The City of Falling Angels

By John Berendt

Think Venice and all that comes to mind are serene canals and sighing bridges, gondolas and glorious architecture. Naturally, any travelogue set in this most beautiful of cities, where mesmerised sightseers easily outnumber the residents, risks ending up as a ditty in its praise. How wonderful then that Berendt’s ‘The City Of Falling Angels’ bravely steers clear of glorifying all that has already been — in prose, poetry and pictures — iconised a million times, choosing instead, to look at the city through the eyes of the locals! Arriving just days after the city was engulfed in flames — the Fenice Opera house burnt down to a shell on Jan 29, 1996 — Berendt puts on his nosey, journalistic hat, and goes around town, collecting stories that are part conjecture, part gossip, parading, in the process, some of the most eccentric characters that you might come-across in any piece of non-fiction. (It might be worth knowing that Time magazine famously hailed Berendt a ‘state-of-the-art weirdo magnet’!) And so, you meet the rat-poison man who insists Italian rats love poison laced with Nutella (‘I buy tons of it. Rats love it. I told the Nutella company I would be happy to endorse it on television, and they said ‘Oh, God, no! We beg you. Please tell no one!’’); and Ralph Curtis, part owner of the sumptuous Palazzo Barbaro, who sends along an application (to those who seek to visit his home) asking for a print of the big toe of the right foot dipped in Kiwi shoe polish….

It works because

It is an exceptionally fine portrait of a celebrated city, one that neatly lifts the showy, sequinned mask (put on for the benefit of the Carnival tourist?) revealing the raw, magnetic eyes hidden beneath…Shorn of air-brushed images (Berendt briskly takes in soot-caked churches, pigeon-poo crusted alleys, and the sewer-like canals), he pares down the pleasure to a purely voyeuristic one - peeking from a rocking gondola into the once-grand living room of a palazzo, over-hearing juicy bits of feuds among Venice’s wealthiest families, and of course, getting knee-deep into the murky waters of the investigations of the Fenice Opera fire. But Berendt’s greatest success lies in presenting an understanding of the city, without prejudicing the reader — you realise that its an easy city to love, but not grow old in, any outing involving much walking, clomping over bridges — is that why residents flee and tourists flock?

And this one stays with you

Well, the whole book does, but this in particular does — Master Glass-Blower Archimede Seguso’s ‘creating a work of terrible beauty’: ‘He never explained what he was doing, but by the second vase, everybody knew. It was a record of the fire in glass — the flames, the sparks, the embers, and the smoke – just as he had seen it from his window, glinting through the louvres, reflected in the rippling water at the bottom of the canal, and rising far into the night.’

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