The City of Falling Angels

by John Berendt

Hardcover, 2005




New York : Penguin Press, 2005.


Venice, a city steeped in a thousand years of history, art and architecture, teeters in precarious balance between endurance and decay. Its architectural treasures crumble--foundations shift, marble ornaments fall--even as efforts to preserve them are underway. This book opens in 1996, when a dramatic fire destroys the historic Fenice opera house, a catastrophe for Venetians. Arriving three days after the fire, Berendt becomes a kind of detective--inquiring into the nature of life in this remarkable museum-city--while gradually revealing the truth about the fire. He introduces us to a rich cast of characters, Venetian and expatriate, in a tale full of atmosphere and surprise which reveals a world as finely drawn as a still-life painting. The fire and its aftermath serve as a leitmotif, adding elements of chaos, corruption, and crime and contributing to the ever-mounting suspense.--From publisher description.… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member TonyaSB
This John Berendt's follow-up to Midnight In The Garden of Good and Evil. I greatly enjoyed that movie, which is the reason I even picked up the book. I like kooky characters, they're always my favorite in a book. For example, my favorite character in the Harry Potter books is Moaning Myrtle. The City of Falling Angels also has it's share of kooky characters.

The story begins with the burning of the historic Fenice Opera House and winds through the many different odd and glorious people that are involved with the fire and the reconstructions. Interspersed throughout the story is the tale of Ezra Pound's mistress, Olga Rudge, and their daughter dealing with a couple who has taken advantage of Olga in her old age.

This is another story I listened to on cd in the car. Doing a lot more of that lately than actually reading books! It was hard for me to get into this and I might have stopped listening if I had something else to listen to in the car. However, I did finish it and enjoyed it for the most part. The story felt a little disjunct (spell checker says this is not word but I know it is! I hate that!) though. Not only did the author never unite the two stories in any meaningful way, besides the fact that they both take place in Venice, but he also did not make me feel that the main story of the Fenice was all that important to the people involved. It seemed more important to outsiders than to the people of Venice itself. And maybe it was, I don't know. Maybe that was the point. Overall, I enjoyed listening to Berendt read his tale, but I doubt this will make my list of favorite for the year.
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LibraryThing member fourbears
Venice is the city of falling angels—literally carvings falling off of buildings, possibly on your head if you weren’t careful. The main focus of the book is the fire that burned the Fenice opera house, the reactions of Venetians and those from outsiders like the Americans in Save Venice, the non-profit organization that raised funds for restoration of Venetian art and architecture, as well as the following investigations, legal battles and eventual restoration. The author functions as a sort of informal detective—since the cause of the fire was first judged to be carelessness and then arson—but he can’t do what Venice itself can’t do, determine the cause and assign blame, make a restoration plan. Since the author was living in Venice much of the time between the fire and the restoration (1996-2003) he comes to know the place and the people increasingly well and the book is not strictly that of the fire, the quest to assign blame and the restoration, but about Venetian history and life now.I got bored with the American socialites who jockeyed for power and acceptance by Venetian society, but the story of the theater itself was interesting, the legal battle to assign blame frustrating, and many of the other stories, particularly that of Ezra Pound and his companion of 50 years, Olga Rudge, and their “hidden nook”, fascinating.… (more)
LibraryThing member weird_O
The City of Falling Angels is Venice. In this book, published in 2005, John Berendt gives Venice the same basic treatment he gave Savannah in a previous book, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. He has a framework and a construction formula. Select a very interesting city, focus on a calamity there that engages all the wits and gossips, draws all the sidewalk (in this case, canal) superintendents. As the details of the calamity and its aftermath trickle out, Berendt fleshes out his tale with what amount to sidebars on ancillary characters and conflicts and entertainments.

Here his main event is a disastrous fire than destroys the Fenice Opera House in January 1996. The Fenice is hundreds of years old. Because the canal adjacent to the structure has been drained for needed repairs and renovation, firefighters can't quickly deluge the blaze. They have to jerry-rig hose-lines through walkways and even through some buildings. In the aftermath, new threads develop, following investigations into the cause, following various plans for reconstruction, following competition for the reconstruction contract. The ornate structure's been expanded, renovated and its interior altered over the years, of course, but the archive of architectural plans, of construction plans, is spotty. Recent photos of the interior spaces are nonexistent.

As this tale unfolds, Berendt intersperses it with sidebars.

• Archimede Seguso, whose apartment is across the canal from the theater is stupified by the inferno, sitting in a chair by a window, watching the fire all night, ignoring pleas from fire officials, his wife, his son to vacate to safety. He is, we learn, a master glassblower, active for 75 years, and now in his late 80s is the patriarch of one of Venice's most significant firms. Berendt recounts the story of glass making in Venice, of family feuds that threaten the creative and business integrity of the firms, and how Signor Seguso energized by the fire.

• A group of wealthy Americans are gathering in Venice, when the fire explodes. These men and women are the leaders of Save Venice, a New York-based charity that funds repairs and restorations. Several own palatial residences bordering the Grand Canal and other waterways. Some represent inherited wealth, while others built their own fortunes. As time passes, these powerful folks get to squabbling amongst themselves. Berendt tells pretty much of it.

• Ezra Pound was long a resident of Venice, where he lived with his mistress of 50 years, Olga Rudge. When Pound, then his widow, died in the early 1970s, Olga was left in possession of their house and several large chests with the poet and editor's papers. Berendt is drawn to the end-of-life machinations to gain control of those papers and the house. (Now I have to read Pound and about Pound!)

Oh, there's a lot more. Anecdotes about daily life in a city without cars. Profiles on the rich, the aristocratic, the political, even ordinary mortals. Can you tell that I really enjoyed this book?

What's missing? Photos and drawings. How can you tell about this unique city and its artistic and architectural wonders, about a devastating fire and an enormously complicated construction without SHOWING at least a handful of pictures. The endpapers are printed with a marvellous bird-eye view of the city with many buildings highlighted. But it isn't enough. Check Google Maps as you read.
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LibraryThing member Bookmarque
Absolutely fascinating. Each chapter was devoted to a specific person or event, like the burning of the Fenice or the glassblower’s family war. Every person who appeared was interesting and had something to say. The part where the Rat Man talked about why his poison was so successful was weirdly fascinating. As was the Plant Man; because of the profound lack of soil and open space in Venice, practically no one understands how to grow plants, even indoors. So the Plant Man must come to their rescue. It’s probably the only place on earth that would need his services so completely.

One thing that struck me, and it could have been Berendt’s telling and not fact, was the hard-headedness of the bureaucracy of Venice. They choked themselves with so many rules and petty slights that no wonder there’s no progress to speak of there. It seems to be backwards for backwards’ sake. I would lose patience in about 5 seconds I imagine.

The part about the curators of the Guggenheim was fascinating; the plotting calculation of the wife and the utter degradation of the husband. Ruthless and transparently so, but successful despite that. The same woman seems to have positively and completely stolen the papers of the widow of Ezra Pound.

But the ruthlessness and backstabbing aren’t limited to just that story. The Save Venice Foundations was/is equally rife. What a load of snarling bitches. Privilege breeds this kind of contempt and self-adulation I suppose, but it seemed really petty and stupid. Fun to read though.

Even though it will probably be another 10 years before we have another from Berendt, I can’t wait.
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LibraryThing member jburlinson
Quite enjoyable. Berendt visited Venice three days after the fire that all but destroyed the opera house La Fenice. So he made it his business to chronicle the events surrounding the burning, the investigation, the prosecution, and the rebuilding. This absorbing story is interspersed with vignettes, some quite lengthy, of other interesting tales of the city: the sale and resale of the Palazzo Barbaro, the saga of the Ezra Pound Foundation, the dispute over the estate of the gay poet Mario Stefani, the City's "secret" pigeon control program, the internecine warfare of "Save Venice". In the process, Berendt encounters a number of noteworthy individuals that make strong claims on the reader's interest: the fellow who takes it upon himself to dress in the uniforms, and act accordingly, of every type of civic or federal official; the man who made his fortune in customizing rat poison for the cities of the world; an heir to the Curtis fortune who operates an extraterrestrial research program out of a 15th century gothic palace. Throughout it all, Berendt is unrelenting in his demonstration that Venice is completely dependent for its survival on its past and its oddity.… (more)
LibraryThing member JGolomb
I read City of Falling Angels a few weeks before my wife and I took our first trip to Italy. I didn't have much time for detailed research about Venice, but I wanted to get a taste of the city's history and culture.

I couldn't have found a more perfect book in Falling Angels. While Berendt's tale is ostensibly focused on the fire that burned down Venice's famous Fenice Opera House, the story turns quickly into multiple threads all orbiting around modern and historic Venice.

Berendt lived in Venice and so can provide a peek into a Venetian's view of life and existence within this unique city, but he never becomes a true Venetian and so is able to retain objectivity and perspective.

I visited Venice as a true tourist, but as someone who wanted to understand what Venice is really like (beyond its reputation as an Adult's Disney World), I felt that Falling Angels added wonderful flavor to my brief taste of the city.

The book is well written, very readable and has a strong sense of drama throughout. I highly recommend it.
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LibraryThing member cbl_tn
Journalist and best-selling author John Berendt arrived in Venice just days after the iconic Teatro La Fenice was destroyed by fire in 1996. Berendt spent the next few years investigating the cause of the fire, Venetian popular opinion about the cause of the fire, the history of La Fenice, the plans for rebuilding it, and the progress of the reconstruction. He interviews Venetians, members of Venice's expatriate community, artisans, philanthropists, politicians, and lawyers. Each chapter explores a different facet of Venice and its history. The conflicts he unearths concern more than the cause of the fire (negligence or arson)? He explores conflicts surrounding the legacy of poet Ezra Pound and the conflicts within nonprofit organizations dedicated to preserving and restoring Venice's cultural artifacts. Berendt has remarkable access to key individuals on both sides of the controversies. It makes for a page-turning read. The only thing missing is illustrations.… (more)
LibraryThing member herschelian
From the moment I started reading this book I was hooked, and it was all I could do to stop myself booking a plane ticket and departing for Venice there and then. Many, many books have been written about Venice, or are set in Venice, from travelogues, serious tomes on Venitian art and architecture, history, as well as crime, romantic and literary fiction. Berendt has written a very different book. He writes -with a light gossipy style- about the Venetians, and through them the reader gets a wonderful portrait of this magical city at the beginning of the 21stC. He has used the burning of La Fenice, Venice's famous opera theatre, the criminal investigations which followed the fire, the convoluted machinations between various groups to get the theatre rebuilt, and the rebuilding itself as the backbone of his book. Woven around that strand are encounters with an amazing cast of characters, The Rat Man, Count Volpi, Olga Rudge (Ezra Pound's widow, the feuding brothers, and any number of Contessas and Marcheses, not to mention the English and American expats who have made Venice their home.
His descriptions are so vivid that you can smell the damp,the hot chocolate at Florians, the sewers. You can see the hoards of tourists who are the life-blood of the Venetian economy and paradoxically are destroying the city by their very numbers. You watch with amazed amusement as the various "Save" Venice organisations jockey for pre-eminance and prestige.
This is a wonderful book, and I had to keep reminding myself that it is Non-Fiction, and that ALL the characters are real people and use their real names. If you are going to visit Venice for the first time, read this book; if you already know and love Venice, read this book; if you are an armchair traveller, read this book. You WILL enjoy it!
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LibraryThing member LynnB
At first, I wasn't too sure about reading this book. So, the opera house in Venice burned down. Always sad to lose an historic building, but really, did I care enough to read 398 pages? But it wasn't long before I was hooked. The book uses the fire as a backdrop to the stories of many interesting Venetians that the author encounters while living in that city. Some are more interesting than others -- like Ralph Curtis who requires an imprint of your big toe if you wish to visit his home, or the Rat Man or the poet Mario Stefani who dies in mysterious circumstances. I was sorry to come to the end of this totally captivating portrait of life in Venice.… (more)
LibraryThing member DaveFragments
Not as good as his first book - Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil - but an interesting read anyway.
LibraryThing member Niecierpek
Like Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, this book revolves around a sudden and unexplained event- the 1996 fire of Venezia’s opera house, La Fenice. In his quest to find out what had happened, and what people know and think about it, Berendt who lands in Venice a day after the fire, stays there for many months and interviews scores of people. In the end the book is about, as John Berendt says himself, the people of Venice and not Venice itself. There is inevitably information about Venice there too, but it is not the main focus. The people of Venice are more or less eccentric Venetians, and expatriots like Ezra Pound and Peggy Guggenheim.

I can’t say it wasn’t interesting, but it was only moderately interesting, with some fragments more interesting than others. Ezra Pound’s life history belonged to those more compelling. This book needed, as a friend puts it, a good friend with a red pen. It definitely didn’t need to be 400 pages long.
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LibraryThing member TheNovelWorld
City of Falling Angels is a non-fiction piece tracing the mysterious fire that set the Fenice ablaze, destroying rich Venetian history for reasons unknown. During his time in Venice, John meets a number of interesting and colorful residents, from minor royalty, to American expatriates. There are smaller scandels, corrupt non-profit beaurocracies. Count Marcello tells John that “Venetians never tell the truth. We mean precisely the opposite of what we say” and through the series of stories delving in the past lives of Venetians residents, we see many elements of betrayal, confusion and disaster. Despite it all, Venice still manages to fascinate tourists (which, after reading this book, I don’t think I want to be a tourist in Venice) and engage the active residents into a unique form of solidarity.… (more)
LibraryThing member judye
Wonderful book using the burning of an old Opera House in Venice as the device to explore the city, the people and the legal mis-investigation. A joy on all levels.
LibraryThing member Othemts
Berendt follows-up his book on Savannah with a book about Venice full of eccentric characters, hidden secrets, and interpersonal rivalries. The book is loosely unified by the theme of the destruction of La Fenice opera house by fire, but it doesn't really hold the book together the way the murder mystery does in Midnight in the Garden of Good & Evil. Still there are intriguing and sometimes unbelievable portraits of Venetians ranging from a couple of Americans who take advantage of Ezra Pound's mistress, a family of feuding glass-makers, a suicidal poet, and a man with many costumes. Berendt's excellent writing livens-up what basically amounts to small-town politics and gossip.… (more)
LibraryThing member bibliobibuli
Here's a book I didn't enjoy at all. Didn't even finish it - wimped out a little over halfway with only a feeling of relief.

The City of Falling Angels is set in Venice and revolves around the author's inquiry into the fire which destroyed the Fenice Opera House. Along the way he meets all kinds of eccentrics (feuding glassblowers, rat catchers, intinerant plant salesman, American expats) and paints an unflattering portrait of the city's underbelly. Berendt uncovers some fascinating material but fails to make the most of it - it reads like background research waiting for a novel to happen. But the writing plods and is at times dismaying clumsy.

I also can't fathom why there are no picures at all. Is it just assumed that we know our way around the architecture and geography of Venice? I certainly don't.
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LibraryThing member LastThursdays
Very interesting, lots of insight into the upper echelons of Venice society. Very different culture to ours, very different way of life, no cars, lots of walking, never really trusting those around you, particularly anyone involved in bureacracy & the justice system. Full of interesting gossip, hearsay, opinion & innuendo. Lots of info on cultural history, artists, writers, eccentrics etc. Must read before you go to Venice. Enjoyed by all members of the book club so it must be good!… (more)
LibraryThing member jstraws
I read this book while planning for an upcoming Mediterranean cruise that begins with a full two days in Venice. I was hoping I could get a flavor for the city and its people and really maximize my limited time there. I had previously enjoyed Berendt's Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil and, upon traveling to Savannah a few years after reading the book, found he really had captured the essence of the magical city as much as any writer could hope to.

The beginning of this book completely drew me in. I could picture myself strolling the canals with Berendt, sharing his anticipation to delve into the Venetian world. But by the end of the book, I felt what had started as a tribute to a beautiful and distinctive place and its inhabitants had evolved into narrative that consisted mainly of a bit too much high-society name dropping for my taste. I especially could have done without the entire chapter about the purely status- and ego-driven feud in the nonprofit Save Venice organization.

Overall, I think the book was worth reading, but that Berendt, somewhere along the hidden byways of Venice, lost his way. How accurate the picture he painted was--only after my trip will I be able to say for certain.
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LibraryThing member Carlie
Berendt truly has a knack for narrative nonfiction, and I only wish he would write more. In a Norman Mailer-esque fashion, he goes right into the thick of events and provides a stream of memorable characters telling it how they see it.

The City of Falling Angels begins as a story about the Fenice Opera House fire of 1996. It unfolds as a glimpse at Venetian life, customs, and people, especially of the high-brow variety. He discovers scandal after scandal, not the least of which involves the Fenice fire itself. Multiple stories unfold, mainly involving relationships gone awry because of greed and the need to gain - and likewise assert - power or authority. Like the story of the fire, it seems that the undercurrent of Venetian society is one of greed and negligence.

He closes the book very well, bringing together story lines and tying up loose ends. While I admire Berendt's style and his attention to both detail and conversation, I do wonder about the real truth behind what he was told. I suppose he does too, as he quoted a Count Marcello twice: "Everyone in Venice is acting....Venetians never tell the truth. We mean precisely the opposite of what we say."
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LibraryThing member BudaBaby
Non-fiction accounts of the La Fenice fire, Venetian society, and disputes over the estate of Ezra Pound. Engrossing and fast reading.
LibraryThing member Jeffrey414
Another book a decade in the making, The City of Fallen Angels is a colorful tale of local history, unique characters, and architecture in the New Orleans-like water logged city. Berendt moved to and lived in the city just after the fire which destroyed the Fenice Opera House. Paul
Lasch and I remain focused on writing our respective classics and then being pampered guests of the rich and famous with our world celebrity status in our travels to such classic destinations. “It’s contradictory,
hypocritical, irresponsible, dangerous, dishonest, corrupt, unfair, and completely mad. Welcome to Venice.” The personalities Berendt meets and shares from Venice are colorful, some times controversial, and often pampered and pompous. I enjoyed his story on the trial and the follow-up of the restoration of the Opera House. I discussed the book with our resident Italian history expert, Brain Viglietti, who gave me the correct pronunciation of Fenice (fah-KNEE-chay) and shared other historical details of the city. (By the way, Brian Viglietti is preparing his remarks to me on the Historian which I lent him as well-VLAD 1 is his
'license plate' on his custodian's cart! We spend more time talking about our book club selections than we do at dinner! He will be in charge of checking details and editing Paul's and my first novels as well.) Berendt
made me consider adding Venice as a destination in a European vacation.
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LibraryThing member jennyo
I read Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil years ago and loved it, so I was excited when this book came out. Berendt really knows how to select a setting. He also knows how to seek out the local "characters" and bring them to life in print. Like Midnight, this book has a central mystery that's rather unsatisfactorily solved (in this case, the burning of The Fenice Opera House), fabulous descriptions of the city and its art and architecture, and lots of minor intrigues and petty infighting amongst the locals. It's like a really well written gossip column. And it's lots of fun.

I doubt I'll retain much of what I read, but I did really enjoy the book.
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LibraryThing member
A great book from a writer who's descriptions bring a locale (and its citizens) to life. With the launching point of the Fenice Fire in 1996Berendt already has the makings of a mystery drama; but he doesn't stop there. Berendt decides to delve into the life of Venetians rather than simply scratching the surface by talking only of the city. The people we meet are beyond real in their willingness to turn against family and fight over embarrassingly simple things. With the background of such rich history Berendt uses every location he visits in order to weave a tale that could make even those who have been to Venice jealous. A startling glimpse into the Venetian culture and a realization of how they approach life so differently from Americans. A remarkable read that will leave you wanting to jump on a plane, fly to Italy, and take a room (of indefinite stay) in the floating city.… (more)
LibraryThing member suemoosbooks
Having just gone to Venice this summer, I wanted to read more about the city. I had read "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil" and thought that Berendt did a good job of capturing the essence of Savannah. While he did manage to evoke the atmosphere of Venice and educate me as to the significance of the Fenice opera house, I felt that the book meandered a bit. Still an interesting read though.… (more)
LibraryThing member cmeatto
An extremely readable portrait of Venice, Italy (not Venice Beach) from the author of “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.”
LibraryThing member melissavenable
I was excited to get to this book, having enjoyed "Midinight in the Garden of Good and Evil" so much. It was different, but didn't dissapoint. So much to learn here about art, architecture, life in Venice, local politics, and acclimating to a culture that is not one's own. I feel like I have been to Venice and met these people.… (more)



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