Picks and Pans Review: Vidal in Venice

updated 03/27/1989 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/27/1989 AT 01:00 AM EST

As the sun's first rays strike the multicolored spires of the Cathedral of St. Mark, Gore Vidal begins his fascinating 110-minute, two-part series on Venice with a characteristically waspish observation: "Venice itself is, perhaps, the most beautiful cliché on earth. But like most clichés, it is best seen at its emptiest, at dawn, before the tourists arrive." It would be hard to find a more entertaining host than Vidal, the erudite essayist and novelist who makes his expatriate home in Italy. With lush camera work and sparkling prose, Vidal leads us through the serene republic's stormy history. In the mid-1500s, Venice was the largest maritime empire of its age. Its merchants made their fortunes selling vast deposits of salt, which Vidal likens to the oil of Arab deserts today. The typical Venetian among the city's 3 million inhabitants is the one, says Vidal, who "prefers the reflection to the flesh, the mask to real life." And while Vidal bemoans the city's current status as "a sort of Disneyland," he pays tribute to its near-mystical power of inspiration: Venice produced such Renaissance painters as Titian, Giorgione and Tintoretto. Later, in the 19th century, the Romantics flocked there: Byron wrote Don Juan, Wagner composed Tristan and Elizabeth Barrett Browning penned the immortal line to her husband, Robert, "I shall but love thee better after death." Vidal best captures the city's intangible mood when he quotes the cerebral novelist Henry James: "Venice is the repository of consolations; an ideal place for someone with a broken heart or someone looking for a heart to break." (VPI/A.C. Video, $29.95 ea.; 212-685-5522)

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