The novelist, biographer, and cultural
historian Peter Ackroyd is one of the most eclectic and prolific living
authors. His many works embrace an extraordinary range of topics,
and this new documentary (originally broadcast on Great Britain's
Channel Four) tackles the enormous subject of Venice's influence on
Western culture and society. Adapted from his own book, Venice
Pure City (not yet published here in the US), Venice Revealed
is a four-part documentary series that engrossingly examines the cultural
history of the city from a perspective that winningly combines objective
research with subjective interpretation and analysis. Ackroyd
has a novelist's sensibility, and here it affords great insight rooted
in curiosity and keen observation.
Marked by lovely photography, music,
and an attention to the finer details of Venice's public places,
Venice Revealed is divided into four thematically-organized episodes.
Each explores one of Venice's cultural products, but Ackroyd's perspective
is cross-disciplinary, with a view to the interplay of the one with
the other three. He is not interested in compartmentalizing architects,
painters, composers, and dramatists; he maintains a focus on how the
creations of these figures have changed over time and affected the city
and the world's perception of it. It's an invigorating approach
that examines the impact of creative work in terms of its influence
and continued importance.
- The City as Architecture: Part of Ackroyd's abiding
interest in Venice stems from the fact that the city didn't grow from
agrarian or commercial origins. It was planned as a city from
its earliest beginnings. The buildings of Venice have foundations
that rest on a submerged petrified forest - it really is, in a way,
a floating city, built upon a large body of water. Its buildings
comprise an irregular mixture of styles - from the earliest Byzantine
and the high Gothic to the neo-classicism of the Renaissance, Venice's
architecture is a hodgepodge of styles from many different eras.
Some buildings have Byzantine origins, with Gothic ornamentation, and
even later Renaissance additions. Ackroyd surveys the city's
architectural history with the help of Venetian scholars.
- The City as Art: Ackroyd looks at Venice through
the eyes of its great home-grown painters, particularly Tintoretto and
Canaletto. These artists were devoted to the city, representing
it directly in ambitious cityscapes that established patterns of color
that are now recognized as "Venetian," and indirectly in sacred
works that used the city's layout and cultural hierarchy as templates
for their design. Bellini, Tiepolo, and Bassano were also Venetians
- some of these painters never left the city. Their work is
of, by, and for Venice.
- The City as Music: Venice was a great producer
of music, particularly in the Renaissance and Classical periods.
Monteverdi and Wagner lived out their last days in the city. Its
most important native composer was Antonio Vivaldi, and Ackroyd explores
his life and work through the lens of recent research conducted by Vivaldi
biographer Micky White. She has uncovered information about an
all-female musical ensemble that existed in Vivaldi's era, which has
recently been reconstituted with the help of an Oxford choral scholar.
In this way, the episode effectively uses Vivaldi's own music to bridge
his time to our own.
- The City as Theatre: In the most vague and loosely-constructed
episode in the series, Ackroyd takes on the term "theater" in all
its implications: not only is dramatic and operatic performance surveyed,
but so is the concept of the entire city serving as a gigantic piece
of living theater. Buildings are examined as contrived slabs of
fakery; paintings are assessed as silent, theatrical "performance"
pieces; and public events such as Carnival - and even executions -
are considered for their dramatic, performative aspects. Throughout
its history, Ackroyd suggests, Venice has not so much been revealed
as concealed - by layer upon layer of artifice and contrivance.
This two-disc set from Athena boasts a bright, enhanced 1.78:1 image
transfer. Color is important in the series, and it really does
pop here. Although occasional compression artifacts rear their
heads, the transfer is generally strong - which is to be expected
of a program originally produced just last year.
The stereo soundtrack is very pleasing. Ackroyd's narration
and the comments by interviewees are quite clear. The music on
the soundtrack comes off especially well.
Apart from text biographies of the artists covered in the documentary,
there are none.
Peter Ackroyd's Venice Revealed
is an engaging documentary series steeped in history and a rich command
of the cultural legacy of one of the world's great cities.
Casey Burchby lives in Northern California: Twitter, Tumblr.