In 1470 Venice, the glassmakers of Murano enjoy a privileged position. Their social status permits them to intermarry with the nobility, and it's forbidden to teach their trade to foreigners, which ensures that the secrets of fine glassmaking never leave the lagoon. These two privileges benefit the wealthy Angelo Beroviero, a glassmaker who plans to marry his daughter Marietta to the young patrician Jacopo Contarini - but they pose a significant challenge for his young servant, Zorzi the Dalmation. Despite the law, Zorzi has learned the craft of glassblowing while assisting Beroviero, and has become a truly great artist - but being a foreigner, he'll never be able to go into business for himself, or to win the hand of Marietta, whom he loves.
When Beroviero sends him on a secret mission to Venice to arrange a meeting between Marietta and her intended husband, Zorzi stumbles upon a secret society and sets in motion a chain of events that threaten his whole future - his work, his love, and even his life.
Looking back, I can acknowledge that this story has its faults. The plot is not particularly tight, and some of the supporting characters are either underused or cartoonish. Contarini's villainous mistress, Arisa, is particularly deplorable - she's depicted as "savage" based purely on being Georgian and female.
But is that any worse than writers today who would depict her as being inherently righteous based purely on the same factors? More and more these days I'm finding I can identify the culprit in a murder mystery or guess the outcome of a sci-fi drama, just by ruling out the Minority Representation Characters - the real villain is never going to be the Moor, or the homosexual, or the difficult-to-communicate-with aliens. It's time we stopped evaluating moral worth based on social identity, and started evaluating it based on actual moral worth defined by Scripture.
Which I felt was actually something that Crawford overall did right; Arisa's character stood out as an aberration, a generally careful author falling into laziness. Because the main thing that impressed me about this book was how carefully and thoroughly it challenged the oppression in Renaissance Venice.
I recently read another book set in Venice, a twenty-first-century YA novel, and that one was very hamfistedly passionate about how badly women were treated in this time and place. I did not expect to find an author in 1901 getting passionate about the very same issues. Marietta, the title character, like every other girl in Venice, is expected to marry the man her father picks out for her. And if she refuses or disgraces herself, she'll be locked up in a convent whether she wants it or not. Crawford emphasises, again and again, the fact that Marietta is privileged to have a decent father who loves her and will listen to her, even as he takes for granted his right to dispose her life for her: many Venetian women didn't even have that much, and nobody thought twice of disposing them in the way that would be most profitable.
The book was a breath of fresh air. Followers of this blog will be aware of how irately I react to hamfisted feminist critiques of past social eras. Too many ignorant feminists want to depict the entire past with a paint roller instead of a pencil. Any culture prior to 1960 (or 1980, or 2010) was a time of partriarchalist misery for women, right? Wrong: you can't just assume that every single person in every past culture in every part of the world believed the same thing about women. They were different. Some of them were quite good for women; many European cultures in the High Middle Ages, for instance. Some of them were terrible. Renaissance Venice seems to have been one such culture. And yet, the feminist answer is to say that men are baaaad, and women are goooood, and call for the latter to band together in a sort of revolution against the former.
The Christian answer is that men and women are bad and good, and that the line between good and evil goes right through the centre of every human heart; and that that is the great dividing-line, not the difference between the sexes. Men and women are allies in this fight. This is the truth that Crawford expresses in his book. Marietta's fight against the injustices her society imposes on women is a mirror of Zorzi's fight against the injustices his society imposes on foreigners. When Marietta finally confronts her father, she's described as "fighting for the liberty of her whole life". I was cheering all through the scene because it was such a brilliant picture of how Christians defy authority: with reason, respect, and love. Marietta is having no more of her father's nonsense, but she refuses to respond with fussiness, entitlement, or self-pity. It was great.
This book was all about patriarchal oppression, but I've rarely read anything less feminist. I loved it.
In addition, I really enjoyed how vividly the book was written, and the convincing detail about the art of glassmaking. Though not without flaws, it was a thoroughly enjoyable, informative, and stirring read.