An intriguing tour of mysterious Venice and its most fascinating residents, centered around a 1996 fire that destroyed the city's historic opera house.
Venice may be sinking, but in Berendt's capable hands, the city has never seemed more colorful, perplexing and alluring. The story focuses on the destruction by fire in 1996 of the famed Fenice Opera House, where Verdi first unveiled Rigoletto and La Traviata. Berendt, best known for 1995’s Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, decides to take an apartment to record the drama that ensues. What follows is part police drama, part cultural tour, with many pauses for comic relief along the way. While visiting some of Venice's ornate palazzos and their aristrocratic inhabitants, we encounter characters like the chameleon-like Mario Moro, whose wardrobe includes a different official uniform for every day of the week, and Massimo Donadon, “The Rat King of Treviso.” Eventually, two electricians are charged with torching the Fenice, but as is customary in Venice, the whole truth seems to lie hidden in the city's dimly lit alleyways and winding canals. Berendt also finds intrigue in unexpected quarters. We follow a vicious boardroom feud that ignites within Save Venice, an international fundraising group formed to help restore the city's old buildings and artworks. We also encounter Philip and Jane Rylands, caretakers of Ezra Pound's aged companion of 50 years, Olga Rudge, who are later accused of exploiting the woman's senility in a bid for Pound's Venice cottage and private papers. With the exception of the occasional wrong turn (Berendt lingers far too long over the apparent suicide of a local gay artist, for example), this is an engaging journey in which the author navigates Venice's shadowy politics, its tangled bureaucracy and its elegant high-society nightlife with a discerning, sanguine touch.
Berendt does great justice to an exalted city that has rightly fascinated the likes of Henry James, Robert Browning and many filmmakers throughout the world.