A large number of travel narratives of this type focus on cities, and one of the most intriguing cities for travel writers has been Venice, the city in northeastern Italy that comprises over 100 islands separated by bridges and canals. One of the best recent travel narratives to look at Venice is John Berendt's The City of Falling Angels (2005), which I recently re-read for no particular reason.
The setup. John Berendt, who wrote the well-received Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (1994), traveled to Venice in the days following a mysterious fire that destroyed the historic opera house, La Fenice. He visited in the off-season, as he says, "in order to enjoy the city without the crush of other tourists." The book follows the reaction of the locals to the fire and the investigations of Berendt and others into its causes. In the process, Berendt becomes fascinated by the city’s colorful characters: a master glassblower, Ezra Pound's widow, an heir to a grand Renaissance palace, the Rat Man of Treviso, a misunderstood poet who may or may not have committed suicide, as well as various contessas, marchesas, and other wealthy and famous individuals.
You’ll like the book if ...
- You're in love with Venice. Berendt does a good job of providing an atmospheric and evocative portrait of Venice and its crumbling buildings, twisting passages, and seemingly endless canals. He loves the beauty of the city, too, and even invents "a game called 'photo roulette,' the object [of which] was to walk around the city taking photographs at unplanned moments — whenever a church bell rang or at every sighting of a dog or cat — to see how often, standing at an arbitrary spot, one would be confronted by a view of exceptional beauty. The answer — almost always." (Of course, Berendt also sees the dark side of this beautiful city, like the maggots that he sees breeding in the glue on the back of canvases in Peggy Guggenheim's art gallery.)
- You like quirky characters, especially if they are wealthy or have royal blood. As one reader noted, Berendt's characters are "too colorful to be real." They squabble over everything from Ezra Pound's archives to the will of a gay poet, and Berendt portrays them with a good eye for detail. One character "spoke in a swooping, full-throated English drawl," while another "held forth in a manner more in the nature of oratory than conversation."
- You have an interest in the various American and British expatriates who have lived in the city, like Robert Browning, Henry James, John Singer Sargent, and Ezra Pound. In fact, some of Berendt's references to paintings will have you running to Google to track down Sargent's portrait of Lisa Colt Curtis or Anders Zorn's of Isabella Stewart Gardner.
- You don't care much for gossip. One reader noted the "gossipy stories involving many of the locals (most of whom are actually expatriates and not native Venetians)" and concluded that "Not unlike Midnight it seems Berendt thinks his popularity comes with the inclusion of eccentrics. However, unlike Midnight there were too many stories that never quite came together in the end." In fact, one of most repeated criticisms of the book is that it bogs down in the details and provides little in the way of a coherent story.
- You want more about Venice and less about the quirky characters who live there. There are a lot of characters — Berendt even provides an appendix listing people, organizations, and companies in the back of the book — and one might wish that the author had focused more on the city itself and less on the strange people who live there. In fact, Berendt himself says early in the book that his interest "was not Venice per se but people who live in Venice, which is not the same thing."
Appeal factors. Place and character are the obvious appeal factors here, although character takes precedence, given Berendt's obvious interest in the eccentric individuals in Venice. Berendt, in fact, begins to treat some of the places as if they were characters; for example, some of the buildings take on personalities and seem more like characters.
- In No Vulgar Hotel: The Desire and Pursuit of Venice (2007), Judith Martin (a.k.a. Miss Manners) writes both about “that miracle-from-the-swamp” and her own relationship with it as an self-professed “Venetophile.” Martin writes with a gentle wit and provides ample information on Venetian food, painting, and history as well as the city’s social life. Of course, she is Miss Manners, and so Martin spends a good part of the book advising the reader on how to interact with others and how to behave in general while traveling.
- Marlena de Blasi wrote the four books about her life in Italy, and these begin with A Thousand Days in Venice (2002), the story of how she fell in love with and married a Venetian banker; the book is strong on romance and food.
- The World of Venice (1974) is one of travel writer Jan Morris’s best known works and is a delightful, very personal guide to the culture and people of the “City of Water.”
- The Venice Experiment: A Year of Trial and Error Living Abroad (2011) by Barry Frangipane and Ben Robbins recounts the year that Barry and his wife spent in Venice; they found plenty to laugh at in their encounters with the Italian bureaucracy and even in the high tides that threatened their ground- floor apartment.
- Another very private look at Venice is Watermark (1992) by poet Joseph Brodsky, although this one is a bit more brooding. Readers who liked the historical, cultural aspects of Berendt's book may enjoy Brodsky's brief but intense narrative.
- A large number of works of fiction are set in Venice, including Henry James's The Wings of the Dove (1902), E.M. Forster's A Room with a View (1908), and two marvelous novellas, Daphne du Maurier’s chilling Don’t Look Now (1971) and Thomas Mann’s classic story of forbidden love, Death in Venice (1912). (All of these have been made into rather good films. "Don't Look Now" was directed by Nicholas Roeg and features one of the most frightening scenes in film history.) In addition, mystery readers should try Donna Leon's Commissario Brunetti series of crime novels set in Venice. Each of her books explores a specific aspect of Venetian life, beginning with Death at La Fenice (1992), in which a German conductor is found dead during the performance of “La Traviata” at the famous opera house that is also the focus of The City of Falling Angels, and Death in a Strange Country (1993), in which an American soldier’s body is found floating in one of the Venetian canals. Edward Sklepowich's Urbino Macintyre series focuses on an American expatriate writer living in Venice. There are now nine titles in the series, beginning with Death in a Serene City (1990), which links the murder of a Venetian laundress with the theft of the thousand-year-old body of Santa Teodora, and ends with The Veils of Venice (2009), which focuses on the stabbing death of a contessa.
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