Venice: “The City of Falling Angels”

April 2, 2008 at 8:12 pm 1 comment


As part of my preparation for the trip this summer, I’m reading John Berendt‘s The City of Falling Angels.  The story begins in January 29, 1996 when a fire destroyed the historic Fenice Opera House.  This is actually a true story.  Berendt spent a decade wandering the canals and palazzos and interviewing well-known Venetians about what happened in Venice after the big fire.  I haven’t finished it yet, but I wanted to share this passage with you (pg 43-44):

The death of Venice had been predicted, pronounced, and lamented for two hundred years, ever since 1797, when Napoleon brought the once-mighty Venetian Republic to its knees.  A thte height of its glory, Venice had been the world’s supreme maritime power.  It sreach had extended from the Alps to Constantinople, and its wealth had been unequaled.  The architectural variety of her palaces–Byzantine, Gothic, Renaissance, baroque, neoclassical–chronicled an evolving aestetic shaped by a millennium of conquests and their accumulated spoils.

But by the eighteenth century, Venice ahd given itself over to hedonism and dissipation–masked balls, gaming tables, prostitution, and corruption.  The ruling class abandoned its responsibilities, and the state became enfeebled, powerless to resist Napoleon’s approaching army.  The Great Council of the Venetian Republic voted itself out of existence on May 12, 1897, and the las tin the line of 120 doges resigned.  From that day forward, there had been no doges in the Doge’s Palace, no Council of Ten in the Great Council Chamber, no shipbuilders turning out warships in the Arsenal, no prisoners shuffling across the Bridge of Sighs on the way to the dungeons.

“I will be an Attila for the Venetian state!” Napolian had thundered–in Italian so as not to be misunderstood.  He proved good to his word.  His men looted the Venetian treasury, demolished scores of buildings, pulled precious stones from their settings, melted down objects of gold and silver, and carted off major paintings for installation in the Louvre and the Brera Museum in Milan.

Venice emerged from its defeat an improverished provincial village, unable to do much more than settle into a languid and picturesque decline.  It is this Venice that we have come to know–not the triumphant and arrogant conqueror but the humbled and crumbling ruin.

The fallen Venice became a symbol of faded grandeur, a palace of melancholy, nostalgia, romance, mystery, and beauty.  As such, it was irresistible to painters and writers.  Lord Byron, who lived in a palace on the Grand Canal for tow years, seemed almost to perfer the decaying Venice–“Perchance even dearer in her day of woe,/Than when she was a boast, a marvel, and a show.”  Henry James saw Venice as a much-used tourist attraction, “a battered peep-show and bazaar.”  John Ruskin, focusing on the city’s architectural riches, hailed Venice as “the paradise of cities.”  To Charles Dickens, Venice was a “ghostly city,” and for Thomas Mann it was a darkly seductive curiosity–“half fairy tale, half snare.”

If you’re heading to Venice like I am, I’d definitely recommend this book even though I haven’t finished it yet.

Images from Locke Heemstra (amazing, yes?).


Entry filed under: Destinations, Europe, Travel Tips.

TTT: Read a book! News: Pirates seize cruise ship

1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. Marisa Williams  |  April 3, 2008 at 1:08 pm

    I enjoyed The City of Falling Angels, but found it needed to be supplemented with a wider view of Venice. If you’re interested, I would also recommend The World of Venice by Jan Morris and Venice Observed by Mary McCarthy. A Venetian Affair by Andrea di Robilant also provides plenty of factual and historical fun.

    I’ve read all but a few titles in the Commissario Guido Brunetti Mysteries by Donna Leon; all set in Venice and all enjoyable. The author knows the city well so even though the series is pure fiction, it’s plenty peppered with facts, to taste.

    Buon viaggio! Have a wonderful trip.


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