Our world is only one of a number of alchemically conceivable worlds.Book Two, ‘Woman with Mandoline in Sunlight’
In The Malacia Tapestry by Brian Aldiss (1976) we are given a portrait of an early modern Mediterranean city state, but one in which not homo sapiens but homo saurus is the dominant life form.
The author’s extraordinary vision envisages, in the words of the narrator-protagonist’s father, just one of many “other worlds of possibility”, and produces for our mind’s eye a series of tableaux of the landscapes and cityscapes the peoples of homo saurus stock inhabit, environments which are both like and yet unlike the ones we might be familiar with.
In preparation for a review (and very possibly another discussion post) I want to examine some of the real places Aldiss may have been inspired by in his creation of the maritime entrepôt that is Malacia.
First off, Malacia is very much an Italianate city, just like one of several in the Adriatic and further afield established by the Venetians. The names of many characters attest to this Italian influence, and the presence of canals might even suggest Venice itself might have been a model for Malacia (there is even a St Marco’s Square and a public space called the Bucintoro).
But Malacia is not Venice in another guise. The mention of Bogomils, Ottoman Turks and adjacent mountains, and distinctly Slavic names like Stary Most (‘Old Bridge’) instead all suggest somewhere on the Dalmatian coast, such as ancient maritime cities in modern Croatia. (The name Dalmatia may even have inspired Aldiss’s Malacia.) The first city that sprung to my mind was Ragusa, modern Dubrovnik, much damaged during the Yugoslav wars at the end of the twentieth century.
In Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials Laurie Frost asserted that Malacia was indeed based on Ragusa-Dubrovnik, and drew attention to the fact Pullman had read The Malacia Tapestry and had thus modelled his coastal city of Cittàgazze on the Dubrovnik’s Old Town, as supposedly had Aldiss. Malacia and Ragusa have indeed much in common: access to the sea, stout fortifications, mountains behind and to the north, and so on. But I fancy there is also more than a hint of another ancient Croatian city, namely Split.
Like Dubrovnik Split’s position on a peninsula gives it some protection, reinforced by strong walls built in the 4th century CE. It too has a history almost lost in antiquity, taking us past the Romans and Ancient Greeks to unnamed peoples even before that.
At the core of Split is the palace built by the Roman emperor Diocletian for his retirement in 305 CE. The domed temple became first the emperor’s mausoleum and then the cathedral church of St Domnius, the city’s patron saint. (Coincidentally, Dom is also the German for cathedral or church.) The streets preserve an echo of the original template typical of the Roman love of symmetry.
When I first read The Malacia Tapestry in the 1980s I attempted to reconstruct a street plan of the central area from plenteous clues in the text. I incorporated a grid system typical of Roman military and town planning but also included hints I picked up in pre-internet days about Split, Dubrovnik, Venice and other urban entities. So there’s a vaguely Roman fortress discernible in the street layout; the palace of Malacia’s founder Desport (now taken over, as Diocletian’s Palace was, by the city’s poorer inhabitants) sits in a prominent position; St Marco’s Square has its Dom just as Venice’s St Mark’s has its basilica. Malacia’s higher ground has its prison and Bishops Palace as Venice has its Doge’s Palace. There are grand palazzi in the central area as well as on the outskirts, the latter with attached parkland, owned by grand families like the Hoytola, Chabrizzi, Renardo and Mantegan dynasties.
But Malacia’s inspirations aren’t limited to these Adriatic cities: incidents in the narrative (such as the Ottoman siege) borrow motifs from Valetta in Malta and Byzantium, among other conurbations; and names like Hoytola and the river Toi have been foraged from places as far apart as Finland and Pakistan.
But I return to Perian de Chirolo’s father’s notion of “alchemically conceivable worlds” where anything is possible: Malacia is a world of saurian people, where fantastic and prehistoric creatures called ‘ancestrals’ still survive, and balloons not reliant on hot air (as the Montgolfier brothers’ experiments were) can be devised simultaneously with photography.
And, as imagination is etymologically related to image, I shall conclude with two artists, both Venetian, both contemporary with each other and both called Giovanni Battista: Piranesi and Tiepolo. Piranesi’s architectural fantasies are perfectly suited to Aldiss’s literary fantasy, while some of Gianbattista Tiepolo’s fantastical prints of satyrs, magicians, Punchinello and other figures are incorporated in the novel’s text to illustrate and complement the narrative. Not for nothing is the combination of personages and cityscapes underlined by the opening title, ‘Mountebanks in an Urban Landscape’.
Posted as part of reading for the 1976 Club