Ah, Venice – the city of Gothic palaces and gondolas, of great domed churches and soaring towers, of shimmering light and lapis skies and a thousand other syrupy clichés. Ever since the eighteenth century, the city has been packaged and repackaged as the cynosure of nostalgia: the Venice of faded grandeur and sunny cuteness in Canaletto’s picture-postcard vedute; of noble, delectable decay in Ruskin; of languid erotic charge in Visconti’s 1971 film, Death in Venice. Sentimentality envelops the very idea of Venice like the city’s swirling winter mists. All of which makes this new book’s sentiment-dispelling astringency both welcome and arresting. Of course, its author, John Berendt, is as captivated as any by Venice’s beauty and fascinated by its glorious past. But his real concern is with Venice present: to reveal what goes on behind its often dark and shuttered façades. What makes the heart of this glorious urban dowager – or at least her pacemaker – tick?
At first sight, Berendt – a cultivated New Yorker, whom (to declare an interest) I first encountered in Venice some four years ago, while working on a book of my own – may seem an unlikely chronicler of that city’s inner life. His only other book – the 1995 non-fiction