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The City of Falling Angels

John Berendt - Author

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ISBN 9780143036937 | 432 pages | 26 Sep 2006 | Penguin | 8.26 x 5.23in | 18 - AND UP
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The author of the record-breaking bestseller Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil unveils the enigmatic Venice as only he can.

Twelve years ago, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil exploded into a monumental success, residing a record-breaking four years on the New York Times bestseller list (longer than any work of fiction or nonfiction had before) and turning John Berendt into a household name. The City of Falling Angels is Berendt's first book since Midnight, and it immediately reminds one what all the fuss was about. Turning to the magic, mystery, and decadence of Venice, Berendt gradually reveals the truth behind a sensational fire that in 1996 destroyed the historic Fenice opera house. Encountering a rich cast of characters, Berendt tells a tale full of atmosphere and surprise as the stories build, one after the other, ultimately coming together to portray a world as finely drawn as a still-life painting.

An Evening in Venice 

THE AIR STILL SMELLED OF CHARCOAL when I arrived in Venice three days after the fire. As it happened, the timing of my visit was purely coincidental. I had made plans, months before, to come to Venice for a few weeks in the off-season in order to enjoy the city without the crush of other tourists.

"If there had been a wind Monday night," the water-taxi driver told me as we came across the lagoon from the airport, "there wouldn't be a Venice to come to."

"How did it happen?" I asked.

The taxi driver shrugged. "How do all these things happen?"

It was early February, in the middle of the peaceful lull that settles over Venice every year between New Year's Day and Carnival. The tourists had gone, and in their absence the Venice they inhabited had all but closed down. Hotel lobbies and souvenir shops stood virtually empty. Gondolas lay tethered to poles and covered in blue tarpaulin. Unbought copies of the International Herald Tribune remained on newsstand racks all day, and pigeons abandoned sparse pickings in St. Mark's Square to scavenge for crumbs in other parts of the city.

Meanwhile the other Venice, the one inhabited by Venetians, was as busy as ever-the neighborhood shops, the vegetable stands, the fish markets, the wine bars. For these few weeks, Venetians could stride through their city without having to squeeze past dense clusters of slow-moving tourists. The city breathed, its pulse quickened. Venetians had Venice all to themselves.

But the atmosphere was subdued. People spoke in hushed, dazed tones of the sort one hears when there has been a sudden death in the family. The subject was on everyone's lips. Within days I had heard about it in such detail I felt as if I had been there myself.

IT HAPPENED ON MONDAY EVENING, January 29, 1996.

Shortly before nine o'clock, Archimede Seguso sat down at the dinner table and unfolded his napkin. Before joining him, his wife went into the living room to lower the curtains, which was her long-standing evening ritual. Signora Seguso knew very well that no one could see in through the windows, but it was her way of enfolding her family in a domestic embrace. The Segusos lived on the third floor of Ca' Capello, a sixteenth-century house in the heart of Venice. A narrow canal wrapped around two sides of the building before flowing into the Grand Canal a short distance away.

Signor Seguso waited patiently at the table. He was eighty-six-tall, thin, his posture still erect. A fringe of wispy white hair and flaring eyebrows gave him the look of a kindly sorcerer, full of wonder and surprise. He had an animated face and sparkling eyes that captivated everyone who met him. If you happened to be in his presence for any length of time, however, your eye would eventually be drawn to his hands.

They were large, muscular hands, the hands of an artisan whose work demanded physical strength. For seventy-five years, Signor Seguso had stood in front of a blazing-hot glassworks furnace-ten, twelve, eighteen hours a day-holding a heavy steel pipe in his hands, turning it to prevent the dollop of molten glass at the other end from drooping to one side or the other, pausing to blow into it to inflate the glass, then laying it across his workbench, still turning it with his left hand while, with a pair of tongs in his right hand, pulling, pinching, and coaxing the glass into the shape of graceful vases, bowls, and goblets.

After all those years of turning the steel pipe hour after hour, Signor Seguso's left hand had molded itself around the pipe until it became permanently cupped, as if the pipe were always in it. His cupped hand was the proud mark of his craft, and this was why the artist who painted his portrait some years ago had taken particular care to show the curve in his left hand.

Men in the Seguso family had been glassmakers since the fourteenth century. Archimede was the twenty-first generation and one of the greatest of them all. He could sculpt heavy pieces out of solid glass and blow vases so thin and fragile they could barely be touched. He was the first glassmaker ever to see his work honored with an exhibition in the Doge's Palace in St. Mark's Square. Tiffany sold his pieces in its Fifth Avenue store.

Archimede Seguso had been making glass since the age of eleven, and by the time he was twenty, he had earned the nickname "Mago del Fuoco" (Wizard of Fire). He no longer had the stamina to stand in front of a hot and howling furnace eighteen hours a day, but he worked every day nonetheless, and with undiminished pleasure. On this particular day, in fact, he had risen at his usual hour of 4:30 A.M., convinced as always that the pieces he was about to make would be more beautiful than any he had ever made before.

In the living room, Signora Seguso paused to look out the window before lowering the curtain. She noticed that the air had become hazy, and she mused aloud that a winter fog had set in. In response, Signor Seguso remarked from the other room that it must have come in very quickly, because he had seen the quarter moon in a clear sky only a few minutes before.

The living room window looked across a small canal at the back of the Fenice Opera House, thirty feet away. Rising above it in the distance, some one hundred yards away, the theater's grand entrance wing appeared to be shrouded in mist. Just as she started to lower the curtain, Signora Seguso saw a flash. She thought it was lightning. Then she saw another flash, and this time she knew it was fire.

"Papa!" she cried out. "The Fenice is on fire!"

Signor Seguso came quickly to the window. More flames flickered at the front of the theater, illuminating what Signora Seguso had thought was mist but had in fact been smoke. She rushed to the telephone and dialed 115 for the fire brigade. Signor Seguso went into his bedroom and stood at the corner window, which was even closer to the Fenice than the living room window.

Between the fire and the Segusos' house lay a jumble of buildings that constituted the Fenice. The part on fire was farthest away, the chaste neoclassical entrance wing with its formal reception rooms, known collectively as the Apollonian rooms. Then came the main body of the theater with its elaborately rococo auditorium, and finally the vast backstage area. Flaring out from both sides of the auditorium and the backstage were clusters of smaller, interconnected buildings like the one that housed the scenery workshop immediately across the narrow canal from Signor Seguso.

Signora Seguso could not get through to the fire brigade, so she dialed 112 for the police.

The enormity of what was happening outside his window stunned Signor Seguso. The Gran Teatro La Fenice was one of the splendors of Venice; it was arguably the most beautiful opera house in the world, and one of the most significant. The Fenice had commissioned dozens of operas that had premiered on its stage-Verdi's La Traviata and Rigoletto, Igor Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress, Benjamin Britten's The Turn of the Screw. For two hundred years, audiences had delighted in the sumptuous clarity of the Fenice's acoustics, the magnificence of its five tiers of gilt-encrusted boxes, and the baroque fantasy of it all. Signor and Signora Seguso had always taken a box for the season, and over the years they had been given increasingly desirable locations until they finally found themselves next to the royal box.

Signora Seguso had no luck getting through to the police either, and now she was becoming frantic. She called upstairs to the apartment where her son Gino lived with his wife and their son, Antonio. Gino was still out at the Seguso glass factory in Murano. Antonio was visiting a friend near the Rialto.

Signor Seguso stood silently at his bedroom window, watching as the flames raced across the entire top floor of the entrance wing. He knew that, for all its storied loveliness, the Fenice was at this moment an enormous pile of exquisite kindling. Inside a thick shell of Istrian stone lined with brick, the structure was made entirely of wood-wooden beams, wooden floors, wooden walls-richly embellished with wood carvings, sculpted stucco, and papier-mâché, all of it covered with layer upon layer of lacquer and gilt. Signor Seguso was aware, too, that the scenery workshop just across the canal from his house was stocked with solvents and, most worrisome of all, cylinders of propane gas that were used for welding and soldering.

Signora Seguso came back into the room to say she had finally spoken with the police.

"They already knew about the fire," she said. "They told me we should leave the house at once." She looked over her husband's shoulder and stifled a scream; the flames had moved closer in the short time she had been away from the window. They were now advancing through the four smaller reception halls toward the main body of the theater, in their direction.

Archimede Seguso stared into the fire with an appraising eye. He opened the window, and a gust of bitter-cold air rushed in. The wind was blowing to the southwest. The Segusos were due west of the theater, however, and Signor Seguso calculated that if the wind did not change direction or pick up strength, the fire would advance toward the other side of the Fenice rather than in their direction.

"Now, Nandina," he said softly, "stay calm. We're not in any danger."

The Segusos' house was only one of many buildings close to the Fenice. Except for Campo San Fantin, a small plaza at the front of the theater, the Fenice was hemmed in by old and equally flammable buildings, many of them attached to it or separated from it by only four or five feet. This was not at all unusual in Venice, where building space had always been at a premium. Seen from above, Venice resembled a jigsaw puzzle of terra-cotta rooftops. Passages between some of the buildings were so narrow one could not walk through them with an open umbrella. It had become a specialty of Venetian burglars to escape from the scene of a crime by leaping from roof to roof. If the fire in the Fenice were able to make the same sort of leap, it would almost certainly destroy a sizable swath of Venice.

The Fenice itself was dark. It had been closed five months for renovations and was due to reopen in a month. The canal along its rear façade was also closed-empty-having been sealed off and drained so work crews could dredge the silt and sludge from it and repair its walls for the first time in forty years. The canal between the Segusos' building and the back of the Fenice was now a deep, muddy gulch with a tangle of exposed pipes and a few pieces of heavy machinery sitting in puddles at the bottom. The empty canal would make it impossible for fireboats to reach the Fenice, and, worse than that, it would deprive them of a source of water. Venetian firemen depended on water pumped directly from the canals to put out fires. The city had no system of fire hydrants.

THE FENICE WAS NOW RINGED BY A TUMULT OF SHOUTS and running footsteps. Tenants, routed from their houses by the police, crossed paths with patrons coming out of the Ristorante Antico Martini. A dozen bewildered guests rolled suitcases out of the Hotel La Fenice, asking directions to the Hotel Saturnia, where they had been told to go. Into their midst, a wild-eyed woman wearing only a nightgown came stumbling from her house into Campo San Fantin screaming hysterically. She threw herself to the ground in front of the theater, flailing her arms and rolling on the pavement. Several waiters came out of the Antico Martini and led her inside.

Two fireboats managed to navigate to a water-filled canal a short distance from the Fenice. Their hoses were not long enough to reach around the intervening buildings, however, so the firemen dragged them through the kitchen window at the back of the Antico Martini and out through the dining room into Campo San Fantin. They aimed their nozzles at flames burning furiously in a top-floor window of the theater, but the water pressure was too low. The arc of water barely reached the windowsill. The fire went on leaping and taunting and sucking up great turbulent currents of air that set the flames snapping like brilliant red sails in a violent wind.

Several policemen struggled with the massive front door of the Fenice, but to no avail. One of them drew his pistol and fired three shots at the lock. The door opened. Two firemen rushed in and disappeared into a dense white wall of smoke. Moments later they came running out. "It's too late," said one. "It's burning like straw."

The wail of sirens now filled the air as police and firemen raced up and down the Grand Canal in motorboats, spanking up huge butterfly wings of spray as they bounced through the wakes of other boats. About an hour after the first alarm, the city's big fire launch pulled up at the landing stage behind Haig's Bar. Its high-powered rigs would at last be able to pump water the two hundred yards from the Grand Canal to the Fenice. Dozens of firemen ran hoses from the fire launch into Campo Santa Maria del Giglio, feverishly coupling sections together, but it was immediately apparent that the hoses were of different gauges. Leaks sprayed from the couplings, but the firemen carried the linked hoses, such as they were, up to the rooftops around the Fenice anyway. They directed half the water onto the theater in an attempt to contain the fire and the rest of it onto adjacent buildings. Fire Commandant Alfio Pini had already made a momentous strategic decision: The Fenice was lost; save the city.

WHEN THE LIGHTS WENT OUT, Count Girolamo Marcello was midsentence in a conversation over dinner with his son on the top floor of his palace less than a minute's walk from the front of the Fenice. Earlier in the day, Count Marcello had learned that the exiled Russian poet and Nobel laureate Joseph Brodsky had died suddenly of a heart attack, at fifty-five, in New York. Brodsky had been a passionate lover of Venice and a friend and houseguest of Marcello's. It was while he was staying in Marcello's palace, in fact, that Brodsky had written his last book, Watermark, a lyrical reflection on Venice. That afternoon Marcello had spoken by phone with Brodsky's widow, Maria, and they had discussed the possibility of burying Brodsky in Venice. Marcello knew that this would not be easily arranged. Every available plot on the burial island of San Michele had been spoken for years ago. It was generally understood that any new arrival, even a native Venetian, would be dug up in ten years and moved to a common burial site farther out in the lagoon. But for a non-Venetian, Jewish atheist, gaining approval for even a temporary burial would be a quest fraught with obstacles. Still, there had been notable exceptions. Igor Stravinsky had been buried on San Michele, and so had Sergei Diaghilev and Ezra Pound. They had all been buried in the Anglican and Greek Orthodox section, and all would be allowed to remain there in perpetuity. So there was reason to hope that Brodsky could be buried there, too, and this was on Marcello's mind when the lights went out.

Father and son sat in darkness for a while, expecting the lights to come back on. Then they heard the sirens, lots of them, many more than usual.

"Let's go up and see what's happened," said Marcello. They headed upstairs to the wooden deck on the roof, the altana, and as soon as they opened the door, they saw the raging fire.

Marcello decided they should leave the house at once. They descended the stairs, feeling their way in the darkness, Marcello wondering if the six-hundred-year-old palace was doomed. If it was, the most impressive private library in Venice would disappear with it. Marcello's library occupied most of the second floor. It was an architectural delight, a high-ceilinged space complete with a wraparound wooden gallery that could be reached only by climbing a secret stairway hidden behind a panel in the wall. The floor-to-ceiling shelves held forty thousand volumes of private and state papers, some of them more than a thousand years old. The collection amounted to a treasure trove of Venetian history, and Marcello regularly made it available to scholars. He himself spent long hours sitting in a thronelike black leather armchair perusing the archives, especially the papers of the Marcello family, which was one of the oldest in Venice. Marcello's ancestors included a fifteenth-century doge, or head of state. The Marcellos had, in fact, been among the families that built the Fenice and owned it until just before World War II, when the municipality of Venice took it over.

Marcello walked to the edge of Campo San Fantin and found himself standing in the midst of a crowd that included the entire city council, which had rushed in a body from Ca' Farsetti, the town hall, where it had been in an evening session. Marcello was a familiar figure around town, with his bald head and close-cropped gray beard. The press frequently sought him out for comment, knowing they could count on a frank, often provocative quote or two. He had once described himself to an interviewer as "inquisitive, restless, eclectic, impulsive and capricious." It was the last two of these behavioral quirks that asserted themselves as he stood in Campo San Fantin looking at the burning opera house.

"What a shame," he said. "It's gone. I suppose I will never see it again. The reconstruction will take so long, I'm sure I won't be alive when it's finished." This remark was nominally directed to the person next to him, but it was really intended for the ears of a handsome man with a dark beard in his mid-fifties who was standing a few feet away: the mayor of Venice, Massimo Cacciari. Mayor Cacciari was a former Communist, a professor of philosophy and architecture at the University of Venice, and Italy's most highly regarded contemporary philosopher. Being mayor automatically made him president of the Fenice, which meant he had been responsible for the security of the theater and would now be in charge of rebuilding it. Marcello's remark clearly implied that, in his opinion, neither Cacciari nor his left-wing government had the competence to do it. Mayor Cacciari gazed at the fire with a look of deep despair, unfazed one way or the other by Marcello's obliquely worded taunt.

"But I would suggest," Marcello went on, "that if they want to rebuild the place as it was in its prime-and by that I mean as a social place, a meeting place-they should make it into a great discotheque for young people."

An old man standing in front of Marcello turned around, aghast, tears rolling down his cheeks. "Girolamo!" he said. "How can you say such a thing? Anyway, who knows what the hell young people will want five years from now?"

A deafening crash resounded in the depths of the Fenice. The great crystal chandelier had fallen to the floor.

"You have a point," Marcello replied, "but, as everybody knows, going to the opera has always been a social thing. You can even see it in the architecture. Only a third of the seats are positioned so they have a good view of the stage. The rest, particularly the boxes, are really best for looking at the audience. The arrangement is purely social."

Marcello spoke with a gentle bemusement and without any trace of cynicism. It seemed to tickle him that anyone could think that generations of operagoers, like the Marcellos, had been drawn to the opera by anything as lofty as music or culture-Benedetto Marcello, the eighteenth-century composer and one of Girolamo Marcello's forebears, notwithstanding. Throughout its existence, the Fenice had been hallowed ground in the social landscape of Venice, and Girolamo Marcello had a broad knowledge of Venetian social history. He was, in fact, regarded as something of an authority on the subject.

"In the old days," he said, "the private boxes had curtains you could close, even during the performance. My grandfather loved going to the opera, but he didn't give a damn about music. He would open the curtains only for highlights on the stage. He would say, 'Silence! Now we have the aria!' and he would pull open the curtains and applaud . . . 'Good! Lovely! Well done!' Then he would close the curtains again, and a servant would come from the house with a basket of chicken and some wine. Opera was just a form of relaxation, and anyway it was cheaper to take a box at the opera than heat a whole palace for an evening."

Suddenly another enormous boom shook the ground. The floors in the entrance wing had collapsed, one onto another. People standing at the edge of the campo leaped backward just as the roof of the entrance wing fell, sending flames and burning debris high into the air. Marcello went back upstairs to his rooftop altana, this time fortified with a bottle of grappa, a video camera, and a bucket of water in case any of the airborne embers should happen to land on his roof.

Within minutes-as Girolamo Marcello's video camera whirred and clicked, as Archimede Seguso stared in silence from his bedroom window, as hundreds of Venetians watched from rooftops, and as thousands more all over Italy followed live television coverage of the fire-the roof of the auditorium collapsed with a thunderous boom and a volcanic eruption that shot flaming debris 150 feet into the air. A powerful updraft sent chunks of burning embers, some as big as shoe boxes, arcing over Venice like comets.

Shortly after eleven, a helicopter appeared above St. Mark's, swung low over the mouth of Grand Canal, and scooped up a tankful of water. Then it soared aloft again, banked over the Fenice and, to cheers from rooftops, dropped its water. A hissing plume of steam and smoke coiled up from the Fenice, but the fire kept burning undiminished. The helicopter turned and flew back to the Grand Canal to load up again.

It suddenly occurred to Girolamo Marcello that his wife, Lesa, who was out of town, might hear about the fire before he had a chance to tell her that her family and her house were safe. He came down from the roof to telephone her.

Countess Marcello worked for Save Venice, the American nonprofit organization devoted to raising money for restoring Venetian art and architecture. Save Venice was headquartered in New York. Lesa Marcello was the director of its Venice office. Over the past thirty years, Save Venice had restored scores of paintings, frescoes, mosaics, statues, ceilings, and building façades. Recently, Save Venice had restored the Fenice's painted curtain, at a cost of $100,000.

Save Venice had become a hugely popular charity in America, largely because it was set up to be, in a sense, a participatory charity. Save Venice would organize event-filled, four-day galas in Venice in late summer during which, for three thousand dollars a person, subscribers could attend elegant lunches, dinners, and balls in private villas and palaces not open to the public.

In winter Save Venice kept the spirit alive by mounting a fund-raising ball in New York. Lesa Marcello had flown to New York earlier in the week to attend the winter ball. This year it was to be a masked ball, based on the theme of Carnival, and it would be held in the Rainbow Room on the sixty-fifth floor of Rockefeller Center. As he picked up the telephone to call his wife, Girolamo Marcello suddenly remembered that the ball was scheduled for this very night.

Funny, insightful, illuminating... [Venice] reveals itself, slowly, discreetly, under Berendt's gentle but persistent prying. (The Boston Globe)

Berendt has given us something uniquely different....Thanks to [his] splendid cityportrait, even those of us far from Venice can marvel. (The Wall Street Journal)


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