Jan/Feb 2007  •   Reviews & Interviews

A Venetian Bestiary

Review by Ann Skea

A Venetian Bestiary.
Jan Morris.
Faber & Faber. 2007. 100 pp.
ISBN 978-0-571-23305-2.

This small, slim book about animals is not as insubstantial as it looks. Jan Morris's writing is as rich and colourful as ever, and her knowledge of the history and the little-known sights of Venice provides her with a rich source of material.

"In fluctuating temper and varying fortune, in and out of love with the place, I have written rather too much about Venice in the sixty-odd years since the city first bewitched me," she writes in her "Introduction," signing it with her Welsh name, Trefan Morys. This book, she goes on to say, is "by way of an epilogue," but whether she can ever really get Venice out of her system seems doubtful.

Morris's imaginative, vivid and humorous style is evident from the first paragraph of the book and her familiarity with Venice and her delight in its history, people, art and curiosities, is evident in the things she draws attention to in A Venetian Bestiary: the "unmistakable knees" of the owl on the statue of Minerva in the Riva degli Schiavoli; the "black humour" of the artist portraying Noah's raven in the mosaics of the Basilica; the exclusion of male cats in the street-name of the one thoroughfare named for the cats of Venice; and the symbolic presence of the four Golden Stallions of St. Mark in a painting of the crucifixion by Lotto. All this and much more is packed into this little book about the beasts—real and mythical, mild and monstrous—of Venice.

This is not a book which will allow you to follow some kind of 'Jan Morris Animal Trail' through Venice (thank goodness!). A few of the many paintings which Morris mentions are not (I think) even in Venice, although the artists are Venetian. This is a book, however, which may open your eyes to some of the delights which the average tourist to Venice generally misses. The curious and fascinating carvings on the capitals of the Doge's Palace, for example and the many different animals which can be found around the streets and in Venetian painting and architecture. My own favourite discoveries amongst Venetian animals have been the mouse (not the lion, which Morris mentions) in the Carpaccio sequence of St. Jerome in the Scuola degli Schiavoni, and the cat which peeps out from beneath the skirts of Athena on the gates of the campanile of San Marco. A Venetian Bestiary, makes me keen to go and discover more.


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