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28 of 28 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars No mere tourist tableau - a more serious approach to the history of Venice, January 5, 2008
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This review is from: Ancient Mysteries - Miraculous Canals of Venice (DVD)
My expectations were low when I purchased this fifty-minute long DVD, dating from 1996. Both the title and the knowledge that Leonard Nimoy would be the narrator led me to suspect a sensationalist Hollywood approach that would postulate that Venice had been built by ancient Egyptians or that aliens had designed St Mark's Cathedral. But, I was so wrong! For, when I saw the face of Professor Albert Ammerman, I knew I would be on safe ground. Other contributors include Frances Clarke (President of the Venice in Peril Fund), Ettore Vio (Proto of St Mark's), Sally Spector ("artist"), and Laura Sabbadin ("historian", although Amazon is silent on any books that this contributor may have written). This is no mere tourist guide to Venice, but rather a good short historical review of the city's origins and development. There are five chapters.

The first part, "Escape into the Water", focuses on the city's genesis in the lagoon with a concentration on archaeology and the technology required to build houses and provide means of livelihood for their inhabitants. There is a welcome discussion about salt-making and the importance of trade. In the second part, "A City is Born", there is a modern look at how the foundations of the buildings were put into place, and how the Istrian marble that rests on top of the timber stakes provides good defence against the eroding waters of the canals - or, at least, they did do prior to the subsidence of the land and the rising of the tides since those days (see comments on part five, below).

In the third part of the programme, "A Glorious Empire", there are the standard references to Venice's success in commerce and trade in the Medieval and Renaissance periods, to Marco Polo, to the Fourth Crusade and the attack on Constantinople.

A few misconceptions may arise in the mind of the less knowledgeable viewer from watching this DVD. For example, the screen will show ice-flows representing the end of the Ice Age, as if this was the sight that would have been seen in the Venetian Lagoon. In addition, the commentary refers to the cathedral on the island of Torcello dating to the year 639, when the camera shows, of course, the present later cathedral that was built on the same site. There are a few strange comments too, such as the Venetian Empire once dominating western civilisation: huh? And a few howlers as well: for example, Nimoy says that horses were never allowed in the city, when there is ample of evidence of their presence up to (and including) the nineteenth century. And Venetian prisons were infamous for torture? Only if you listen to Napoleonic propaganda: rather, Venetian prisons were famous for their humanity and ease. That's not to say that torture never took place, but in the context of other European powers of the time, I would much rather be in prison in Venice than in prison in Madrid or Paris!

There is some consideration given of the Venetian political system, its checks and balances to ensure that no one man or family became dominant. A wry smile crossed my face when I heard Nimoy's apparent surprise at how loyal the Venetians were to their republic and its constitution, when he is a citizen of what is arguably a modern equivalent. The medical, social and cultural benefits to the citizens are fleetingly mentioned, as is the decadence of the eighteenth century. (The fourth chapter is entitled "Decadence and Surrender".)

In the fifth and final part, "Is Venice Sinking?", the effects of the rising waters on the bricks above the level of the Istrian marble are clear to see, and views of the Ca' Da Mosto dramatically show the three-foot difference that has arisen since its initial construction in the thirteenth century. Meanwhile the effects of the 1966 flood are shown in the crypt of St Mark's Cathedral. Plans for floodgates to hold back the waters of the Adriatic from the lagoon are canvassed at the end of the programme, but the threat of global warming does not seem to have instilled a sense of urgency in the proposals.

Alas, there are no extras to this DVD, but I was overall very pleased with its content. It is not the best DVD I have seen on Venice - that honour goes to the four-hour visual feast, "Francesco's Venice", by the BBC - but it is a worthy second-place and is heartily recommended for those wanting a more serious approach to the origins and delights of La Serenissima.
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Showing 1-2 of 2 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Jul 20, 2008 2:54:37 PM PDT
I saw the DVD first, read this review two months later. I consider it the "extra" the reviewer mildly lamented not having. A lovely critical enhancement of a well-produced and fascinating account of Venice's origins. Thanks so much!

Posted on Sep 26, 2010 6:05:24 PM PDT
MissParker says:
I very much appreciate the comprehensive and obviously knowledgeable description you provide concerning this documentary. I'm startled at the number of errors included in the script; I don't appreciate being misled when I'm information-gathering. The fact that the film is, in large part, accurate, only makes the included historical discrepancies and factual blunders that much more offensive. Isn't that a pretty classic definition of the word "disinformation"? In any case, I am grateful to you for pointing out these mistakes, and I will instead seek to purchase the alternate film you mentioned, "Francesco's Venice". Thank you, truly, again.
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Location: Plymouth, Devon, UK

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