Paradise of Cities, by John Julius Norwich

Here they all come to die,
Fluent therein as in a fourth tongue.

–James Merrill, “The Country of a Thousand Years of Peace”

If you know the history of Venice already, this book will fill in some details on some nineteenth-century characters who lived or visited there.

The Emperor Napoleon destroyed the republic in the name of democracy but didn’t enjoy his time. He stripped the horses from the top of St. Mark’s but restored the defenses to the lagoon to guard against an English attack. There was to be a row of statues of fourteen Roman emperors in St. Mark’s Square with a gap left for the great man himself. By then he was unable, in Elba. “To the occasional inquiry, the Venetians would always reply, with a perfectly straight face, that the statue itself was ready; unfortunately, nobody could quite remember where they had put it.”

Byron found more to add to his catalogue of nearly mille e tre. His “most perfect short lyric” was an exhalation after Carnival 1817: “So we’ll go no more a-roving So late into the night . . . .” Norwich has a sense of humor but doesn’t attempt to make his Byron chapter suitably farcical. There is a lot to laugh at there.

Norwich describes the expected–Ruskin and Henry James–and the obscure–Baron Corvo, “one of the most completely self-centered men who ever lived,” an English Roger de la Burdé, who wrote a Hadrian the Seventh as though it were his own autobiography.

Wagner composed parts of Die Meistersinger and Tristan there, and his was the most famous death in Venice. A full symphony orchestra and a thousand gondolas accompanied his coffin to Siegfried’s funeral march and the overture to Tannhäuser.

The characters themselves have ample room to speak. Each gets a chapter, and there is no connecting theme but the lapping waters.

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