. In fact, Honour has a wonderful eye for masterpieces that no one else notices. His evocations of colour in Venetian painting are especially compelling. One of these even converted me to Piazzetta, by showing me the light of the lagoon hiding in those dark canvases.