Hope rises even as Venice sinks

Bron Sibree
A wintery scene in Venice. Picture: Bron Sibree

There's something magical about Venice in winter. Some say the city is at its most enchanted when the winter mists roll in and tidal shifts in the Adriatic Sea result in that peculiarly Venetian phenomenon known as "acqua alta". Certainly the city once fabled as La Serenissima is at its most serene in winter. For as tourists flee the biting cold, incessant rain and high water, Venetians don their Wellington boots and get on with things.

Just this winter, the Duke of Wellington's name was again invoked in a new, altogether Venetian enterprise, Wellington Books - an English-language bookstore. Cosy and well-stocked with books not only about Venice but a full range of classics and works by 20th century giants and popular contemporary releases as well as children's books, it has in a few short months become the "go to" place for locals and visitors.

In the San Marco sestiere, or district, a few steps from the newly reopened Rossini Cinema and not far from the Fenice Opera House, it is the brainchild of 30-year-old Venetian, Gaspare Battistuzzo, a self-described Anglophile who wants to share his passion for English, American and post-colonial literature with locals and tourists.

An engaging host whose gossipy tales of his native Venice rival those that sit between the pages of the books in his shop, Gaspare will happily direct you to Venice's little-known corners as assuredly as he does to those of the literary realm. Fittingly, his bookstore is a stone's throw from the site where Venetian Renaissance printer and publisher Aldus Manutius pioneered the modern use of the semi-colon and introduced the octavo, the precursor of the paperback.

Even his literary events, which feature local authors and visiting luminaries, are considered a must. "Venice is a city of culture and we're not afraid of the water," Gaspare says. As if in agreement, several Venetian customers arrive at his shop having, like me, sloshed through the flooded calli of San Marco to buy such diverse titles as Philip K. Dick's science fiction-classic Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? - which was adapted into the movie Bladerunner - Jan Morris' Trieste and Homer's Iliad.

"I've also got many P.G. Wodehouse and Evelyn Waugh lovers, all Venetians, so things have changed. Fifteen years ago I wouldn't have opened an international bookshop in Venice but nowadays even young people from high school come here and buy books in English."

But even he was surprised when his stock of Nancy Mitford novels, a private passion that industry professionals warned him against indulging, sold out soon after he unpacked them, with readers, all locals, clamouring for more. "So you never know but that's Venice. It's full of eccentrics."

Currently, the most popular book on his shelves is Polpo, a book of recipes and photographs extolling Venice's tradition of cicheti, or bar snacks, while the most controversial book in all of Venice remains John Berendt's The City of Falling Angels, which locals love to loathe, he says, "because so many of them are spoken of badly in it - but it still sells".

But the biggest local controversy is that surrounding the giant cruise ships that ply the waters of Venice's fragile lagoon, disgorging hordes of tourists into St Mark's Square each summer. "One of the main claims of the Venetians is that Venice is becoming Disneyland," says Gaspare, who instead worries about what would happen if these tourist hordes left the famously sinking city, with its dwindling population now estimated officially at 58,000.

For him, Wellington Books is an act of defiance and hope in the face of chronic unemployment and dire predictions for the city's future.

"Tourists only see the Byronic side of Venice, its beautiful monuments, its glorious decadence, but they often don't see that there are many people here who are trying to carry on without losing hope. We are all in danger but precisely because we are, you've got to have hope, and I don't think tourists realise what it costs to have hope in Venice."

It's a provocative thought that I carry with me out into the flooded calli and into another new Venetian venture, the refurbished Palazzo Mocenigo in San Stae. Renowned as a textile and costume study centre and museum, this 17th century palazzo reopened its doors this winter after a radical restyling by noted Venetian set designer Pier Luigi Pizzi and an expansion that includes a new perfume museum, the first of its kind in Italy.

It's not commonly known Venice was the centre of a thriving perfume industry during the Renaissance - just as it was for the publishing industry - and if ever there was a testament to Venetians' belief in their city's illustrious past and hope in its future, this gorgeous 20-room museum is it.

The result of a collaboration between the Venice Foundation of Civic Museums and Mavive, a 112-year-old Venetian perfume company owned by the Vidal family, it expertly evokes the different aspects of life of a Venetian nobleman between the 17th and 18th centuries, as well as the key role the city has played in the development of the perfume and cosmetics industry.

Winter is the ideal time to experience this place unhindered by crowds. Wandering through its elegantly restored rooms, replete with original fabrics, lace, glass and tableware as well as artworks, you can almost taste the wealth and vitality of a bygone Venice.

You can even smell many of the exotic fragrances that began to pervade Venice in the 11th century when Theodora Dukas, the beautiful Greek-born bride of the 31st Doge of Venice Domenico Selvo, caused a sensation by eating with a fork and using perfume.

This kicked off a trend that saw Venice quickly establish itself as the world's greatest importer of fragrant plant and animal extracts, with its merchants monopolising trade with Byzantium and the Orient by the 13th century. Along with mysterious implements, ancient bottles and stills of the perfume maker's art, many of these substances are on display to smell at special "islands" dedicated to "fragrance families" such as animal extracts like civet, musk, ambergris on the one hand, and plant extracts like bergamot, aloe and lavender on the other.

Perfumes reached their apotheosis in Venice during the Renaissance, when the city became the biggest producer of luxury goods including soaps, perfumes and rouges. Catherine de Medici, who married France's future King Henry II in the 16th century, is credited with spreading the perfumers' art to the courts of Europe by taking with her to France her personal perfumer along with rare fragrance recipes and the secrets of herbal distillation. One of the most intriguing documents on display in the museum is a manual called I Notandissimi Secreti de l'Arte Profumatoria, published for the first time in Venice in 1555.

The first Western manual to catalogue more than 300 formulas for perfumes and cosmetics, it has now been republished by Mavive, which has also, in a huge act of faith in the future, created a series of perfumes inspired by the mude, the ocean routes that Venetian merchants sailed to obtain the raw ingredients for their scents in the days of the old republic.

Bottled in Murano glass and packaged under the Merchant of Venice label, they are available at Palazzo Mocenigo and at Mavive's flagship store, a restored 17th century pharmacy, in San Fantin.

They serve as exquisite mementos of the beauty, ingenuity and entrepreneurial spirit of a city that never ceases to inspire.

FACT FILE

For more on Wellington Books, go to facebook.com/wellingtonbooks.venice.

Find information on Palazzo Mocenigo at mocenigo.visitmuve.it/en.