I counted. I have twelve volumes on my bookcase about Venice. Thirteen with the one I just finished and am about to review, My Venice and Other Essays, by Donna Leon (Grove Press, 2013). Fourteen if you count Leon’s “Commissario Guido Brunetti” mystery, Beastly Things (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2012), that I picked up in the bargain section of Barnes & Noble recently and am also reviewing here. And these are just the books I own, I have read numerous others over the years that were loaned to me or checked out from the library.
So what is it about Venice, anyway? It’s so popular, so clogged with tourists, that I have seen it referred to as a sort of historical “Disneyland”. I’ve heard people complain that when they got there, it stank and was expensive and was too crowded. Or they had to slog through disgusting acqua alta flooding to see the sights. But I LOVE Venice. I’ve only been there for two short visits, but both times were during the “off-season (January and March) and it captivated me. There is something about the reflection of light off the water, the boats and gondolas in place of cars, the maze of dead-end calles, that transports me back in time and piques my imagination.
In My Venice, Leon attributes her love of the city primarily to the absence of cars. In her opening essay, she comments on the ways in which life is lived differently as a result, from forcing you to meet your neighbors to confronting your physical limitations. Certainly she has complaints about other aspects of life there, and subsequent essays reveal that she spends the prime tourist summer season in a mountain home, that she has made a bad and costly apartment buying decision, and that she has frustrations about Italian politics and bureaucracy. Interestingly, for a book ostensibly about Venice, only about a quarter of it actually deals with the city. In other sections, we learn her opinions about music, animals, men, America, and books. And she has some very strident opinions, indeed. I came away from the whole reading experience with mixed feelings. On the one hand, her writing is absolutely outstanding, something I admire and respect. And I can concede to the point of some of her strongly worded judgments, for example, that “regardless of the current belligerence of American foreign policy, the emotion that fuels America is, and has been for my lifetime, fear, not courage.” But my overall impression is that she might not be a particularly pleasant person to be around, that she may be a sort of female curmudgeon.
Which is not the impression I get of her from her fiction. I’ve read several of her mystery novels, starting when I first learned of her while taking an Italian class several years ago. They are all beautifully written, thoughtful and erudite and gentle, much like my impression of their setting, Venice. The one I just finished, Beastly Things, is about a veterinarian who is found murdered and dumped in a canal. Leon’s love of animals comes through in this book, as does a not so subtle indictment of the meat production industry. The last chapter, in which the protagonist, having solved the veterinarian’s murder, attends the dead man’s funeral, is one of the most tender and satisfying endings I have read in fiction. I’m not in general a huge mystery lover, but I cherish good writing, and Leon is a master. If you like well-crafted, intelligent stories that transport you to another world and carefully capture the intricacies of another culture, you might try one of her many novels.
Whenever I go to the Denver Art Museum, I always have to head up to the European collection and visit “my” Canaletto. This 18th century Italian painter is one of my favorites, and the DAM’s rediscovered and restored Venice: The Molo from the Bacino di San Marco (1724) is a quintessential composition that captures the water and boats and architecture of this city that I love so much. Every time I gaze at the painting I am transported to a different time and place. The modern view of the same setting may be thronged with annoying tourists and/or rising water, but if you can look past these very legitimate concerns, the serenity and timelessness and singular uniqueness of Venice is still there. In many ways, Donna Leon’s writing is a worthy successor to Canaletto’s brushstrokes.