The City of Falling Angels by John Berendt Reviewed by Paola...

by ExperiencePlus! - Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The City of Falling Angels by John Berendt, New York: Penguin, 2005

A Review by Paola Malpezzi Price

City of Falling Angels by John Berendt

“To be Venetian and to know how to live in Venice is an art. It is our way of living, so different from the rest of the world. Venice is built not only of stone but of a very thin web of words, spoken and remembered, of stories and legends, of eyewitness accounts and hearsay…..In Venice we move delicately and in silence. And with great subtlety. We are a very Byzantine people, and that is certainly not easy to understand.” (p. 314)

These words were supposedly pronounced by the Venetian Count Marcello in 1998 at a board meeting of the international association Save Venice. They well express the uniqueness of Venice and the difficulty that Italians and foreigners alike have in dealing with the inhabitants of Venice. John Berendt has been successful in his book in conveying to his readers his understanding of Venetians and the genius loci of their unique city. Berendt chose the tragic and mysterious fire that destroyed the Fenice (“The Phoenix”) Opera House in January 1996 as the focus around which to weave his non-fiction narrative. This event and the subsequent accusations, trials and efforts to recreate the ancient building summarize and symbolize the dramas, the passions and the conflicts hidden behind the thick walls of Venice’s palazzi and the philanthropic facade of organizations, such as Save Venice, that were created to preserve and restore the artistic treasures of the city.

Using the skills of a consummate detective, Berendt presents a remarkable cast of individuals, both Venetian and expatriates, who have played an important role in Venetian society in the last decades. Through detailed reporting of personal interviews, background information and descriptions of people’s physical appearance and behaviour, our author is able to make the readers like or despise these figures, just as the author apparently does.

We meet, through Berndt’s words and among other characters, the Seguso family, descendants of twenty generations of Murano master glassblowers, who continue a tradition of family jealousies and conflicts; Mario Stefani, a Venetian TV commentator, art critic and poet whose death generates a flurry of accusations and a conversation sotto voce about homosexuality; the painter De Luigi, whose ‘nightmarish’ representations reflect the surrealistic nature of some events and people in Venice; the maker of rat poison, who believes he has discovered the ultimate secret to kill rats of the world according to their national food. Although we encounter also some of the Venetian nobility, usually portrayed as eccentric, or haughty, or passionate about Venice’s past glory, we meet, above all, the multitude of rich expatriates living in Venice and past foreigners who have made their love for Venice a central focus of their life. We meet, for instance, the Curtis family, the first American family of expatriates to reside in Venice for several generations and who, by buying the Barbaro palace in the 1800, bought a shrine of Venetian history and American and British literature; we enter the world of Olga Rudge, the mistress of Ezra Pound, who lived in Venice for almost fifty years, several of them spent with the great poet as we learn the history of Pound’s ‘other’ family. We read more details than we ever wanted to know about the personages behind Save Venice, together with their interpersonal conflicts and quarrels, as well as the successes of their important philanthropic organization.

Although I usually don’t enjoy this kind of non-fiction, I must admit that I read with pleasure and suspense this book, since Berendt treated the personal and public stories he described as detective narratives. I felt once again the charm of Venice, just as Berendt did and, as he mentioned in his last chapter: “I, too, had been bewitched by the peacefulness of Venice, and by much more about Venice besides. What had at first been largely an attraction to the city’s beauty evolved into a more generalized enchantment as time went on” (395).

I do recommend this book to anyone who cares about Venice, its history and art and their preservation, but also to those who want to know more about the influence that this magical city had on English-writing literati such as Henry James, Byron, Robert Browning and especially Ezra Pound. You will not be disappointed!

Paola Malpezzi Price (Cofounder of ExperiencePlus! Bicycle Tours)