After its defeat by Napoleon, Venice began to fall into disrepair. So much so that in the 1970s, a sign had to be posted outside one church warning passers-by to ‘Beware of falling angels’: the facade was crumbling so badly that chunks of cherubim were dropping onto the sidewalk. Destruction of a different kind occurred on 29 January 1996, when a fire gutted the centuries-old Fenice Opera House. John Berendt chanced to arrive three days later, keen to see the city without the hordes of tourists. Observing the aftermath of the fire made a good excuse to stick around, which he did, chronicling the rebuilding, the hunt for answers (and convictions), and the in-fighting in the various charities dedicated to preserving Venice. Since Venetian bureaucracy moves at snail’s pace, he had plenty of time to get to know the locals. The result is a travelogue that’s not really about Venice but the Venetians, past, present and honorary.
Berendt must have a gift for drawing out the eccentrics of every city he visits. First Savannah (Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil) and now Venice. People like Ralph Curtis, descendant of American expats, who likes to listen to tape recordings of Apollo missions and dreams of getting the world’s governments to hand over all copies of their nuclear firing codes to be blasted off to Mars. Or Massimo Donadon, the Rat Man of Treviso, who made his fortune with gourmet rat bait - a story he cheerfully recounts to his tablemates during a gala dinner.
But in with the comedy there is also tragedy. From dodgy dealings over the estate of Ezra Pound’s mistress Olga Rudge (if half the stories are true, Jane Rylands deserves a good dunking in the lagoon) and a battle royal between the two sons of a master glassblower, to the heartbreak of the families whose sons were investigated and eventually indicted over the Fenice fire. This is a book that covers all the bases, from the rich and prominent to the (not-so-)ordinary citizen (but mostly the former). There’s also enough history and architecture to have me longing to be hopping on a plane ... and into a boat being rowed by a gorgeous gondolier :-).