The City of Falling Angels
John Berendt
(Sceptre --- 2005)
I suppose Venice has always been complicated --- messy, dramatic, over-wrought, theatrical, occasionally stinky. When you locate a tiny city three feet above sea level on 118 islands connected by bridges, a matrix of narrow canals (the level of the odoriferous, polluted water rising and falling with the tides) and interwoven human relationships that are byzantine or bizarre or fractious or all three, what do you expect? Then, when you throw into the mix centuries' worth of various outsize egos and legendary art, literary, and historical figures --- Robert Browning, Ezra Pound, Canaletto, Lord Byron, Tintoretto, Casanova, Marco Polo (the list goes on almost infinitely) --- and piles of wealth thrown around freely since medieval times or long before, spectacular art 'n' architecture, an exquisite quality of light infused with romance, and so on, you can't be too surprised that Venezia, its people and goings on, are in a constant state of complessità massima.

But then maximum complexity gives a good writer much to write about, and can be very satisfying to the reader, too. John Berendt delivers. He is best known for his Pulitzer-nominated Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. But The City of Falling Angels matches his off-kilter, entertaining portrait of Savannah, Georgia for oddness, eccentricity, good reporting and out-of-round characters (among many others, in Berendt's Venice you will meet a loquacious rat poison tycoon --- he calls himself a "chef" --- and hear him hold forth at length, over dinner, about his toxic recipes, which vary country by country --- because, he insists, rats have a special affinity for their nation's favorite foods . . . just like people do).

Berendt gives us history, gossip, politics, over-indulgence, back-biting, corruption, infighting at do-gooder organizations, and no end of name dropping --- from movie stars to royals to luminaries of the contemporary art, film, culinary and money worlds. Indeed, a good friend of mine, and one of the name-droppingest name droppers I know, told me his problem with the book was that there was an overdose of name-dropping. That's like Julia Child saying there's too much French cuisine. Or like Keith Richards saying there's too much sex, drugs and rock & roll. And drugs. Or like Hugh Hefner saying there are too many bare breasts. (Apparently, Hef has said exactly that --- in October it was announced that Playboy magazine will no longer publish pictures of nude women. The end times are upon us. What's next? A plague of locusts?)

Venetian artist/provocateur Ludivico De Luigi expresses disappointment at the low eccentricity quotient in the current crop of the city's resident expats. He misses Peggy Guggenheim.

"'After the war,' said De Luigi, 'Peggy Guggenheim used to give big parties. The servants would come out when it was over and give us ice cream and cigarettes. Whenever she had a party, my friends and I would stand on the Accademia Bridge and watch her guests dancing on the terrace. One night, Peggy re-enacted the Sinking of the Titanic --- her father had died on it. She walked from her terrace into the water, completely nude. She took the orchestra with her. She had paid them to do it. The gondoliers had to rescue her.

"'America is not pouring out those crazy people any more. They were very amusing. They had a sense of theater. They were inventive, creative. Today Americans are not so amusing. Va bene. We will just have to amuse ourselves.'"

De Luigi does his part, even if he risks (or invites) arrest. Described by Berendt as "a man of supreme self-confidence and dramatic flair," who created "Daliesque paintings...verging on kitsch..."

"On one occasion," Berendt writes, "he had been granted permission to display his sculpture of a horse in St. Mark's Square and, without telling the authorities, he invited a notorious member of the Italian parliament to attend: Illona Staller, a Radical deputy from Rome, better known as 'Cicciolina'. She arrived at St. Mark's by gondola topless, and climbed up on to the horse, proclaiming herself a living work of art surmounting an inanimate one. Parliamentary immunity protected Cicciolina from prosecution for obscene acts in public, so De Luigi was charged instead. He told the presiding judge, who happened to be a woman, that he had not expected Cicciolina to take her clothes off.

    'But, knowing Miss Staller's history, Signor De Luigi,' the judge said, 'couldn't you imagine she would take her clothes off?'

    'Your Honor, I am an artist. I have a lively imagination. I can imagine you taking your clothes off right here in court. But I don't expect you to do it.'

    'Signor De Luigi,' said the judge, 'I, too, have an imagination, and I can imagine sending you to jail for five years for contempt of court.'

De Luigi got off with a five month sentence, but never served a day thanks to a general amnesty that was invoked soon after his trial.

But such amusing fireworks are mere spice sprinkled around the book's central story: The January 1996 conflagration that destroyed the glorious Gran Teatro La Fenice --- the Fenice Opera House -- and the resulting complications, interpersonal warfare, accusations, prosecutions and other socio-political hi-jinx and high drama involved in getting it rebuilt. It's Italy, so the Mafia enters and exits the stage with regularity, but it's Venice, so in between everything else there's Carnevale, parties, elaborate dinners, drinking, film festivals, famous people, their paramours and spawn --- living and dead --- running hither and thither, expats and their abundant, expensive affectations, fast boats and generous globs of history.

The fire happened on a Monday, the 29th, a little before 9 p.m. It was spotted out the window of her nearby home by Signora Seguso, wife to one of the city's oldest, most famous glass blowers, Archimede Seguso. At 86 he still regularly went to the studio and worked with the molten glass, seated before the furnace, turning and blowing, shaping poly-chrome vases and other beautiful objects. Berendt writes: "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... 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 is why the artist who painted his portrait some years ago had taken particular care to show the curve in his left hand."

Signora Seguso called the fire brigade, didn't get an answer, then called the police. The firefighters soon showed up with the police. The police couldn't get the theater's front door open, so one pulled out a pistol and, in a laudable instance of brutality, shot the lock off. "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 Fenice possessed extraordinary acoustics and had been the site of numerous commissioned opera premiers, including Verdi's La Traviata and Rigoletto, Benjamin Britten's The Turn of the Screw, Stravinsky's The Rakes Progress, and dozens of others. The theater's exquisite sound quality was due to its design, naturally, but also to the building material. The interior was entirely wood, very old, very dry --- excellent kindling. And because the Fenice was undergoing a renovation at the time of the fire, the sprinkler system and smoke alarms were not functioning. By morning, despite a massive battle pitched by the firefighters and water-dumping helicopters, the stone shell of the theater looked like a box full of charcoal.

Then the real fire started: Who's to blame? Was it negligence or arson? If the latter, what's the motive? Motive is easy: It's always money. And who in Italy likes money more than Pooh likes honey? The Mafia! What's more, it was discovered in 1991 that the mob was responsible for the burning of the Petruzelli Opera House. The Mafia was also suspected, Berendt writes, of "car-bomb attacks that destroyed parts of the Church of San Giovanni in Laterno in Rome, the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, and the Gallery of Modern Art in Milan." In the bombing cases the motive, supposedly was not money, not directly anyway --- La Cosa Nostra was trying to tell Pope John Paul II enough already with the anti-Mafia statements. There were various other good reasons for blaming the Fenice fire on The Mob, but the best reason for not blaming them was that they didn't do it. Probably. That was the outcome of later exhaustive investigations, anyhow. So who done it?

Well, the culprit was definitely not longtime Venice resident Ezra Pound because he died 24 years before the Fenice ignited, and besides he loved Venice. Rose Lauritzen, an Englishwoman, who lives with her American husband Peter, in one the city's splendid palaces, started visiting Venice when she was 16. She and her mother stayed in a cottage during the summers. "Ezra Pound lived next door in an identical cottage," Berendt writes, "which he had shared with his mistress, Olga Rudge, since the 1920s."

    'Pound had just been released from St. Elizabeth's Hospital for the Criminally Insane,' Rose recalled, 'and by the time I saw him in the early 1960s, he was old and hermit-like. He had taken his famous vow of silence.'
    'We'd see the two of them, Olga and Ezra, quietly strolling in the area and having coffee at one of the cafes along the Zattere... His face was craggy and his eyes were immensely sad. When people stopped to greet them, he would stand patiently, in silence, while Olga made pleasantries. We never saw him speak in public, but at home we could hear him reading poetry aloud in a strong, rhythmic voice. My mother was a fan of Pound's, so she rang the doorbell and asked if she might have an audience with him. Olga very politely told her to go away: it was no use, he wouldn't talk to anyone. We finally realized we'd been hearing recordings of Pound reading his poems. He'd been sitting on the other side of our common wall, listening quietly, just as we had...'

§   §   §

The City of Falling Angels is full of such vignettes --- digressions, mini-narratives, demi-portraits of the place's wealth of characters, head cases, and extremists wound around the story of the Fenice fire and its elaborate aftermath. The rat tycoon, Signor Donadson, has lots to say, much to the distress of a lady seated nearby trying to enjoy her dinner. He's proud that he and his friend Luciano Benetton (speaking of name dropping) use the same photographer for their ads, "'Oliviero Toscani, the guy who created the United Colors of Benetton ad campaign and Colors magazine. I got Toscani to shoot an ad for my rat poison. It was based on The Last Supper. All the men had rat heads, even Christ. But I got talked out of using it.'" Hmmm, who could that have possibly offended?

Then there's a short tale about the renovation of another theater, the Malibran, and the extraordinary complications contractors run into working in Venice. An architect on that project tells of digging below the theater and bumping into Marco Polo's house:

    'It was built in the thirteenth century. We knew it was there before we started, of course, and when we dug down, we found it exactly where the documents said it would be. We came to the ground floor of the house two meters below the level of the ground today... Soon we came to an eleventh-century floor, and below that an eighth century floor, and farther down, finally, a sixth-century floor! ...It was dramatic evidence that the water level has been rising, and Venice sinking, for fifteen hundred years, and that the Venetians have been dealing with this problem the same way for all that time, by raising the level of the city. We're still doing it today. You can see workmen all over the city tearing up paving stones along the canals and relaying them seven centimeters higher. This will reduce the number of floods for thirty years or so [make that 20 years; the book was published in 2005], but we can't keep doing that for ever.'

Why not? Later in the book, Berendt is talking to a Count Marcello. The writer says, "'You once told me that Venetians always mean the opposite of what they say,'

"Count Marcello smiled. 'True, and when I told you that, I meant the opposite of what I said.'"

No wonder the place is complicated.

As for the Fenice fire, they got the guilty ones, at least the ones the extremely tenacious prosecutor believed were guilty. Motive? Take a guess.

--- Douglas Cruickshank
Send us e-mail


Go Home

Go to the most recent RALPH