John Berendt: We have lift-off at the Palazzo Barbaro

He immortalised Savannah in 'Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil'. So which city was next for the treatment? Suzi Feay travels to La Serenissima to meet him and uncover some of its secrets
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The Independent Culture

John Berendt was a columnist for Esquire when he discovered Savannah, a beguilingly beautiful and isolated Southern city inhabited by flamboyant eccentrics, hustlers, drunks, voodoo priestesses, faded aristocrats and good-time girls. With raw material like that, a story was bound to come along sooner or later, but what Berendt stumbled upon was journalistic dynamite. He had befriended a wealthy Savannah antiques dealer living in a mansion in the historic quarter, and had witnessed the man's emotional contretemps with a volatile young man from his workshop. When the dealer shot the boy dead one night, using a Nazi pistol, Berendt was on the case. The resulting trial - harrowing, heartbreaking and hilarious by turns - formed the core of his narrative.

A court case lies at the heart of The City of Falling Angels too, and again Berendt demonstrates his uncanny journalistic good fortune. This time the city - equally bewitched, eerie and inward-looking - is Venice, and he arrives just three days after the calamitous fire at La Fenice, its beloved opera house ("the air still smelled of charcoal," he noted). Though he wasn't there to see the fire itself, his narrative of its progress is thrilling and immediate, a compelling tapestry of eye-witness accounts, chief among them that of the master glassmaker Archimede Seguso, 86 years old, who lived in a 16th-century house to the rear of the Fenice. Refusing to leave his endangered home, the gallant old man watches the conflagration from his roof, later creating a series of Fenice vases and bowls, swirling and twisting with orange and red and black glass.

We encounter the vases again, at the end of the book, lying in storage pending the result of a legal battle after the maestro's death. The family feud that divided Seguso's two sons is just a side-show in a narrative filled with disputes, hatreds and schisms. As Berendt tries to find out what really happened at the Fenice on the fatal night of 29 January 1996, he discovers, as a Venetian aristocrat warns him he will, that what is true and what is false is not so easy to determine in a city filled with water and mirrors.

I'm in Venice to interview Berendt, and the rebuilt and gleaming Fenice is just a few streets away from our hotel. The previous night I attended, along with a host of booksellers, a reception for the book at the magnificent palazzo of the da Mosto family, tucked in the streets by Rialto. We stepped over the threshold from the street to the vast, beamed hall on the ground floor, and trooped up the marble staircase, admiring the bust of Alvise da Mosto, the 15th-century navigator, on the half-landing. We progressed up to the grand reception rooms on the piano nobile, with their huge leaded windows, frescos and enormous chandeliers of Murano glass. Off the grand salon were the smaller family rooms and an exquisite baroque chapel. The hosts, the elderly, watchful Count Ranieri da Mosto and his shock-haired son, Francesco, were familiar faces from the recent TV series, Francesco's Venice.

It was clear from Midnight that Berendt has an extraordinary ability to charm and magnetise people from all walks of society, to gain their trust and to capture their voices. Even so, bagging a privately owned renaissance palazzo for your launch party is some feat. Curiously, Berendt claims to be shy. And it's not natural charm, he insists, but the need to get a book done that impels him into other people's lives. "It was work! A lot of the time I really am too shy, but I have to talk to someone... " For hundreds of years, he tells me, Venetian society was so hermetic that entertaining was only ever done outside the home. "The houses, even the one we were in last night, were family places. If you're a member of the family or a very close friend, you're invited. But when the Save Venice and Venice in Peril people came to spend a lot of money fixing up the city, the Venetians realised they could have them over for tea and charge for it. So Save Venice and Venice in Peril get to have their dinner parties in the palazzos - but they pay."

Berendt walked straight into another terrific story when Save Venice, a chi-chi charitable foundation for super-rich Americans, imploded into two factions, one led by the bullish and bumptious Bob Guthrie, the other by the smooth socialite Larry Lovett. "That's a wild story, very revealing of the American approach to prestige, power and social position. The row was so public, and so raw, it was embarrassing."

It's not so surprising that Berendt could infiltrate American ex-pat society in Venice with ease. What's more impressive is the way that, from his bolthole in the Fondamenta degli Incurabili ("the street of the incurables," he says with relish), he moved so freely among the Venetians, interviewing, for example, the prime suspects in the "arson" attack on the Fenice, and their families.

He claims his Italian is "OK" (I suspect it's better than that), but he never got to grips with the notoriously impenetrable Venetian dialect. "I'd say, 'talk Italian please!' I know the swearwords, and that's all there are. They are the worst swearwords I have ever heard in my life. Venetian insults really are just vile. It's all about your mother's private parts and what's going to happen to them... unbelievable! And they say it in everyday discourse! If you hear someone say te sboro, it means 'I come on you'." He pulls a face. Oh, but it sounds so lovely, I say, and he roars with laughter. "It's like 'oh shit'. They say it all the time. It's horrible!"

In conversation, he has a wicked wit and a dramatic way of delivering an anecdote, voice swooping from low, conspiratorial murmurs to theatrical shrieks. (Of Count Alvise di Robilant, he says: "I met him at a party at a palazzo. Very dignified, very charming, and a year later he was BRUTALLY murdered in Florence.") As he pursued the Fenice story, he also uncovered a scandal involving the last years in Venice of Ezra Pound's companion of 50 years, Olga Rudge, the afore-mentioned Seguso feud, and the sad case of the poet Mario Stefani, who committed suicide after leaving a series of tragic messages - "Loneliness is not being alone, it is loving others to no avail" - spray-painted on billboards around the city. "Then there were some people who thought he had been murdered, and that became a Miss Marple situation..."

Anyone who loved Midnight's cast of eccentrics will warm to characters like Ludovico De Luigi, an "artist provocateur" forever dreaming up new stunts, and Mario the electrician who likes to dress up in uniforms - firefighter, policeman, soldier, marine, vaporetto conductor. "I like crazy people," says Berendt. "I encourage them, they make good copy." One of the residents of Palazzo Barbaro is a descendant of the Curtises who bought the palazzo in 1885, inviting Henry James to stay there while he wrote The Wings of the Dove. Ralph Curtis's answerphone message announces: "You have reached the Earth liaison station of the Democratic Republic of the Planet Mars..." "He regards the palazzo as a spaceship. He has blast-offs regularly, playing tapes on his boom box of the lift-offs at Cape Canaveral, and he's invented martian music. He's a bit unusual." Likewise, another of his Venetian acquaintances, Vendramina Marcello, who kept Mussolini's photograph on her piano alongside Churchill's. "She had a huge portrait painted of herself on a white horse in her fascist uniform. In fact she was BURIED in her fascist uniform!"

You might not think the world needs another book about Venice, but by writing about the intensely secretive world of Venetians, rather than the tourist Venice, Berendt has pulled off the seemingly impossible feat of finding something new to say about this exhaustively chronicled city.

And after all that, he isn't even sentimental about the old Fenice. "Very uncomfortable! The seats were built for 18th-century Italians, who were tiny. I could barely get myself into the seat, and then my knees were up against the seat in front. I never had a good time there, I was always in pain. The boxes are like little coffins." A great story has risen from those ashes.

To order a copy of 'The City of Falling Angels' (Sceptre £20) for £18 (free p&p), contact Independent Books Direct on 08700 798 897