Destination: Venice, Italy
Book: The City of Falling Angels, by John Berendt (2005)
John Berendt is a superb story-teller, and Venice is overflowing with stories. That combination makesThe City of Falling Angels a terrific read for travelers.
Berendt gained fame with Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, a similarly structured non-fiction portrait of a city. In both books, he takes what might be an extended magazine story–in the case of Venice, the fire that mostly destroyed The Fenice opera house, and intersperses the story of the aftermath and characters involved with side jaunts into other interesting characters and their stories. He visited just after the June, 1966 fire.
Since he writes for magazines like New Yorker and Esquire, many of the chapters have been published as articles previous to being gathered into the book, and my only complaint was that the structure became a bit too loose. Although I loved all of those stories, which reveal the personality and culture of Venice, sometimes I wondered how we got where we were.
Some reviewers on Amazon complain that The City of Falling Angels concentrates on the wealthy, but the fact of the matter is that very few “ordinary” people live in Venice any more. About 60,000 people live in the city itself, half of the number before 1966 according to this article in The Guardian. On the other hand as many as 50,000 tourists arrive every day. Would you like to buy property in Venice? This article in last June’s New York Times, features a three-bedroom walk-up for nearly two million dollars. The population has shrunk, the real estate prices soar, and the permanent population centers around those wealthy enough to own the famous Palazzos along the Grand Canal, and tucked away in narrow walkways.
I found it helpful to follow my Fodor’s guide and map as Berendt mentioned paths, canals and bridges, but if you just want atmosphere, here is an example that reminds me of the movie, Don’t Look Now.
I understood why so many stories set in Venice were mysteries. Sinister moods could be easily conjured by shadowy back canals and labyrinthine passageways, where even the initiated sometimes lost their way. Reflections, mirrors, and masks suggested that things were not what they seemed. Hidden gardens, shuttered windows, and the unseen voices spoke of secrets and possibly the occult.
A writer taking on Venice is in good company–Henry James, Robert Browning, Lord Byron, Charles Dickens, Mary McCarthy have done it, to name a few. But Berendt points out that all those portraits of the city have made it difficult to say something original.
In preparation for this undertaking, I reread the classic texts. They were not at all encouraging. Mary McCarthy put it bluntly in Venice Observed; “Nothing can be said [about Venice] (including this statement) that has not been said before.” McCarthy’s parenthetical comment, “including this statement,” was an allusion to Henry James, who had written in “Venice” and 1882 essay, “there is nothing more to be said on the subject…It would be a sad day indeed when there should be something new to say…I am not sure there is not a certain impudence in pretending to add anything to it.”
Berendt reasons that he is on safe ground since he is going to write about the people of Venice rather than the city itself. Furthermore he will write about people who, for the most part, live in Venice rather than just passing through. The preface opens with a poetic quote from one of the residents.
“Everyone in Venice is acting,” Count Girolamo Marcello told me. “Everyone plays a role, and the role changes. The key to understanding Venetians is rhythm–the rhythm of the lagoon, the rhythm of the water, the tides, the water…”
Some of the people that fascinated me most were in family spats–like an esteemed glassblower whose sons split the business and the wealthy 4th-generation half-American family who owned the historic Palazzo Barbaro and because they could not agree, had to sell the main floor.( The brother in the family runs a Extraterrestial headquarters from his own apartment!)
Skullduggery with the estate of Ezra Pound and his long-time mistress, which includes dishing about the executive director of the Peggy Guggenheim Museum gets very gossipy. The Guggenheim was one of my favorite sites in Venice, as a modern-art relief for the eyes from the Renaissance and Baroque.
The do-good organizations of Americans and the wealthy of other countries raises the question of why they raise money to restore Venice. Altruism or social climbing?
The title of this book carries a brilliant double meaning. It denotes the decay of Venice–the need to be cautious passing by a church lest a plaster angel fall on you. But it also connotes the double nature of people who live and operate in Venice. As Count Marcello says, “Venetians never tell the truth. We mean precisely the opposite of what we say.”
This book makes we want to read Midnight In the Garden of Good and Evil (or at least see the movie), but also leads me to review Mary McCarthy’s Venice Observed which I read some time ago, and dip into Henry James‘ The Wings of the Dove.
In case you have a hankering, as I do, to delve into more literature about Venice, I have included several links to Amazon along with the suggested book titles. You need to know that even though it costs you no more to buy through these links, I am an Amazon affiliate and will earn a few cents from each sale. THANKS for your support!
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I have not always written favorably about Venice, as in this article at My Life Is a Trip where I talk about why I do not love Venice. I am beginning to think Venice is easier to love at a distance. The elusive “perfect place” like the elusive “perfect love.” What is your greatest impression of Venice?