Be­ware of fall­ing an­gels

Read John Berendt’s book about Venice in situ and im­merse your­self in the city

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Summer Reading Special - SU­SAN HUR­LEY

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

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