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Venice: Fragile City 1797-1997


By Margaret Plant. Yale University Press, 2002. 550pp. £29.95

As Margaret Plant points out, her history of Venice starts where most others stop, in the year when the city lost its status as a republic.The two centuries to which she gives so much space occupy only six of the 320 pages in Richard Goy's Venice: The City and its Architecture (AJ 30.10.97), but they are fundamental to the look of Venice today and the problems that it faces.Napoleonic improvements and demolitions, bridge connections to the mainland, Ruskin's conservationist dismay - the city's ambivalence towards modernity is mapped; and by the 1880s, says Plant, 'the modern cause was largely lost'.

Her concern is not just the city's material existence - and continuing threats to that - but its role in 'the world imagination', so she ranges across all the arts.The thwarted projects of Wright, Le Corbusier and Kahn all appear, as do the realised ones of Scarpa and De Carlo; so too does Venice in the cinema (from Astaire and Rogers to Don't Look Now), and the rarefied sound world of composer Luigi Nono, his late works on the edge of audibility.

Venice: Fragile City is remarkably comprehensive; there are 70 pages of references aligned in three columns. If Plant's discussions of her many subjects tend to be conscientious rather than especially insightful, that does little to diminish the book's worth.Pictured is part of the Venetian lagoon, with the island of Torcello visible at top right.

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