The City of Falling Angels – John Berendt

Title: The City of Falling Angels
Author: John Berendt
ISBN: 1594200580
Pages: 414
Genre: Non-Fiction
Rating: **** (out of 5)

From the dust jacket:

VENICE – a city of masks and riddles, where narrow streets and passageways form a giant maze that confounds the uninitiated and deepens the sense of mystery. As captivating as it is elusive, the city teeters in precarious balance between endurance and decay. Architectural treasures crumble – foundations shift, ornaments fall – even as efforts to preserve them are underway. In The City of Falling Angels, John Berendt, author of the record-breaking best-seller Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, unveils the enigmatic Venice as only he can.

The story opens on the evening of January 29, 1996, when a sensational fire destroys the historic Fenice Opera House. The loss of the Fenice, where five of Verdi’s operas premiered, is a catastrophe for Venetians, made worse by the revelation that arson might have been the cause. Arriving three days after the fire, Berendt becomes a kind of detective – inquiring into the nature of life in this remarkable city while gradually revealing the truth about the fire…

Berendt tells a tale full of atmosphere and surprises as the stories build, one after the other, ultimately coming together to portray a world as finely drawn as a still-life painting. The fire and its aftermath serve as a leitmotif that runs throughout the book, contributing to the ever-mounting suspense and revealing the city of Venice in all its magic, mystery, and decadence.

I originally wanted to read The City of Falling Angels because I am going to Italy on my honeymoon in a few weeks and was eager to get my hands on as many books about the country as possible. Unfortunately, that hasn’t worked out quite like I planned – the only books I’ve read on Italy lately are this book and The Monster of Florence.

While I did enjoy The City of Falling Angels, the book surprised me. Rather than being about the Fenice fire, or even about Venice, the book is about the characters that make up the cityscape of Venice. Berendt delves deeply into many stories about Venetians (or, more common, Americans who have made Venice their home), altogether abandoning the plotline of the Fenice fire. Of course, he comes back to it frequently throughout the book, but it is more of a backdrop to the story of Venice’s people, rather than the story itself.

The book also ambles in many places. It’s not that it necessarily becomes uninteresting, but there are a few dry spots. There is no urgency to finish it – a reader could easily put this book down for a week and come back to it later because the storyline digresses to such a varying degree.

However, the stories that Berendt shares are interesting. It is clear that he spent a great deal of time getting to know the people of Venice, to the point where he begins to become accepted as one of them. He portrays Venice as a beautiful and enchanting city. Yes, it has its problems, but one of the overarching themes that runs through the book is a deep love of Venice. He illustrates the city well through his descriptions; it is obvious that he has a strong affection for the city.

Overall, The City of Falling Angels is a well crafted book that is a fun read. While the Fenice fire was tragic, Berendt manages to keep the story light. Since I just read The Monster of Florence, inevitably, I have to compare them. Both are “true crime” stories (serial killer vs. opera house fire), but I have to say that Berendt’s novel is much more compelling. If Berendt had focused simply on the fire (as Preston focused on the murder case), they might have been equally weighted. But Berendt’s story really comes alive through his character digressions. It is a book that I definitely recommend if you want to read about some of the characters that make up Venice.

A last note: I found Berendt’s descriptions of the Fenice fire to be absolutely enthralling and of course, being the Internet junkie I am, I went in search of pictures/video about the fire.

This picture, taken the morning after the fire, resonantes with me the most:

The website I got this from, has a lot more information about and pictures of the fire. Check it out if you’re interested!

Additionally, this is a Youtube video of a segment on the fire with some great footage. It does have English subtitles for those of us who can’t understand Italian!


  1. OK…I read this last year and was actually disappointed. But I think I was disappointed because Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil is one of my favorite books, and this one just didn’t live up that experience.

    Have you read Midnight?

  2. I haven’t read Midnight, but this book has made me want to! After reading your comment and the Amazon reviews, I’m glad I read this one first.

  3. If you haven’t read it, may I recommend Love in the Time of Cholera for honeymoon reading? I took it to Antigua with me in January, and it was a lovely fit…what better than a love story spanning several decades with Marquez’s perfect magical realism to top off an already delightful trip!

  4. Iain Pears’ art mystery series might appeal to you if you’re looking for books that take place in Italy. I don’t envy the time of the year you’re going, but enjoy your honeymoon. Eat lots of gelato. 🙂

  5. Having been to that magical place Venice where you can imagine them having masquerade parties I think Berendt made an excellent choice in choosing Venice to set the scene for his novel The City of Falling Angels which I enjoyed much more than his earlier novel Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil .

  6. Having been to that magical place Venice where you can imagine them having masquerade parties I think Berendt made an excellent choice in choosing Venice to set the scene for his novel The City of Falling Angels which I enjoyed much more than his earlier novel Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil .

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