The theater at La Fenice Opera House
La Fenice, Venice's opera house, has risen from the ashes of two fires.
For The Washington Post

Venice on a High Note

By John Pancake
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 11, 2005

Something was in the air that February day as one of America's top authors skimmed across the lagoon toward Venice.

The something was charcoal and the writer was John Berendt. The acrid smell filling his nostrils came from the embers of one of the world's most famous opera houses, La Fenice, which had been gutted by fire three days earlier. The year was 1996.

Berendt was coming off a huge success. He had wrapped a menagerie of characters around a bizarre murder and the seamy side of Savannah to produce a delicious read, "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil." Now he was on the prowl for a new book, and the mysterious fire would prove very convenient for him. Suspiciously convenient. ("Look, I have an alibi," he says. "I can show you the stamps on my passport.") Okay, maybe he didn't start the fire, but he did make the most of it. The book that grew out of the operatic ashes, "The City of Falling Angels," topped the best-seller lists earlier this fall.

It's pretty irresistible. If you haven't been to Venice, Berendt's book may make you want to go. If you are planning to go, "Falling Angels" is a great way to get ready. And if you have read it, a visit to the resurrected La Fenice (feh-NEE-chay) will certainly be on your wish list.

I spent six days in Venice in early October and the book made me want to investigate it. The opera house sits on a small square in the heart of the city, a couple of minutes' walk from St. Mark's Square. The facade, with its statues of the Muses of tragedy and dance, is impressive but does not begin to suggest the wonders it holds.

Inside, it is a place of staggering opulence with gilded filigree, crimson upholstery, bare-breasted nymphs and a swirl of fantasy. Five tiers of boxes line the horseshoe-shaped theater. Traditionally, wealthy nobles entertained inside these ornate stalls, glancing at the opera only now and then. If you stand in the middle of the theater, it feels very much as if you've been encircled by Marie Antoinette's wedding cake.

La Fenice is also one of the things that holds Venice's idea of itself together.

No Tourist Zone

I had been reading about Venice for five years before my first visit this fall. My wife and I stayed for six days, it rained every day and I didn't care. (My wife did buy a pair of fisherman's boots to negotiate the wet streets.)

We timed our visit so that we'd arrive after Oct. 1, when the worst of the tourist hordes are gone. And we shied away from traditional tourist pursuits. We didn't ride in a gondola. We didn't go into St. Mark's Cathedral. We didn't buy Venetian glass.

Instead, we roamed the back streets. I was anxious to see the work of the great Venetian painters -- Bellini, Titian, Tintoretto and Tiepolo. Every corner of the city seems to have a church with more magnificent art, and we prowled the streets in search of them. I'm a birder, so I never travel without binoculars. They turned out to be very handy for some of the masterpieces on the ceilings of churches. Our favorites were the tiny Santa Maria dei Miracoli, on Campo dei Miracoli in Cannaregio, and the lavish Scuola Grande di San Rocco, on Campo San Rocco, San Polo district.

We did very little shopping. My best purchases were a pair of velvet Venetian slippers ($20), ice cream from a sidewalk vendor near Campo San Rocco and a pair of handmade shoes for my wife.

Our principal foray into the tourist latitudes was to the Doge's Palace, seat of government and home of the city's elected ruler for centuries. The art and architecture made it worth wading through crowds, and the size and intricacy of it, right down to the Bridge of Sighs that leads to the dungeon, provides an unforgettable look at the grandeur that was Venice.

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