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THIS DREAM UPON THE WATER. The Representation of a City in Literature: Venice.

Part 1 Dissertation 1999
Anna Radcliffe
Cardiff University | UK

No text lives as much as a city also out of its interpretations, its images and its myths

A Note on Interpretation.
It is hardly surprising that we always interpret 'place' in the light of our own concerns, indeed that we are almost incapable of doing anything else. As students of architecture, we are taught to see 'place' primarily through visual observation of buildings and of changing urban fabric. Yet, as most students soon discover, architecture is not just about the physical environment, but about inhabitation and ‘space-making’.

The city, like a kaleidoscope, offers a multiplicity of fragmented yet overlapping images of itself, each projected by different social groups from different historic periods, as a consequence of their respective frames of cultural reference. Since the perceptions of these various groups can be ‘read’ through such images, literature can be studied as one such form of representation, an instrument for recovering a more intuitive, phenomenal understanding of the city. This essay therefore explores the process of reading and interpretation, selecting the city of Venice as a locational datum.

Behind this choice of Venice as the focus of enquiry, lies the city’s rich historiographic context, established within the essay through a study of the relationship between history and the rise of literature in the nineteenth century. After the Fall of 1797, Venice became a city shrouded in myth; an idealised dream city which offered a complementary experience to travellers from newly industrialised metropolises. This proved a fertile breeding ground for a homogenising tourist monoculture, promoted by foreigners but equally cultivated by locals.

(1) Cacciari, Massimo, "An Idea of Venice", Casabella, Vol. 53, No. 557 (May, 1989), pp.61

The readings of Venice which follow, of texts from the authors Dickens, Mann and Calvino, subsequently portray three contrasting representations of the city, set against this backdrop of cultural history. Determination of such pluralities forms a pre-condition to the discovery of unities(2). Thus, being mindful of the superimpositions which form the perception of a city, this essay discerns, through comparison of the texts, underlying connections and relationships which form the basis of a ‘common idea’ behind, or ‘implicit identity’ of, Venice. Such identity is composed of dialectic oppositions; fact and fiction, myth and reality. Venice is the ultimate ambiguous post-modern city and it is this very indeterminacy which must be discovered and used to shape this city’s future.

Select Bibliography:

Calvino, Italo, Invisible Cities (Original English Translation: San Diego, 1974).

Dickens, Charles, The New Oxford Illustrated Dickens: American Notes and Pictures from Italy (London, 1957; 3rd edition: London, 1970).

Eagleton, Terry, Literary Theory: An Introduction (Oxford, 1983; 2nd edition: Oxford, 1996).

Mann, Thomas, Death in Venice; Tristan; Tonio Kroger (English translation by Lowe-Porter, H.T.: London, 1932).

Rossi, Aldo, and others, “Special Issue: Venice: Its Real and Imaginary Place” Process, No 75 (October 1987) pp. 5-149.

(2)Schorske, Carl, E, Fin de Siecle Vienna - Politics and Culture (Melbourne, 1961), pp. xxii.

Anna Radcliffe

The idea pursued by this student is one highly apposite for a practising architectural designer, that of using the work not of philosophers (as is often done) but of creative artists, in order to explore alternative ways of seeing and investigating the urban phenomenon. Turning to an art form other than her own, in this case literature, she accomplished this task with great intelligence and sensitivity, selecting three well-known novelists to form an unexpected trio. Through their lenses she both viewed one of the world's most written about cities and reflected upon the nature of the novelist's craft of seeing and describing at thee critical moments within the modern era.

By comparing not only their views of Venice but equally their ways of viewing it she uncovered an ongoing mythology, its self-portrait, such as any city projects of itself through various writers' pens. Yet, simultaneously, she reveals how this city has succeeded in weaving a stronger myth than any other.

Dr. Judi Loach, Tutor

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