I am at the age when my mortality has started to hang over me. It is not that I have any intention of dying just yet – in fact I have no intention of dying at all – but I have become aware that my time on earth is not infinite and so it is natural that I am looking for ways of prolonging my life, one of which would seem to be to move to Venice.
I am currently commuting to the waterlogged city in the lagoon as I am working on a book about Nardi, the Venetian jeweller famous for Moretto brooches such as the one owned by Elizabeth Taylor that sold for 10 times its high estimate at Christie’s. Nardi aside, Venice has many things going for it, not least the lack of pollution; it’s obvious when you think about it, but it only became clear to me how much the absence of motor vehicles means when, at the end of the day, I took off my shirt and found the collar and cuffs unmarked. It is an unsavoury detail of life in London that I need to change my shirt at least twice a day as the city grime has the irritating habit of attaching itself to the wrists and necks of my Charvets, Willises and Budds.
Another health benefit is the fact that you have to walk everywhere in Venice. This forced exercise is rendered bearable because of the unrelenting beauty and charm of this city that has enraptured souls as different as Byron, Ruskin and Cocteau.
And it seems that the mere fact of residing in Venice confers longevity: maybe that is why property prices are so high. A quick glance at the list of Doges who used to run the show here for more than a thousand years until Monsieur Bonaparte invaded the place shows that many of them took office when in their 70s and that the most characterful of all the Doges, Enrico Dandolo, was said by some sources to be 85 when he took the ducal throne (Doge being a corruption of duke) in 1193. He was already blind at this point; some say that when Dandolo was on a diplomatic mission to Constantinople as an impetuous sexagenarian whippersnapper in the 1170s, the Byzantine emperor was said to be so incensed with his arrogance that he was blinded. Another account has this young scapegrace getting involved in a brawl and losing his sight that way.
One might have thought that Dandolo, having ascended the throne, would have learned his lesson and discharged his duties with a quiet patrician dignity; not a bit of it. In 1202, this nonagenarian ne’er-do-well set off on the Fourth Crusade, his galley equipped with a silken vermilion sunshade. This was not Christianity’s finest hour. Things started badly when the assembled crusaders could not pay for the Venetian galleys and things only got underway when they agreed to help the Venetians reclaim some lost Dalmatian territory. Then, one thing led to another and instead of making it to the Holy Land, they wound up besieging Christian Constantinople instead, carting off galleys laden with loot. Just how rich Byzantium was can be gauged from the fact that the Emperor Alexius disappeared with 10,000 pounds of gold and a bag of jewels.
The sacking of what was the remaining link to classical antiquity is described by John Julius Norwich as the greatest single loss to western culture – more significant than the barbarian rampage through Rome in the fifth century or the burning of Alexandria’s library in seventh.
Dandolo was apparently in the vanguard, leading his troops ashore, and he lived long enough to style himself “Lord of a quarter and half a quarter of the Roman Empire”. Among the souvenirs sent back to Venice were the four horses that had stood in the Hippodrome and which subsequently, at least until recently, decorated St Mark’s (some years ago they were replaced with replicas), and the Nicopeian icon which was apparently used to great effect at the battle of Lepanto some years later. (Interestingly enough, Nardi’s workshops restored the jewel-studded ex-voto of the icon after it was stolen and then recovered.)
Whatever one thinks of the vandalism wreaked on Constantinople, it is remarkable that a man well into his 90s could play such an active role in both the cynical realpolitik and the strenuous siege warfare of the age. Perhaps it is the extraordinary life-enhancing properties of La Serenissima that accounts for the extraordinarily high prices in the local estate agents’ windows.