The City of Falling Angels, by John Berendt

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Although I’ve traveled to Italy several times, I’ve never been to Venice except in my imagination. I may never get there, given its fragility. Yet this third nonfiction book set there actually makes me feel as though I’ve wandered its narrow streets, listened to the lapping water of the canals, and chatted with the people who live there. The biggest reason for this is Berendt’s captivating prose and the people and their stories he brings to life. I found the endpapers helpful too, with their map of Venice marked with locations from the book.

Berendt, best known for Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, arrives in Venice three days after a fire destroys the historic opera house La Fenice on 29 January 1996. His vivid description of the fire draws on first-person accounts, notably that of eight-six-year-old Archimede Seguso, a master artisan of glass sculptures. His family’s home is just across a small canal from the back of La Fenice, but after testing the wind direction Seguso decides there is no danger and they stay watching the mostly wooden structure burn.

Of course, I couldn’t help thinking of Notre Dame in Paris, which like La Fenice was undergoing restoration at the time of the fire. How much harder to fight such a fire in Venice, especially since the canal behind the opera house which would normally be used as a source of water by the firefighters had been drained for dredging.

The story of La Fenice runs through the book, the swirling rumors and recriminations, the false starts and failures in rebuilding. Meanwhile Berendt shares with us the other stories he pursues, such as the controversy around Ezra Pound’s papers, said to have been misappropriated by a couple, unconsciously replaying Henry James’s The Aspern Papers, a novel set in Venice.

The author finds people who share extraordinary stories with him, such as this one about Peggy Guggenheim, the last owner of the Unfinished Palazzo: “‘Peggy was notoriously stingy. She hired the city’s corpse collector as her gondolier, because he was available at a better price. She didn’t seem to mind that he serenaded her with funeral dirges and that he was very often drunk.’”

We meet many fascinating present-day (the book was published in 2005) people as well, such as a young man who desperately wants to preserve his family’s life in Palazzo Barbaro, even as the Venetian law that inheritances must be split equally among siblings (one of whom spends his time watching replays of space launches and composing a national anthem for Mars) means they must lose most of it. We meet a man who shares his theory for successful rat poison, which has made him fabulously wealthy, and an elderly aristocrat who is “writing a book proving the existence of reality! It is already two thousand pages long.”

Best of all, we get a sense of how things work (or don’t) in Venice. One person tells the author, “Everything is negotiable in Venice. I mean everything . . . even jail terms . . . You should even get to know a taxi driver, too, because otherwise the rates can be horribly expensive.” Another points out that the murky end to the investigation into the fire is the perfect ending: “ ‘an unsolved mystery . . . It stimulates the imagination, gives people the freedom to make up any scenario they want.’”

That last is a little unsettling given the current climate in the U.S., but the advice Berendt is given at the start of the book sets the tone for his experience: “Everyone in Venice is acting . . . Venetians never tell the truth. We mean precisely the opposite of what we say.’” And if that makes you think of the Liar’s Paradox, then welcome to Venice.

Is there a place you’ve always wanted to visit? Have you read a book that seemed to put you there?

A Venetian Affair, by Andrea di Robilant

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I’ve been thinking about romance. I’m still on my virtual visit to Venice, which may be the most romantic city in the world.

What I remember of Denis de Rougemont’s classic Love in the Western World—it’s been over forty years since I read it—is that in our western civilisation, the definition of romantic love is one that is doomed (think Romeo and Juliet, Tristan and Isolde).

Until relatively recently, marriage was a business relationship, adhering to social and religious rules. The idea of romantic love, while glorified by medieval troubadours, has only lately become a requirement for marriage. It has been argued that adding the weight of passionate love to the already heavy requirements of marriage—a spouse must not only be one’s financial support and partner in raising children, but also one’s best friend and true love—is a reason so many marriages falter.

For me, romance novels end just when they get interesting. Yes, of course, there’s the fun of the chase, the misunderstandings and so forth, but what happens after the wedding? How do the couples fare over the decades to come with all their challenges? That’s why I’m drawn to authors such as Anne Tyler who take the long view of a marriage.

Back to Venice, though. Here we have the true story of a couple’s doomed love. In the mid-1700s, the last decades of the Venetian republic, twenty-four-old aristocrat Andrea Memmo, heir to one of the city’s oldest families, catches sight of beautiful sixteen-year-old Giustiniana Wynne. It is a coup de foudre for both. Sadly, her social position is too much lower than Andrea’s for them to marry.

Not only are both families opposed to the match, but at that time a marriage must be approved by the secular and religious authorities. Giustiniana’s father is dead, and her mother rightly fears that Andrea may ruin her daughter since he cannot marry her, and thus forbids them to see each other.

Of course that only adds fuel to their flame, and they plot one rendezvous after another, creating their own cipher to encrypt their notes. They come up with schemes to persuade their parents and the authorities to allow them to marry.

The story is told through the couple’s letters to each other over their secret seven-year-affair, with historical and cultural context added by the author who is in fact descended from Andrea Memmo. That, too, is something out of a romance: the discovery of a packet of frayed compacted letters found in the attic of Palazzo Mocenigo, the home of the author’s father (It was also Byron’s home when he lived in Venice).

What I loved best about this book was the rich detail of the history, politics and customs in Venice at that time. There are little things, such as the names and meanings given to patches depending on where they are placed on the face, and larger things, such as the need to deal with the Inquisitors. And there are always the palazzos on the Grand Canal, masks and Carnivals. There are also incidental characters, real people such as Casanova, who befriend the young couple and whose letters and memoirs have contributed to the book.

I was afraid the story might be too dry or dull, but I was fascinated by it. I did listen to the audio version narrated by Paul Hecht with the letters from the two lovers read by Lisette Lecat and Jeff Woodman. I don’t know if reading it would have been less engaging. I loved how it added romance and an understanding of eighteenth century Venice to my virtual vacation.

If you want a true account of two star-crossed lovers and their forbidden affair in the mid-eighteenth century, with a vivid rendering of the social and political context, give this book a try.

Help me keep my trip to Venice going. Can you suggest any other stories set there?

The Unfinished Palazzo, by Judith Mackrell

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To make up for not being able to travel, I’ve been taking virtual trips to various places around the world using books, movies, and online resources. Italy called out to me, so I picked up this nonfiction book, subtitled Life, Love and Art in Venice. It is the story of three women who, in succession, owned a palazzo on the Grand Canal.

The Palazzo Venier was built in the mid-18th century by a powerful Venetian family, but left unfinished because of financial problems and the lack of an heir. Thus it became “il palazzo non finite”.

For wealthy noblewoman Luisa Casati, the dilapidated palazzo held an air of mystery and romanticism that appealed to her. Separated from her husband, Luisa took on lovers, including poet Gabriele D’Annunzio, whose credo that “one must make one’s own life as one makes a work of art” matched her own efforts to make an ever more spectacular splash in society. In addition to designing her own outrageous costumes and keeping a menagerie of exotic animals, she gave elaborate belle époque parties that made her famous, including one where she rented the Piazza San Marco itself for her guests, with police to keep out locals and tourists.

The 1929 crash combined with Luisa’s expenditures eventually forced her to sell the palazzo. In 1938 it was bought for British socialite Doris Castlerosse, who had gone from working in a shop to being the mistress of powerful men. Her parties too were legendary, as she hosted film stars and royalty such as Cole Porter, Noel Coward, and Prince Philip while recklessly running up debts.

Ten years later it was bought by Peggy Guggenheim, who had fallen in love with Venice some years earlier and was looking for a place to reinvent herself. She remade the palazzo into a living museum for her modern art collection, opening her home to the public on certain days of the week. Dying, she turned it over to the Guggenheim Foundation which has made it into one of the most famous museums in the world.

The three women come to life in this smoothly written book. There’s lots of drama, but it doesn’t slip over into melodrama or tabloid revelations. You’ll run across lots of famous names, but Mackrell’s respect for her characters keeps the story from seeming too gossipy.

I always like to read about independent, creative women. These three were all a bit over the top: I wouldn’t have liked them in real life but found their stories fascinating. Luisa in particular appealed to me, in part because I too in my less spectacular way believe in treating my life as a work of art. Also, I admired her resilience as she found ways to continue doing so even when she had almost no money.

While the story is really about the three women’s lives and very little about Venice or the palazzo itself, it is an enjoyable read, one I recommend, especially to art lovers or those curious about society during the early twentieth century.

What books have you turned to for distraction during a difficult week?