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Killing the Moonlight: Modernism in Venice

0 Comments 🕔10.Mar 2016

Part of the Modernist Latitudes Series, edited by Jessica Berman and Paul Saint-Amour, which seeks to expand the geographical reach of modernist studies and shed light on less canonical and understudied texts and contexts, Killing the Moonlight: Modernism in Venice establishes the significance of Venice as a city of literary, artistic, and architectural vitality rather than one of overly romanticized nostalgia or poetic decay. While studies on the city and modernism are abundant, Venice, as Jennifer Scappettone shows in her ambitious and rigorously researched study, has not been treated with the same kind of scholarly attention as cities like London, Paris, or New York City. This oversight, she argues, is in part because Venice has a long tradition of being represented as an escape from everyday urban life, an “elsewhere”[1] that offers respite and cultural enrichment for the tourist. However, that very otherness is inextricably tied to the central histories of modernity generated by those European and Anglo-American tourists setting Venice apart from more “primitive” locales.[2]

Scappettone takes her title from F.T. Marinetti and the Futurist’s 1910 leaflet entitled “Contro Venezia passatista” (Against Passéist Venice), which called to “kill the moonlight” of Romanticism and Symbolism that kept Venice in a perpetual state of pandering to the desires of tourists whose ideals had been shaped by what the Futurists saw as inaccurate and misleading artistic and literary representation, preventing Venice from becoming a modern and progressive city. The Futurists, led by Marinetti, demanded that Venetians actively destroy their city and its history, let the canals turn into sewers running full of the crumbling edifices so long protected and preserved, and replace the moonlit environs with electricity, industry, and rational urbanization. In taking on the metaphor of killing the moonlight as the book’s title, Scappettone makes her own call for re-directing the way we think about Venice. Metaphorically, it is not a city in stasis, temporally suspended in a preserved twilight, but rather, it might be considered as productively liminal in its geography; its archipelago situated within a lagoon keeps it open to influence from all sides. “By juxtaposing responses to the city’s touchstones from a kaleidoscopic sequence of perspectives,” Scappettone writes, she invites readers “into a Venetian mode of revelatory disorientation.”[3] In spite of her successful aim to disorient, the book does manage to keep the reader’s attention on the concept of liminality and flotation throughout its introduction, five long chapters, and coda by moving across, intertextually linking, and creating unexpected networks of the massive archive of primary text material with which it engages.

By tracing the fraught relationship between the city’s multitudinous representations from its genesis to the present and the concept of modernity, Scappettone reveals a Venice that struggles with the same problems and planning needs of many other metropolitan centers. Her introduction charts out many of the conflicts the city of Venice as a real, lived city has with its manifestation as iconic, mythic, anachronistic, and spectral stuff of poetry and tourist kitsch alike. The first four chapters each anchor themselves with canonical authors, John Ruskin, Henry James, F.T. Marinetti and Gabriele D’Annunzio, and Ezra Pound, respectively. Each of these four chapters combines close readings of primary works in relation to Venice and offers a rich tapestry of contextual grounding by inserting the work of secondary artists, writers, thinkers, and historical phenomena. As much of the project’s objective is to recast Venice as a living urban center with a long relationship to modernity and, thus modernist studies, this emphasis on including a great number of primary texts is useful and necessary as it opens up space for more scholarship. The fifth chapter takes architectural and space/place theory as its primary focus by surveying a wide range of thinkers and planners who will be familiar to those who work in urban modernism (Lewis Mumford, LeCorbusier, Henri Lefebvre, and Rem Koolhaus) and then returns to literary analysis to bring in postmodern writers Italo Calvino, Jeanette Winterson (all too briefly), and Robert Coover. The book’s coda makes a suggestive query about simulated Venice in Las Vegas and China, then swings into a study of the Ashcan poets (Frank O’Hara and John Ashbery) and Italian poet Andrea Zanzotto.

One shortcoming of this study is that it introduces a fascinating metaphor of Venice as a seductive woman, a gendered city that exists as an other (the idea of “elsewhere” crops up again and again) reminding readers perhaps of Freud’s “Dark Continent,” but does not altogether address the implications of such a concept for feminist modernist study. Most of the artists, writers, and thinkers included are well-known and male (with the exception of brief attention to Edith Wharton, Mary McCarthy, Winterson, and visual artist Luca Buvoli, even briefer mentions of H.D. and Madonna), and many of them use feminized images in their works. The book treats these images and feminine metaphors, for example, in the case of Henry James’s female characters in Wings of the Dove, and dips into some of the gendered critique within F.T. Marinetti’s anti-feminist women-smashing rhetoric. However, one wonders if there are just very few female-authored representations of Venice in existence. In fact, Scappettone notes that Winterson had not visited Venice at all before writing her Venetian-infused novel The Passion (1987).[4] Thus, Killing the Moonlight implicitly suggests that there is a great deal of work to be done on feminist readings of Venice, but would benefit from a more explicit statement of the need. Ultimately, the book makes a significant intervention into recasting Venice as a site of modernism and an important contribution to the attempts to broaden and re-characterize modernist studies.

Reviewed by Sarah E. Cornish, University of Northern Colorado

 

Killing the Moonlight: Modernism in Venice
by Jennifer Scappettone
Columbia University Press
Paperback/ 464 pages/ 2014
ISBN: 9780231164337


 

[1] Scappettone, Killing the Moonlight, 36.
[2] Ibid., 40.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid. 306.

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