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City Of Fallen Angels - Venice and La Fenice

The City of Falling Angels

Review by Gerald Levy

VENICE is, for many, incomparably the most beautiful city in Europe. Its beauty has remained after its art has departed to museums abroad. Its Arsenal lies deserted, its empire has crumbled, its liberty has been lost, and its wealth has been dissipated.

It was once described as, ‘the one home today of liberty, peace and justice… rich in fame, mighty in her resources, but mightier in virtue, solidly built on marble…’

That was Petrarch, writing in 1364. By that time, Venice had been enriching itself for about 500 years by East-West trade. With the profits, it had built the great Basilica of St Mark, a magnificent, and as yet uncompleted, palace for its Doge, and a multitude of churches. It had created a great arsenal, a great navy, and an empire in the Eastern Mediterranean. Its annexation of surrounding territories on the mainland was shortly to begin.

Move on almost 300 years, to 1643. Venice had become a centre of great art. The first wave of painters had long passed. Bellini, Giorgione and Palma Vecchio had been dead for over a century. Titian, perhaps the greatest of all painters, had been dead for 70 years.

Its architecture was moving towards completion. Palladio’s S. Giorgio had been completed in 1580. Santa Maria della Salute was being built. The architecture of the Piazza had just achieved its present form. And it was in 1643, the year of his death, that Monteverdi, who had already written about 15 operas, produced The Coronation of Poppea.

Its first performance was in a church, but it was the end of an era. Opera in Venice was for the public, not for a court, and in 1637 the Tron theatre had opened, the world’s first public opera house. It was to be followed by several more, including, in time, La Fenice.

But Venice went downhill. Some say the rot started in 1441. Others put it later, in 1573, when it ceded Cyprus to the Turks. Others say all was over with Venice after it had been conquered and looted by Napoleon; and, anyway, by then it had become ‘a paradigm of degradation’.

Others point to Austrian rule in the 19th Century. But although people may differ about turning points and landmarks, everyone is agreed that Venice has been going downhill for a very long time. And, of late, its own people have deserted it. Today, its population is down to about 70,000. But its beauty remains.

John Berendt’s best-seller, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, was published in 1994. It was about people in Savannah, Georgia. Its title might equally have been used for his new book, City of Falling Angels, which is about Venice. He settled there about ten years ago, and there are two strands in his story.

The destruction of Le Fenice

The first is the story of the fire which destroyed La Fenice, on 29 January, 1996, and of the subsequent recriminations, investigations, indictments, and rebuilding.

This story snakes through the book like a canal through a city, appearing from time to time on the surface. We are told that the circumstances of the fire were mysterious. It was due either to arson or to negligence, or both.

A prosecutor is appointed, charges brought. Two young electricians are found guilty of arson, and imprisoned. Everyone else is acquitted of negligence. But the court also found that the electricians were ‘surrogates for others who remained in the shadows’.

The second strand is what might be called snapshots of modern Venice and its characters. We are introduced to an old glass-maker, and to the maker of ‘the best rat poison in the world’.

It appears that Berendt leased his flat from a grand couple. He tells us that, ‘although Rose was entitled to be addressed as ‘Lady Rose’, her family background seemed a matter of indifference to her’. Well, it was not a matter of indifference to the author, and he tells us a little about Lady Rose’s ancestors.

And, as it happens, Lady Rose’s mother had been a fan of Ezra Pound, and this leads to an extensive treatment of the Ezra Pound Foundation, its constitution and whether it had been entitled to receive certain papers.

We also hear a great deal about Save Venice. There is page after page full of sentences like, ‘Guthrie was quietly piqued when Lovett accepted a medal … without inviting Guthrie to the awards ceremony, or even informing him of it.’ I accept that if you are closely involved with Save Venice at its most elevated levels, this sort of tittle-tattle may be riveting.

Venice may have been going downhill for over 600 years, but it certainly seems to have remained strong enough to have defeated John Berendt.