“A DREAM UPON THE WATER”: MITO, SOGNO E METAFORA NELLA VENEZIA DI CHARLES DICKENS.

Alice Gatti

The aim of this research is to analyse the features of the myth of Venice in two works by Charles Dickens: Pictures from Italy, a travelogue published in 1846, and a novel, Little Dorrit, published between 1855 and 1857.

The theories of Roland Barthes, as set down in Mythologies (1957), proved useful to understand what the term “myth” in the context of literature. The French semiologist argues that myth is a message that can be given through all kinds of art, but what really defines it is not the object of the message, but the way in which artists use it. Man uses myth in two different ways: first, by accepting and considering its historical, political and cultural features; then modifying it by new meanings enriched with fanciful elements. Following Barthes’ opinion, the myth of Venice can be thought of as a literary subject modelled and re-built by the artists that dealt with it.

In order to conceive the physical aspects of this myth, I have referred to Fernand Braudel’s studies on Venice. The French historian draws attention to the geography of the place, since he finds it the prime cause of its myth. He considers that the topography of the Serenissima is quite unusual for a city: in Venice, the prevailing natural element is water, the Adriatic Sea, while normally in a city it should be earth and vegetation. Its uncommon road system and the weird silence emphasize the visitor’s impression of being in an exceptional place. The effects of this myth affect both the tourists and the city itself. People visiting the Serenissima cannot help being disoriented by the uncommon topography of the lagoon, and Venice too suffers the consequences of appearing as an “unreal” city. The signs of its history are present to such a degree in its architecture that the past seems to be contemporary with the present.

To understand Dickens’ attitude towards the myth of Venice, it was necessary to identify the main English authors that formed his cultural background. For Dickens, Shakespeare was the maximum reference in literature and, next to him, Byron constituted the more recent writer who spoke about the myth of the city. So, I focused on the evolution of the myth starting from the image given by Shakespeare, and finally coming to Byron, but touching on those artists who used, but also enriched it, with new features.

In works by the Elizabethan writers, especially Shakespeare and Ben Jonson, Venice is represented as the city of great cultural traditions, the powerful capital of an immense commercial empire, and the western gateway to the East. It is also the Republic whose government imposed very strict but just laws on the population, so as to guarantee social balance.

During the 18th century the image of the city turned from positive into negative. The conquest of the Venetian territory by Napoleon and the consequent treaty of Campoformio in 1797 – that consigned the Republic to Austria – radically changed this myth. In order to justify his political action against Venice, the French general diffused a libellous propaganda against the old government and ordered to open the prison of State to the public. From this moment on, Venice started to be considered as the capital of violence and evil, where its legal system never acted through impartiality, but used murder and corruption as means of justice. As a consequence, a negative image of the city spread through English literature. Ann Radcliffe and Monk Lewis accepted this new picture of Venice using it as the setting of their gothic novels The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) and The Bravo of Venice (1805).

English Romantic writers inherited this complex image, but modified it with new elements. The city’s decadence lead Shelley to consider worth being remembered more the Venice of the past, than the Venice of the years in which he visited it. Consequently he described his Venetian experience with a space-time of the past. Byron portrayed the Serenissima as an enchanted place, born “by the wand of an enchanter”, but, at the same time, couldn’t help describing its decadence through an image of the gondola as a metaphor of death.

Charles Dickens’s tour of Italy led to the composition of Pictures from Italy. In his travelogue, the writer celebrates the Serenissima as the “Queen of the oceans”, following its literary tradition. Nevertheless, Dickens renewed the clichés of the travelogue using new artistic techniques. To emphasize the dreamy characteristic of Venice, he turned out to be a flâneur, a wanderer totally fascinated by the beauty of the place. Portraying its architecture, the writer used what Calvino called “images of lightness”, special images apt to describe the impression of lightness the city gives to the tourist. Then he conveyed the “technique of estrangement”, in order to outline the effects of this myth on the city and on himself.

In Little Dorrit the myth of Venice is used also as a metaphor for Victorian society. Dickens makes the Dorrits live their dream of freedom out of the Marshalsea in the place he considered the “dreamy city” par excellence. But the family still suffers from a psychological kind of imprisonment. In fact, proprieties imposed by their new status – bourgeoisie – have caused the death of the feelings that linked them before. So, the author uses Venice’s decadence to portray that of the Dorrits’. As a consequence, the decadence of the family was for Dickens a means whereby to think about England’s social situation. In the Victorian Age, England saw the Serenissima’s empire as a model, but at the same time as a stern warning. Thus, we could say that the author considered Venice as an example of economic and cultural power, but also as a mirror image of the possible decadence England too could experience.