The City of Falling Angels by John Berendt

“The boat slowed as we drew near; then it slipped into the shaded closeness of a small canal. Moving at an almost stately pace, we glided past overhanging balconies and weatherworn stone figures set in crumbling brick and stucco. I looked up and caught glimpses of painted ceilings and glass chandeliers. I heard fleeting bits of music and conversations, but no honking of horns, no squealing of brakes, and no motors other than the muffled churning of our own.”

Author John Berendt (Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil) arrived in Venice in February 1996–just three days after a mysterious and catastrophic fire destroyed one of the many splendours of Venice–a centuries old opera house named the Gran Teatro La Fenice. While the city struggles with competing plans for rebuilding the historic opera house, an investigation of the fire begins. Blame is liberally assigned to the local authorities and conspiracy theories abound. There’s even a rumour of Mafia involvement in the fire. Meanwhile Venetian prostitutes present the city’s mayor with a cheque towards the monumental costs of rebuilding. Newly arrived Berendt is swept up in the mystery and the various theories of how the fire–a disaster waiting to happen–occurred. But The City of Falling Angels is about much more than the fire–it’s a portrait of a city the tourists never see.

After arriving in Venice–a city in which “nothing preserves like neglect,” Berendt quickly grasps that there are in fact, two Venices. There’s the Venice that 11,000,000 tourists see a year, and then there’s the other non-tourist Venice–a place where one can live for decades and still be considered an outsider. Berendt’s book examines both aspects of Venice while rubbing shoulders with members of affluent Venetian society. There are those who can trace their families back for twenty-seven generations– as well as Americans who’ve lived in Venice all their lives and yet still don’t belong.

Berendt takes up residence off the tourist track , and is soon in the thick of upper crust Venetian society. From his viewpoint, he cannily observes and records some of the local controversies while mingling with the social climbers and describing the airs and graces of the snobs. There’s a “chef” who specializes in rat poison that’s modified to the culinary tastes of a host population, a man who built Casanova’s famous gondala to scale and then discovers that it won’t fit under some of Venice’s famous bridges, and the ambitious Rylands–who are accused of “selective gerontophilia” (that sounds dirty) in the controversy that surrounds the estate of Ezra Pound. One section concentrates on the Curtis siblings who co-own the Palazzo Barbaro–and who are now forced by financial constraints to sell one floor of the palace. While Ralph Curtis replays various moon landings to the accompaniment of a hideously loud boom box, Patricia Curtis feels the burden of shouldering the upkeep of one of Venice’s marvelous landmarks.

In the course of this entertaining book, Berendt includes glimpses of Woody Allen–as well as the prosecutor who uncovered the CIA funded project Gladio. When examining Venice, the author takes the labyrinthine route, and this is not a simple tourist version of the city highlights. While the book definitely provides the reader with a sense of what it’s like to live in Venice, it sometimes bogs down in detail (especially towards the end), but if you’re at all curious about this famous, unique city, plagued with too many tourists, 120,000 pigeons and a rising sea level, then The City of Falling Angels is an entertaining, recommended read.

On a final note, after reading Berendt’s sometimes unflattering portraits, he may have to do a Sacha Baron Cohen and go in disguise next time.

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