A New Year Roundup

Vidal in Venice

by Gore Vidal, edited by George Armstrong, photographs by Tore Gill
Simon & Schuster, 160 pp., $22.50

Jean Cocteau and the French Scene

edited and with a preface by Arthur King Peters
Abbeville Press, 239 pp., $19.95

T.S. Eliot

An anniversary issue of The Southern Review
300 pp., $2.50

Tchaikovsky's Ballets

by Roland John Wiley
Oxford, 448 pp., $39.95

Arnold Schoenberg–Wassily Kandinsky: Letters, Pictures and Documents

edited by Jelena Hahl-Koch, translated by John C. Crawford
Faber and Faber, 221 pp., $15.95 (paper)

Vidal in Venice, the book of the television script, is part pocket-history, part waiting-room art, part tourist guyed. But the best parts are those in which Vidal compares Venetian and American political systems and arrangements. Good, too, is the chapter on Thomas Coryate, the early seventeenth-century “Innocent Abroad,” England’s first of the breed. And special mention should be made of the photographs, excellent in themselves, well-positioned as illustrations of the text, and successful in avoiding the over-familiar subjects and angles of postcard veduti.

Both republics, the Venetian and American, were equipped with “checks and balances” to prevent usurpation by doges and presidents. Each one “made sure that it would never become a monarchy—or a democracy,” Vidal writes, adding that the heads of the two states were balanced and constrained by a senate, as well as, in Venice, by a Great Council and a Council of Ten, and, in the United States, by a House of Representatives and a Supreme Court. These parallels are no more watertight, of course, than Venetian ground floors, and Vidal is soon referring to the US “Acting President” as the “Emperor of the West,” and to his Venetian counterpart of the past as a figurehead without “personal power” who was “not allowed to govern in Venice.” But the similarity between the divisions of government does hold water, and so do the further characterizations of both states as essentially mercantile—and not religious or ideological—and as having “accepted as perfectly natural human greed.” The Venetian desire for “a state in which it was possible for those of good family to do well at business” would also apply to America, if people of bad family were included.

In view of the relative sizes of the two republics, the physical separation on the American side of the various branches and agencies is understandably at an opposite extreme from the Venetian, where the Doge’s Palace, “a single, unfortified building,” combined “White House, Pentagon, State Department and CIA.” Radically different, too, are levels of performance. As “directors of intelligence and counter-intelligence,” the Venetians were incomparably more clever and economical than their American successors, and the book’s comparison between the efficiency of Venice’s Three Inquisitors, its spies and secret codes, its agents and assassins, and the bungling CIA, with its mammoth apparatus, is vintage Vidal. He does not say that Venetian plots to remove political and other enemies were not always top secret, as when the Senate in open session voted to sponsor a scheme to poison the Duke of Milan (see Millard Meiss’s Mantegna as Illuminator).

For a skipped heartbeat, in the chapter “The Turning of the Tide,” the reader fears that America’s most “mordant” moralist is about to become a merely conventional one: Vidal follows his discussion of Venetian courtesans, and of a scandal involving the relative of a Doge in a fight over one of them, with the observation: “Moral fiber was plainly weakening in the early 1500s.” Happily, the reference is to bribery, scams, the sale of noble…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account.