Is this the best or worst book about Venice? The City of Falling Angels – John Berendt

Described by my Time Out Venice guide as ‘gossipy’ and Jan Morris as dirt digging, this book is undoubtedly both, but is an extremely interesting non fictional account of  Venice and its people.  This is fantastic and a highly recommended read if holidaying in Venice.  I was reading this whilst  having my cappuccino sitting by the Accademia Bridge looking at Santa Maria della Salute, exactly the same view as the cover, and it was one of those moments where you think life doesn’t get much better than this.

Berendt arrives in Venice during the controversy of the aftermath of the  fire in the Fenice Theatre – was it arson, incompetence or neglect on the part of politicians?  As the story unfolds we begin to learn more about the underworld of Venetian life.  Berendt’s book is formed by his encounters with acquaintances (especially rich and or titled ones) during his visit.  In fact his stories show some of the worst sides of Venetian society and his stories are so damning about individuals that it is  surprising he didn’t get sued for libel.

The book opens with the Seguso family and then goes on to  discuss the traditional history of feuds within Murano glass families.  He claims that one of the sons broke away from the family business  to set up his rival business and then attempted to have his father declared insane in order to stage a complete take over.   He also visits the  Curtis family in the Palazzo Barbaro, the setting that inspired James to write the Wings of a Dove and discusses the decline of this family and their inability to hold onto all of the property.  The personal rivalry of Save Venice organisation makes the key members sound like egomaniacs who have lost sight of their original aim.

Berendt also recounts the  story about the widow of  the Fascist poet Ezra Pound, who incidentally was once imprisoned for Fascist remarks.  Olga Rudge, he asserts was cheated out of her property and Pound’s papers by two seemingly friendly expats one of whom was director of the Guggenheim museum, he then draws parallels between this and Henry James’ Aspen papers (which sound like a good read for the future) Despite all these stories about others Berendt tells us very little of his personal life, he just seems to prance around parties and have no personal connections with anyone at all.

Jan Morris argues that “He is not much concerned with the architecture or history of the city. He rarely mentions the inside of a church or a street scene, let alone a lagoon sunset. His business is to dig out the dirt – to expose the myriad corruptions, feuds, deceits, ambitions and dynastic resentments which, now as always, fester behind the facades of the Serenissima.”

This is probably fair, it makes Venice seem insular and petty place  and does not draw attention to the fantastic beauties of Venice. but it doesn’t stop it being a good read.  Its probably best to read it while you are there, or it might put you off.  So I think it’s great but am interested to know if it really is a polarising read.

Not technically Venice here, but reading the book in the neighbouring island of Burano.



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3 responses to “Is this the best or worst book about Venice? The City of Falling Angels – John Berendt

  1. Carol Jepson

    I thought this was a great book. I didn’t like Glassblower of Murano much – it was totally unconvincing for me but I did get to the end. I also loved two other books about Italy (not specifically Venice though) – Midnight in Sicily by Peter Robb and A Season with Verona by Tim Parks as they give you a real insight into living there.

  2. I haven’t read either of these two, in fact haven’t read anything by Tim Parks? Do you rate him?

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