The Invincible City

By Jonathan Yardley
Sunday, September 18, 2005

The City of Falling Angels

By John Berendt

Penguin Press. 414 pp. $25.95

Great cities are so massive and formidable that it's easy to forget how vulnerable and fragile they are, how susceptible to natural and mad-made calamities, how delicately balanced between order and anarchy. Thus in this hour of national crisis and dismay, when the mercy killers and doomsayers are arguing for "a carefully planned deconstruction of New Orleans" -- as one "disaster risk management" specialist put it on this newspaper's op-ed page recently -- we do well to look to Venice. Those of us who love New Orleans and are not ready or willing to let it go can take heart from the city in the sea. For 1,500 years the city of floods, Venice has survived them all. It also has survived wars, fires, plagues and far more calamities than any American city has undergone, yet there it is, still beautiful and indomitable.

John Berendt arrived in Venice in February 1996, three days after a calamitous event in that venerable city's history -- the destruction by fire of the Gran Teatro La Fenice, the opera house -- and two years after the publication of his amazing bestseller, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. That book was still on the bestseller list and remained there for two more years, an extraordinary phenomenon in American book publishing. Surely as he arrived in Venice, Berendt was hoping for more than an enjoyable stay in a city he loves; surely he was looking as well for something to write about, something that would not be a letdown for him or his readers after the incredible success of Midnight .

Not to keep you in suspense: He found it. The City of Falling Angels , Berendt's inquiry into people, places and aspects of Venice that tourists almost never see, doesn't have as strong a narrative line as Midnight , and no one in it is quite so hilariously and engagingly outré as Lady Chablis, the Savannah drag queen, but the story of the Fenice fire and its aftermath is exceptionally interesting, the cast of characters is suitably various and flamboyant, and Berendt's prose, now as then, is precise, evocative and witty.

The tale Berendt tells was deftly summarized by one of the many eccentrics he encountered during his ramblings through the city, Ludovico De Luigi, "Venice's leading artist provocateur," about five years after the fire. He said:

"Look what the story offers: a great fire, a cultural calamity, the spectacle of public officials blaming each other, an unseemly rush for the money to rebuild the theater, the satisfaction of a trial with guilty verdicts and jail sentences, the pride of the Fenice's rebirth and an unsolved mystery. Money secretly changing hands. Unnamed culprits hiding in the shadows. It stimulates the imagination, gives people the freedom to make up any scenario they want. What more could anyone ask?"

Well, actually, one more thing: Set the story in Venice, "a symbol of faded grandeur, a place of melancholy, nostalgia, romance, mystery and beauty," a city surpassingly unique, described by one resident -- in words that just as easily could be said of New Orleans -- as "contradictory, hypocritical, irresponsible, dangerous, dishonest, corrupt, unfair, and completely mad." Not to mention "a disorienting place," incredibly difficult to navigate "even for people who lived there and thought they knew it well," thanks to its "narrow, winding streets, together with the serpentine course of the Grand Canal and the absence of any landmarks visible from a distance." It is a place in which one loses oneself, literally and figuratively, and psychologically as well.

So Berendt decided to stay for a while. He knew enough Italian to "read the newspaper with ease, understand the spoken word passably, and speak well enough" to make himself understood. He found a small, canal-side apartment in the lovely residential neighborhood of Cannareggio, easily accessible to the center of the city on foot or by boat yet for some reason only infrequently invaded by tourists, and set about exploring "not Venice per se but people who live in Venice, which is not the same thing." In Venice, as previously in Savannah, he wanted to get as close as he could to the reality behind the picture postcards, the ordinary -- not to mention the most un-ordinary -- people who call the city home.

There are not all that many of them. "The population of Venice had been declining steadily for the past forty-five years -- from 174,000 in 1951 to 70,000 at the time of the Fenice fire," thanks largely to the "rising cost of living and the scarcity of jobs," or at least jobs not directly related to tourism, which is at once Venice's boon and its bane. On the one hand, tourism is the mighty engine that drives Venice's economy, which has recovered very nicely after a long period of decline following the end of the Venetian Republic in 1797. On the other hand, the city has capitulated "to tourism at the expense of its livability." Having spent more than a week there in November 2004, I can attest to the rude mobs that jam the narrow streets, to the ludicrous pigeon-feeding frenzy in St. Mark's Square, to the endless rows of shops peddling cheesy masks and other overpriced junk, to mediocre food, also overpriced, and to the world's most expensive (and worst) martini, at the stupendously overrated Harry's Bar.

Yet my wife and I were there in November, well past the heaviest tourist glut of summer. One can only shudder at what it must be like in July and August, the invasion of tourists compounded by heat and humidity sucking dank, fetid fumes off the canals. Small wonder that Berendt decided to go there in midwinter, "without the obscuring overlay of other tourists," a time when "I would have a clear view of Venice as a functioning city" but also a time that was, thanks to the fire, "an extraordinary moment," one that provided this gifted writer what he was looking for: a subject.

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