For five of the past six Novembers, my wife Karen and I have spent a long weekend in Venice. I go to attend the Venice Talks, a two-day conference that brings together representatives of Europe’s center-right parties to discuss matters political, economic, and cultural. Karen and I then spend two extra days exploring the Queen City of the Adriatic, where the setting is always more than we had remembered. The hotels on the Grand Canal, discreetly updated as they now are, have a 19th-century splendor about them still, and they serve huge, warming breakfasts and luxurious dinners. What Karen and I most enjoy is walking the twisting, often dead-end walkways, trying to master a baffling labyrinth of footbridges that arch up over dark, green-grey canals (whose water looks so thick that small animals might walk across it). Very often, despite the fact that we could see quite clearly where we wanted to go by means of steeples and towers, we couldn’t get there from here.
No matter: it is quite delicious to walk narrow Venetian streets in the bitter winds of November, ducking inside every so often for a cappuccino or a hot chocolate, or seeking sanctuary from the cold within a darkly shadowed old church whose bygone magnificence stuns the imagination.
One of our favorite little shelters — we try to stop by at least once a day, sometimes twice — is the church of San Zaccaria. There we dwell for a few moments at the foot of the single most beautiful painting in Venice — one of the greats anywhere in the world — by Giovanni Bellini: the Mother of God enthroned in a small temple of most marvelous perspectival precision, and in brilliant and subtly shadowed colors. I had never fully appreciated Bellini before, but he has moved far up my short list of the most thrilling painters.
Every church in Venice seems to shelter at least one artistic masterpiece, some three or four. One can spend an entire week visiting only the churches, apart from the justly famous and in some ways unmatched museums, guild halls, scuole, and public buildings.
A Thousand Years of Islam This year, the Ducal Palace hosted a special exhibit on the 1,000-year history of wars, competition, trade, and mutual imitation between Islamic culture and Venice. The influence of Islamic design and architectural forms is seen throughout the older neighborhoods of Venice — in the shape of the windows, and in some of the cursive designs on the walls of old palaces. The façade of the Ducal Palace itself perfectly reflects the very Muslim influence its exhibit celebrated.
The Venetian fleet played a decisive role in one of the greatest battles of Western (and global) history, the preemptive Battle of Lepanto in 1571. So it is no surprise that whole gigantic walls in the Ducal Palace, in more than one room, bear huge and sumptuous oil paintings of the furies of that battle. Miguel de Cervantes was wounded in that all-day struggle for life or death. He called Lepanto the greatest sea battle of all time. The time was propitious for the Turks: The European powers were divided by the still-young Reformation. The battle settled very little, but it did bar the Turks from what looked to be their great sea invasion of Italy, which would have cut off Northern Europe from its Mediterranean roots.
In Venice, one always has the sense of striding across history. Centuries ago, no other city of Europe matched Venice as a seafaring power, trading with the Middle East and sending merchants to the Far East. Venice has lived a lot and seen a lot. Visiting the city, one can feel strong tides of cynicism, ambition, betrayal, moral ambiguity, sensuality, and also a kind of serene moral striving. One does not leave Venice without having one’s sense of “progress” and “the triumph of goodness” plunged into cold, murky, green-gray waters.
Murder in Venice I have been intending to write about Venice for many weeks, without being able to seize an opportunity. Over the long New Year’s weekend, however, I decided to take a break from writing altogether. For five days, I mainly sat and read — well, aside from watching several hours of great football, and several more thumbing through the economic tables of the 2008 World Almanac, to refresh my memory on a few facts that are contrary to the conventional wisdom. Mostly, though, in a kind of delicious gluttony, I sat with a series of crime novels set in and around Venice that my sister had recommended to me. I was hooked, and read straight through three of them and into a fourth — and intend to read them all.
The author, Donna Leon, is an American woman, born in New Jersey, who has lived a great many years in the Middle and Far East, and now for some 20 years in Venice. Ms. Leon writes with the painter’s eye for Venice’s humble neighborhoods, rendering homespun descriptions often as sharp as the noonday sun. Her protagonist is a police officer whose title — Commisario — is not easily rendered into English, and whose winsome name is Guido Brunetti. Brunetti is an uxorious, smart, gutsy, and tenacious man, with a deep sense of his region’s honor. In his commonsense principles, he is a child of Cicero, a servant of justice — more exactingly, a servant of truth. Even when Brunetti collects more than enough evidence to bring a killer to justice, he is not satisfied until he understands every detail of the matter. Brunetti has that dogged common touch and common sense Aristotle’s children find most satisfying in their detectives. He is happily married to Paola, a no-nonsense Professoressa of English literature at the local university. Paola matches toughness of mind with affection and good humor.
How can we not be moved by Brunetti’s pertinacious love for clues he can see and hold in his hand, and his unceasing quest for a commonsense understanding of events? He has a profound regard for the people he works with. He is considerate and kind, and most of those who work with him reciprocate (though not his boss). When he pays a physical and spiritual price for his repetitive encounters with the bloody underside of Venice, his good wife deftly places balm on the wounds in his soul: a hot bowl of soup in winter, a cold glass of wine in the summer, in silence a hand through his hair.
Acqua Alta was the first of Ms. Leon’s novels I read, set in that wintry season in Venice when the high tides suddenly roll in, barely anticipated by wailing sirens. In the past, I had several times walked on high wooden platforms over the swirling “high water,” watching in awe as it surged over the embankments and into the piazzas, even up through the front doors of elegant hotels, and ultimately over the below-street-level tiles of the Basilica di San Marco. Even so, I had not quite imagined the difficulties brought to wintertime Venice by “acqua alta.”
The ferocity of a violent beating of a woman in the opening pages of Acqua Alta captured my horrified attention, I confess. There followed the quiet satisfactions of page after page of exact portrayal of Venetian gestures (the bent finger twisting into the cheek), and Venetian attitudes (a matter-of-fact cynicism about the police, the universities, the government, the press, and the church). And the plot and the detective work were gripping. So I picked up another volume. And then another. Each as good as, or better than, the earlier one.
So today, I looked up Donna Leon on Amazon. I did not count, but there must now be at least 15 of her novels in print. They seem to have won just about every prize for mystery novels awarded in Europe.
There is one thing I did not really admire in Ms. Leon’s novels: she is tone-deaf to religion and, to boot, shows a mild contempt for it. Mostly, Ms. Leon keeps this passion out of sight; I ran into only one extended stretch of it about three pages long. But this habit of pent-up contempt is not foreign to certain circles in Italy, and thus belongs in these novels. And in a later novel (my wife assures me) she does depict the touch of real holiness one sometimes encounters in the Veneto.
There are few people quite so pagan as former Catholics, who, having lost their ear for transcendence, sometimes cut creation down to life’s meaningless absurdities, and exude a tired cynicism. Yet some of these same people exercise remarkable stoic virtues of the sort ancient Rome honored, before the coming of Christ. The church towers and bronze statues of saints of Ms. Leon’s Venice set the two streams of this declining civilization in chiaroscuro radiance.
Since I love to have my memory and imagination stirred by vividly drawn scenes of Venice — some from neighborhoods and surrounding islands I have yet to visit myself — and since I enjoy true literary talent, endowed with a sharp eye for human angularity, I look forward to many more days and nights reading the whole series of Ms. Leon’s novels.
Except — where am I going to find the time?
Published in National Review Online January 25, 2008