Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Word Frequency Map for Pistols! Treason! Murder!

Pistols Wordle

Created using the Wordle generator, which was invented by Jonathan Feinberg.

You play the black and the red comes up

[The photographer Helen] Levitt says that she [gambles] for fun and out of respect for Luck, but play is more than diversion for her. Play is central to her notion of society; it is a proposition that animates life. Of itself, play has no moral consequences; it is disinterested. It is not serious, but its rewards are: In its temporary freedom a limited perfection can be achieved. …. For Levitt photography is a form of serious play.
Maria Morris Hambourg

You play, you win. You play, you lose. You play.
Jeanette Winterson, The Passion

Photography is a gambling game. It is the only art in which chance plays an essential role, which is why the Surrealists liked it. To decide whether a photograph is successful is therefore an attempt to define the difference between winning and losing, a difference that is arbitrary and absolute, like the decision to trip the shutter. Why should this difference matter? Every image makes a claim upon the viewer’s attention, but it’s up to the photographer to provide a stake to back that claim. The machine registers every scene with equal indifference, just as the roulette wheel doesn’t care where the ball lands.

The uncontrollable, or chance, element in photography consists partly in not being able to define what constitutes a winning move in advance of playing. Photography is distinctive among gambling games in this respect: that the photographer makes up the rules as he goes along, and sometimes in retrospect. Intention is more decisive in editing than it is at the moment of exposure.

Like photographers, historians must also create meaning from contingent facts, just as they are obliged to deal with the chance destruction or survival of documents. Carlo Ginzburg and Adriano Prospero have gone even further than this, arguing that chance is essential to the historian’s working methods, since it is precisely when we encounter the unexpected that our preconceptions and models are most effectively challenged, and by definition we only stumble upon the unexpected by chance. Photography, like historiography, should be a way of discovering new things about the world rather than simply confirming what we already know. We must permit reality (under which heading I include both the contents of historical documents and the subjects of photographs) to surprise us.

[I have written an article, entitled 'Let's Get Lost: On the Importance of Itineraries, Detours and Dead-Ends', which explores some of these themes in more detail.]

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Review by Zoë Sadokierski of The Raw Shark Texts

Here is a review by Zoë Sadokierski of Steven Hall's The Raw Shark Texts. Of particular interest to me is this passage addressing criticism of Hall's use of images and typo/graphic experiments as 'gimmicks':

Hall addresses this criticism as a kind of literary snobbishness: "these storytelling techniques are still considered 'experimental' or even worse, 'gimmicky' in some book circles; whereas in art you can sit in a gallery with a dead lobster on your head for a week without fear of being accused of either." It’s a complaint shared by Jonathan Safran Foer, whose novel Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close also features a flip-book passage. He concurs that the use of images in novels is “still considered to be a gimmick or some expression of the failure of language”. In a review for the Village Voice Safran Foer states: "It's a shame that people consider the use of images in a novel to be experimental or brave. No one would say that the use of type in a painting is experimental or brave. Literature has been more protective of its borders than any other art form – too protective. Jay-Z samples from Annie – one of the least likely combinations imaginable – and it changes music. What if novelists [or historians, I might add] were as willing to borrow?"

Both Pistols! Treason! Murder! and Five Wounds attempt to answer this question.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Auckland Symposium on 'Character, Author, Person'

On Thursday, 17 December 2009, I shall be giving a paper as part of a symposium at the University of Auckland on 'Character, Author, Person'. Below are the symposium details (the same information can be found here on the Auckland English department page):

Character, Author, Person: The Problem of People in Texts
Thursday, 17 Dec 2009

Presenter: Department of English

Department: English

Venue: Room 426 Arts 1 Building

Time: 2pm

Our symposium will examine and theorize the place of people in and out of texts, and the roles conventionally assigned to authors, characters, and persons. All those interested in the history of the novel, in questions of autobiography and pseudo-autobiography, in how represented persons affect real audiences, or in unusual modes of authorship are most welcome to attend.

With Special Guests
Jonathan Lamb, Bridget Orr and Jonathan Walker

This is the abstract for my paper, ‘Gerolamo Vano as Character, Author, Person’:

My recent book, Pistols! Treason! Murder! is an illustrated biography of a Venetian spy, Gerolamo Vano, who was executed for perjury in 1622. It is not, however, a conventional biography retelling the events of an entire life in chronological order. Rather, it is an explication of the various senses in which Vano might (legitimately or otherwise) be described as a character, an author and / or a person on the basis of his various appearances in documents in the Venetian state archive, notably the collection of surveillance reports he submitted to his nominal employers, the Venetian Inquisitors of State. In what sense does a loose-leaf collection of unedited papers, originally intended for a handful of select readers, who, moreover, retrospectively judged their contents to be sufficiently damning as to warrant the author’s execution, and which have lain unread for hundreds of years since 1622, constitute a ‘body of work’ or evidence of a distinctive literary sensibility? In this presentation, I’ll outline some possible answers to this question.

For more information on Vano, see

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Pistols! Treason! Murder!: Plausibility, Part 2

[Continued from the previous post:]

The distinctiveness of Vano’s reports will become clearer if we compare them with two chronicles that describe the downfall of the Venetian traitor, Zuan Battista Bragadin.[1] Neither of these chronicles mentions Vano, whose evidence was in fact crucial to the prosecution (the case is described in some detail in Pistols! Treason! Murder!).[2] On the contrary, the chronicle accounts explain Bragadin’s downfall in such a way as to avoid any mention of spies, paid informants, or the Inquisitors of State, whose existence presupposed a world in which spies were an essential instrument of statecraft.

According to the chronicles, then, Bragadin was generally despised for his [poor] character.[3] His election to the Senate, on whose deliberations he supplied information to the Spanish, only came about because of a massive electoral conspiracy. This conspiracy also resulted in the elevation of a number of other highly unsuitable candidates. It was exposed by the Ten in 1620, shortly before Bragadin's arrest. These events are outside our area of interest, but the fallout from this conspiracy caused a huge scandal, and the resulting arrests and prosecutions occupy a great deal of space in the Ten’s criminal register for 1620.

Again according to the chroniclers, Bragadin left notes for the Spanish secretary to collect in a dead-drop in the church of the Frari. This suspicious behaviour was observed by one of the friars attached to the church, who reported the matter directly to the doge by means of a petition. Bragadin’s fellow senators then tricked him into writing a letter, so that the writing could be compared with that on the notes. When presented with the evidence (by these same fellow senators), Bragadin said simply, I deserve to die.[4]

Possibly the friar was an actual, independent source, who was used to corroborate Vano’s evidence. In any case, this ‘official’ version of events shows that the chroniclers had a quite different understanding of treachery and spying to Vano, and consequently a different notion of what counted as an adequate or plausible account of events. Unwilling or unable to enter Vano’s world, they offered a comforting fable whose silences betray an anxiety about the role of spies in Venetian political life. The chroniclers seem to be critiquing Vano, however unconsciously, but we can turn this around and use Vano to critique them. There are four complementary elements to this mutual critique.

(1) For the chroniclers, the traitor was corrupt from the beginning, and he was understood to be so before he ever committed an act of treachery. His election to the Senate was irregular, and he was therefore unrepresentative of its membership. Since he was different, he could be judged and condemned without anxiety. For Vano, by contrast, the identity of the traitor was difficult to establish because he looked just like everyone else. Also, many spies had divided or shifting loyalties, so the person who was condemned one day might turn out to be a useful informant the next.

(2) For the chroniclers, the traitor was discovered by a concerned but neutral observer (the friar), who was representative of all those who played no direct role in Venetian government but benefited from Venetian justice, and therefore wished to be good subjects. For Vano, by contrast, the traitor was uncovered by paid specialists, whose loyalty could not be relied upon.

(3) For the chroniclers, the traitor was trapped and publicly exposed by his peers, who thus symbolically repudiated him as unworthy of being a noble. In the world occupied by Vano and the Inquisitors, the traitor was sentenced secretly, and those who (unlike Bragadin or Foscarini) managed to escape into exile remained in contact with family and friends. The traitor was not exceptional, because there was always someone else waiting to take his place.

(4) For the chroniclers, the traitor condemned himself spontaneously when confronted with the truth of his guilt. For Vano and the Inquisitors, if the traitor confessed it was only because he was compelled to do so by the threat of torture, and some men – Antonio Foscarini for example – went to their deaths refusing to confess.

I would not wish to exaggerate Vano’s sophistication, but his account is still more convincing than that of the chroniclers.[5] Whatever the local definitions of plausibility, the best writers are capable of escaping from them by creating a self-contained world, within which their characters become not only plausible, but necessary manifestations of the internal logic of that world. Vano’s minimalism then becomes a sign of his control over his material rather than his lack of insight. The success of his accusation against Foscarini is proof of this.

[1] The two chronicle accounts of Bragadin's case can be found in the Marciana Library, Venice, Italian manuscripts, class VII, 1664 (7542), Miscellanea, fos 98-107; and class VII, 121-2 (8862-3), Gian Carlo Sives, Cronica Veneta, book 4, fo. 185r.

[2] Most of the relevant documentation is in Archivio di Stato, Venice, Inquisitori di Stato, busta 1214, no. 57.

[3] He was elected indirectly, since he held a judicial office that conferred ex officio Senate membership.

[4] The Mantuan resident’s despatches also mentioned the friar, and insisted that Bragadin had confessed spontaneously, but he put the case where it belonged, under the supervision of the Inquisitors.

[5] Vano’s analysis is considerably less subtle than that offered in many of the despatches sent to the Venetian Senate, the Ten and the Inquisitors by ambassadors stationed abroad. However, in certain respects his ‘voice’ resembles that of the Inquisitors’ secretary Roberto Lio, in the reports the latter sent from Mantua during a rendezvous with a potential informant in July 1621. The skeptical, sardonic and unruffled manner adopted by Lio is implicitly contrasted with that of his contact, who is depicted as shifty, easily offended, and prone to emotional outbursts and melodramatic statements, which he used to cover the holes in his story. This contrast – between a detached narrator who stresses his own emotional self-control, and a narrative subject whose lack of self-control reveals more fundamental character weaknesses – may therefore be regarded as a standard device. For Lio’s ultimately fruitless trip to Mantua, see Archivio di Stato, Inquisitori di Stato, busta 157, various letters to Milan dated 17 July to 7 Aug. 1621, along with a letter to Mantua dated 24 July 1621; and Inquisitori di Stato, busta 449, letters from Mantua dated 23 July and 26 July 1621, plus various letters from Milan from 14 July to 11 Aug. 1621.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Pistols! Treason! Murder!: Plausibility, Part 1

Pistols! Treason! Murder! describes the arrest, execution and posthumous exoneration of the Venetian noble Antonio Foscarini. Gerolamo Vano supplied (at least some of) the evidence against Foscarini. Given the eventual outcome of the case, why were the Council of Ten (the prosecuting magistrates) initially convinced of Foscarini’s guilt? In other words, why did Vano’s accusations initially seem plausible to them?

To answer this question, we need to begin by distinguishing the plausible from the true. Even if truth is absolute, plausibility is not. It is always defined by reference to a particular context because it depends on shared expectations and preconceptions about normal behaviour or probable outcomes. For example, in Venice, what we might call the ‘threshold of suspicion’ was very low after the exposure of the so-called Spanish conspiracy in 1618. The Council of Ten were expecting to find traitors, and specific accusations are always preferable to diffuse anxiety in such circumstances. And, while both Foscarini's arrest and the sentence against him were unexpected, none of the foreign ambassadors present in Venice who initially reported on the case doubted that he was guilty as charged. There were no cynics suggesting that the Ten had been deceived or that there were political motives behind the prosecution.[1]

The legal notion of indizii, ‘clues’ or circumstantial evidence, was undoubtedly crucial in Foscarini’s trial. Indizii were physical or other signs that permitted an investigating magistrate to make inferences in the absence of direct eyewitness testimony. Most such ‘clues’ fell under the category of what we would now call circumstantial evidence. For example, in a murder case, if the accused fled, or had previously threatened the victim, these were indizii of his guilt, whilst the presence of multiple wounds on a corpse served as evidence of deliberate intent to kill, and was therefore an indizio of premeditation. Theoretical discussion of this matter dwelt at inordinate length on the possibility of poisoning; that is, on circumstances that were by definition difficult to establish by eyewitness testimony.[2]

The biographer Girolamo Priuli, writing a few years after Foscarini’s death, explicitly tells us that Foscarini was suspected – the word used is inditiato, that is, ‘rendered suspect by indizii’ – on the basis of testimony from witnesses who had been corrupted by the wicked man [that is, Gerolamo Vano, although he is not named in Priuli’s account], since matters of State are so important and sensitive, that circumstantial evidence [indizii] has the force of proof [in such cases].[3] This last point was in contrast to normal criminal procedure, in which indizii alone might justify an arrest or investigation, but not a conviction.

Vano’s reports are indeed full of details that could be classed as
indizii of treachery or deceit: attempts at disguise, signs of emotional disturbance, and so on. However, many of these involve the sort of crude emotional signposting that only children and bad actors resort to nowadays: stamping feet, foaming mouths, and so on. To a modern reader, they seem highly implausible. How could the Ten possibly have been taken in? The point is that plausibility depends on local definitions of appropriate behaviour, and these in turn depend on the threshold of embarrassment (the phrase is Norbert Elias') regarding open displays of emotion. Vano lived in a world in which melodrama was part of the texture of everyday experience. Moreover, part of the point of Vano’s reports was that he was showing men with their guard down, when the demands and controls of civility had been relaxed.

This whole issue is further complicated by the fact that some of Vano’s characters actually were bad actors. His informants lived in the space between appearance and reality, whilst their real intentions always had to be subject to plausible denial. This posed an enormous psychological and cultural problem for them, just as it poses a retrospective interpretative problem for us, since people learn how to feel by acting their feelings out and having them validated by the response of others. By contrast, one learns to spy in the same way that one learns to lie.[4]

The difficulty of acting a part was compounded by the fact that, even in private, the word ‘spy’, like the word atheist or traitor, was usually applied to other people. Thus Vano used it exclusively to describe Spanish and Imperial familiars.[5]
Like executioners, spies were necessary instruments of government, but the men so employed were considered infamous by others.[6] As a result, it was difficult to explain one’s actions to oneself by adopting the role of spy. It was of course necessary to admit what one had done in certain circumstances – notably when asking for money from employers – but polite euphemisms were always observed: ‘loyal subject’ and so on.

The issue of infamy brings us to what plausibility meant in court, because evidence offered by infamous people traditionally carried little or no weight. A thief’s testimony always counted less than that of a gentleman. It was morally implausible. The get-out clause for the Council of Ten in using Vano’s testimony was the notion of ‘reason of state’, which justified a temporary suspension of normal moral and/or legal standards for political reasons. In other words, reason of state justified a redefinition of plausibility in light of a redefinition of morality, or in light of secret knowledge of statecraft.

On what basis were distinctions and legal judgements made? Thomas Cohen has argued in a recent article that witnesses in sixteenth-century Italian courts attempted to convince the judges by staking a claim to jeopardy. As he puts it, men with something to lose will flaunt their risks to prove serious intent. [7] He identified three forms of jeopardy invoked by witnesses. These were:

(1) Physical vulnerability: I cannot resist you. Torture me if you do not believe what I say and you will see that my story remains unchanged. Under torture, or faced with the threat of torture, I am incapable of dissimulation.

(2) Empirical proof: I am being so specific that it will be easy to prove whether I am lying by checking the details of my story.

(3) Honour: How dare you take this thief’s word over mine? May I lose my reputation if I am lying.

What then was Vano offering as a ‘stake’ to guarantee the truth of his information, the thing that he would forfeit if he was proved to be a liar? Not honour, obviously. As a spy, he was outside the honour code. He invoked empiricism most explicitly, apparently offering a rich accumulation of detail. However, there was a radical physical vulnerability behind this apparent empiricism. Vano staked himself and threw the dice, over and over again.

[Discussion continues in the next post:]

[1] There were four abstentions (out of seventeen votes) in the resolution on Foscarini’s condemnation, but since no one actually voted for absolution, the abstainers were probably just squeamish about getting noble blood on their hands.

[2] Antonio Barbaro, Pratica Criminale, Venice, 1739, pp. 41-6; Lorenzo Priori, Prattica Criminale, Venice, 1644, pp. 17-18, 123.

[3] Museo Correr, Venice, Codici Cicogna, 3782, G. Priuli, Pretiosi Frutti del Maggior Consiglio, fo. 29v.

[4] In light of all this, it is actually Vano’s restraint when faced with persistent threats to his life from the Spanish that is more difficult to explain. In other words, to reverse the terms of our original question, is it plausible that he should remain so impassive in a culture where stamping feet and foaming mouths were considered normal? There are two possible explanations for this. Firstly, his sang-froid might make more sense if we understand anger as a response triggered more by wounded honour than physical threat. Since Vano’s honour was not engaged, then he never got angry. Nor did he feel the need to justify or explain himself, since he could take the tacit support of his audience (i.e. the Inquisitors of State) for granted. Secondly, and more obviously, his role as narrator gave him a distance from the events he described.

[5] This generalisation is based on the use of the word spia in Italian sources. I cannot say whether it applies to the use of analogous terms in English or French. Venetian sources do sometimes refer to men in their own employ as spies. For example, the expense claims submitted by the Ten’s captain of police, Francesco Ongarin, and extant in Archivio di Stato, Venice, Inquisitori di Stato, busta 953, refer thus to individuals employed on an ad hoc basis for surveillance operations. The fact that no-one referred to Vano as a spy in his reports is actually rather suspicious. The single exception was an anonymous letter dropped off at Vano’s house, included as an insert in Inquisitori di Stato, busta 636, which (significantly) was written by an enemy.

[6] For example, this is how the spy is described in Tomaso Garzoni, La piazza universale, Venice, 1616, p. 306r, although spies were not considered ‘infamous’ in the technical, legal sense that a convicted felon was.

[7] Thomas V. Cohen, ‘Three Forms of Jeopardy: Honor, Pain, and Truth-Telling in a Sixteenth-Century Italian Courtroom’, Sixteenth Century Journal, vol. 29.4 (1998), pp. 976, 987.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Thomas Cromwell and Gerolamo Vano

The following review of Hilary Mantel's Booker Prize-winning novel about Thomas Cromwell, Wolf Hall, is quoted from Abigail Nussbaum's excellent blog, Asking the Wrong Questions (although it begins with a passage that Abigail takes from another review by Dan Hartland). It is a long extract. I have set it in Arial to indicate the extent of the quoted text more precisely, and readers are encouraged to consult Abigail's original review here:

As Dan Hartland points out, Mantel makes a virtue out of Cromwell's lack of conviction:

Those around Cromwell are characterised by an allegiance to a system: More’s Catholicism, Norfolk’s feudalism, Wolsey’s royalism. Cromwell, on the other hand, has an almost Nietzschean approach. “I distrust all systematizers, ” wrote the philosopher, “and I avoid them. The will to a system is a lack of integrity.” Mantel’s Cromwell likewise believes in personal respect and education, a fully humanist perspective which sets him at odds with the medievalised England to which he is born. Mantel sees his meritocratic rise – from smith’s son to soldier, trader to merchant, lawyer to Lord Chancellor – as a symbol of the birth of our modern age.

I would go even further and say that Mantel makes a virtue out of Cromwell's lack of integrity and sense of personal dignity as well (the latter is presumably linked to his humble origins, which leave him, unlike the nobles around him, indifferent to his family's honor). Several times over the course of the novel, Cromwell visits prisoners condemned for their words--the heretic John Frith, condemned by More; the self-proclaimed prophetess Elizabeth Barton, who had threatened Henry with divine retribution for casting off Catherine of Aragon and marrying Anne Boleyn; and finally, More himself. Each time, he counsels the prisoners to lie, recant, and compromise their principles in order to save themselves. "I would advise anyone to get a few more weeks of life, by any means they can," he tells Barton, advising her to 'plead her belly' in order to delay her execution, and the final conflict of the novel, between Cromwell and More, hinges on More's refusal to compromise his immortal soul by swearing an oath acknowledging Henry as the head of the church in England and the legality of his marriage to Anne. What in A Man for All Seasons was treated as the crowning glory of More's saintliness is, in Wolf Hall, described as the epitome of his arrogance and self-regard, with Cromwell, instead of the devil trying to tempt More away from righteousness, portrayed as a humanistic angel trying to save More from himself.

This description of Cromwell as an avatar of modernity, and moreover of a very particular - we might call it Nietzschean - idea of modernity, is reminiscent of my own characterisation of Gerolamo Vano in Pistols! Treason! Murder! as a man who stands not only for aggressive indifference to pious convention, but also for unlimited cynicism, maximum exploitation of a limited talent by ruthless opportunism, an almost ascetic indifference to the suffering of others, and a willingness to exploit the fear and credulity of his employers for his own gain (see here). I do not mean to imply that my book is the equal of Mantel's. Rather, I have 'prefigured' or 'emplotted' the past (or more accurately, the relationship between past and present) in similar ways to Mantel.

The will to a system is a lack of integrity: this criticism applies to historians as well as to the subjects of their enquiries.

Public Space in Modern Venice

Santa Lucia, Venice, 2002, from Senza Posa by A. Chemollo and F. OrsenigoAbove: Alessandra Chemollo and Fulvio Orsenigo, Santa Lucia, 2002

Under the republic, public space was crucial in defining a political identity for Venice. Sixteenth-century guidebooks boasted that the preservation of Piazza San Marco at the city’s heart was in itself a sign of liberty and communal vitality. Today, Venice remains uniquely open. Even if the city’s alleys are cramped and confusing to visitors, the absence of barbed wire fences and ‘Keep Out’ signs is just as notable. Most Venetian thoroughfares are uncomfortably narrow, but they remain footpaths in the sense that they link shared spaces, and in that sense Venice is truly a city for walking (even if it only actually became so in the nineteenth century, when many canals were filled in). It is not, however, a utopia, and in this, as in so many other ways, it is not immune to the more negative aspects of economic development. At the city’s periphery, and on some of the islands in the lagoon – that is, in the areas whose development status is currently under debate – there are gated communities, where barking dogs (the protectors of suburban respectability as well as of privacy) and sullen, self-important security guards shadowed my every move. Here walking was not a pleasure, but a constant source of frustration.

Further development can presumably go either way: towards ever greater privatization of the Venetian experience in luxury hotels and apartments, or a reaffirmation of an expanded sense of community, which can and must include people such as students and new immigrants.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Zoë Sadokierski

Last year I met Zoë Sadokierski to discuss how the illustrations and design of my first book, Pistols! Treason! Murder!, might relate to Zoë's research for her Ph.D. thesis. Zoë is also a freelance book designer. In particular, she has worked on several titles in Allen & Unwin's new graphic novel imprint, notably Nikki Greenberg's adapation of The Great Gatsby. It was through Zoë that I first met Erica Wagner, the publisher at Allen & Unwin who eventally bought my novel Five Wounds, on which Zoe is - of course - the designer.

On her blog, Zoë explains that:

Books that use graphic elements as a literary device are not a new phenomenon: ... In fact, it could be easily argued that historically, books have been more heavily illustrated than they are today. However, these illustrations have generally been decorative embellishments, rather than conscious interruptions, to the written text. By contrast, Zoë is interested in books that use photographs, illustrations, diagrams, experimental typography. .... in a manner intrinsic to the writing; where the visual does something more than simply reflecting the text.

How does the use of graphic elements affect book production? Zoë explains:

There are designers who write, just as there are writers who design and illustrate. Generally, these people are the exception to the rule rather than the norm. I don’t think merging the two disciplines is a realistic future. I think it’s collaboration. To explore this narrative style in a way that won’t render it a passing trend, writers and book composers (to borrow El Lissitzky’s term) need to reconsider their relationships.

If it’s appropriate for a novel to include graphic elements for narrative, rather than decorative purposes, the writer and the book composer must consider the book’s graphic elements from the initial stages of the process, rather than cake decorating a manuscript once it has cooled. In the tradition of literary pairings from Roald Dahl and Quentin Blake to Hunter S. Thompson and Ralph Steadman, I think writers and book composers need to develop closer working relationships; they need to understand the way each other work and think. It’s something that graphic novel writers and illustrators do well.

Parenthetically, it is deeply dispiriting that the area of publishing where a total absence of 'closer working relationships' is most glaringly apparent is that of mainstream photography books, where the authors of forewords and introductions often make no reference whatsoever to the images contained within, or, if they do so, discuss them in a manner so crude and reductive that one wishes they had kept silent (some negative examples are discussed here). This is a problem with the incompetent incorporation of text into a predominatly visual presentation rather than the other way around; but the consequences of this failure to conceptualise (that is: to design) the entire book as an integrated whole are even more catastrophic.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Five Wounds at Alien Onion

Thanks to Alien Onion for this generous write-up, and to Spike, the blog of the literary journal Meanjin, for reposting the same.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Shot By Both Sides

From the Pistols! Treason! Murder! soundtrack:


Tuesday, September 8, 2009

The Hanged Man: The Life, Death and Afterlife of Antonio Foscarini

I am one of the speakers in a symposium on 'Scandals, Crime and Corruption', which takes place at the State Library in Sydney tomorrow, 9 September 2009, 9.30-5.00, as part of NSW History Week. Admission is free. Speakers include my colleagues from the University of Sydney, Penny Russell and Kirsten McKenzie, among many others. My talk is about Antonio Foscarini, who appears as the victim in Pistols! Treason! Murder!, and who is also the subject of my next collaboration with Dan Hallett. The following is from the press release for the event (my apologies for the surfeit of rhetorical questions):

Dr Jonathan Walker is Senior Research Fellow in the Department of History at the University of Sydney. He is the author of a biography, Pistols! Treason! Murder!: The Rise and Fall of a Master Spy (MUP, 2007) and an illustrated novel, Five Wounds (Allen & Unwin, forthcoming, 2010). His website is www.jonathanwalkervenice.com.

Antonio Foscarini was executed for treason in Venice in 1622. A year later he was exonerated posthumously. The original sentence was scandalous enough; its subsequent reversal even more so. Everyone had an opinion on the matter; all of them were self-confessedly ill-informed. Several years earlier, Foscarini had been Venetian ambassador to the court of James I in London, in which capacity he was also no stranger to scandal. At the end of his embassy, he had been prosecuted for bringing the Venetian state into disrepute. The list of accusations from the first trial ran into the hundreds. Was he embroiled in a poisonous feud with his own secretary? Did he pester a group of English noblewomen with a glass dildo? Did he fart ostentatiously during mass? Or was he actually guilty of nothing more than tactlessness? The truth of the matter is obscure, even occult, buried deliberately by the investigating magistrates, who wished to hide their own uncertainties and errors. Perhaps we might try to interpret this occult story using an occult device? This talk will therefore retell the story of Foscarini's fall from grace and eventual rehabilitation using a series of images from seventeenth-century Tarot cards.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Pistols! Treason! Murder!: Punk History

Iain McCalman described Pistols! Treason! Murder! as 'punk history'. I suspect he was simply free-associating (Pistols! = Sex Pistols = punk), but in the spirit of 1977 (or 1976 for purists), I decided to pre-empt the inevitable question - what exactly is punk history? - by inventing a post-facto manifesto for this non-existent movement. The manifesto has four points.

1. We mean it man. Total cynicism towards the conventional pieties of historical writing combined with passionate commitment to a particular subject.

2. Boredom. Get it over with as fast as you can: maximum speed, maximum aggression. Why use eight thousand words when eight hundred will do, or eighty? If anything gets in the way of the forward momentum of the story, including contextual information, feel free to ignore it. Cut until it bleeds.

(Alternatively, lavish attention on details that other writers would dismiss as irrelevant. This inversion of the rule is equally important. Why use eighty words when you can use eight hundred, or eight thousand?)

3. Do it yourself. Why should you be limited by someone else’s lack of imagination? You don’t have an unlimited budget. So what? Script the illustrations yourself. Supervise their production. Provide a design brief. Tell the typesetter what you want. Don’t try and do other people’s job for them – they’re better at it than you are – but be involved. Have an opinion. Be prepared to justify it.

4. No future. Write as if your career is already over. You have nothing left to lose, so it doesn’t matter who you offend.

Gerolamo Vano is the ideal subject for such a history. Vano stands not only for aggressive indifference to pious convention, but also for unlimited cynicism, maximum exploitation of a limited talent by ruthless opportunism, an almost ascetic indifference to the suffering of others, and a willingness to exploit the fear and credulity of his employers for his own gain. Unique among his contemporaries, Vano understood the uselessness of all sectarian rhetoric in the brave new world of espionage. He confined all references to such trivial distractions to the one place where they might serve some purpose: requests for money. Only when pleading for more ducats did Vano adopt the guise of a patriot. For Vano, the only thing that mattered was keeping the audience’s attention, by any means necessary.

I admire him tremendously. I hope to emulate his success.


N.B. Some of these points were discussed in an interview with Phillip Adams on Radio National's Late Night Live. The audio file of this interview is available in the Press section of my site (under 15 February 2007).

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Pistols! Treason! Murder!: Existentialist Gangsters

The protagonists of The Revenger's Tragedy and The Massacre at Paris are obvious fictional models for their close contemporary, Gerolamo Vano. A more anachronistic prototype is the twentieth-century existentialist gangster, hero of films like Jules Dassin’s Rififi (1954), Jean-Paul Melville's The Red Circle (1970), and more recently Michael Mann’s Heat (1995).[1] These films depict a world in which women are deeply threatening to male moral autonomy, and relationships between men are the only real source of value and meaning. Moreover, that meaning resides in restraint and control, in what you refuse to say or reveal, but instead communicate indirectly through the subtext of a gesture or phrase. It is no accident that each of the three films I just mentioned has at its core a long, virtually silent sequence depicting highly concentrated, co-ordinated (and criminal) actions carried out by groups of men. Conspiracy is their version of intimacy.

According to Jerry Palmer, the thriller lionises

a personality that is isolated and competitive and who wins because he is better adapted to the world than anyone else. This superiority is incarnated in acts that are deliberately and explicitly deviant, and yet justified. The individuality, the personal worth of the hero is presented as inseparable from the performance of actions that in any other circumstances would be reprehensible.[2]

Palmer is writing from a Marxist perspective, perhaps with films like Don Siegel’s Dirty Harry (1971) in mind. The heist movies referred to above work differently. Although they too assume a conflict between individual and society, they, like Vano and game theorists, are deeply fatalistic. The individual always loses. The protagonist’s idiosyncratic morality is pointless and ultimately self-destructive, or even self-sacrificial.

There are very obvious ways in which Vano is not an ‘existential gangster’. He is certainly deadpan, but hardly reticent, and his reports entirely lack the focus and momentum of a modern thriller. It is not an accident that we know little of his inner life, and Vano's silence on such matters does not constitute a refusal - or rather a renunciation, and therefore a choice - in the way that the studied blankness of Alain Delon in The Red Circle does.

To use such an anachronistic frame of reference is therefore a calculated risk. It balances possibilities for greater insight against possibilities for misunderstanding. It both stimulates the imagination and offers false solutions. But, if used deliberately and self-consciously, it does not suppress difference. Rather, it invites comparison.


[1] Robert Warshow, ‘The Gangster as Tragic Hero’, 1948, sets out some of the genre rules and assumptions.
[2] Quoted in Tony Barley, Taking Sides: the fiction of John le Carré, 1986, p. 7.

Pistols! Treason! Murder!: Rationality

The modern, secular notion of rationality assumes that decisions are taken by autonomous individuals on the basis of calculation of interest, and ‘interest’ is usually interpreted in reductive, materialist terms. A person’s goal will always be to maximise profit, while success is only possible at the expense of competitors. If you win, this means somebody else has to lose. This zero-sum version of rationality lies behind game theory. It describes a world based on the idea of free choices, but it is also deeply fatalistic. As a player, you make a choice to see the world in a certain way – that is, to accept a given set of rules – and this creates the conditions that lead to your downfall. It is the Prisoner’s Dilemma writ large.[1] Once you have divided the world into winners and losers, you know that eventually, no matter how many times you win, one day you are going to lose.

Is this how Gerolamo Vano thought? It is true that many people in seventeenth-century Venice did not make choices on this basis. Even when they tried to ‘maximise profit’, they did so in ways that did not fit the modern notion of rationality at all. For example, many Venetians prayed to the saints and used magic to achieve their goals. (It is worth pointing out here that any notion of rationality is based on specific assumptions about causation. For example, prayer is rational if you believe that God controls the universe and may intervene in it. Whether or not this prior belief is also rational is, of course, a separate question.)

My defence to the charge of anachronism on this point is that I am following Vano’s lead. It is Vano who eliminates religion. It is Vano who reduces people to isolated individuals, rendered vulnerable by their failure to understand the real, hidden motivations of others. It is Vano who suppresses any hint of a moral critique or a broader political theory.

[1] The ‘Prisoner’s Dilemma’ describes a situation typical in game theory, of which there are numerous variants. In its classic form, two prisoners involved in the same crime are awaiting trial. They are isolated and unable to communicate with each other. There is not enough evidence to convict either of them without a confession. If neither man co-operates, both will be released. If one man co-operates, then he will be pardoned in exchange for the conviction of the other. If both men co-operate, then both will be convicted, but they will receive reduced sentences. Hence the Prisoner’s Dilemma is: Should he co-operate? His calculation of the risks involved in not doing so depends on how much he trusts his associate.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Honky's Ladder

From the Pistols! Treason! Murder! soundtrack:


Friday, July 31, 2009

2 + 2 = 5

From the Pistols! Treason! Murder! soundtrack.


Thursday, July 30, 2009

I Am A Pilgrim

Lynsey and Friends, Glasgow, 2004

My short sequence of photographs, I Am A Pilgrim, has just been published in the online magazine 1:1.

Pilgrim was a project I started as an adjunct to Let Us Burn the Gondolas. Pilgrim consists of a series of 35mm colour slides, whereas Gondolas is primarily in monochrome; Pilgrim depicts friends and family, whereas Gondolas depicts strangers; and Pilgrim was confined to a short period of time, but an open-ended series of locations, whereas Gondolas is open-ended chronologically, but depicts a single location: i.e. Venice. In presenting Pilgrim, I included the original mounts together with the actual images to emphasise the fact that slides - as the product of a very particular, but now obsolete technology - have specific formal properties.

The principal subject of the photo above, Lynsey Wells (she's on the right), has a Franz Ferdinand song dedicated to her, which I mention because my photo was taken at The Chateau in Glasgow during a Franz Ferdinand concert.

(That isn't actually Lynsey in the video, although it's quite a good impression by the actress.)

Thanks to Guillermo Labarca for his invitation to submit to 1:1 magazine.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Pistols! Treason! Murder!: The First Chapter

Pistols! Treason! Murder! begins as follows [you can read the entire first chapter, from which this passage is taken, for free, here]:

Gerolamo Vano died in mid-air, on a gallows, between the columns at the entrance to Piazza San Marco in Venice, the site of public executions under the Venetian republic. .... The place where Vano died is now an empty piece of sky, but if you stand between the columns and reach up—as high as you can—your fingertips might brush the spot where his kicking feet once passed, marking out an irregular spiral. Its limits were set by the arc of the rope from which he dangled, and its central, zero point was reached only when his body stopped moving.
What glory is there in a common good,
That hangs for every peasant to achieve?
That like I best that flies beyond my reach.

The final three lines are a quotation from Christopher Marlowe’s play The Massacre at Paris, which was published in an unauthorised, pirated copy in 1593, the year of Marlowe’s murder. Throughout Pistols! Treason! Murder!, many similar fragments of literary dialogue are intercut with the narration (as above), or with quotations from Vano’s surveillance reports.[1] Marlowe, Shakespeare and their contemporaries were also, of course, contemporaries of Gerolamo Vano, which might be reason enough to juxtapose their words, even if there were not striking similarities in tone and theme between the two kinds of source, as yesterday’s discussion of The Revenger’s Tragedy suggests. But I chose this particular quotation because it alludes to Tantalus, who was condemned by the gods to reach towards a goal that will always remain outside his grasp. It may also bring to mind the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in the garden of Eden, whose fruit is attainable, but only at great cost. [2]

Juxtaposing this layered image with that of Vano’s corpse on the gallows is not entirely original: the same idea underlies the famous protest song, Strange Fruit. But is it Vano speaking here, overreaching himself fatally in his quest for power? Or are these words spoken by the narrator (also, perhaps, overreaching himself), to whom Vano is the elusive object of historical knowledge? The dual attribution – the words ‘belong’ both to Vano and to the narrator – also suggests a possible comparison between Vano’s relationship to early seventeenth-century political culture and my own relationship to early twenty-first century academic culture. Vano is not only my subject: he is my hero, my exemplar – and my warning.

It is also fitting that the first interpolated piece of dialogue in Pistols! Treason! Murder! (not counting the book’s title, which comes from The Revenger’s Tragedy, as I explained yesterday) is a quotation, not only from a play by Christopher Marlowe – who is compared directly with Vano in chapter 2 – but also from a play that only survives in a pirated copy, probably transcribed from scribbled notes taken by a member of the audience during a performance. As with the doubtful authorship of The Revenger’s Tragedy, the play text of The Massacre at Paris itself embodies the kind of garbled transmission and epistemological confusion that also characterise Vano’s surveillance reports. Indeed, the lines quoted here are virtually the only surviving fragment that rises above the level of clumsy doggerel.

One might reasonably ask whether it is realistic to expect the average reader to be aware of these multiple allusions, but this is the wrong question. It is a principle of good writing - and not only writing: design and illustration also - that it communicates its point directly and emphatically to the casual reader, but that it also rewards sustained attention with additional layers of meaning. In choosing quotations to intercut with my narrative, the rule was that they had to be explicable to anyone who knew nothing of their source, but that they also had to offer additional nuances to anyone who cared to check their original context (which is always referenced in the notes at the back of the book).

Thanks to Dan Hallett, who created the illustration above especially for this post.

[1] See the Design section of my website.
[2] The latter allusion is taken up more explicitly on the menu screen of the Pistols! section of my website.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Pistols! Treason! Murder!: The Title

To celebrate the publication of the American edition of Pistols! Treason! Murder!: The Rise and Fall of a Master Spy by The Johns Hopkins University Press, I shall discuss various aspects of the book here over the next few weeks and months.

The title Pistols! Treason! Murder! is a quotation from The Revenger’s Tragedy, a Jacobean potboiler variously attributed to either Thomas Middleton or Cyril Torneur. I first read this play in 1987, in school, in Liverpool, as a set text for my A-level in Eng Lit. In 2002, when I was writing the early drafts of my book and looking for possible literary models, I discovered Alex Cox's ‘cyberpunk’ film version, starring Christopher Eccleston (pre-Doctor Who), which was set – obviously! – in a post-apocalyptic Liverpool. Of course contemporary Liverpool actually is post-apocalyptic, more or less, so for anyone who’s lived there the film's setting isn’t that much of a stretch.[1]

[Left: Christopher Eccleston as Vindice] Unfortunately, Frank Cottrell Boyce's film script alters the mock-hysterical, climactic line, ‘Pistols! treason! murder!: Help, guard my lord The duke!’, which, in the play, is uttered by the protagonist, Vindice, the titular ‘revenger’. Vindice is, directly or indirectly, responsible for the mountain of corpses littered all over the stage at the play's end, including that of the soon-to-expire duke in question (only recently elevated to the position by virtue of the murder of his father). The line might be described as ironic, except for the fact that ‘irony’ doesn’t really do justice to the Machiavellian perversity of the speaker’s intent.

Unlike Cox, I thought this exclamation – with its bug-eyed punctuation and its spiteful, gleeful subversion of the conventional pieties of both morality and generic convention – summed up the play perfectly, and was therefore the ideal motto for my book, whose protagonist has much in common with Vindice. The line is all the more appropriate in that that it comes from a play of doubtful attribution, a problem that also characterises much of the content of the surveillance reports written by my Vindice substitute: Gerolamo Vano, Venetian General of Spies.

It all looks rather cheap and nasty - but that's precisely the point. As Brecht would say, 'Crude thinking is the thinking of great men'.

[1] See here for Alex Cox’s thoughts on the play and film, and here for a review / discussion of the latter.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Giorgio Lotti, interior of the Misericordia with frescoes by Veronese, c. 1968-70

Giorgio Lotti, interior of the Misericordia, c. 1968-70

This image is from a polemical work by Giorgio Lotti entitled Venice is Dying, which was published in 1970, shortly after the record flood in 1966 had raised awareness of Venice's vulnerability. Lotti’s denunciatory rhetoric is emphasised by high-contrast, high-grain printing. I have chosen to reproduce this particular image because its subject is consistent with my own interests, but, in the context of Lotti’s book, it is atypical, since he rarely depicts fully defined spaces, whether interior or exterior. Instead, he isolates – one might say that he fetishizes – details of decaying statues and facades. There is no sense of a coherent urban space, because Lotti’s intent is to stress fragmentation and disintegration. The only photographs in which people appear - and also the only photographs in which the idea of community is invoked - are the final ones in the book, in which protestors are gathered together in a neutral space that can be depicted as detached from the urban fabric: that is, on the Grand Canal. I do not share Lotti’s pessimism, but more importantly, I do not agree with the basis of his critique. This image begs a number of questions, to which Lotti does not provide an answer. For example, where should Venetians install basketball courts, if not here? How should they inhabit their city, and make responsible use of it?

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Photographic Views of the Forts of Venice, 1866

Austrian Fort 2

Austrian Fort 1

There ‘is now no ‘lonely isle’ in all the lagoons of Venice. Wherever you go, where once there were quiet little gardens among ruins of island churches, there is now a Sentinel and a powder magazine, and there is no piece of unbroken character to be found anywhere. There is not a single shore, far or near, which has not in some part of it the look of fortification, or violent dismantling or renewing, for military purposes of some kind or another. - John Ruskin writing to his father, 16 November 1851[1]

During the Austrian occupation of Venice, fortifications were built on many of the outlying islands of the lagoon. The two photographs above are from an album of prints created just before the Austrians withdrew in 1866 in preparation for the city’s annexation to the newly-created Kingdom of Italy. The album’s provenance is uncertain, but it was obviously made with the army’s co-operation, and may have been an official commission. With the troops about to depart, someone wanted evidence of their dispositions for posterity.[2]

The resulting images are quite unique in the Venetian context, although they bear a strong family resemblance to photographs taken by the employees of Matthew Brady’s studio during the American Civil War, or to photographs by Gustave le Gray of Napoleon III’s troops on manoeuvres in France in 1857. One difference from the work of Brady and le Gray is that none of the Venetian images commemorate individuals: they are all long shots in which the bodies of indistinguishable soldiers are distributed at regular intervals as a way of articulating the architecture of fortifications, or, in the background of the first example above, the space of an otherwise featureless impromptu parade ground. Indeed, the absence of individuation is precisely the point. These images are records of Austrian military power: apparently authoritative, but about to be rendered irrelevant by the fact of Italian unification.

Fifty years after these photographs were taken, the Lido was full of holidaymakers in bathing suits. One hundred years after that, there is now an association for preserving the remains of the forts as an aspect of Venetian heritage.

[1] Quoted in Sarah Quill, Ruskin’s Venice, 2003, p. 36.

[2] The album consists of 14 individual prints glued into a bound volume, which was until recently held in the collection of the Querini Stampaglia library in Venice. Several of its prints were reproduced in Immagini di Venezia e della Laguna nelle fotografie degli Archivi Alinari e della Fondazione Querini Stampaglia, exhibition catalogue, 1979 (a brief description of the album can be found on p. 94). In 2005, the album could not be located by the staff of the Querini Stampaglia when I tried to find it, so it is possible that the 1979 catalogue contains the only surviving evidence of its existence, just as the album itself contained the only surviving photographic evidence of the forts.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Surviving Industrial Buildings in Venice, 1980

Surviving Industrial Buildings, Venice, 1980

The map indicates the distribution of industrial buildings in 1980, although many of them had already been converted to other uses (or abandoned). The large concentration in the West is the Arsenal (and the Bacini). The concentration in the Southeast is on the reclaimed land in and around the modern Port. At the bottom of the map, the concentration on the East side of the Giudecca is the Stucky mill, recently redeveloped as a luxury hotel. The general pattern is obvious: industrial buildings occupy the city's periphery, and are almost entirely absent from the historical centre.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

David Goldblatt, No. 4 Shaft, President Steyn Gold Mine, 1969

David Goldblatt, No. 4 Shaft, President Steyn Goldmine, 1969

In the late 1960s, David Goldblatt took a series of photographs underground in the gold mines of South Africa. The justification for these badly degraded pictures had nothing to do with self-expression. On the contrary. For Goldblatt, the subject was so important as to both render the technical limitations of the pictures trivial by comparison, and to demand an absolute surrender of self. Goldblatt’s struggle with his equipment, which constantly broke down and jammed underground, paid homage to the miners’ struggle with their environment. Although visible blur and grain clearly draw attention to the photograph as an artefact, they are here paradoxically taken as proof that the reality of the mines is so powerful as to overwhelm the camera’s ability to contain it.

A similar tolerance of degradation can be observed in pictures of unique, newsworthy events, such as the famous photograph of Robert Kennedy bleeding to death. In pictures like this, the event violently breaks into the continuity of everyday life, and the degradation of the image mimics that violence. Goldblatt appropriated this rhetoric by treating the everyday realities and routines of work as if they were just as dramatic, heroic and uniquely unrepeatable as the fate of world leaders.

What interests me about Goldblatt's mine photographs is the notion of stepping right up to the edge of incoherence, but without ever stepping over it.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Gaetano Zompini, The Lantern Bearer, 1753

Gaetano Zompini, The Lantern Bearer, 1753

Gaetano Zompini, ‘The Lantern Bearer’, from Le Arti che vanno per via nella Città di Venezia, 1753

At night, I move backwards and forwards from the theatres to the casino,
I am the man who lights your way with a lantern,
I’ll go anywhere [you want], as long as you pay me.

There is a long established tradition of genre painting in European art, in which poor people and tradesmen are presented in allegedly naturalistic surroundings for a respectable, middle class audience. In the nineteenth century, Venetian studio photographers like Carlo Naya picked up on this tradition, and supplemented their architectural views with posed images of Venetian urchins, fishermen, beggars, and lacemakers.

Zompini’s work is an unusually forceful and vivid example of genre illustration, whose first edition, published in 1753-4, was a commercial failure. His engravings, which depict tradesmen in the streets of Venice, were only rescued from obscurity by the local British consul, who sponsored a second edition.[1]

Many of Zompini’s subjects work in what we would now call service industries (as sellers of trinkets, snacks, drinks, and so on), catering to the needs of their social superiors. In this capacity, Zompini’s lantern bearer, like modern waiters, bellhops and shop assistants, is not only required to perform a specific task, but to be deferential, pleasant and cheerful as he does so. Nonetheless, his words strike a faintly sardonic, or even threatening, note. ‘I’ll go anywhere [you want], as long as you pay me’, he says, with the emphasis seemingly on the latter clause.

In modern Venice, the volume of visitors places unique strains on this kind of interaction, which are symbolised by a dramatic reversal of the terms of Zompini’s illustration. Today, waiters wearing tuxedos and bow ties move among customers dressed in singlets, shorts and sandals. Prices may vary significantly in cafes depending on whether the staff recognize you, and it is not uncommon for Venetians to deride oblivious foreigners in dialect.

[1] The Glory of Venice: Art in the Eighteenth Century, eds J. Martineau and A. Robison, exhibition catalogue, 1994, p. 287.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Fulvio Roiter, Part 2

Fulvio Roiter, Carnival

[Continued from the previous post:]

With few exceptions, Roiter’s Carnival books concentrate on isolated human subjects or small groups of subjects, mostly young adults, who almost invariably wear a costume or a mask. The few attempts to render crowds are impressionistic and show them as homogenous masses of indistinguishable individuals. To put it another way, there are no images in the spirit of my own 37 Tourists (no. 10 in the main sequence), which is intended as an encyclopaedia of possible reactions to the presence of a camera. There is no literal overlap of images, but thematically the Carnival books are monotonous. Every new photograph asserts the same thing, over and over again. There is no evolution or inflection.[7]

It would be foolish to object to Carnival images on the basis that they are posed, since posing is the whole point. What matters is the quality of the direction and the acting, the complexity of the role assumed, and the intensity of the connection between photographer and subject. Roiter’s technical prowess has never been in doubt, but in these works his script and direction are simplistic. The drama rarely amounts to more than empty affirmation (‘Look at me!’) and Roiter does not actively engage his subjects.[8] To be more precise, he never challenges the adequacy or credibility of their performance. Nor do they challenge him. In Roiter’s Carnival, no-one is ugly, tired, drunk, miserable, hostile, uncooperative or even indifferent. Worse, Roiter is not interested in the backstage aspects of the experience; that is, in how the illusion is created and sustained.[9] The extent of the lost opportunity is suggested by the few images of children, which stand out precisely because the subjects have not yet learnt how they are supposed to respond to a camera.[10] Some of the shots of professional theatrical performances are also impressive, but for the opposite reason: that is, they show people capable of fully immersing themselves in their roles.

Everyone has to make a living, and Roiter’s Carnival books probably tell us more about the relationship between the publishing and tourism industries than they do about his individual photographic vision. I remain hopeful that an intelligently-edited retrospective will reveal an artist who understands both the nature of his own talent and the history of the city he loves.[11]

[7] Ivo Prandin, author of the introduction to Venice Masked, urges us not to seek the real Masks in the tumultuous carnival crowd in St. Mark’s square: you may not find them in the multitude. Instead, we should look in remote calli, silent and shady banks, little bridges under which a gondola slowly slides away, like human life wandering in the city maize [sic] (p. 8). The problem with this argument is that thirty-five of the forty-six images in Venice Masked are identifiably located in and around Piazza San Marco. Similarly, in Carnevale a Venezia: tra maschera e ragione, if we exclude the sixteen plates of theatrical performances, twenty-seven of the remaining thirty-seven images appear to have been taken in San Marco or its immediate environs. Of the other ten, six are obviously staged compositions, which were probably set in quieter areas because it would have been impossible to keep the background clear elsewhere. Another two (not by Roiter) are banal shots of boats, taken from a distance on telephoto lenses.

[8] His reliance on telephoto lenses is telling, since they allow him to photograph at a safe distance from his subjects. Since Roiter helpfully supplies technical information on each shot, it is possible to calculate the proportion of images taken on such a lens in the four books on Carnival. Taking the books in chronological order, this figure is 70%, 80%, 50% and 66% respectively. (For the purposes of this calculation, I count a 50mm lens as a moderate telephoto, but many shots were taken on significantly longer lenses.)

[9] There are only two images that show ‘technical support staff’: a theatre wardrobe assistant in plate 32 of Carnevale a Venezia: tra maschera e ragione, and a maskseller in plate 27 of Carneval. In addition, there are a couple of images showing subjects applying make-up, but in both cases they are adding final touches and are thus already fully ‘in character’.

[10] For example, the child distracted by a firework in plate 47 of Carnevale a Venezia: tra maschera e ragione, which Roiter’s afterword correctly identifies as a crucial image.

[11] I have not had the opportunity to see the exhibition ‘Fulvio Roiter, Fotografie 1948-1978’, which toured Northern Italy c. 2003, but among the non-Venetian published work I would certainly recommend Ombrie: Terre de Saint François, which deservedly won the Prix Nadar, and remains one of the highpoints of Roiter’s career. In this book, texts written by or about Francis of Assisi are juxtaposed with images of rural Umbria in the 1950s. The insistence on ‘timelessness’ is no less aggressive than in the books on Carnival, but it is deployed to much better effect than in Venice, partly because (as in Roiter’s work on Spain in the 1950s) the relationship between text and image is more interesting.

Fulvio Roiter, Part 1

Fulvio Roiter, Carnival

One man almost single-handedly defined the photographic image of Venice in the late twentieth century: Fulvio Roiter. His output during a long career has been prolific and varied, but he has repeatedly returned to Venice, on which he has published an astonishing fourteen books (up to 2002).[1] Over the years, his approach has remained consistently simple and direct. He uses 35mm cameras and works without flash or other non-ambient lighting. From his third book on Venice onwards, he has worked exclusively in colour, using slide film to increase contrast and saturation. Since these films are ‘slow’ and therefore difficult to use in low light, and Roiter usually shoots hand-held, most of his shots have shallow depth-of-field (that is, a narrow area in focus), an effect that Roiter skilfully uses to isolate subjects from the background or to create unexpected emphases.

Roiter is strongly influenced by the humanist photojournalism of the 1950s, the period in which his career began. From his first book about Venice through to his latest, cats are content, children are playful, and tourists are for the most part respectful, appreciative and enthusiastic.[2] In a recent interview, he underlined his continuing hostility towards ‘critical’ photography, referring specifically to Oliviero Toscani, who was commissioned in 1999 to draw attention to the problems created in Venice by mass tourism.

‘[Y]ou do not see Venice in his advertising campaign. There are two dogs mating, sewer rats ... New York too has dogs mating and sewer rats ... They say it’s “a way of drawing attention to problems” … “Problems” is a word for intellectuals that is fashionable nowadays. I don't photograph them’.[3]

Roiter has produced no less than four publications on Carnival, which do not do justice to his talent, but since they are exemplary of the themes under discussion here, I have chosen them as case studies. Their weaknesses illustrate a consistent problem in Roiter’s books, which often contain introductions and / or commentary written by others. The text may refer to the image content in the sense of identifying particular buildings featured in the photographs, but it frequently ignores Roiter’s visual emphases: i.e. the text draws attention to features that Roiter has placed out of focus. In the later books, the introductory texts do not refer to Roiter at all.[4] Instead, the writers present cursory reviews of Venetian history and / or the history of Carnival, with scattered quotations, purple prose and incompetent translations in French, English and / or German.[5] Certainly none of the writers make any attempt to review the history of photographic representations of the city, or to place Roiter in it,[6] although a few make casual references to famous painters. The nadir is reached in Magic Venice in Carnival from 1987, in which the text is by Carlo della Corte and a translator who wisely chooses to remain anonymous.

Inside the Whirlpool of the Carnival of Venice rather than tiring oneself one is brought to life, if only artificially, by the thousands of visitors.

These visitors, perhaps in a confused way, continue to imagine the carnival as handed down to us by Gentile Bellini with his processional train ablaze with colours, or through Carpaccio’s image of gondolas coloured like dodgem cars. The world-wide success of Venice was due to this incredible coup d’oeil, this sea of colours arriving in St Mark’s Square like a whirlwind and then spreading everywhere, impregnating water and walls.

This city was, perhaps, the most colourful in the world, and the whole world wanted it this way, rushing there, forever prolonging the moment when, like a demiurge, the carnival filled it with the most dazzling of colours.

History is invoked, but in an indiscriminate and perfunctory manner, and only insofar as it underwrites the writer’s overinsistent evocation of a ‘whirlwind’ of colour. A diligent reader might note that anyone whose image of Carnival derives from the work of Bellini and Carpaccio would indeed be ‘confused’, since the paintings referred to depict religious processions – the polar opposite of the Carnival experience. Clearly such niceties are both beyond the grasp of the author and besides the point here.

[Discussion continues in the next post:]

[1] Venise à fleur d’eau (1954); Venezia Viva (Venice is Alive, 1973); Essere Venezia (Living Venice, 1977); La Laguna (The Lagoon, 1978); L’Oriente di Venezia (The Venetian Orient, 1980); Carnevale a Venezia: tra maschera e ragione (Carnival in Venice: between the mask and reason, 1981); Carnevale (1985); Magic Venice in Carnival (1987); La Mia Venezia (My Venice, 1994); Venezia in Maschera (Venice Masked, 1995); Il Palazzo Ducale (The Ducal Palace, 1997); Venezia 1891-2001 (2000); Il Lido (with Lou Embo, 2001); and most recently Burano: Isola del merletto e del colore (Burano: Island of Lace and Colour, 2002). There may be other publications – I doubt that Roiter himself could recite them all from memory.

[2] With the partial exception of the second book, Venezia Viva, which may have been intended by the publisher and editorial team as a riposte to Giorgio Lotti’s Venezia Muore [Venice is Dying, 1970]. Venezia Viva has extensive commentary, and the images touch upon themes of pollution, conservation and restoration, but the best are informal portraits of gondoliers, labourers and children playing.

[3] Roiter is quoted on an Italian website at www.cesil.com/1299/solit10.htm. See also the quotation from Jean-Michel Folon used on the dust jacket of Living Venice: He has not taken pictures of TV antennae or of automobile wreckage; he has not taken pictures of war. The 20th century does not exist for Fulvio. He moves across the world and doesn’t see its folly. From Umbria to Brazil he goes on his way in search of a lost secret, in search of a light, in search of a warm human touch, in search of an eye in whose glance one may read – innocence newly found. Roiter’s attitude is also revealed in his comments on technique, which recall the programmatic statements of Henri Cartier-Bresson – for example, To photograph a wonderful masker from up close … is not difficult; on the contrary, it is all too easy. The difficult thing, in fact the true task … [is to obtain in fleeting circumstances] images of immediate and rigorous visual force. …. The eyes and the camera are [held] in a state of constant readiness (from the unpaginated afterword to Carnevale a Venezia: tra maschera e ragione). Unfortunately, many of Roiter’s later Venetian images fail his own criterion of judgement.

[4] Venezia 1891-2001 is an exception to this rule among the other titles. It contains an illuminating introduction by Italo Zannier, who is an expert on the history of photography in Venice (and whose various publications were crucial aids to my own research). Venezia Viva and Carnevale a Venezia: tra maschera e ragione also contain brief, general descriptions of collaboration between Roiter and the writer(s). Also, Roiter’s two most successful books Essere Venezia and La Mia Venezia are at least graced with texts by competent writers.

[5] Roiter often contributes a brief preface or afterword to his books, and / or provides a table of technical information, which lists lenses, exposures and films used for each shot, along with locations (although not dates - significantly).

[6] Again, with the notable exception of Italo Zanier and Venezia 1891-2001.