Beware of falling angels
Read John Berendt’s book about Venice in situ and immerse yourself in the city
IT IS late August and hot. I am in Venice for the first time; I am charmed, of course. But lined up in Piazza San Marco with hundreds of fellow tourists, all waiting our turn to shuffle through the basilica, I can’t help but wonder if the concept of travel broadening the mind applies here.
My daily mela verde gelato is certainly broadening the silhouette, but my glimpse of the church’s beautiful mosaics is so fleeting, I doubt that my mind is significantly enriched. And apart from the uninterested museum guardians, indifferent waiters, and hotel concierge (who is actually charming and helpful to a fault), encounters with Venetians are rare.
Even the Italian couple seated next to me, enjoying a pre-dinner spritz and cicchetti (snack) by the Grand Canal, and who sympathise when I query my bill, are from Verona.
It turns out my wine has been added to the tab of the table’s previous, long-gone occupants, a mistake the waiter only casually regrets. ‘‘Venetians are pirates,’’ sighs the man from Verona.
John Berendt, author of City of Falling Angels, an expose of Venice in the late 1990s, has a similar take on Venetians. ‘ ‘ I knew that in Venice I had been told truths, halftruths and outright lies, and I was never entirely sure which was which,’’ he wrote.
I’ve never met Berendt, but think of him as Johnny B, the endearment by which reputedly he is known to friends. Johnny B specialises in immersion travel. A Newyorker who spent eight years in Savannah, Georgia, researching his bestseller Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, he then took more than 11 years (eight of which he spent living mostly in Venice) to produce Falling Angels. Both books combine crime (a homicide in Midnight; the arson of La Fenice opera house in Falling Angels), travelogue and cameos of eccentric characters.
Remember Midnight’s Jim Williams, the antiques dealer and party host ( played by Kevin Spacey in the movie adaptation) accused of murdering his alleged lover, and defended by our own Jack Thompson?
Falling Angels has a memorable cast, too. Ralph Curtis, for example. To visit his Palazzo Barbaro, named the Earth liaison station of the Democratic Republic of Planet Mars, Johnny B has to complete an application form and include a print of his big toe. Berendt complies, using brown shoe polish.
The author put Savannah on the tourist trail and its grateful residents gave Johnny B the key to the city. Venice didn’t need him, but its quirky inhabitants love mystery and gossip. They happily disembarked from their gondolas, met him in cafes and wine bars and told their tales.
The book’s name stems from a sign once posted outside Santa Maria della Salute church: Beware of falling angels.
Today, the rooftop marble angels still appear to teeter, but restoration of the church, the dome of which symbolises the Venice skyline, has secured them to the facade. The central plot of Falling Angels, though, is the investigation of the 1996 fire that gutted the Fenice and threatened Venice. Venetians were devastated by the loss of their opera house. ‘‘Every time a piece of that ceiling fell, a piece of my heart fell with it,’’ said one of the firemen. Johnny B arrived in Venice three days later. He had the story, as well as the magical setting, for his second book.
Two cousins, Enrico Carella and Massimiliano Marchetti, electricians who had been working on a renovation of the Fenice, were eventually convicted of arson. Venetians laid out motivation theories: they lit the fire to avoid paying a fine because their work was running late; or, the mafia paid them to burn the theatre down, expecting to win lucrative contracts to rebuild it.
Others thought it wasn’t arson at all, just faulty wiring typical of Venice.
Coincidentally, we are staying at Hotel Saturnia, where Johnny B says guests of Hotel La Fenice were relocated on the night of the fire. The Saturnia’s owner, Ugo Serendrei, can’t remember that, but he has not forgotten the fire, which threatened his hotel.
Serendrei, who was born in room 20, watched anxiously while his son doused embers on the hotel roof. The canal at the rear of the Fenice had been drained for repairs, so firefighters ran hoses from the Grand Canal. Unfortunately the hoses had holes.
‘‘These kinds of things happen in Italy,’’ says Serendrei. Eventually a helicopter arrived and dumped water scooped from the lagoon on to the inferno. The fire was extinguished but the theatre was a burned-out shell.
Naming the Fenice after the phoenix, the mythical firebird that’s reborn from its own ashes, has proved prescient. Fire destroyed it in 1836. Then, it was rebuilt in a year. This time it took almost eight years and the rebuild, in itself opera-like, is a subplot in Falling Angels: dismissal of the contractors on appeal from an unsuccessful tenderer, the death of the architect, sacking of the second contractors who verged on bankruptcy, and Venetians protesting at the delays on the canals, singing opera (naturally).
We attend a performance of La Traviata, which premiered at the Fenice in 1853. Offstage, half a dozen uniformed men strut about, their T-shirts emblazoned with the words: Vigili del fuoco (firefighters). The gilded rococo-style fit-out is stunning, but Serendrei thinks it’s a bit kitsch. ‘‘Perhaps it’s the aqua paint?’’ I ask. Originally, the 164 boxes were painted beige, but in one of the few exceptions to the ‘ ‘ as it was’’ principle underpinning the restoration, a brighter colour was chosen. Serendrei says, ‘‘It’s just too new.’’
I find the Fenice’s exterior dis- appointingly plain. Serendrei thinks it’s horrible and bemoans that the fire has drawn tourists to the Fenice when they could visit many more beautiful buildings, such as the Santa Maria dei Miracoli church, for example.
The next day we follow his recommendation. Johnny B described the Miracoli as a ‘‘multicoloured, early-renaissance jewel box sheathed in panels of inlaid marble and porphyry’’. He found it irresistible, and I agree.
There may not have been any perceptible broadening of the mind during our week in Venice, but re-reading Falling Angels in situ has certainly added to the fun. We head off for other adventures. Our itinerary includes Treviso, where we will try not to think of the Rat Man of Treviso, the international rat poison tycoon whom Johnny B met at a carnival ball and whose poison recipes are country-specific. German rats like pork fat, apparently.
A reveller poses in Piazza San Marco in traditional costume and mask during Venice’s annual carnival