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. (Sept.)
Forecast:While the cognoscenti will seek out McCarthy or Norwich for more commanding views on the same material, Wills's book will be the prevailing popular history of the sinking city for the foreseeable future, sought out pre-trip by the thinking hordes who descend yearly. Look for an initial spike on the strength of Wills's name, and steady sales thereafter.