J.G. Links: Venice for Pleasure

Front cover of Venice For PleasureNot only the best guide-book to that city ever written, but the best guide-book to any city ever written.

Bernard Levin in The Times

Joseph Gluckstein Links (1904-1997) wrote Venice for Pleasure in 1966, and it is now in its ninth edition. Venice being the city it is, and Links’s interests being what they are, the book doesn’t need much revision from edition to edition, though (as with other Venice guide-books) you’re well advised to ignore any information about vaporetto routes, which change on a yearly, if not seasonal, basis.

Links was an interesting man: a self-taught expert on the artist Canaletto and the history of Venice, he was also  the Queen’s Furrier (who knew there was such a job?), a Governor of the Hudson’s Bay Company, a regular competitor on the Cresta Run, and once collaborated with Dennis Wheatley in the writing of a popular set of “crime dossier” murder mysteries.

What makes Venice for Pleasure such a rare joy is how lightly Links wears his erudition. Reading the book is like wandering slowly around Venice in the company of a knowledgeable, droll, elderly raconteur. At one moment some piece of art history is being wittily imparted; at the next, we’re being urged to take a seat and have a cup of coffee. For, as Links says, “Generally the first thing to do in Venice is to sit down and have some coffee.”

The book starts with an introductory chapter, dealing with the history of Venice and chatting amiably about the part of the city centred on St Mark’s Square. Then Links takes us through four walking routes which, when combined, cover the major landmarks and art galleries. He is keen that we don’t take his walking routes too seriously, though. He encourages us to dip in and out, deviate if we want to, and under no circumstances to read and walk at the same time. The correct place to read his book, he declares, is while seated at leisure in a trattoria with a decent view:

Comments will therefore be reserved for when we are sitting down and, so far as possible, only the minimum of directions for when we need to get from one place to another. They may even be too minimal and we may get lost. No matter.

That gives you a feel for his narrative style. A fine example of his dead-pan delivery turns up in the Campo S. Margherita:

High up on the house next to the campanile is a statue of S. Margherita herself; the dragon beneath her is the devil in disguise and it is a relief to know that he devoured her but then burst asunder and vanished, leaving Margherita unhurt. It must have been a nasty moment, though.

Finally, I want to give you a longer quote from the book, a story about the painter Veronese, and how he came to paint his Feast at the House of Levi:

It was painted as a Last Supper and Veronese was hauled before the Inquisition, which was sitting for the purpose in a chapel in St. Mark’s. The buffoons, dogs, drunkards and dwarfs in the picture had affronted them but above all it was the Germans they could not stomach. ‘Were you commissioned to paint Germans in this picture?’ they asked. No, answered Veronese, but the picture was very large and there had to be a lot of figures in it. ‘Was it fitting that he should paint Germans at our Lord’s last supper?’ they pressed, and the artist could but answer, ‘No, my lord.’ […] He was given three months in which to correct the picture but he found a less arduous way of satisfying honour all round. He just retitled it Feast at the House of Levi instead of The Last Supper and left in the dogs, drunkards, dwarfs – yes, and even the Germans.

It would have been a pretty riotous Last Supper:

Veronese, "Feast in the House of Levi" 1573.
The offending painting (click to enlarge)

The Germans are in the lower right corner. They’re identifiable as such because they’re soldiers, in uniform. And their presence was particularly offensive to the Inquisition because, after the Reformation in Germany, they were probably Protestant soldiers. But Links doesn’t let such explanatory detail get in the way of a good story, well told.

And now for something completely different …

The whole Veronese/Inquisition dialogue was beautifully lampooned in a sketch written by John Cleese for the 1976 Amnesty International charity concert, A Poke In The Eye (With A Sharp Stick), which later turned up on video as Pleasure At Her Majesty’s. Here’s a later version of the same sketch:

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