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An American In Venice

The Rialto Bridge in Venice.
The Rialto Bridge in Venice. "Unless you go out in nature and go for a walk in the Alps, there are few places where everything you see is beautiful," Donna Leon says of her adopted home. (Copyright Richard Gunion)

Opera, even more than writing, is Leon's passion; the baroque orchestra Il Complesso Barocco owes its existence in large part to her involvement and support. What's more, she introduced her detective series with "Death at La Fenice," in which Brunetti investigates the demise of a German conductor with a strong resemblance to the great but widely unbeloved Herbert von Karajan.

"Everybody knows Venice is unique," Sepeda says, and, setting off from La Fenice toward Campo San Luca, she elaborates a bit. To lead one's whole life on foot, she says -- as the auto-free Venetians do -- "is so uncommon in the 21st century that we can't imagine it" without a native guide.

She pauses, locates a relevant passage from that first book, then reads:

Brunetti decided to walk home to take advantage of the star-studded sky and the deserted streets. . . . The map of the city lay imprinted in the minds of all Venetians and showed him the shortest way was across the Rialto bridge.

San Luca turns out to be what Sepeda calls a "talking campo" -- one of the prime gathering spots for Venice's fewer than 70,000 residents. "Everybody in the evening goes either to San Luca or to San Bartolomeo to stand around, pose and talk," she explains. Unlike more impatient foreigners, Americans in particular, "Italians can stand and lounge for an hour at a time just making idle chat. . . . They're just gifted with that grace of ease, of just being, not really having to do ."

She points out Rosa Salva, Leon's favorite place to get a coffee and a brioche. (A Venetian, she says, is never without an opinion on the best place to buy something or the best route for getting across town.) Moving on to the church of San Salvador, which holds Titian's "Annunciation," she reads Leon's description of camera-wielding tourists and their rationalizations for interrupting whatever they find in progress there:

But during a funeral? Perhaps, if they were very, very quiet, and didn't use the flash.

Actually, you'd love to see the famous painting yourself. But it's a Sunday morning, and you don't dare ask.

Brunetti can be violently hostile to tourists, avoiding them when possible, shoving his way through them as necessary and always -- as Leon writes in one book -- "refusing to stop or in any way alter his course in order to allow them a photo opportunity." He gets his butt in a lot of snapshots as a result, but in his view, he's doing the foreign pests a favor: This was "probably the closest any of them would come to making contact with the city in any significant way."

At Campo San Bartolomeo, she introduces one of Leon's great characters, Brunetti's wife: Paola was, as she had promised, waiting for him right where she had waited for him for decades, beneath the statue of a perpetually dapper Goldoni.

Like Sepeda, Paola is a Henry James-loving academic. Unlike her, she has two kids at home. She's also smart, opinionated, reads at the table when eating alone, takes no guff from anyone and anchors Brunetti in the myriad subtle ways that good marriages -- a phenomenon rarely well-evoked in fiction -- often do.

The family lives in a top floor apartment just off the Grand Canal, set back so as to be invisible from the street. It was constructed illegally, as Brunetti discovered after moving in. He lives in constant fear of the bribes he'll have to pay if the bureaucrats find out.


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