Year published: 2005
Genre: History, portrait of a city
Setting & time: Venice, 1996-2003, with historical background going back farther
John Berendt arrived in Venice a few days after La Fenice (The Phoenix), Venice’s opera house, went up in flames, and visited it repeatedly over the next 8 years, interviewing people and doing extensive research. The book is a portrait of the city’s artists, aristocrats and glamorous expatriates at that time, with the story of the Fenice fire and its aftermath up to the grand re-opening as the backbone of the narrative, even when discussing other matters, like the debacle over Ezra Pound’s papers.
The book begins with a gripping account of the night of the fire, looking at it through the eyes of some of the people whose portraits he draws later in the book, and continues with a tightly woven tapestry of words. Berendt, like a good journalist, always keeps back and is rarely in the forefront of the narrative, so the book can’t really be called a travelogue. It’s more like a current history and a portrait of certain strata of the city’s inhabitants, and while he doesn’t go into raptures over the city like so many others have done, his love for Venice shines through.
This book is hardly going to be of much use to people who plan on exploring Venice, but it may well provide insights for people who plan on living there. Most of all, it is well written and makes a cosy read. 4 stars.