The City of Falling Angels
by John Berendt
"…it occasionally felt like walking through a funhouse, especially at times when, twenty minutes after having set out on a course that I had thought was a straight line, I discovered I was right back where I started." - John Berendt
The myth of the Phoenix is famous as a metaphor of rebirth and regeneration. In Venice the opera house La Fenice is appropriately named as it as risen from the ashes more than once over its life of more than two centuries. Most recently it suffered a severe fire in 1996. John Berendt arrived three days after the fire. Intrigued by the rumors circulating among the Venetians as to the source and cause of the conflagration, he decided to stay for a while so he could listen to the stories and, experience the city without its usual herds of tourists. For several years thereafter, he followed the investigation. Was the fire arson, or negligence, or maybe an act of God? Or could there possibly be a more sinister explanation, one involving mafia ties?
It was this event that served as the catalyst for John Berendt's curious book about Venice, The City of Falling Angels. I call it curious because it is not easily categorized as a particular genre. It is certainly non-fiction, but within that broad category it has attributes of a detective story--about the fire that destroyed all but the facade of the opera house; but it also includes aspects of several varieties of history. In addition to the fascinating story of the arson that ultimately led to the convictions of two electricians there are also historical narratives about the specific literary, artistic, architectural, and political events in the history of Venice.
The result is a fascinating book for anyone interested in arcana about Venice or about some of the characters whose stories have become part of the Venice mythos. Both Henry James and Ezra Pound figure importantly in this regard. There are other stories of American ex-patriots like the fabulously wealth Curtis family, and several Venetian clans that are connected with the Fenice.
The stories can be spicy whether they are about the feud over the Ezra Pound papers or the boardroom battle over control of the Save Venice foundation. The battle over who will win the contract to restore the Fenice is yet another episode that combines architectural detail with Italian corporate politics. Ultimately La Fenice was rebuilt in 19th-century style on the basis of a design by architect Aldo Rossi.
The result of these stories is a book that is exceptionally interesting to read even though Venice the magnificent city sometimes fades into the background. Reading about the city that has been slowly sinking into the sea for centuries is ultimately an uplifting experience.
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