John Berendt, author of the bestselling Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (216 weeks on the New York Times Bestsellers List), arrived in Venice in the winter of 1996, only a couple of weeks after a fire had destroyed the La Fenice opera house. The building had previously burned twice, in 1774 and 1836, and had been rebuilt both times.
What Berendt recognized was the fire was a story, an intriguing story, and it just might be the prism through which to tell the larger story of Venice. And so he stayed on, rented a room, and began to talk with people.
The City of Falling Angels was first published in 2005, the year after the rebuilt opera house was opened. And the story Berendt tells, a story of Venice, is a fascinating one.
The opera house fire becomes a framework to write the story of Venice – its history, its politics, its maze of bureaucratic rules, its first families (how many doges do you have in your family line?), the expats who live and have lived there (especially Americans), the rivalries of the charitable organizations set up to save and restore city buildings, artwork, and icons. But it’s not only a story of rich people; Venice is also the story of artists and bakers, gondola drivers and electricians, and the crazy time that is Carnival.
City authorities initially investigated the fire as one of negligence, and there was plenty of ongoing negligence to go around before the fire – cans of solvents left open, blow torches left burning, improper ventilation. And then, in the way that really good stories do, the investigations focuses on arson.
With the story of the La Fenice fire comes the stories of a family of glassblowers, what happened to the papers of poet Ezra Pound, a wealthy American family that has lived in self-enforced exile since the late 19th century, and the battle of Save Venice vs. Venetian Heritage (the rich can be just as petty as the rest us, and perhaps more so). It’s an entertaining mix of fact and myth, perception and reality.
Berendt, a native of New York State, received his B.A. degree in English from Harvard University. He’s worked in publishing, writing for television talk show hosts (David Frost and Dick Cavett), and worked at New York Magazine and Esquire. His story of murder in Savannah, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, was virtually an overnight sensation when it was published in 1994.
Top photograph: La Fenice Opera House in Venice, after its restoration from the fire. Image via Wikipedia.