Monday, March 31, 2008

The City of Falling Angels --- Venice

The good thing about being basically off line for a week was that I had the opportunity to read more books than usual. The City of Falling Angels by John Berendt had been on my TBR pile since last summer so I threw it in the suitcase, along with some other books, to take on my trip this past week.

Probably best known for Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, Berendt takes on the wonderful city of Venice in a look at the modern day city as well as the Venetians in one of the most interesting books I have read in a while.

Venice is a city I have visited on five occasions that I can think of off the top of my head, although it could be more, if I include the odd day trip. The first time was on our honeymoon in 1961, the last time in 2002. On two occasions I was in the company of a Venetian, now living in Canada and once in the company of a teacher of Fine Arts. I have always enjoyed the city, its buildings and the art treasures it has to offer its visitors.

So it was with a certain familiarity of the city that I read this book. Not for the first time, Berendt arrived in Venice in February 1996 for a lengthy visit three days after the fire which destroyed La Fenice, The Phoenix, the last opera house remaining in Venice and a beloved symbol for the Venetians. La Fenice was originally built on a new site as a result of a fire destroying its predecessor in 1792 and a subsequent legal battle. It too burned down and was rebuilt in 1836. It certainly has a history of rising from the ashes like the phoenix. Berendt interweaves the story of the fire, the investigation into the cause of the fire, the subsequent arson trial and the rebuilding of the theatre, which was reopened in December 2003, with stories of some very intriguing residents of Venice some of whom he interviewed and came to know.

He introduces the first of these at the beginning of the book, Count Girolamo Marcello, who gives a wonderful quote.
"Everyone in Venice is acting," he told me. "Everyone plays a role, and the role changes. The key to understanding Venetians is rhythm, the rhythm of the lagoon, the water, the tides, the waves. The rhythm in Venice is like breathing. High water, high pressure: tense. Low water, low pressure: relaxed. The tide changes every six hours." He also said, "Venetians never tell the truth. We mean precisely the opposite of what we say."
As the book progresses with the story of fire at La Fenice and the subsequent events which unfold like a mystery story, even the rebuilding was very dramatic as one contractor after another was replaced, Berendt tries to discover the truth and along the way he presents some very fascinating stories and people central to life in Venice, including a fourth generation expatriate family, the Curtises who have lived in the Palazzo Barbaro, since the 1880s and who played host to Henry James for his time in Venice.

He gives a detailed account of Ezra Pound who lived for many years with his lover Olga Rudge in Venice. In fact he rented their house for a period of time. But as well he tells tales of the many Venetians he encountered, from members of the nobility to the dogged prosecutor, Felice Casson, involved in the long investigation into the fire and some of the city's more ordinary citizens. I found it a very compelling read and devoured it in two days.

A few facts from this book about Venice that you may or may not know:

Venice has the cleanest air of any city because there are no cars and methane gas which burns cleanly is used for heating.

It is also the quietest city with a sound level of 32 decibels, while for the average city it is 45 decibels, again because of the absence of traffic.

There are 443 bridges in the city of Venice, although I have seen other figures bandied about, including 500.

During his occupation of Venice, Napoleon razed to the ground 176 religious buildings, 80 palaces along with their decorations and art treasures and his agents confiscated 12,000 paintings and sent them Paris where they now reside in the Louvre.

The Venetian Mafia control the water taxi business in Venice, along with the money lending operation in front of the Municipal Casino, which incidentally residents of Venice are not allowed to enter due to a very old statute still on the books.

The permanent population of Venice has now shrunk to 70,000 although an estimated 7 million tourists visit the city each year.

Well why don't you read the book for yourself? I do recommend it highly although the tone might be considered a trifle gossipy, however I found it fascinating.

You may also be interested in the list of the ten books that John Berendt thinks are essential reading on Venice and I found this fascinating site which has a fairly exhaustive list of books on Venice, both fiction and non fiction.

Oh yes, the title. After a piece of an angel fell off the church, Santa Maria della Salute, a sign was put outside, "Beware of Falling Angels." Only in Italy.


Welshcakes Limoncello said...

Sounds a fascinating read and right up my street, jmb. Love that about the title.

Donnetta Lee said...

How interesting! Sounds fascinating. Falling angels. Reminds me of raining cats and dogs--but better! Good to see you today, jmb!

Carver said...

Glad you made it safely home. Sounds like a fascinating book.

Tai said...

I loved that book! What a great review!
The story around the Fenice was a good one, wrapping so many other tales in and around it.

leslie said...

I read that book, too, and could not put it down! It's a fascinating look into the people who live in Venice and the history of the architecture there. It should be listed as one of the top 10 books of all time! Welcome home!

Heart of Rachel said...

I'm glad you had time to enjoy a good book.

I dream of visiting Venice someday. A family friend went on vacation there and she gave me two beautiful masks for keepsake.

Anonymous said...

Welcome back - I trust you have been enjoying yourself? i have only been to Venice once and was fascinated - so I am glad to learn more...

Liz said...

I've never been to venice although it is top of my city-to-see list.

I love the reasoning behind the name (falling angels).

Ellee Seymour said...

What a wonderful title, and wonderful excuse to visit Venice.

Sean Jeating said...

And now and then, in summer, one would be pleased not to have a thousand noses. :)

Crushed said...

Birmingham has more miles of canals than Venice- true!

Venice is one city that would interest me from a historical point of view.

Proto-colonial power, creator of the orginal ghetto, leader in cultural development, destroyer of the Eastern Empire, definitely a city of history.

jmb said...

Hi Welshcakes,
I thought it very interesting indeed and you would enjoy it I'm sure.

Hi Donnetta Lee,
I don't think I'd like to be hit by falling cats or angels, but an angel sounds better for sure.

Hi Carver,
Thanks, home with a cold, very fascinating book.

Hi Tai,
Wasn't it a great book? All those great stories.

Hi Leslie,
Yes back and I did enjoy this book. The Venetians are different for sure and so is the city.

Hi Rachel,
How lucky you are to have the masks. They are very expensive and my daughter has two very simple ones. I hope you get to go.

Hi Muts,
Thank you, I did. Venice is one of my favourite cities although it is unbelievably expensive.

Hi Liz,
I'm sure you would enjoy Venice, but on a nice day. They say the canals smell at times but I have been very lucky and only had good weather there.

Hi Ellee,
Any excuse is a good one to go to Venice. There is always something interesting to see.

Hi Sean,
Luckily I have never had my nose offended in Venice although I have heard many say they have. My love of the city has not been spoiled.

Hi Crushed,
I can believe that because Venice is really very small and apart from the Grand Canal the others are very small byways. I am sure you would enjoy it, the architecture, the sense of history with the eastern flavour and then there is the wonderful art.

Thanks to all of you for visiting and commenting.

Jeff Cotton said...

Thanks for mentioning my site (and saying it's fascinating). The question of the number of bridges in Venice needs settling though.

risamay said...

Loved his title more than his book, perhaps. I really enjoyed Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, but there's something downright creepy and Murder She Wrote -ish about John Berendt's timing, right? Anywho, I loved the details of Venice that he folded neatly into the story. Very interesting and informative, both. Have you read anything from the Commissario Guido Brunetti Mysteries by Donna Leon? Though fiction, I love that series for the same reason; packed with delicious true-to-life details of Venice, the modern city. In closing, stumbled upon your blog and enjoyed this entry. Grazie mille!