Garry Wills's Venice: Lion City is a tour de force -- a rich, colorful, and provocative history of the world's most fascinating city in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, when it was at the peak of its glory. This was not the city of decadence, carnival, and nostalgia familiar to us from later centuries. It was a ruthless imperial city, with a shrewd commercial base, like ancient Athens, which it resembled in its combination of art and sea empire.
Venice: Lion City presents a new way of relating the history of the city through its art and, in turn, illuminates the art through the city's history. It is illustrated with more than 130 works of art, 30 in full color. Garry Wills gives us a unique view of Venice's rulers, merchants, clerics, laborers, its Jews, and its women as they created a city that is the greatest art museum in the world, a city whose allure remains undiminished after centuries.
Like Simon Schama's The Embarrassment of Riches, on the Dutch culture in the Golden Age, Venice: Lion City will take its place as a classic work of history and criticism.
What Simon Schama's An Embarrassment of Riches did for Renaissance Holland, Wills prolific author, historian, translator and critic (John Wayne's America) tries here with Renaissance Venice. He organizes the book strictly into four "Imperial" sections: "Imperial Discipline" contains chapters on Venetian ideas of time and work while "Imperial Personnel" covers the doges, patricians, notables, "Golden Youth," women, artists, etc. Wills' intense interest in church matters comes through throughout, but most clearly in the section "Imperial Piety," which is subdivided into art-based chapters like "Venetian Annunciations" and "The Vulnerable Mary." Although extremely earnest, Wills is certainly not a specialized scholar, and he relies heavily on such academic art historians as Otto Demus and Erwin Panofsky to document the city's great art. The result is a rather dense and extremely ambitious book that does not wear its learning lightly, unlike Mary McCarthy's still-scintillating overview of the city. Lacking the style and dash of a popular historian like John Julius Norwich, whose A History of Venice is still a standard text, Wills often comes across as dutiful here, hardly communicating the passion he no doubt feels about his subject. His reactions to certain artworks seem haphazard, such as his confession that a painting of the Annunciation by Lorenzo Lotto made Wills think "of Jacqueline Kennedy turning to clamber out of her car when the tremendous blow fell on her in the Dallas motorcade." This book gets points for its obvious efforts to organize a sprawling history into comprehensible bites, but too many of its judgments are uncertain, and its smoothly ahistorical analogies, as above, can be distracting. 16-page color insert not seen by PW.