It was seven years ago that Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil achieved a record-breaking four-year run on The New York Times bestseller list. John Berendt's inimitable brand of nonfiction brought the dark mystique of Savannah so startlingly to life for millions of people that tourism to Savannah increased by 46 percent. It is Berendt and only Berendt who can capture Venice-a city of masks, a city of riddles, where the narrow, meandering passageways form a giant maze, confounding all who have not grown up wandering into its depths. Venice, a city steeped in a thousand years of history, art and architecture, teeters in precarious balance between endurance and decay. Its architectural treasures crumble--foundations shift, marble ornaments fall--even as efforts to preserve them are underway. The City of Falling Angels opens on the evening of January 29, 1996, when a dramatic fire destroys the historic Fenice opera house. The loss of the Fenice, where five of Verdi's operas premiered, is a catastrophe for Venetians. Arriving in Venice three days after the fire, Berendt becomes a kind of detective-inquiring into the nature of life in this remarkable museum-city-while gradually revealing the truth about the fire. In the course of his investigations, Berendt introduces us to a rich cast of characters: a prominent Venetian poet whose shocking "suicide" prompts his skeptical friends to pursue a murder suspect on their own; the first family of American expatriates that loses possession of the family palace after four generations of ownership; an organization of high-society, partygoing Americans who raise money to preserve the art and architecture of Venice, while quarreling in public among themselves, questioning one another's motives and drawing startled Venetians into the fray; a contemporary Venetian surrealist painter and outrageous provocateur; the master glassblower of Venice; and numerous others-stool pigeons, scapegoats, hustlers, sleepwalkers, believers in Martians, the Plant Man, the Rat Man, and Henry James.
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About the Author
John Berendt has been a columnist for Esquire and the editor of New York magazine, and is the author of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, which was a finalist for the 1995 Pulitzer Prize in general nonfiction.
Hometown:New York, New York
Date of Birth:December 5, 1939
Place of Birth:Syracuse, New York
Education:A.B. Harvard College, 1961
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An Evening in Venice
THE AIR STILL SMELLED OF CHARCOAL when I arrived in Venice three days after the fire. As it happened, the timing of my visit was purely coincidental. I had made plans, months before, to come to Venice for a few weeks in the off-season in order to enjoy the city without the crush of other tourists.
"If there had been a wind Monday night," the water-taxi driver told me as we came across the lagoon from the airport, "there wouldn't be a Venice to come to."
"How did it happen?" I asked.
The taxi driver shrugged. "How do all these things happen?"
It was early February, in the middle of the peaceful lull that settles over Venice every year between New Year's Day and Carnival. The tourists had gone, and in their absence the Venice they inhabited had all but closed down. Hotel lobbies and souvenir shops stood virtually empty. Gondolas lay tethered to poles and covered in blue tarpaulin. Unbought copies of the International Herald Tribune remained on newsstand racks all day, and pigeons abandoned sparse pickings in St. Mark's Square to scavenge for crumbs in other parts of the city.
Meanwhile the other Venice, the one inhabited by Venetians, was as busy as ever-the neighborhood shops, the vegetable stands, the fish markets, the wine bars. For these few weeks, Venetians could stride through their city without having to squeeze past dense clusters of slow-moving tourists. The city breathed, its pulse quickened. Venetians had Venice all to themselves.
But the atmosphere was subdued. People spoke in hushed, dazed tones of the sort one hears when there has been a sudden death in the family. The subject was on everyone's lips. Within days I had heard about it in such detail I felt as if I had been there myself.
IT HAPPENED ON MONDAY EVENING, January 29, 1996.
Shortly before nine o'clock, Archimede Seguso sat down at the dinner table and unfolded his napkin. Before joining him, his wife went into the living room to lower the curtains, which was her long-standing evening ritual. Signora Seguso knew very well that no one could see in through the windows, but it was her way of enfolding her family in a domestic embrace. The Segusos lived on the third floor of Ca' Capello, a sixteenth-century house in the heart of Venice. A narrow canal wrapped around two sides of the building before flowing into the Grand Canal a short distance away.
Signor Seguso waited patiently at the table. He was eighty-six-tall, thin, his posture still erect. A fringe of wispy white hair and flaring eyebrows gave him the look of a kindly sorcerer, full of wonder and surprise. He had an animated face and sparkling eyes that captivated everyone who met him. If you happened to be in his presence for any length of time, however, your eye would eventually be drawn to his hands.
They were large, muscular hands, the hands of an artisan whose work demanded physical strength. For seventy-five years, Signor Seguso had stood in front of a blazing-hot glassworks furnace-ten, twelve, eighteen hours a day-holding a heavy steel pipe in his hands, turning it to prevent the dollop of molten glass at the other end from drooping to one side or the other, pausing to blow into it to inflate the glass, then laying it across his workbench, still turning it with his left hand while, with a pair of tongs in his right hand, pulling, pinching, and coaxing the glass into the shape of graceful vases, bowls, and goblets.
After all those years of turning the steel pipe hour after hour, Signor Seguso's left hand had molded itself around the pipe until it became permanently cupped, as if the pipe were always in it. His cupped hand was the proud mark of his craft, and this was why the artist who painted his portrait some years ago had taken particular care to show the curve in his left hand.
Men in the Seguso family had been glassmakers since the fourteenth century. Archimede was the twenty-first generation and one of the greatest of them all. He could sculpt heavy pieces out of solid glass and blow vases so thin and fragile they could barely be touched. He was the first glassmaker ever to see his work honored with an exhibition in the Doge's Palace in St. Mark's Square. Tiffany sold his pieces in its Fifth Avenue store.
Archimede Seguso had been making glass since the age of eleven, and by the time he was twenty, he had earned the nickname "Mago del Fuoco" (Wizard of Fire). He no longer had the stamina to stand in front of a hot and howling furnace eighteen hours a day, but he worked every day nonetheless, and with undiminished pleasure. On this particular day, in fact, he had risen at his usual hour of 4:30 A.M., convinced as always that the pieces he was about to make would be more beautiful than any he had ever made before.
In the living room, Signora Seguso paused to look out the window before lowering the curtain. She noticed that the air had become hazy, and she mused aloud that a winter fog had set in. In response, Signor Seguso remarked from the other room that it must have come in very quickly, because he had seen the quarter moon in a clear sky only a few minutes before.
The living room window looked across a small canal at the back of the Fenice Opera House, thirty feet away. Rising above it in the distance, some one hundred yards away, the theater's grand entrance wing appeared to be shrouded in mist. Just as she started to lower the curtain, Signora Seguso saw a flash. She thought it was lightning. Then she saw another flash, and this time she knew it was fire.
"Papa!" she cried out. "The Fenice is on fire!"
Signor Seguso came quickly to the window. More flames flickered at the front of the theater, illuminating what Signora Seguso had thought was mist but had in fact been smoke. She rushed to the telephone and dialed 115 for the fire brigade. Signor Seguso went into his bedroom and stood at the corner window, which was even closer to the Fenice than the living room window.
Between the fire and the Segusos' house lay a jumble of buildings that constituted the Fenice. The part on fire was farthest away, the chaste neoclassical entrance wing with its formal reception rooms, known collectively as the Apollonian rooms. Then came the main body of the theater with its elaborately rococo auditorium, and finally the vast backstage area. Flaring out from both sides of the auditorium and the backstage were clusters of smaller, interconnected buildings like the one that housed the scenery workshop immediately across the narrow canal from Signor Seguso.
Signora Seguso could not get through to the fire brigade, so she dialed 112 for the police.
The enormity of what was happening outside his window stunned Signor Seguso. The Gran Teatro La Fenice was one of the splendors of Venice; it was arguably the most beautiful opera house in the world, and one of the most significant. The Fenice had commissioned dozens of operas that had premiered on its stage-Verdi's La Traviata and Rigoletto, Igor Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress, Benjamin Britten's The Turn of the Screw. For two hundred years, audiences had delighted in the sumptuous clarity of the Fenice's acoustics, the magnificence of its five tiers of gilt-encrusted boxes, and the baroque fantasy of it all. Signor and Signora Seguso had always taken a box for the season, and over the years they had been given increasingly desirable locations until they finally found themselves next to the royal box.
Signora Seguso had no luck getting through to the police either, and now she was becoming frantic. She called upstairs to the apartment where her son Gino lived with his wife and their son, Antonio. Gino was still out at the Seguso glass factory in Murano. Antonio was visiting a friend near the Rialto.
Signor Seguso stood silently at his bedroom window, watching as the flames raced across the entire top floor of the entrance wing. He knew that, for all its storied loveliness, the Fenice was at this moment an enormous pile of exquisite kindling. Inside a thick shell of Istrian stone lined with brick, the structure was made entirely of wood-wooden beams, wooden floors, wooden walls-richly embellished with wood carvings, sculpted stucco, and papier-mâché, all of it covered with layer upon layer of lacquer and gilt. Signor Seguso was aware, too, that the scenery workshop just across the canal from his house was stocked with solvents and, most worrisome of all, cylinders of propane gas that were used for welding and soldering.
Signora Seguso came back into the room to say she had finally spoken with the police.
"They already knew about the fire," she said. "They told me we should leave the house at once." She looked over her husband's shoulder and stifled a scream; the flames had moved closer in the short time she had been away from the window. They were now advancing through the four smaller reception halls toward the main body of the theater, in their direction.
Archimede Seguso stared into the fire with an appraising eye. He opened the window, and a gust of bitter-cold air rushed in. The wind was blowing to the southwest. The Segusos were due west of the theater, however, and Signor Seguso calculated that if the wind did not change direction or pick up strength, the fire would advance toward the other side of the Fenice rather than in their direction.
"Now, Nandina," he said softly, "stay calm. We're not in any danger."
The Segusos' house was only one of many buildings close to the Fenice. Except for Campo San Fantin, a small plaza at the front of the theater, the Fenice was hemmed in by old and equally flammable buildings, many of them attached to it or separated from it by only four or five feet. This was not at all unusual in Venice, where building space had always been at a premium. Seen from above, Venice resembled a jigsaw puzzle of terra-cotta rooftops. Passages between some of the buildings were so narrow one could not walk through them with an open umbrella. It had become a specialty of Venetian burglars to escape from the scene of a crime by leaping from roof to roof. If the fire in the Fenice were able to make the same sort of leap, it would almost certainly destroy a sizable swath of Venice.
The Fenice itself was dark. It had been closed five months for renovations and was due to reopen in a month. The canal along its rear façade was also closed-empty-having been sealed off and drained so work crews could dredge the silt and sludge from it and repair its walls for the first time in forty years. The canal between the Segusos' building and the back of the Fenice was now a deep, muddy gulch with a tangle of exposed pipes and a few pieces of heavy machinery sitting in puddles at the bottom. The empty canal would make it impossible for fireboats to reach the Fenice, and, worse than that, it would deprive them of a source of water. Venetian firemen depended on water pumped directly from the canals to put out fires. The city had no system of fire hydrants.
THE FENICE WAS NOW RINGED BY A TUMULT OF SHOUTS and running footsteps. Tenants, routed from their houses by the police, crossed paths with patrons coming out of the Ristorante Antico Martini. A dozen bewildered guests rolled suitcases out of the Hotel La Fenice, asking directions to the Hotel Saturnia, where they had been told to go. Into their midst, a wild-eyed woman wearing only a nightgown came stumbling from her house into Campo San Fantin screaming hysterically. She threw herself to the ground in front of the theater, flailing her arms and rolling on the pavement. Several waiters came out of the Antico Martini and led her inside.
Two fireboats managed to navigate to a water-filled canal a short distance from the Fenice. Their hoses were not long enough to reach around the intervening buildings, however, so the firemen dragged them through the kitchen window at the back of the Antico Martini and out through the dining room into Campo San Fantin. They aimed their nozzles at flames burning furiously in a top-floor window of the theater, but the water pressure was too low. The arc of water barely reached the windowsill. The fire went on leaping and taunting and sucking up great turbulent currents of air that set the flames snapping like brilliant red sails in a violent wind.
Several policemen struggled with the massive front door of the Fenice, but to no avail. One of them drew his pistol and fired three shots at the lock. The door opened. Two firemen rushed in and disappeared into a dense white wall of smoke. Moments later they came running out. "It's too late," said one. "It's burning like straw."
The wail of sirens now filled the air as police and firemen raced up and down the Grand Canal in motorboats, spanking up huge butterfly wings of spray as they bounced through the wakes of other boats. About an hour after the first alarm, the city's big fire launch pulled up at the landing stage behind Haig's Bar. Its high-powered rigs would at last be able to pump water the two hundred yards from the Grand Canal to the Fenice. Dozens of firemen ran hoses from the fire launch into Campo Santa Maria del Giglio, feverishly coupling sections together, but it was immediately apparent that the hoses were of different gauges. Leaks sprayed from the couplings, but the firemen carried the linked hoses, such as they were, up to the rooftops around the Fenice anyway. They directed half the water onto the theater in an attempt to contain the fire and the rest of it onto adjacent buildings. Fire Commandant Alfio Pini had already made a momentous strategic decision: The Fenice was lost; save the city.
WHEN THE LIGHTS WENT OUT, Count Girolamo Marcello was midsentence in a conversation over dinner with his son on the top floor of his palace less than a minute's walk from the front of the Fenice. Earlier in the day, Count Marcello had learned that the exiled Russian poet and Nobel laureate Joseph Brodsky had died suddenly of a heart attack, at fifty-five, in New York. Brodsky had been a passionate lover of Venice and a friend and houseguest of Marcello's. It was while he was staying in Marcello's palace, in fact, that Brodsky had written his last book, Watermark, a lyrical reflection on Venice. That afternoon Marcello had spoken by phone with Brodsky's widow, Maria, and they had discussed the possibility of burying Brodsky in Venice. Marcello knew that this would not be easily arranged. Every available plot on the burial island of San Michele had been spoken for years ago. It was generally understood that any new arrival, even a native Venetian, would be dug up in ten years and moved to a common burial site farther out in the lagoon. But for a non-Venetian, Jewish atheist, gaining approval for even a temporary burial would be a quest fraught with obstacles. Still, there had been notable exceptions. Igor Stravinsky had been buried on San Michele, and so had Sergei Diaghilev and Ezra Pound. They had all been buried in the Anglican and Greek Orthodox section, and all would be allowed to remain there in perpetuity. So there was reason to hope that Brodsky could be buried there, too, and this was on Marcello's mind when the lights went out.
Father and son sat in darkness for a while, expecting the lights to come back on. Then they heard the sirens, lots of them, many more than usual.
"Let's go up and see what's happened," said Marcello. They headed upstairs to the wooden deck on the roof, the altana, and as soon as they opened the door, they saw the raging fire.
Marcello decided they should leave the house at once. They descended the stairs, feeling their way in the darkness, Marcello wondering if the six-hundred-year-old palace was doomed. If it was, the most impressive private library in Venice would disappear with it. Marcello's library occupied most of the second floor. It was an architectural delight, a high-ceilinged space complete with a wraparound wooden gallery that could be reached only by climbing a secret stairway hidden behind a panel in the wall. The floor-to-ceiling shelves held forty thousand volumes of private and state papers, some of them more than a thousand years old. The collection amounted to a treasure trove of Venetian history, and Marcello regularly made it available to scholars. He himself spent long hours sitting in a thronelike black leather armchair perusing the archives, especially the papers of the Marcello family, which was one of the oldest in Venice. Marcello's ancestors included a fifteenth-century doge, or head of state. The Marcellos had, in fact, been among the families that built the Fenice and owned it until just before World War II, when the municipality of Venice took it over.
Marcello walked to the edge of Campo San Fantin and found himself standing in the midst of a crowd that included the entire city council, which had rushed in a body from Ca' Farsetti, the town hall, where it had been in an evening session. Marcello was a familiar figure around town, with his bald head and close-cropped gray beard. The press frequently sought him out for comment, knowing they could count on a frank, often provocative quote or two. He had once described himself to an interviewer as "inquisitive, restless, eclectic, impulsive and capricious." It was the last two of these behavioral quirks that asserted themselves as he stood in Campo San Fantin looking at the burning opera house.
"What a shame," he said. "It's gone. I suppose I will never see it again. The reconstruction will take so long, I'm sure I won't be alive when it's finished." This remark was nominally directed to the person next to him, but it was really intended for the ears of a handsome man with a dark beard in his mid-fifties who was standing a few feet away: the mayor of Venice, Massimo Cacciari. Mayor Cacciari was a former Communist, a professor of philosophy and architecture at the University of Venice, and Italy's most highly regarded contemporary philosopher. Being mayor automatically made him president of the Fenice, which meant he had been responsible for the security of the theater and would now be in charge of rebuilding it. Marcello's remark clearly implied that, in his opinion, neither Cacciari nor his left-wing government had the competence to do it. Mayor Cacciari gazed at the fire with a look of deep despair, unfazed one way or the other by Marcello's obliquely worded taunt.
"But I would suggest," Marcello went on, "that if they want to rebuild the place as it was in its prime-and by that I mean as a social place, a meeting place-they should make it into a great discotheque for young people."
An old man standing in front of Marcello turned around, aghast, tears rolling down his cheeks. "Girolamo!" he said. "How can you say such a thing? Anyway, who knows what the hell young people will want five years from now?"
A deafening crash resounded in the depths of the Fenice. The great crystal chandelier had fallen to the floor.
"You have a point," Marcello replied, "but, as everybody knows, going to the opera has always been a social thing. You can even see it in the architecture. Only a third of the seats are positioned so they have a good view of the stage. The rest, particularly the boxes, are really best for looking at the audience. The arrangement is purely social."
Marcello spoke with a gentle bemusement and without any trace of cynicism. It seemed to tickle him that anyone could think that generations of operagoers, like the Marcellos, had been drawn to the opera by anything as lofty as music or culture-Benedetto Marcello, the eighteenth-century composer and one of Girolamo Marcello's forebears, notwithstanding. Throughout its existence, the Fenice had been hallowed ground in the social landscape of Venice, and Girolamo Marcello had a broad knowledge of Venetian social history. He was, in fact, regarded as something of an authority on the subject.
"In the old days," he said, "the private boxes had curtains you could close, even during the performance. My grandfather loved going to the opera, but he didn't give a damn about music. He would open the curtains only for highlights on the stage. He would say, 'Silence! Now we have the aria!' and he would pull open the curtains and applaud . . . 'Good! Lovely! Well done!' Then he would close the curtains again, and a servant would come from the house with a basket of chicken and some wine. Opera was just a form of relaxation, and anyway it was cheaper to take a box at the opera than heat a whole palace for an evening."
Suddenly another enormous boom shook the ground. The floors in the entrance wing had collapsed, one onto another. People standing at the edge of the campo leaped backward just as the roof of the entrance wing fell, sending flames and burning debris high into the air. Marcello went back upstairs to his rooftop altana, this time fortified with a bottle of grappa, a video camera, and a bucket of water in case any of the airborne embers should happen to land on his roof.
Within minutes-as Girolamo Marcello's video camera whirred and clicked, as Archimede Seguso stared in silence from his bedroom window, as hundreds of Venetians watched from rooftops, and as thousands more all over Italy followed live television coverage of the fire-the roof of the auditorium collapsed with a thunderous boom and a volcanic eruption that shot flaming debris 150 feet into the air. A powerful updraft sent chunks of burning embers, some as big as shoe boxes, arcing over Venice like comets.
Shortly after eleven, a helicopter appeared above St. Mark's, swung low over the mouth of Grand Canal, and scooped up a tankful of water. Then it soared aloft again, banked over the Fenice and, to cheers from rooftops, dropped its water. A hissing plume of steam and smoke coiled up from the Fenice, but the fire kept burning undiminished. The helicopter turned and flew back to the Grand Canal to load up again.
It suddenly occurred to Girolamo Marcello that his wife, Lesa, who was out of town, might hear about the fire before he had a chance to tell her that her family and her house were safe. He came down from the roof to telephone her.
Countess Marcello worked for Save Venice, the American nonprofit organization devoted to raising money for restoring Venetian art and architecture. Save Venice was headquartered in New York. Lesa Marcello was the director of its Venice office. Over the past thirty years, Save Venice had restored scores of paintings, frescoes, mosaics, statues, ceilings, and building façades. Recently, Save Venice had restored the Fenice's painted curtain, at a cost of $100,000.
Save Venice had become a hugely popular charity in America, largely because it was set up to be, in a sense, a participatory charity. Save Venice would organize event-filled, four-day galas in Venice in late summer during which, for three thousand dollars a person, subscribers could attend elegant lunches, dinners, and balls in private villas and palaces not open to the public.
In winter Save Venice kept the spirit alive by mounting a fund-raising ball in New York. Lesa Marcello had flown to New York earlier in the week to attend the winter ball. This year it was to be a masked ball, based on the theme of Carnival, and it would be held in the Rainbow Room on the sixty-fifth floor of Rockefeller Center. As he picked up the telephone to call his wife, Girolamo Marcello suddenly remembered that the ball was scheduled for this very night.
Excerpted from "The City of Falling Angels"
Copyright © 2006 John Berendt.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
What People are Saying About This
Funny, insightful, illuminating... [Venice] reveals itself, slowly, discreetly, under Berendt's gentle but persistent prying. (The Boston Globe)
Berendt has given us something uniquely different....Thanks to [his] splendid cityportrait, even those of us far from Venice can marvel. (The Wall Street Journal)
Reading Group Guide
Twelve years ago, John Berendit's Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil exploded onto the literary scene and stayed on the New York Times bestseller list for a record-breaking four years. The City of Falling Angels, Berendt's first book sinceMidnight, is the same unique brand of literary nonfiction that made him a household name. Like Midnight, Falling Angels is a masterpiece of journalism, storytelling, and social insight, doing for Venice what Midnight did for Savannah, Georgia. It is a compelling look at an otherwise inaccessible community of people who inhabit one of the world's most beautiful cities, a city steeped in art, history, tradition, and ritual.
In particular, The City of Falling Angels is a portrait of the intriguing and colorful private Venice—the world that exists in the off-season, when the tourists have departed and Venetians have Venice all to themselves. The book opens with Berendt riding in a water taxi to his hotel three days after a colossal fire destroyed the Fenice Opera House, one of the most beloved cultural landmarks in Venice. Berendt decides to extend his stay to learn more about the fire and the city from the most beguiling source, though not necessarily the most reliable—the Venetians themselves.
Drawing on all his talents as an investigative reporter, Berendt goes behind the façades of decaying buildings to reveal the city's intricate, hidden private life. Byzantine by nature, the Venetians reveal themselves in both open and secretive ways—after all, as Count Marcello tells him, "Venetians never tell the truth. We mean precisely the opposite of what we say." Berendt meets people whose families lived through a thousand years of Venetian history. He speaks with a variety of people who make their homes in grand palaces and in tiny cottages. There is the Plant Man, the wealthy rat-poison genius, the fearless and much feared Venetian prosecutor who unravels the mystery of the Fenice fire, the celebrated artist who schemes to get himself arrested, the well-known Venetian poet who commits suicide, the politicians struggling to point the finger of blame for the Fenice fire away from themselves, the former mistress of Ezra Pound, and the woman who may or may not have stolen her family legacy. Berendt spins a suspenseful tale out of the threads of many stories—some directly connected to the fire, others not. He finds chaos, corruption, and crime are as characteristic of Venice as its winding canals. With a compelling combination of curiosity and equanimity, Berendt presents an intimate look at a community of natives and expatriates as multifaceted as the colors reflected in the Fenice fire and in the artwork designed to commemorate it.
A CONVERSATION WITH JOHN BERENDT
Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil and The City of Falling Angels are both multi-list bestsellers and widely acclaimed books. Have you been surprised by their success? What do you think attracts people to your work?
My best guess is that what appeals to readers most in both books are the characters. Time magazine said I had become "a state-of-the-art weirdo magnet." What they meant was that the people I write about tend to be very strange. They are, in fact, eccentrics. I love eccentrics. I see them as artists. Their masterpieces are their own lives.
Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil marked your style of nonfiction as unique and groundbreaking. Now, The City of Falling Angels brings Venice alive for readers the way Midnight did for Savannah, Georgia. What do you think the major hallmarks of your writing style are?
I write in the form of what has been called, the New Journalism, or Narrative Nonfiction, or even Literary Nonfiction. Simply put, I write true stories in the style of short stories and novels. I use the literary techniques of fiction writers: extended dialogue, detailed descriptions, the imposition of a narrative structure with action moving from scene to scene.
The huge media buzz that Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil created turned you into a kind of celebrity. How do you think the attention from social and gossip columnists has affected your work as a journalist? Did you find that you were as easily recognized by face or name while in Italy?
What notoriety I gained from all the publicity has proved to be a double-edged sword. It has made some people very eager to be interviewed by me and others afraid and standoffish. I was not as easily recognizable by face and name in Italy as in America, but Midnight was quite well known there, as both a book and a film (under the name Mezzanotte nel giardino del bene del male).
The incredible timing of your trip to Venice, which landed you in the city just days after the burning of the Fenice, gave you the perfect opportunity to create a central thread for The City of Falling Angels. How much of a role did coincidence play in the gathering of information for this book?
Coincidence has been a major factor in the researching of both my books. While I was living in Venice, I always carried a small notepad in my back pocket; I figured I was on duty as a journalist day and night. I would see people in the street who interested me, and I'd engage them in conversation. I'd hear a remark that would send me off in an unexpected direction. My approach in the research phase was to be flexible, to follow my hunches without always knowing where they would lead.
Several prominent and not-so-prominent Venetians express their concern about the rising water levels in Venice. Have you formed an opinion about the issue after hearing so much about it? How do you think the problem can be solved?
Yes, I do think it can be solved. The technology is there. The only uncertainty is exactly how fast the water is rising and whether the proposed plan of moveable dikes is the best solution or only a short-term fix. Other than that, there is always the problem that Italians are congenitally unable to make up their minds. Sometimes that's a good thing, however.
On page 218, you write, "when you attach yourself to famous people . . . you become part of their story." As a writer, how do you determine which people rotating in the orbit of famous personalities or powerful individuals are worth writing about, insofar as their stories are important to the "big picture?" How do you choose which stories to weave together when creating a book like The City of Falling Angels?
It's always a question of whether the ancillary character makes a good story. In the chapter referred to here, the character rotating in an orbit around a famous person appealed to me because her story embodied a theme that runs throughout the book: the uses of the past, or as one character puts it, "the shameless exploitation of the corpse." There was also the literary link between her story and Henry James's The Aspern Papers, a relationship I found irresistible.
In Italy, as in other European countries, it seems more common for families to be able to trace their ancestry back for many generations. From your experience with the people of Venice, what do you think it does to a person's perspective on family relationships, on politics, and on life in general when one is able to point at a family tree, like Francesco da Mosta's, and see so far back in time?
Venetians who can trace their lineage back hundreds of years feel almost a physical connection to Venice, to its history and culture. And the longer the family line the greater feeling of pride.
There are so many wonderful aspects of Venice to love and enjoy. After spending so much time there, what attracts you the most to the city? How many years in all did you live there? What was it like returning to the United States afterward? Did you suffer from culture shock?
I lived in Venice on and off for a period of nine years—starting a few days after the Fenice fire in 1996, and ending when I was finished with the book and the opera house was rebuilt, in 2005. The city's magical beauty and its air of unreality are the aspects of Venice I love most.
The loss of the Fenice Opera House is important to the story of The City of Falling Angels and to the history of Venice. Have there been any new developments in the case surrounding its burning or its reconstruction?
The only news about the Fenice is that Enrico Carella, one of the two young men who were convicted of arson in the fire, is still a fugitive; his whereabouts are unknown. The other man, his cousin Massimiliano Marchetti, has been in jail three years (as of September 2006) and is expected to be released within a year.
Of all the stories you tell in The City of Falling Angels, why did you choose to end by returning to the Seguso family and the Maestro's "Fenice" glass collection?
The Seguso story was one of my favorites, and since I opened the book with it, I felt I should close the circle by ending with it as well.
Count Marcello tells the Save Venice board, "to work and operate in Venice means first of all to understand its differences and its delicate equilibrium." After completing this book, do you feel that you have achieved Marcello's standard?
The Venetians are a very Byzantine people. They thrive on mystery, intrigue, and ambiguity. I understand all that, but it doesn't mean I always understand the hidden meaning of things—or that they do either.
- Count Marcello says to Berendt, "What is true? What is not true? The answer is not so simple, because the truth can change. I can change. You can change. That is the Venice effect" (p. 2). How do you see the "Venice effect" at work in this book?
- Discuss the symbolism of Ludovico De Luigi's painting of the Fenice on fire, placed incorrectly (but on purpose) in the middle of the Venetian Lagoon
- Berendt writes, "Venetians seemed to be asking themselves the very questions that I, too, had been wondering about—namely, what it meant to live in so rarefied and unnatural a setting" (p. 42). What answers, if any, do you think the author and his subjects come to in the pages of The City of Falling Angels?
- Rose Lauritzen calls Venice a "village with an edge." In your opinion, what about Venice makes it like a village, and what gives it an "edge"?
- Mario Moro collects and parades around in uniforms of all types—he has everything from firefighter to naval captain. A local tells Berendt that Mario is just like the Venetian families living in grand palaces and obsessed with nobility, or artists who dream of being the next great Maestro. Identify some of the people in this book who exhibit this type of fantasy and self-delusion. Do you think it is a benign or harmful trait?
- The families that Berendt encounters in Venice are often fighting vicious internal wars, or recovering from battles past. What are some of the family dramas he relays in The City of Falling Angels? Be sure to present both sides of the story!
- Like Mardi Gras in New Orleans, Carnival is an annual celebration that has, in a sense, defined Venice for generations of locals and millions of tourists. Discuss the meaning and execution of Carnival and how it has changed over the centuries. What is the difference between the way the Venetians and the tourists celebrate Carnival?
- Guerrino Lovato explains on page 101 that "Apollonian restraint and Dionysian abandon" are very important to Italian theater, and also to Venice itself. After reading his explanation about the two ancient cults, describe how this dichotomy is still at work in Venice today with regard to politics, social customs, relationships, architecture, and art.
- Much of The City of Falling Angels is devoted to people intricately bound to or exceptionally wrapped up in the past. Discuss the significance of Patricia Curtis's portrait by Charles Merrill Mount and her habit of dressing all in white, as well as Daniel Curtis's collection of architectural fragments.
- Several of the "central" figures in this book—the Lauritzens, the Curtis family, Olga Rudge, the Rylands—are not native Venetians. How do you view these people in light of Mario Stefani's opinion that "anyone who loves Venice is a true Venetian" (p. 331)? Do you think any of them are "true Venetians"? Why or why not?
- With his repeated mentions of both Wings of the Dove and The Aspern Papers, Berendt returns throughout The City of Falling Angels to a theme of "the feigning of love as a means to gain something of value" (p. 184). Identify the various situations in the book that illustrate this theme.
- After seeing a seagull tear out and eat the heart of a pigeon, Ludovico De Luigi tells Berendt, "An allegory: the strong versus the weak. It's always the same. The powerful always win, and the weak always come back to be victims all over again" (p. 233). In what ways does this allegory reflect the events of The City of Falling Angels? Do you think De Luigi's observation is true?
- What is it that finally makes Count Volpi participate in Venetian society, if only for one night at the Save Venice ball?
- Tourism in Savannah, Georgia, skyrocketed after the publication of Berendt's last book, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. Does reading The City of Falling Angels make you want to visit Venice? What specific aspect of the city most intrigues or repels you? If you have read both books, compare and contrast them.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
This was a great introduction to Venice before my first trip to Venice. Gives a glimps of Venice beyond the tourist guide books. As I read this book I felt I could see what Berendt was wrtiing about. Once I arrived in Venice I had a sense of deja vu. I traveled to Venice with two friends and they also read the book. They felt the same as I did. A trip to Venice would not be complete without reading this as well as the standard guide books.
I read City of Falling Angels a few weeks before my wife and I took our first trip to Italy. I didn't have much time for detailed research about Venice, but I wanted to get a taste of the city's history and culture. I couldn't have found a more perfect book in Falling Angels. While Berendt's tale is ostensibly focused on the fire that burned down Venice's famous Fenice Opera House, the story turns quickly into multiple threads all orbiting around modern and historic Venice. Berendt lived in Venice and so can provide a peek into a Venetian's view of life and existence within this unique city, but he never becomes a true Venetian and so is able to retain objectivity and perspective. I visited Venice as a true tourist, but as someone who wanted to understand what Venice is really like (beyond its reputation as an Adult's Disney World), I felt that Falling Angels added wonderful flavor to my brief taste of the city. The book is well written, very readable and has a strong sense of drama throughout. I highly recommend it.
This book was such a wonderful read and an excellent view of Venice, and the Venetians lifestyles & La Fenice opera house history. It starts off with the fire that destroyed it all and the ensuing investigation as well as the rebuilding of it. John Berendt's great dispcriptive writing showed both sides of each depicted conflicts while interweaving each unique character. Berendt had given a lovely look and feel of Venice. I had always been fasinated by Venice's arts/culture & history. And this novel has brought my fasination to a whole another level.
I wasn't sure what I was going to read; but since Midnight in the Garden of Evil had been enjoyable, I expected the same. The books centers around the fire at the Venice Opera House, but never fully answers are the questions as to why, the complete rebuilding story, where all the money for rebuilding came from, etc. Having recently been in Venice (and now regretfully not going in the new opera house, though we walked by it), it was interesting to read about the difficulties with the fire, the rebuilding process, other locations in Venice that are mentioned. I felt it ended up being more of a who-said, who-disliked whom book rather than completely focusing on the opera house itself.
Just like Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, this book focuses on a city oozing atmosphere and history. Arriving a few days after the great fire of the Fenice Opera House, BERENDT tells us the story of the investigation and subsequent trial. Along the way we meet and become attached to several characters, like Olga. More nostalgic than Midnight, the City of Fallen Angels is also perhaps more difficult to get hooked on but it is wonderfully and precisely written.
It seems like whenever there's a good book about a place, we're told 'It's so good it makes you want to go there.' John Berendt's first book, 'Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil' apparently did that for Savannah. But in the case of 'The City of Falling Angels', I felt that even if I went to Venice a hundred times, I'd never get the kinds of insights I got from reading this book. Just the way Venice is so unlike any other place -- a tiny, canal-filled, floating museum of a city that once was actually a world power -- I learned that its inhabitants, perhaps inevitably, are equally unlike those of any other place. Nowhere but in Venice could I find Massimo Donadon, a 'chef' who cornered a whopping 30% of the world's rat poison market by studying different countries' food preferences -- and then making his rat poison taste like those foods, since that's what local rats grow to like after they eat a place's garbage. (Butter for France, pork fat for Germany, curry for India.) And apparently no one but Berendt ever discovered the entertaining, carnivalistic characters like him (and many, many others) -- even though several literary giants, such as Henry James, Thomas Mann, and Ernest Hemingway had their chances. And there's virtually nothing in 'Angels' that you can find in any book of its kind. Or any book, period. 'Angels also has its 'serious' side. It meticulously investigates the 1996 fire (accident or arson?) of one of history's most renowned opera houses. And while doing this, it gives us a basic cultural and political portrait of probably the world's most unusual city. It's obviously tempting to compare 'Angels' to 'Midnight' -- since it's also about a city, and 'Midnight' was such a record-breaking hit. But a much better reason is that it shows that Berendt isn't a one-shot wonder. Nor is he a writer who found subjects so rich that any first-rate writer could have made good books out of the them. It demonstrates that he's a writer who must now be recognized as one of the very best around. The elegance, ego-lessness, and spareness of his prose are the equal of any contemporary writer I can think of. His writing is never excessive or needlessly detailed -- and it never draws attention to itself or its author. After I finished 'Angels', I wondered what had made it so easy to read. A quick riffle of its pages gave me the answer. Whereas most of our best writers frequently confront me with huge blocks of type -- making me almost want to cry out for oxygen, or peek to see where one of those mountainous paragraphs ends -- Berendt's pages are pleasing to the eye. I know I'll always have breathing space -- and his rhythm will become my rhythm. It's a shame that his perfectionism has kept him from writing a larger number of books. (And God knows why he chose to start so late.) But one thing is now clear: He's someone from whom we can expect nothing but fine works. I just hope he doesn't make us wait so long again. Nevertheless, I'm grateful. Jack Winter
which is the Italian phrase meaning 'As is was, where it was' and introduces John Berendt's fine book THE CITY OF FALLING ANGELS about the historically significant Venetian philosophy that affected the response to the rebuilding of the tragic fire that destroyed the opera house La Fenice 1996. Berendt is such a fine journalist with a definite novelist's bent that he manages to transport us to Venice where he not only investigatively reports on the fire itself, but also smoothly integrates the mood of the floating (or sinking!) city of Venice, Italy through the eyes and lives of many of the inhabitants. The result is an insider's look at what has for centuries made Venice the city of lovers and dreamers. Berendt moved to Venice shortly after the complete conflagration destruction of La Fenice in January 1996, not as a short term tourist, but as a long-term visitor, a fact which allowed him to not only report on the incident and the subsequent investigation of the origin of the fire, but also the Venetian neighbors who watched the fire, the people involved in the aborted reconstruction attempts and the final restoration of the opera house with all the original art and antiquities duplicated. AND all of the subterfuge and scandal involved in that seven-year process (the opera house reopened in 2003). But Berendt doesn't stop there. Along his journalistic route he reports on the museum that Peggy Guggenheim built, the people who took over the museum upon her death, the clash of classes, the lives of Ezra Pound and Olga Rudge, the Ezra Pound Foundation enigma, and the fascinating life of controversial poet Mario Stefani whose suicide by hanging initiated yet another investigation of occult mysteries, the type that makes Venice the fascinating city it is. During Stefani's last days he had created graffiti with a red paint can with the message 'Loneliness is not being alone it's loving others to no avail', and Berendt uses that bit of information to uncover truths to the many wills left by Stefani (among them wills assigning all his worldly goods to street hustlers who satisfied his lusts, to a small child Anna whose parents owned a greengrocer he frequented, to churches, preservation societies, etc). This is journalism at its best. But where Berendt really shines is in his poetic capturing of the sights and smells of Venice, the attitudes and demeanor of Venetians, the glory of the monuments and palaces, the gossip about the history of Save Venice and those who wrought havoc in attempting to disguise restoration attempts for personal gains. Even the Mafia is addressed! 'Everyone in Venice is acting. 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 waves...' This is a book to treasure with a slow read, a read that allows the mysteries and ambiguities of this 'wondrous strange' city to filter in through the vital information to the heart. Highly Recommended! Grady Harp
Captivating from the very first pages. Mr. Berendt paints a vivid picture of modern day Venice in decay. Very hard to put down.
Starts out ok but quickly loses steam. Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil was a brilliant book. Brilliant! But this is really second rate. Honestly, I had a hard time finishing it. Really boring. The character development was not at all what it was in Midnight. The story of the city never really came together in my mind (and after visiting Savannah, I don't really think the story REALLY portrayed that city either, but it was STILL a great book) and nothing at all compelled me to even keep reading, much less learn more about Venice. A sadly disappointing experience.
The book opens in January 29, 1996 with the burning down of Venice's jewel: The Fenice Opera House. The Book ends on December 5, 2003 with the re-inauguration concert at the same structure after almost 7 years of reconstruction. What starts as almost a detective novel, trying to find the cause of the fire, quickly turns into a gossip manuscript of who's who in both Italy (specifically Venice), and the USA. Venice becomes the protagonist of the book, and its citizens become the pawns from an Italian Chess game as the Fenice is reconstructed. For those of you who love high society gossip, who's who in both American and European blue blood-this book is for you! For those of us, who could care less, Berendt's prose and storytelling abilities, still make it a wonderful read of leisure. Personally, I think this is as exciting as you could ever make non-fiction.
I read this book in 3 days. It is such a wonderful look at Venice, Venetians, the La Fenice opera house history, the fire that destroyed it and the ensuing investigation and rebuilding process. John Berendt's storytelling shows both sides of each depicted conflict while interweaving the signature look and feel of Venice. I liked Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil but I think this is by far a better book.
I literally couldn't put this book down. I am fascinated by Venice, its People and history, and have had the priviledge of visiting a number of times. The Author brings his reader to his side, and then invites the reader to accompany him on his adventures which are many and fascinating. His ideas which brought both of us into contact with so many Venetian people of all types each with his own glowing story to tell confirmed my place by JB's side. I had not read his first book, 'midnight....' before reading 'city...' and would probably not have been motivated to take up his second book....perhaps because the American setting is not one that I know. I've now read his first book, enjoyed it, and now have more understanding of the people and their lives lived 'as they lived' in this part of the US. However, what I really want to know is when will JB's next book be published...so I can reserve my copy?
I love the sights and sounds of the wonderful and magical city of Venice. This book and its stories of all the eclectic people who live there, bring new depth and longing to be there again. I wandered the narrow streets and bridges with JB. I couldn't wait to find out each point of view in the tales he told. Life is never ending and never simple. I wanted more stories and was sad to finish such an austonding book.
I so enjoyed 'Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil' and was not disappointed in 'The City of Falling Angels'. Mr. Berendt has an engaging story-telling style. Since his story is non-fiction (and I think, harder to write entertainingly), it holds even more interest for me. Excellent book and a real treat if you happen to love Venice.
The author is truly an artist. I often read reviews that talk about how masterfully written the book is. Upon reading the book, I find the brush strokes very broad - it is too easy to see how the author is trying to shape your vision. There are very few apparent brush strokes here, just a series of gorgeous pictures. Other amateur, (as am I) reviewers have decried the lack of stories about 'ordinary' people. Many of the characters in the book are quite ordinary, but the setting and their stories take them out of the realm of 'ordinary'. I anxiously await another book.
John Berendt paints another exquisite work of art. I hesitate to say a masterpiece because 'Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil' continues to be his best book. But ' The City of Falling Angels' is not even close to being some second rate effort by a worn out writer. Berendt's Venice is a wonderful textured canvas upon which he brushes and layers incredibly intriguing non-fiction characters. The stories of the Massimo Donadon and Mario Stefani are two of his finer tales of comedy and tragedy worthy of standing alone and there yet are so many more to fascinate the reader in this book. Berendt's obvious appreciation for and intimacy with Venice and the many connected to it by birth or self-adoption is very apparent and is a great example of book-length reporting that is increasingly absent today. The features of a map, glossary and other addendum reference material included in these pages are very considerate of readers' needs.
A witty and urbane tour through the private Venice. Along with Berendt we encounter an extraordinary roster of Venetians and expatriates--the people who actually live in Venice. And what a collection of eccentrics and oddballs! I was hooked from the very beginning in which Berendt describes the spectacular fire that destroyed the Fenice opera house, as seen through the eyes of the people who were on the scene, including the 87-year-old master glassbower of Venice, who watched from his bedroom window a mere 30 feet away from the blaze and then went to his glassmaking factory and started work on a series of bowls and vases representing the awful fire. While he follows the twists and turns of the Fenice story--the investigation into the causes of the fire and the chaotic rebuilding of the theater--Berendt weaves in a number of other fascinating stories that reveal the mystery, the intrigue, the social climbing, the back biting, and the corruption seething in this magical and beautiful city. Couldn't put it down. Didn't want it to end. When is Berendt going to write another book?
A witty and urbane tour through the private (as opposed to the tourist) Venice. Along with Berendt we encounter an extraordinary roster of Venetians and expatriates--the people who actually live in Venice. And what a collection of eccentrics and oddballs! I was hooked from the very beginning in which Berendt describes the spectacular fire that destroyed the Fenice opera house, as seen through the eyes of the people who were on the scene, including the 87-year-old master glassbower of Venice, who watched from his bedroom window a mere 30 feet away from the blaze and then went to his glassmaking factory and started work on a series of bowls and vases representing the awful fire. While he follows the twists and turns of the Fenice story--the investigation into the causes of the fire and the chaotic rebuilding of the theater--Berendt weaves in a number of other fascinating stories that reveal the mystery, the intrigue, the social climbing, the back biting, and the corruption seething in this magical and beautiful city. Couldn't put it down. Didn't want it to end. When is Berendt going to write another book? I hope it doesn't take another decade!
This is a really great book. It is so well written and just a delight to read about the intertwined characters that make up the incredible city of Venice. I gave a copy to so many of my friends -- I would recommend this book to anybody look for a great read on a cold winter day. It's really really good.
John Berendt does a good job of capturing Vienna, the society, political, and legal system in Vienna, which appears to be largely dysfunctional and decadent, but just the way Venetians have been accustomed to live for many centuries, and the way of living they seem to want to preserve for the future. One also gets the firm impression that many Venetians oppose the international 'Save Vienna' set who are often uniformed about Venetian customs and ways of life, and often interested in only stroking their own egos, but who may ultimately be responsible for preserving Vienna in the long run. It is at times difficult to determine if Berendt is writing fiction or non-fiction because of the eclectic blending of many different minor characters in the story, and dialog that often takes place between the characters and author where the author always remains in the background. The book must be judged based on the fact that it is non-fiction, and that makes it difficult to review since it reads like fiction. There are perhaps too many minor characters injected into this book, and too many loose ends unaccounted for. The narration of the Rylands' questionable appropriation of the Ezra Pound library, and payment by Yale to acquire the material from them in a confidential settlement is interesting, and obviously required a tremendous amount of research by the author. His description of Venice neatly parallels the way life is actually lived in Venice by the Venetians. I definitely recommend the book for reading because Berendt offers a valuable insight into Vienna and the Venetian way of life. Com'era, dov'era. 'As it was, where it was.' Can the Fenice Opera House be restored as it once was? That too may only be an illusion.
A great read focusing on the fascinating people who inhabit Venice. A common thread running throughout the book is the Fire at the Fenice Opera House and it's subsequent rebuilding.
I suspect most people who read this book do so for the same reason I did: they liked Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. Instead of Savannah, we are now in Venice. The story opens a few days after the fire that destroyed the Fenice Theater and continues through its first performance after reopening almost ten years later. Most of the book is in some way related to this: a glassblower who makes vases to commemorate the event, the intracharity squabbles of an American group trying to fund restorations, and of course the investigation into the cause of the fire. In the middle are anecdotes about various other Venicians, including a rather long tale about Ezra Pound's mistress, Olga Ruge. Berendt's prose style reads very much like a novel, and I found myself very much wanting to see Venice. I also discovered that I don't particularly want to visit Venice. The characters, while interesting and often eccentric, also struck me as particularly unfriendly and oversensitive. Gossip and bribery rule the day against the backdrop of gorgeous canals and palaces. Still, it's an interesting book and very different from most travelogues. I'll definitely keep an eye out for Berendt's next work.
I read Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil years ago and loved it, so I was excited when this book came out. Berendt really knows how to select a setting. He also knows how to seek out the local "characters" and bring them to life in print. Like Midnight, this book has a central mystery that's rather unsatisfactorily solved (in this case, the burning of The Fenice Opera House), fabulous descriptions of the city and its art and architecture, and lots of minor intrigues and petty infighting amongst the locals. It's like a really well written gossip column. And it's lots of fun.I doubt I'll retain much of what I read, but I did really enjoy the book.
Enjoyable, particularly if you have been to Venice, but certainly doesn't grab you the way Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil does. You can't quite get past the feeling of "Gee I'm incredibly rich now I can go live in Venice as long as I want and not worry about how expensive everything is!" :-)
A great book from a writer who's descriptions bring a locale (and its citizens) to life. With the launching point of the Fenice Fire in 1996Berendt already has the makings of a mystery drama; but he doesn't stop there. Berendt decides to delve into the life of Venetians rather than simply scratching the surface by talking only of the city. The people we meet are beyond real in their willingness to turn against family and fight over embarrassingly simple things. With the background of such rich history Berendt uses every location he visits in order to weave a tale that could make even those who have been to Venice jealous. A startling glimpse into the Venetian culture and a realization of how they approach life so differently from Americans. A remarkable read that will leave you wanting to jump on a plane, fly to Italy, and take a room (of indefinite stay) in the floating city.