The Venice Questions

A thing from way back in 2010/11: e-mail interviews with authors,
revealing their feelings, attitudes and secret enthusiasms with regard to Venice.
They get to talk about their newest (or most Venice-relevant) book too.



7. Hallie Rubenhold                                  August 2011

Historian Hallie Rubenhold might fairly be accused of somewhat single-mindedly specialising in Georgian naughtiness. Her first book was The Covent Garden Ladies, about the famous guidebook to prostitutes. Then came Lady Worsley’s Whim - An Eighteenth Century Tale of Sex, Scandal and Divorce. There was also a TV program about The Covent Garden Ladies, which Hallie presented, and she was a historical consultant for the Channel 4 series City of Vice. Now just out is Mistress of My Fate, a novel, and a new twist of the innocent-comes-to-London tale. I liked it, a lot, and there's just enough Venetian connection (revealed below) to sneak her onto this page.
Her website is here.


What inspired you to try your hand at fiction this time?
The plan had always been to write fiction, not non fiction. As an academic it was expected that I write non fiction, but in fact, I find non fiction more difficult to write because I have to rein in my imagination. This move into fiction was a very natural one, and something that I’d wanted to do my entire life.

Your central characters are invented, but based on real people, and the rest are real people, fictionally fleshed out. How do you decide where to set the factual/invented divide?
This is an interesting question. I feel that central characters need to possess enough flexibility to be taken into situations where actual historical characters may not have ventured, though it’s important to anchor their experiences in reality. I’ve tried to do this with my central characters, especially with Henrietta. Her character is drawn from an eighteenth century template; she’s the quintessential well-brought up young lady. She’s part Jane Austen heroine, part Fanny Burney heroine, and also inspired by real teenage girls whose correspondence and memoirs I’ve read over the years; from fallen young women who appear in court cases and cautionary tales, to the daughters of the aristocracy.

Would you describe the book as an historical romance? Or am I just asking this question because I'm a librarian and obsessed with classification?
You’re asking this question because you’re a librarian and obsessed with classification. No, I tried not to make it an historical romance, though it does possess romantic elements. I think it’s fair to say that most writers would agree with that love is an excellent well from which to draw the best human drama. However, I wouldn’t call Mistress of My Fate an historical romance any more than I would call The Crimson Petal and the White an historical romance.

Can you confirm the rumours that Henrietta Lightfoot's later career took her to Venice.
Yes! Look out for book three which will take place between Rome, Naples and Venice!






Do you have a film/book/artist that made a visit to Venice essential for you?
I think that by the time I first made it to Venice, I had wanted to go there for so long, that I’d forgotten which image/film/book had originally stuck in my imagination, though Canaletto did factor pretty highly.

Do you remember your first visit?
How could I forget it! I went InterRailing when I was 20. It was over the Easter holidays and, much to our disappointment, we found that all of the youth hostels were full. It was a choice between sleeping in the train station or somewhere else. The train station idea was quickly (and wisely) shot down. We ended up staying in pensione in Padua and commuting in.

What is your single most magical experience in Venice?
As clichéd as it sounds, there have been times when being in Venice has been so overwhelmingly astounding that it’s reduced me to tears. There are moments when the breath-taking beauty of the city defies description; the way the sunlight and shadow catches certain buildings, the majestic views that rear up from around a corner, the sudden flight of birds as bells toll out through the squares, the gentle sound of water, the unexpected music floating through courtyards – and sometimes, all of this strikes you at once! Venice can be the very essence of what the Romantics defined as the sublime; something so awe-inspiring that it can only be felt and not intellectualised. Certainly my most magical experience fell into that category. Several years ago, I arrived at night and took the Alilaguna from the airport across the lagoon in the middle of a lightning storm. The water and sky seemed entirely flat and black, but every now and again, great forks of lightning illuminated the silhouette of the city, accompanied by the roar of thunder and gothic clanging bells. It felt like something straight out of Mary Shelley!

And your worst?
I’m pleased to say that even the worst of my experiences in Venice doesn’t really rate against other travelling disappointments. I suppose my worst experience was when my husband and I planned a week long trip and then the trial on which he was working ran over, and I had to go alone. But when life gives you lemons in Venice, you make a spritz. I spent my week walking and thinking, and from that period of peaceful reflection, the concept for the Confessions of Henrietta Lightfoot series was born. In fact, I started writing it in the flat we’d hired near the Giardini Biennale. Last year, I went back on my own to finish what I’d started, and completed writing Mistress of My Fate in Venice.

Where would you live in Venice? And why?
Somewhere in the Dorsoduro, probably close to the Campo Santa Margherita. The Dorsoduro feels a bit more removed from touristy Venice while still being in the centre of things. Also, one can get a sense of life running at a more authentic pace, rather than being dictated by the ebb and flow of cruise ships depositing visitors. More importantly, there’s a fair collection of practical shops around that area, including a supermarket. If you’re there for a long stint, shopping for necessities in Venice can be absolute hell.

Is there a book (guidebook or not) that you always have to take?
I know I’m meant to say The Stones of Venice, or something deeply inspirational, but I’m afraid I’m dull enough to say the Time Out guide, which has never failed me. The Michelin red guide has also come in pretty useful.

What music plays on your iPod (or in your head) when you walk around Venice?
Again, it seems almost like a joke to say Vivaldi, but...Vivaldi. As a huge fan of baroque music, I discovered Vivaldi long before my first visit to Venice, and only when I came to Venice did I actually put the two halves together: Vivaldi and Venice, like bread and butter. Vivaldi is quite literally the city’s soundtrack. He has somehow managed to infuse his compositions with the sound of lapping, flowing water, and long dark shadows. But I’m not talking about the Four Seasons, which is played ad nauseum wherever you go. My favourite pieces are the lesser known concertos or arias from his operas and choral works such as Zeffiretti, che sussurrate, which quite literally gives me shivers when I listen to it in Venice.

Do you have a favourite...
... Part of Venice

I genuinely love it all, but the Dorsoduro is probably my favourite.

... Restaurant
In terms of food and Venetian ambiance, Alle Testiere is amazing. The best razor clams I’ve ever had.

... Church
Probably Santa Maria dei Miracoli, but with each return visit to Venice I invariably discover another one, just as beautiful.

... Gelato flavour
Depends where it’s from and what I’m in the mood for. I do love cannella e miele.

... Pizza topping

No one should eat pizza in Venice! But fritto misto or a lovely plate of little brown shrimps somewhere on the Zattere is another story.

And what's your least favourite aspect?
Having to carry heavy bags of groceries back to wherever I’m staying over endless bridges and in heat/rain/high water. Ditto luggage. No matter how much anyone loves Venice, it can never be called a practical city.

Do you think that Venice is dying/drowning?
I would say Venice is changing rather than dying. It’s not what it was two hundred years, one hundred years ago or even fifty years ago. In terms of conservation, this is never a good thing but conservationists know they’re in the business of fighting losing battles. I think it’s terribly sad that rich property owners have pushed out ordinary Venetians, but where the actual city is concerned, I’ve often had to stop myself joining the choir of moans about how it ‘no longer is what it once was’. Of course it’s not; Venice was once a city of extreme poverty and squalor. We tend to be dazzled by the incredible scenery and forget this rather important aspect of its history. Read any account of travel to Venice in the 18th or 19th centuries and a shocking picture of deprivation emerges from between the palazzos and stunning churches. In the later part of the twentieth century, modernisation improved life for everyone – including Venetians. It’s also worth remembering that until the later part of the twentieth century, Venice was only visited by the rich; those who could afford to travel. Now travel is relatively inexpensive and ordinary people get a chance to see an extraordinary place, which earlier generations would have never dreamed possible. So, when we moan about Venice having changed, would it be better if no one but the very rich were able to see this awe-inspiring place? Would it be better if Venice remained a city plagued by disease, poor drainage and peopled by ‘charming’, threadbare fishermen and their families? Just which Venice are we hankering after? Of course Venice has changed, and will continue to in order to accommodate what’s occurring in the world beyond it. However, it’s incumbent upon us to get the balance between change and conservation right so that this priceless gem is never lost to anyone.

If you were Mayor of Venice for one day, what would you do?
Throw the largest and most successful Venice in Peril fundraiser ever seen!


6. Robin Saikia                                            July 2011

Having written Blue Guides to Literary London, Italian Food and Hay-on-Wye Robin Saikia has now let himself go with his new book, called The Venice Lido. In it he revels in the Lido's history of decadence and romance, and also makes the case for it being more than a mere resort. He does this also in
an evocative video on YouTube.


So, Robin, why the Lido?
It’s never had a book to itself and I felt the time had come – because the Lido is a very important part of Venice’s history. The very first Venetians lived here after they’d fled the mainland from Attila. The settlement at Rialto, what is now Venice proper, came much later. So there’s a lot more to it than grand hotels and film stars – it’s the cradle of the city, the ceremonial outer boundary. The symbolism behind the wedding of the Doge to the sea is as much concerned with the Lido as it is with San Marco: every year, on Ascension Day, the sanctity of the Basilica was symbolically transmitted to San Nicoló and the coastal waters of the Lido. That’s the local history. Then you have the picturesque foreigners. Byron, Henry James, Effie Ruskin, Thomas Mann, Coco Chanel, Serge Diaghilev, Winston Churchill, Cole Porter, Oswald Mosley, Barbara Hutton, Frederick Rolfe. There you have emblems of the best and worst of western civilisation. And they all loved the Lido.

But it is different isn't it? In a sense the Lido is the Anti-Venice, being all light-hearted fun and sky?
I know what you mean, but I’m not so sure. This is an ancient island. Despite my selfless commitment to progress, modernity, sun-drenched glamour and hedonism, I cherish a personal and very romantic sense of the Lido as this golden wilderness at the edge of the Adriatic, a place with magical properties. It was enchanted when those first settlers arrived – and the spell still hadn’t been broken in Byron’s time, many centuries later. And I really do think you can hear the primal call today, if you walk alone at dawn on the sands of Alberoni in early spring. I’m writing a book for my children called The Lions of the Lido – it is conceived in that spirit of enchantment. The Lido is far from being the Anti-Venice. It is an Arcadian fragment of Venice. Its ancient, pastoral spirits beckon you softly but insistently in the dim alleys of San Marco. They entice you to the margin of the ocean – and beyond.

Is there more to be written about the Lido? Any topics ripe with potential?
I’d love to do a book devoted solely to the Lido at war. In The Venice Lido I enjoyed exploring Gabriele D’Annunzio’s antics in the First World War when he commanded Venice’s air squadron based on the Lido. There’s potentially a very entertaining story there if one allows it to be driven by D’Annunzio’s idiosyncrasies rather than by aeroplane or troop manoeuvres. The Hotel des Bains was a makeshift home for child refugees during the First World War – that was an episode I touched on in the book and would love to expand. Later, the Nazi occupation of Venice was a fascinating interlude too – the Herman Goering Military Band playing medleys of Wagner and Bach in Piazza San Marco – and German officers living it up at the Hotel des Bains. After the Second World War, the Lido was a makeshift garrison for the allies, mainly Americans. George Ames Plimpton, the American writer, makes an appearance in The Venice Lido. He lectured US troops on the art of public speaking, outdoors under an ancient cedar tree near San Nicoló al Lido on a sunny afternoon. The infantry brigades played baseball on the beach. There is certainly a great deal more to be written about the two world wars. And there are martial echoes on the Lido down the centuries too – the Fourth Crusade, garrisons of ferocious mercenaries, Napoleon, the uprising against Austria. The arts – someone should do a definitive coffee table job on the ‘Liberty’ architecture of the Lido. It would be a tremendous ‘style bible’. And the unimpeachable civic development of the Lido throughout the early 20th century might be wielded as a stinging reproach to the aesthetically bankrupt town planners and regeneration con artists of modern Europe.

What about yourself - what's next?
The Lions of the Lido grow restless and may shortly attempt to corner a publisher. And I have hundreds of thousands of words of sketches and research on the Lido in wartime to sort out. But right now I’m working on a chunk of popular philosophy that will be out next year.


The Lido's public baths c.1890

Gabriele D’Annunzio


Do you have a film/book/artist that made a visit to Venice essential for you?
I greatly admire Joseph Losey’s Don Giovanni, shot partly in Venice and mainly in the Veneto. The Faustian opening and closing scenes make you see the furnaces of Murano in a startling new light. I remember setting off for Venice more or less immediately after seeing the film for the first time. Artists – I once came to Venice for the sole purpose of looking at paintings by the Tiepolo family, for fun – it was an important trip, my first unfettered jaunt to Venice, one that didn’t involve the elements of coercion, necessity or compromise that bind you in family holidays, trips with companions, study, work or whatever. Books - wherever I am in the world, the very thought of Frederick Rolfe’s (Baron Corvo’s) novel, The Desire and Pursuit of the Whole, makes me laugh aloud, strengthening the ever-present resolve to return to Venice as soon as I can. He fell off a boat into the Grand Canal and calmly swam ashore, managing to keep his pipe alight. I’d like to try that.

Do you remember your first visit?
Yes, about thirty-five years ago with the Winchester College art master, Grahame Drew. A friend and I stayed on after a school trip and Grahame said “There are three things I don’t want you to do when you’re here alone. Avoid them with the ends of several bargepoles. Don’t drink grappa, don’t go to Harry’s Bar and don’t go to the Lido.” The grappa-fuelled bacchanal at Harry’s that followed, and the later saturnalia of naked midnight bathing on the Lido at Alberoni, set me on the long, tangled, sunlit path to this interview.

What is your single most magical experience in Venice?
Last summer, when I was swimming at the Lido with my wife Vicki, a fish flew out of the Adriatic and went hurtling over our heads. It was startlingly romantic. I can still see it: the streak of gold and silver; the glistening, feral texture of the scales; the fish’s eye like a jewel; the mad, mock-Byzantine riot of the Excelsior’s turrets and minarets against the azure sky; beyond that, in the mind’s eye, the dark labyrinths of San Marco – and, beyond them, the Euganean Hills.    

And your worst?
We were at the Palazzo Cavalli-Franchetti last month, queuing to see Erwin Wurm’s amusing ‘Narrow House’ installation in the garden. A woman from somewhere in the eastern bloc, stuffed like sausage-meat into ill-judged Chanel and plastered with too much make-up, jumped the queue as though she were fighting for the last bowl of borscht in the gulag. Not in itself earth-shattering, but it does illustrate the depressing way tourists have become richer and pushier, more demanding and bad-mannered as time goes by. They big-arse their way around Venice, gawping sullenly at stuff they haven’t a cat’s chance at Cruft’s of understanding in this world or the next. Then they go on Tripadvisor and criticise their hotel for not providing sufficient puffed wheat, bratwurst, grits, black pudding or whatever at breakfast.

Where would you live in Venice if you could choose? And why?
In the Hotel des Bains on the Lido, in the new flats there. Once they finish doing them up and reopen the hotel, they will surely need a writer in residence. During the summer holidays my sons will glide soulfully around the lobby in sailor suits, handing out flyers for specialist Lido lectures I have devised: ‘Coco and Her Kind’, ‘Fornicating Fascists’, ‘In the footsteps of Diaghilev’, ‘Liberty and License: the Great Lido Villas’, and so on.

Is there a book (guidebook or not) that you always have to take?
Alta Macadam’s Blue Guide Venice. A guidebook as authoritative as this sets the imagination free. John Julius Norwich’s
Paradise of Cities, Venice and Its Nineteenth-century Visitors – in those days pleasure-seekers were wiser, and the wise were more alive to pleasure.

What music plays on your iPod (or in your head) when you walk around Venice?
Fauré’s Cinq Mélodies de Venise and Reynaldo Hahn’s Venezia. They call to mind the Belle Epoque, Proust, Diaghilev, Lifar. Further back in time, I wish we knew more about Mozart’s short trip to Venice. The opening section of his Fantasia in D Minor is a kind of barcarolle, so perhaps it came to him during his stay here. Lipatti always plays it in my head when I’m in a gondola and I have a stab at it myself whenever I find a tame piano in one of the churches or hotels. I love the polychoral music of the Venetian Renaissance  – Willaert, Gabrieli, Monteverdi – two or more choirs in opposing choir lofts, echoing one another against flashy fanfares of trumpets in the cavernous acoustic of San Marco. As to the over-intrusive middlebrow cult of Vivaldi, I don’t approve, but I’ll defend to the death any man’s right to listen to The Four Seasons wherever and whenever he wishes – it is a great masterpiece and Vivaldi was a great master. If you meet someone who gets hoity-toity about Vivaldi, punch him on the snout – by asking, with a studied lightness of touch, what he thinks of Bach’s keyboard transcriptions of Vivaldi’s concerti. That’ll bring him down. Modern times: I can’t pass Kit Lambert’s former lair, the Palazzo Dario, without hearing The Acid Queen.

Do you have a favourite...
…Part of Venice

I’m drawn to the quiet area around San Giacomo dell’Orio. People live there. It’s fun to have a five-hour lunch in Capitan’ Uncino’s (Captain Hook’s) and watch the locals. In the church of San Giacomo there’s an extraordinary green marble pillar that was looted in the Fourth Crusade and brought back to Venice, possibly from Constantinople – it has a kind of supernatural magnetism. There are quite a few cats prowling round there too.

Montin’s near San Trovaso. Consistently good for the thirty years I’ve known it. Quiet – at least for lunch – discreet, fun, and romantic in a remarkably unpretentious, genuinely bohemian sort of way. For smart drinks, Tony Micelotta in the Blue Bar at the Excelsior makes the best martinis in Europe. The Communist Club on the Giudecca is a good place to get sloshed. For eating and drinking standing up – someone should do Vertical Venice –Schiavi in Rio San Trovaso is great for drinks and snacks.

San Sebastiano. The elaborate organ decorated by Veronese is a church in itself.

…Gelato flavour
Mint and chocolate.

…Pizza topping
God knows. Ortolans, snared at dawn on the lagoon, laid to rest on a bier of the finest artichokes, plucked by diligent old men in the market gardens of Sanrasmo, scattered with basil leaves torn to order by a cheerful young virgin from Asolo, presented by a dwarf whose forefathers tumbled and capered in the service of Dandolo or Bragadin. Failing that, Margerhita.

And what’s your least favourite aspect?
The necessary but very depressing area around Piazzale Roma where canals end and cars begin. Though I suppose the nuts-and-bolts side of Venice life might be put to good use as a friendly curb on our extravagant dreams, a reminder of our limitations. Before being let loose in Venice, perhaps every aspiring magical realist – me included – should be made to write a kitchen-sink novella about love, lust and betrayal in Tronchetto, Venice’s car park island. 

Do you think that Venice is dying/drowning?
No. It’s going to be all bling and Bellotto for centuries to come, and we know it. The imperishable beauty of Venice is, or should be, as chastening as it is uplifting. It should prompt us to reflect on the many less agreeable places we’ve forsaken, that really are dying and drowning.

If you were Mayor of Venice for one day, what would you do?
Breakfast at the Excelsior. Nuns from local convent treated to pastries and coffee. Set up trust fund to enable all good but poverty-stricken children to visit Venice for free motorboat rides on the lagoon. Late morning, revive the Bocca della Verita as a means of denouncing crooked hoteliers and naff tour operators. Reinstate the Signori di Notte to hunt down and punish offenders. Noon. Official opening of the mayor’s prosecco. Working lunch in the royal box at the Fenice. All prospective gondoliers to arrive in good order and give creditable rendition of ‘Take a Pair of Sparkling Eyes’ or such other air from The Gondoliers as the mayor may request. Presentation of licences. Speech. After tea, unveil new statue of Byron on plinth outside Palazzo Mocenigo. Baron Corvo Swimming Gala. Fully-clothed contestants, smoking pipes, to breast-stroke across Grand Canal. Prizes. Speech. Six o’clock: combined orchestras of Florian, Quadri and Lavena play God Save the Queen in recognition of Britain’s unquenchable love for the Serenissima. Noble-spirited harangues from the Torre dell’Orologio. Lord Norwich presents the Men and Women of Letters and their numerous but deserving dependants with free Venice travel passes for life. Randomly selected Japanese brides treated to chicken sandwiches and martinis at Harry’s. Speech. Mayor and Corporation depart for the Lido on a flotilla of gunboats supplied by the Italian Navy. Ceremonial sinking of a gigantic cruise liner in the lagoon. Speech. A chorus of sailors performs Vivaldi’s Inno della Repubblica di Venezia. Joyous local oarsmen stage an impromptu regatta. Banquet and fireworks at San Nicoló al Lido. Speech. Envoi. Arrivederci! Guten Nacht! Sayonara!



The Excelsior Palace Hotel in 1908, shortly after it opened.

 The Palazzo Dario


San Sebastiano's elaborate organ.


Lifar and Diaghilev on the Lido


5. Jon Courtenay Grimwood                     March 2011

Most famous for his Arabesk trilogy of cyberpunky novels set in an alternative and noirish Alexandria, JCG writes books set in worlds where history has taken major turns very different from developments in our own. He has just embarked on The Assassini, a series of novels set in a renaissance Venice unlike any we've read about before. And we like. He also knows (and loves) his Venice, unlike some Google-travelling authors we won't mention. His website is here.


Deciding to set a supernatural fantasy novel in renaissance Venice...which came first, the decision about the genre or the setting?
A naked boy chained to the bulkhead of a ship came first. It took me a while to unpick what I was seeing and when I realised the ship was in the Venetian lagoon I had my location. What he was - in as much as Tycho and I know what he is - came when he opened his eyes and I saw the amber flecks.

All of my novels begin with a single image. My first published book was a crime novel, that turned out to be a SF crime novel set in Paris when I realised the blue cop cars behind the prosecutor were hovercraft parked above the Seine. Until then I thought it was a straight crime novel.

I doubt that you were going for the Twilight market, but am I misguided in still detecting a certain fashionable flavour of the 'young adult' novel in the book?
It's not intentional although this is the first book that has been blogged by teen bloggers and the first one where I've had teen interviewers asking questions. (So obviously there's some cross over.)

YA novels do some things incredibly well and I've long believed you can get away asking harder questions and dealing with more difficult subjects in YA novels than in most lit fic. That said, there's some really quite brutal stuff in The Fallen Blade so if people in their young teens comes to it from the Twilight market they'll probably be slightly shocked.

There is a lot of authentic Venetian detail in the novel, but you also make up some places and change the names of some things, like gondolas. Why the need for this giving of other names?
The boat names at least should be real; gondolini are racing gondolas, vipera are low double fronted smuggling craft. At one point I had seven or eight different types of Venetian craft but most were cut at editing stage.

Very occasionally I've renamed an alley or a church or made a fondacio that belonged to one country in 1407 belong to another instead. I've done this for the same reason Alexandrian names were changed in the Ashraf Bey/Arabesk mysteries - to make obvious that this Venice is not *quite* the Venice we know. (Although, obviously, all cities are overlays of the city or cities we recognise and those we don't know exist because we don't recognise them.)

In the Fallen Blade the world is five generations into a new time line and it's one where Marco Polo's descendants are hereditary dukes, the Mongols have a trading station in Venice and the Byzantines are still a major power. What fascinated me was how much Venice still looked to the East in this period while resenting its Byzantine origins. I wanted to build on that.

Are the sequels going to be set in Venice too? When's the next one due?
The next book is written and takes place almost entirely in Venice, with slight side trips to the Lido and Monfalcone. The one after that is again mostly Venice, with some scenes on the outer edges of the lagoon.



Do you have a film/book/artist that made a visit to Venice essential for you?
The Aurelio Zen books make me want to visit Venice and I'm a sucker for anything by Donna Leon, but I suspect that's because I like Venice rather than the other way round. Don't Look Now captures the sinister side. Even if it wasn't a great film I'd re-watch The Talented Mr Ripley just for the Venice scenes. (I'd even re-watch Brideshead). And I still walk around quoting Robert Browning's Toccata of Galuppi's to myself.  'Yes, you, like a ghostly cricket, creaking where a house was burned: Dust and ashes, dead and done with, Venice spent what Venice earned. The soul, doubtless, is immortal - where a soul can be discerned...'

But there's nothing that has made a trip essential

Do you remember your first visit?
No, my childhood memories of the city merge into one. I can remember the usual things; the heat and the stink of the back canals, the crowds in San Marco, the sudden relief of finding completely empty alleys a hundred yards back from the main thoroughfares, vaporetto, gondolas, ice-cream, but the first trip...? If I've got the memory right we were driving home from Valetta in Malta to the UK and stopped off for while. I'd have been about six.

What is your single most magical experience in Venice?
Walking in the dead of night through the back alleys of Castello and coming out onto the fondamente and seeing lights in the distance and feeling the centuries drop away and knowing could have been in any one of the previous thousand years. I can get almost drunk on history in that city.

And your worst?
Right, I'm going to take my wife's name in vain (Sam Baker, editor-in-chief of Red, good novelist). She's the least superstitious person I've ever met but last year we booked into a very old hotel in Cannaregio, had a furious argument, went for a walk to calm down, went back to hotel and promptly started another argument, then spent the night awake with my wife insisting someone else was in the room and she could hear a small child crying. We booked into another hotel and had a really good weekend thereafter.

The owner of the first hotel asked which room we'd been given and didn't even seem surprised when we refused an upgrade to a suite and said we'd be happier staying elsewhere. (We decamped to Ca' Pisani)

As a child I decided the reason Venice felt so strange was because none of the ghosts could escape across the water, and so there were always more ghosts than living people in the city. I also think I was shocked by the churches and palaces with their dark oil paintings of tortured saints and decided people in Venice had obviously been nastier to each other than elsewhere.

Where would you live in Venice if you could choose? And why?
A ruined palazzo on the Grand Canal sometime in the 1950s, with water on the lowest floor and crumbling furniture... Failing that, one of the really narrow alleys just beyond the Oratorio dei Cruciferi, in Cannaregio, running south from the Fondamente Nouve would be my choice today. (Preferably an alley that involved crossing a couple of bridges and didn't actually lead anywhere, unless to a deserted corte.)

Much as I love the walk from San Marco down to Sant Elena and do it every time I'm in the city, I think the bleakness of the northern shore is more interesting.

Is there a book (guidebook or not) that you always have to take?
I have a 500 lire black and white early 60s guide book to the palazzo ducale with terrible monochrome photographs and blocky little maps that has acquired an almost talismanic quality for me. I'd be more upset to lose than than the rest of my luggage put together.

What music plays on your iPod (or in your head) when you walk around Venice?
My ipod is always on shuffle! My head is usually full of conversations between characters about the areas through which I'm walking. I'll stop if I hear music coming from a church and sit for a while. So mostly I go with what the city supplies. Vivaldi features quite heavily! Although I did listen to Gregorian chant for the Assassini books.

Do you have a favourite
... Part of Venice
At the moment, the northern edge between the vaporetto stops of Fondamente Nuove and Sant Alvise.

... Restaurant
Hard this... For every meal at Harry's Bar I've had dozens that are simply bacaro stops, chances to read or because I want a drink and food seems like a good idea.

I've eaten regularly at at the cafes in Santa Margherita, tried Ai Assassini in Rio Tera dei Assassini, which mixes locals with tourists, and has a great name (given the books how could I not eat there), used the back table at Brek on Lista di Spagna as afternoon office space for a week (food varies wildly, cheap and good to congealed and inedible).

Pizzeria Ae Oche does reasonable pizza, including seriously-hot but totally inauthentic tabasco pizzas if your taste runs that way and gives you a great walk in the half dark along the Zattere afterwards. (And I had one of the best arabiatas I've ever eaten in a tiny place off the Strada Nova.)

... Church
I love San Zanipolo. It's huge, impressive, stark, full of dead doges and gives a real sense of the city's greatness. But my favourite is the basilica's poor cousin San Pietro de Castello... The city's main cathedral for centuries and featuring a Palladian facade, it still needed rebuilding in the 1970s having been ignored and fallen into repair after it was firebombed fifty-something years before. There's something grandly forlorn and Miss Haversham-ish about the building and it's where I go these days to light candles when I'm in the city. The 13th Century Throne of St Peter has verses from the Koran inscribed on the gravestone that's been cut down to make a backrest. This kind of unintentional rubbing together of cultures really interests me and drives most of my books.

... Gelato flavour
The crema del doge flavour from the ice cream place on the southern edge of Campo Santa Margherita (just look for the queue)

... Pizza topping
bresaola & rocket

And what's your least favourite aspect?
The crowds of tourists pushing down from Ferrovia to San Marco and back in a huge wave, the fact the quality of the food is so erratic, the occasional idiot waiter who tries to give you the wrong change on purpose, the fact you know you've keeping the city alive by going and spending money and killing it and its culture by being there. It's a place of very mixed emotions.

Do you think that Venice is dying/drowning?
Yes, definitely dying. It's been dying from the moment it was born which is why it's so glorious. The fact it exists at all is absurd. And with luck it will go on dying for another thousand years if not longer. Will it drown? Would the world let Venice drown? I don't know.

If you were Mayor of Venice for one day, what would you do?
Declare independence, re-establish the Council of Ten, distance myself from the politicians in Rome and declare the period from 1797-2011 an unfortunate blip in an otherwise glorious history (then play off the major powers for aid and loans to get the republic back on its feet).


Don't Look Now

Inside San Zanipolo.

The cloister next to San Pietro.


4. Miranda Miller                                 January 2011

A small departure here. Miranda Miller is the author of Nina in Utopia which isn't set in Venice, but which was one of my most favourite novels of 2010. She made contact a few weeks back and confessed a love of Venice, so she qualifies I think. Nina in Utopia tells of a Victorian woman mysteriously propelled into modern London. Despite the sci-fi scenario the novel is more about morality, modernity and love than airships and anomalies. Here website is here. Being a fan of steampunk (the sci-fi genre where old (usually steam) technology has developed sufficiently to create brass robots, superior airships and such) my first question was...



Nina in Utopia has elements of steampunk and even features that most mainstream of recent mass-cultural flirtations with the genre - the Sultan's Elephant. Were you conscious of this connection when you wrote the novel?
I haven't read any steampunk but would appear to be living in a parallel universe. I saw the Sultan's Elephant just before I started writing Nina in Utopia.  I had done a lot of reading and research but needed to find a 'door' into our period for Nina. I chanced upon that exuberant piece of street theatre and wondered how my Victorian woman would feel if she found herself  in that crowd.

Why have there been so many novels written recently with a Victorian  setting, do you think?

I can't speak for authors in general but I have read so many nineteenth century novels that it felt quite natural to be writing in Nina's voice.  I would hesitate to set a novel in an earlier period, for example the seventeenth century. At the moment I'm reading Claire Tomalin's wonderful biography of Pepys  and am struck by the fascinating strangeness of the London she describes. Victorian London, however, has been alive in my imagination for most of my life.  The language is also quite familiar and not so very different from our own.

There's also a resistance among authors to tackling the modern world and its trappings - mobile phones, the internet, etc. Is this just cowardice or a desire for the classic and the timeless?

You may well be right, Jeff, when you suggest there's an element of cowardice in writing about the past at a time when our present is so confusing and alarming. Twenty years ago I wrote a novel called Smiles and the Millennium  which was an attempt to predict what Thatcher's policies would do to London by the year 2000. Some of my predictions - the widening gap between rich and poor, inflated house prices - were accurate. When I wrote that novel I felt far more confident than I do now that there were political solutions to these problems, and that things would get better when we voted Thatcher out. They didn't. I am considering writing a novel set in London in the present but will probably not resist the temptation to slip into the past as well.

The first novel in which I attempted to explore different historical periods was Loving Mephistopheles. This is a quirky take on the Faust legend: Jenny is a third rate chanteuse who signs a contract giving her eternal youth with her agent, Leo, aka Mephistopheles. The novel is set between the 1890s and the end of our century and I felt liberated from the restraints of both realistic fiction and historical novels which stick to one period.

As you know, in Nina in Utopia Jonathan uses computer dating and sees Nina's ghost on his computer screen at work. I think it would be hard to set a novel in this century without mentioning the internet. For me, the most entertaining aspect of writing that novel was the imaginative challenge of bringing the two periods together. It takes time to write novels and, unfortunately, to get them published. I'm sure that novels will eventually catch up with technology. After all, it may be that the future of fiction lies on the internet, not in bookshops and libraries.

You've used Italian settings in your novels in the past. Any plans for future works with maybe a Venetian setting?

Yes, it's true that I've written a lot about Italy. In my first novel, Under the Rainbow the young couple meet in Florence; in my second novel, Family a young opera singer goes to Rome to study and becomes involved with a man who turns out to be a Fascist terrorist; in the 1920s and 1930s Jenny in Loving Mephistopheles lives in Rapallo , where she flirts with Max Beerbohm; and Nina's mother is Italian.

In my teens I studied Italian in Perugia and in my twenties I lived in Rome for four years. I return whenever I can for holidays and feel a deep connection with and affection for Italy. Venice, of course, is not really Italy, or indeed anywhere. Whenever I visit that city of dreams I am bowled over by it and feel the tingling, heightened awareness that means that I have experienced something I want to write about. The reasons why I have not are quite complicated but I will try to clarify them here. Like most lovers of Venice, I am a romantic and a fantasist. As a novelist I try to control the romanticism for fear of writing purple prose, schlock...we all know the dangers. Do you remember Eleanor Lavish, E M Forster's wicked satire of a novelist in Room with a View? Venice brings out the Eleanor Lavish in me and I am afraid of it. On each visit I get the seed of an idea for a novel set there but I simply cannot think of anything really new to say about the place and would be afraid that the city would upstage my characters.





Do you have a film/book/artist that made a visit to Venice essential for you?  Do you remember your first visit?
I was lucky enough to visit Venice for the first time when I was ten, with my family. My most vivid memories are of drinking chocolate on a terrace overlooking the Grand Canal; climbing up into the mysterious and ancient roof of San Marco; and standing in the Piazza San Marco feeding the pigeons, which then seemed adorable rather than repulsive. So my experience predated any exposure to films, books and paintings. By the time those came my way I was already a confirmed Italophile. Death in Venice - both the novella by Thomas Mann and Visconti's film - and the various incarnations of Venice in the works of Henry James are my most internalized associations with Venice. As I wander the alleys, happily lost, I hear in my head Mahler's music, used as the soundtrack for Visconti's film.

What is your single most magical experience in Venice?
My most magical memory is of chugging down a back canal on a vaporetto with my partner, Gordon, who was seeing the city for the first time. The boat swept out onto the open sea and the golden silhouettes of domes and towers welcomed us.

And your worst?
My worst memory is of a solitary visit one November in the 1970s. It was foggy and I got hopelessly lost in the deserted alleys. The canals became distinctly menacing and I realised how easy it would be to fall in or be pushed by a malignant ghost (or mugger). For hours I stumbled around, probably going in circles, and a terrible melancholy seeped out of the damp stones.

Where would you live in Venice if you could choose? And why?
Actually I wouldn't choose to live in Venice because I love living in London. But I wouldn't say no to a flat at the top of the spiral staircase in the Palazzo Contarini del Bovolo, overlooking the garden.

Do you have a favourite …
... Part of Venice
I particularly love Torcello (see right) with its tiny cathedral, grassy campo and Ozymandiaslike atmosphere of fallen splendour. Last time I was there, in 2009, a man was sitting alone in the garden of one of the few houses there with a chessboard in front of him. We smiled and waved at him and he asked if we wanted a game of chess. We continued on our way to the ferry but later thought that we should have stayed and kept him company. There was a Vendesi sign on his house, so perhaps the solitude became too much for him.
... Restaurant
Gam Gam, a Kosher restaurant near the Guglie bridge which has delicious food and is friendly. It's all too easy to eat badly in Venice so I also have many unfavourite restaurants.
... Church
My favourite church is, unsurprisingly, San Marco. I fell in love with it when I was ten and no church I have seen since has surpassed it.
... Gelato flavour 
... Pizza topping

And what’s your least favourite aspect?
My least favourite aspect is the paradox that the most beautiful city in the world has a generally low level of culture. The Biennale (obviously) only happens every two years. In September 2009 we longed to hear music other than Vivaldi's Four Seasons, to find a really good bookshop or an interesting play or opera production.

Do you think that Venice is dying/drowning?
Venice may be rescued from sinking but the city is depopulating and has no income other than from tourism, which is destroying it. Most Venetians hate tourists, and it shows. As I said earlier, I don't think Venice is really part of Italy but should be regarded as a miraculous jewel of civilization. If we allow it to die we will all be impoverished.

If you were Mayor of Venice for one day, what would you do?
If I were Mayor of Venice for one day I would try to find an international solution to the city's problems. Artists, like Venice, are endangered. I would sell the derelict properties at affordable prices to artists, writers, musicians, filmmakers and cultural organisations, on condition that they lived there permanently, not just for holidays. They would keep their original passports but would also become citizens of Venice so that they felt committed to the city's future. I would strictly limit the number of tacky souvenir and carnival mask shops and encourage local food shops, art galleries, bookshops and music venues. As the population increased, ordinary street life would return and taxes would be paid, so that the most crass solutions, like the advertising hoardings that masked the Piazza San Marco and the Bridge of Sighs on my last visit, would not be necessary. The city would attract more discriminating visitors and perhaps this unique city would find a unique twenty-first century role to play. But I won't be applying for the job just yet!


Gam Gam is just past the vap stop on the right.


  3. John Julius Norwich              July 2010

A man who needs no introduction, but here goes. The many books of Viscount Norwich include the unchallenged standard history of Venice, which we all rely on, and Paradise of Cities - Venice and its Nineteenth-century Visitors, an enthralling look at the personalities who inhabited the last glamorous era of Venetian history. There's also a three-volume history of Byzantium, an essential next step for anyone seriously interested in the major influences on Venice's history.

On a less Venetian note he recently edited a book of the diaries of his father, Duff Cooper, and published his own autobiography Trying to Please. He also has impeccable taste in pizzas.


Henry James famously said, in 1909, that there was nothing new to be written about Venice. How wrong was he?
Couldn't have been wronger. I must have been to Venice a good 200 times, and I find something new every time I go. There are still countless historical mysteries to be solved.

Do you think that there are still aspects or periods of Venice's history that have been relatively ignored? (I'm personally puzzled by the lack of histories of Venice during WW2.)
Mysteries, yes; aspects or periods, not many. I agree about WW2 Venice (but see below). And there's more work to be done on the first 3-4 centuries of its history. For the rest, I think it's pretty well covered.

Do you read much fiction set in Venice? Have you ever been tempted to write a novel?
Quite a lot. Joseph Kanon's thriller Alibi, which I read a week or two ago, is interesting on immediately post-war Venice. It's an odd book; for most of the time he suggests that he knows the city like the back of his hand, but he seems to think there's a parish called S. Ivo - I think he means S. Vio* - and insists on referring to S. Maria in Formosa. I couldn't write a novel for nuts - no creative imagination. All I can do is report.
Your smug site-creator says: 'I spotted this too!' See review here)

Have your researches ever been annoyingly frustrated? Do you have any tales of adventures amongst the archives?
Only by being unable to find an answer to a question that's bugging me. I have hardly worked in the archives at all; virtually all my research has been done in the London Library.


Do you have a film/book/artist that made a visit to Venice essential for you?
No - I got to know Venice aged 16 by going there. The films/books/artists came later.

Do you remember your first visit?
Very, very clearly. I went with my parents for the day from Lake Garda and fell in love at first sight.

What is your single most magical experience in Venice?
Oh dear, I've had so many. I think I'd rank gondola trips at night around the small canals highest of all - that's when you see the city at its most magical.

And your worst?
Being taken on a three-hour tour of the lagoon in a motoscafo in pelting rain - all the windows fogged up so nothing to see.

Where would you live in Venice if you could choose? And why?
In the heart of the city - somewhere round Campo S. Angelo or S. Stefano, so that I can walk in 5-10 minutes to almost anywhere I want to go.

Is there a book (guidebook or not) that you always have to take?
Lorenzetti of course, and perhaps Jan Morris.

What music plays on your iPod (or in your head) when you walk around Venice?
NOT those Four bloody Seasons.

Do you have a favourite …
... Part of Venice
 No - I love every inch of it.
... Restaurant
Al Covo - next to the Hotel Gabrielli.
... Church
S. Maria dei Miracoli
... Gelato flavour 
... Pizza topping
Margarita, with extra cheese

And what’s your least favourite aspect?
Summer tourists.

Do you think that Venice is dying/drowning?
Dying yes (very slowly); drowning, no.

If you were Mayor of Venice for one day, what would you do?
Ban leviathan cruise ships, and slap a walloping charge on all cruise buses. Everyone should be allowed to come to Venice, but they should find their own way there, like we all used to.
John Julius's mother, Lady Diana Cooper, dressed as Cleopatra at a lavish ball in the Palazzo Labia given by Don Carlos de Beistegui in 1951. The costumes were inspired by the palazzo's Tiepolo: The Banquet of Cleopatra.



  2. Mary Hoffman                                                           May 2010
Mary is the author of many magical novels for children of all ages. Recently Trobadour, set in the time of the Cathars, was nominated for the Costa, among other prizes. She's also a vegetarian who likes cats, as you can see on her website.

As if this wasn't enough to recommend her to us, the first in Mary's Stravaganza series is set in Bellezza a subtly different, and often temptingly improved, version of Venice. It's one of my very favourite Venice-set novels. So it's a good place to start.


What was the idea behind your setting City of Masks in a fictional Venice, called Bellezza?
On my first visit to Venice, which was a day trip from where we were staying at Lake Garda with our three teenage daughters, we were cajoled into taking them on a gondola ride.

It was fantastically expensive – more than the rail fares for all five of us there and back from Desenzano – and I started musing about what would have made it worth all that money. Perfect weather for a start: it had started to drizzle from a grey sky. And then perhaps a really handsome gondolier. Ours was perfectly pleasant and reasonably knowledgeable but he was middle-aged, balding and paunchy.

I started fantasising about a city just like Venice where all the gondoliers were under twenty-five and absolutely stunning. How could this be? Well, if they were chosen by a woman. What woman could have such power? The ruler of the city. But Venice never had a woman ruler. All right then, not Venice but a city like it in a parallel universe, where the elected ruler is a woman.

This is how stories begin with me: an idea and then a question and answer session with myself until the core of the idea is ferreted out. Venice had a Doge, which is Venetian for Duke, so my Bellezza (="beauty" of course) had to have a Duchessa.
And to make it more interesting, although the parallel world bit would be set in the 16th century, there would be a 21st century traveller to it. When I looked at the idea five years later, when I was staying on the Venice Lido, I found that my unconscious mind had worked away and produced Silvia, the Duchessa of Bellezza and Lucien Mulholland, the 21st century teenager who would travel to meet her.

Death in Venice is a common concept, but you have your character dying elsewhere to live in Venice. Was this a conscious reversal? Does it reflect your idea of Venice, maybe?
Absolutely not! I hadn’t thought about that till you asked. I don’t buy into Venice as the disease-ridden world Thomas Mann wrote about, in spite of having enjoyed Dirk Bogarde as von Aschenbach and Benjamin Britten’s opera.

The Bellezza of my secondary world, in the country of Talia, is about beauty and yes of course masks. In fact the book was going to be called Where Beauty Wears a Mask and the city’s motto is “BELEZZA E MONETA” which might mean Beauty and Money or Beauty is Money” depending whether there’s an accent on the “e”, which there might not be in capital letters.

I wanted the city to be a character in the novel in its own right – something with a distinctive personality, a personality that is larger than life, always up for a celebration, fanatical about its ruler and sentimental when it believes her lost. Bellezzans love to party and have a strong sense of ceremonial, loyalty and fun. Like all Talians they are deeply superstitious and follow the old goddess religion even if alongside the more recent beliefs and rituals of a variety of Christian church.

So it’s really less about death and more about life. In Lucien’s case a second chance at life, which he loses in his own world. It’s also very much about appearances.

Writing historical the plot possibilities of mobile phones, distant travel in less than 6 months, and the internet not appeal at all?
I have written “realistic” books. In fact my other most famous collection of books is about Grace, a little Black girl living very firmly in the contemporary world. But you’re wrong, when it comes to teenage fiction, the plot possibilities are far greater in an age when not everything could be discovered at a touch of a screen. Having said that, the teenage characters live firmly in the 21st century and have mobile phones and use the Internet.

Is it important to you to be able to speak and read Italian?
Oh yes. I took my A level in 2000 and since 2001 have been attending a class in Oxford called Reading Italian Literature. I’m coming up to my tenth year of it in September. We read novels and short stories, write essays, speak and give presentations all in Italian. I just love it.

Do you speak Venetian?
Alas, no. Though I had City of Masks read in draft by a Venetian, who complimented me on my use of the word “sottoportego”!

What are you working on now?
Surprise, surprise, a historical novel set in Italy! It was commissioned by Bloomsbury and is about the young man who posed for Michelangelo’s great statue of David in Florence. No-one knows whether such a person even existed, which gives me a lot to play with. It takes place in the period 1501-1504, the only three years of this man’s life when he has adventures – and what adventures!





Do you have a film/book/artist that made a visit to Venice essential for you?
Someone said that no-one ever sees Venice for the first time. I just can’t remember where I first learned about it but I think of two things. My older sister had a memorable visit there when she was young. (And I spent a month in Florence when I was 20 so thought you had to be a “Venice person” or a “Florence person” – wrong!). The second thing was reading Henry James The Aspern Papers at university, which is set in Venice.

Do you remember your first visit?
Yes! See above under the inspiration for City of Masks. I had terrible toothache at the time which might have made me less tolerant of a less-than-handsome gondolier.

What is your single most magical experience in Venice?
Ah, so many! Seeing a gondola glide past the window of the café in the Doge’s Palace, going to a masked ball laid on by Bloomsbury, having breakfast in the Danieli roof terrace with Barbara Trapido, finding the boarded-up theatre that I used in City of Masks and many, many more.

And your worst?
Finding a MacDonalds!

Where would you live in Venice if you could choose? And why?
Without a doubt somewhere in Cannaregio. We rented an apartment there once, overlooking a little side canal. It was so peaceful and we shopped for food in the market like proper Venetians.

Is there a book (guidebook or not) that you always have to take?
Calli, Campielli e Canali

What music plays on your iPod (or in your head) when you walk around Venice?
Gracious! I don’t have an iPod and don’t associate any music in particular with Venice except perhaps Monteverdi Vespers of 1612. I suppose I should say Vivaldi’s Stravaganza violin concertos but I’ve never listened to them there.

Do you have a favourite …
... Part of Venice
Cannaregio. I also love Torcello.
... Restaurant
I’ve never found a really good one. I’m a vegetarian, which makes it a bit harder. But I don’t think one goes to Venice for the food. It’s not like Bologna or Florence.
... Church
Madonna del Orto
... Gelato flavour
Nocciola, gianduia e caffè
... Pizza topping

And what’s your least favourite aspect?
Acqua alta!

Do you think that Venice is dying/drowning?
I’m not qualified to say. If it can be saved, it will be because it has such a special place in so many people’s imagination.

If you were Mayor of Venice for one day, what would you do?
Retire all gondoliers over 25 of course!



  1. Michelle Lovric                                                   April 2010

Michelle has written four novels for adults set in Venice, and two for young adults, as well as an anthology of the Venetian writings of others, all of which should be read and cherished by discerning readers of books about the city. She has a very tasteful website too.

She has also recently caught the campaigning bug - tirelessly pushing for the Column of Infamy, which commemorates the conspiracy of Bajamonte Tiepolo in 1310, to be brought out of it's centuries-long hiding in a  dusty basement. So who better to start this new feature?

Her new novel The Book of Human Skin is out this month , so we begin with that.


What made you choose Peru as a major setting this time?

That surprised me as much as it surprised you. The truth is I went there on holiday, without even a computer. And then the convent of Santa Catalina grabbed me by the writing finger. It’s the most beautiful convent I’ve ever seen, and I am to convents what you are to books about Venice. But beauty isn’t enough. The thing about Santa Catalina is that it is compellingly strange, in the mix of Moorish and Christian architecture, in its sense of being an enclosed city, particularly at night, when they light it simply by candle and the fires in their stone ovens. I’m amazed that no English writer has set a book there before.
Peru drew me into the theme of skin, after seeing what a colonial and slaving history had imprinted on the faces of the Peruvians. But I was also drawn to write about Peru because of the Andean mummies, the Candelabra Cactus, the fate of guinea pigs, and the town of Arequipa itself – a little Venice 7000 feet above sea level.

The story is told through five alternating first-person narratives. Did you write each of the separate voices in one go or follow the plot and write each as they appeared?

This isn’t the first time I’ve done a multiple voiced book. It’s a format I love as a reader – particularly the way Matthew Kneale does it in English Passengers, and Louise Berridge in Honour and the Sword, which is published next week.  There are so many advantages to a multiple voice – you can create a tangible dynamism by strategic baton passing; you can use one narrator to establish the reliability or lyinghoundedness of another, and you can create that ‘LOOK BEHIND YOU!’ tension by showing the innocence of some characters and the machinations of others. Method? I work out the plot and then decide who’s the best person to carry it at each point. And for the voices, I love voices, I hear voices … each character has his or her own vocabulary file, preoccupations etc. I suppose I write ‘tics’ for them all.



How much fun was writing  the wholly evil character (Minguillo) and how much do you worry at how seemingly easy this was for you?
Is Minguillo wholly evil? Isn’t he aided and abetted at every corner by the eager reader?  Did you have to turn his pages if he disgusted you so much? This is the point that I wanted to make – we deride the gutter press, but which papers have the highest circulation? I wanted to write about the moral responsibilities of the reader, and Minguillo is the challenge I set. 

Yes, I enjoyed writing Minguillo, loved it -  to an extent which might worry people. But who doesn’t long, sometimes, to pull on a black cape and swish it about, and twirl one’s moustachios and mutilate the innocent? Oh, sorry, not you?  I got you wrong, Jeff.

 (Your affronted site-creator says 'Indeed!')

Another historical novel – do the plot possibilities of mobile phones, distant travel in less than 6 months, and the internet not appeal at all?
You’ve answered your own question. How can you have a plot to unravel when there’s Wikipedia? How can you get into serious physical peril with a mobile phone?

You’ve just embarked on a series of books for young adults, does the idea of developing a series for adults tempt you?

In a way, I have. The portrait-painter Cecilia Cornaro has so far appeared in three of my novels. She’s completely real to me, and there’s a lot more mileage in her yet – as a bit-player in other people’s stories or in a more major role. She is the equivalent of a photographer, too, a way of recording the faces of all my other characters. I have a role in mind for her son, Girolamo, in a forthcoming book.

Your next book for adults?

Having done skin, I’m extremely interested in … hair.

Photos of Santa Catalina by Graham Morrison


Do you have a film/book/artist that made a visit to Venice essential for you?
Giovanni Bellini’s paintings. Brideshead Revisited, the original, of course.

Do you remember your first visit?
I was eighteen, alone, and completely vulnerable: I fell hard.

What is your single most magical experience in Venice
The small canals near Miracoli, late at night, October, a gondola rowed by our friend Bruno, our friend Greg playing the violin, our friends silenced by pleasure.

And your worst?

Watching the acqua alta gush into our house on November 30th last year.

Where would you live in Venice if you could choose? And why?

I love where I live, but if I had to choose another area it would be near Sant’Alvise.
I love the smell of salt in the air, the high sky, the privacy.

Is there a book (guidebook or not) that you always have to take?
Giuseppe Tassini, Curiosità Veneziane

What music plays on your iPod (or in your head) when you walk around Venice?
Voices – the voices of my characters. Not music. I’m also a very greedy eavesdropper. You get unintentional comedy from tourists, and new vocab from Venetians.


Do you have a favourite …
... Part of Venice
Sant’Alvise, Misericordia. But it changes.
... Restaurant At the moment it is the Sicilian Beccafico in Santo Stefano
... Church
I love San Zan Degola on the inside, and the back end of Miracoli on the outside.
... Gelato flavour  Coffee
... Pizza topping Romana

And what’s your least favourite aspect?
A certain Venetian plumber. And speeding water taxis undermining the foundations of the palazzi, unhindered.

Do you think that Venice is dying/drowning
Very, verrrrrrrry, slowly. Like us.  But more beautifully.

If you were Mayor of Venice for one day, what would you do?

Well, this would make me unpopular, but …
I would make the police actually enforce the speed regulations on the Grand Canal, with bounties for arrests, and have offenders’ boats impounded. I would ban bottled water in Venice. Transporting those bottles to and from the mainland costs this planet too much. Anyway, the tap-water in Venice is delicious. I would offer a rates amnesty to any young people who wanted to set up a proper food shop in the centro storico, and free accommodation for them too. I would ban groups of more than 20 tourists, who block the calli. More to the point, I would make sure that ban was enforced. Operators who broke the law would have their permits removed. I’d hire a team to inspect every single piece of scaffolding in Venice and discover if it is actually doing anything. Then I would impose a daily fine per square foot on any useless scaffolding until it was removed. The fine would go into a fund for cleaning graffiti. I’d deal with the water rat problem this way: I would subsidize Dingo, the cat charity, to set up a cat café in every sestiere, where visiting cat-lovers could drink cappuccini while caressing cats who would naturally solicit large donations. I would make a decree that all Venetian shop-owners must put the truth about their opening hours on their doors. If they really open only at 9.25, then they must not put 9.00 on their signs. I would take a team of historians down into the depositories of the Fondazione di Musei Civici and see what treasures have been forgotten. For my husband’s sake, I would summon all the parish priests of all the churches, and ask if anyone has a campanile that they would like restored for use as an architectural studio. I’d set up a ‘Shhh in the City’ campaign, to stop people banging doors, playing music and television and shouting into mobile phones in the streets late at night – this causes so much unhappiness in Venice’s narrow streets.

Quite a long day.

But I presume that, as Mayor, in the evening I’d also have to preside at the inauguration of a major exhibition – perhaps about the Conspiracy of Baiamonte Tiepolo. And afterwards we’d have dinner in an exquisite private palazzo with artists, historians and writers, and then walk home over the passerelle at two am, with the streets magically to ourselves. Although after what I’d done all day, I would probably need the Comandante of the Carabinieri to accompany me.

(Your amused webmaster says: Notice how she goes to town on the question that asks 'What would you do if you were the one in charge'!)


Venice // Florence // London // Berlin