Thursday, April 07, 2011

Donna Leon's Venice

Venice is a mysterious seductress... You want to get to know her better... First you turn to history books for the elusive answers... But the clues to a city are it's people. And though both tourists and Venetian citizens ride the vaporetto together, there's an invisible wall between them... Venetians keep their nose hidden in their newspapers/Gazzettino, pet their dogs and ignore you... They sit on the end seats patiently waiting their fermata/stop, decked out in elegant outfits. They never fight for the window seat or aim cameras at the Grand Canal. And they never wear shlumpy jeans and hoodies... They do wear impossibly high heels to walk the cobbled calle/streets of Venice. They are the 'other' Venice. Leon agrees with Henry James' observation more than a century ago that "in Venice there is nothing so disagreeable as the visitors." You won't see them trekking over the crowded Academia bridge... Or noses pressed up to shop windows of blinding glass... Nor focusing greedy lenses on the icing cake palazzos... It's the back alleyways that make you long to know more...
What's behind those balconies and dark green shutters?
I found the answer by chance, on the shelves at the Peggy Guggenheim Museum gift shop. Stacks of Commissario Brunetti mysteries by Donna Leon held the answer for me.
Not just mysteries but Venice walks and a Venetian cookbook...
I chose at random, About Face and found within Venice walls made transparent. Venetian social hierachy is revealed both high and low - Brunetti is married to a Count's daughter (a university professor of literature) yet the criminals he daily deals with often come from the lower echelons. Details of proper social behavior, local political issues, what his family ate for lunch, where and what he drinks in a cafe, all are revealed in a way that opens a doorway like no other book.
Donna Leon was born in New Jersey, but has lived in Venice over 30 years. She's chosen not to have her books translated into Italian to maintain her anonymity. More about her in this interview.
Imagine my surprise when I found on page 217 an exact description of the little street near my hotel, Calle della Mandola. Including the optician where I bought my new glasses, the flower shop and the fruit vendor nextdoor - that kind of precise detail. A Venice map front-of the book marks every campo, calle, landmark mentioned.
I stayed at Hotel San Giorgio in the quiet Rio Tera della Mandola around the corner from Brunetti's florist.
FYI, the San Giorgio's staff were molto gentile/very kind. And the breakfast included was huge. Tutti perfecto!
That's how BEAR and I discovered segreti/secret Venezia. Grazie mille Donna Leon. I suggest you try her books. They start out slow, then coil like a cobra full of surprises. *BEAR was made an honorary Venetian citizen because of his good manners on the vaporetto, though he forgot his Il Gazzettino.


  1. Well you have gone and done it yet again Carol. I have to confess I never had dreams of traveling to Venice...I am not a water person, and I see the homes/buildings standing in the water and just imagine the damp, and the smell (wow, i sound like an ol'curmudgeon), but you have drawn me in with its everyday allure. yep, it goes on the "must visit" list now.

  2. A huge favorite here at GG Central. I've been to Venice mostly in the way off-season & she captures it perfectly. (As do you of course...)

    xo e baci

  3. Wow, those photos of old brick houses and dark shutters are absolutely amazing!

  4. My favorite post to date. Funny that it has nothing to do with Paris, the reason I subscribe to your posts in the first place. I discovered a bit of Venice's secrets myself reading John Barendt's City of Falling Angels. Juicy.
    Thank you for the daily treat in my inbox.

  5. While I love your posts from Paris, I truly enjoyed this visit to Italy with you. I have spent many great moments there. And Donna Leon's Venice is a regular on my reading list and I have "walked" the streets as you did many, many times with Commissario Brunetti.

  6. ooohhh....
    loving this venice journey!


    i read donna leon
    whilst i was there, too,
    using one book as a walking guide
    of sorts
    along with my rick steves...

    {{ you photos are top notch,
    as always }}

  7. I SO enjoyed this post on so many levels, from your fab canal images, to the people-watching, to your insights about this city. I completely adored Venice when I visited (in full summer season), but there was always something of the tourist theme-park about its famous heart, and like you, I was drawn to the back alleyways. I've always meant to read Donna Leon, and now you've totally convinced me - have just ordered About Face on amazon! I'm intrigued and impressed by her refusal to be translated into Italian - it keeps her on the 'right' side of that invisible wall you talk about!
    Great post - thank you so much :))

  8. PS: How elegant she is too, Donna Leon, in that pic! In my next life I want to be her, with greying chic hairstyle in that gorgeous-looking apartment, with books and pasta included!

  9. A particularly lovely posting, thanks. Can one drive from Connecticut to Venice?

    Perhaps I can drive as far as Barnes & Noble...


  10. Oh, my.....what a spectacularly delicious blog.
    I love Venice and also Donna Leon.

    Your photos are wonderful and took me right there for a few lovely moments.

  11. If you enjoy listening to books on tape/cd, the Donna Leon reader has a wonderful Italian accent and the boks are a joy to listen to.

  12. Jennifer M-S3:27 PM

    The Guggenheim in Venice is one of my all-time favorite places to visit.

  13. I spent most of my time in Venice walking the side streets and getting lost.
    It is an incredible place and you really do it justice with your photos.
    I loved Venice at night, too - it gets even more mysterious :)

  14. I've never been, so thanks for these Venice posts - I love them. I also love that you posted about Donna Leon and her books set in Venice. I love mysteries! I've only read one Donna Leon book, but I definitely plan on reading all the rest of them. If one was any example, they are splendid.
    P.S. I'm posting this on my blog with a link. :)

  15. Carol, your Venice photos really do show the locals and the tourists in a sensitive way.

    I love Donna Leon's detective stories (the descriptions of the meals and the various layers of Venetian society are very well done.)

    You might already know that Ms Leon is doing a reading at the 84th Street and B'way Barnes & Noble. I think it is this coming week, and not already done! I know I will be working and cannot go, but I wish otherwise.

    Best wishes.

  16. Nice article, thanks for the information.

  17. I love Donna Leon's books. I have all of her books and am on book 8. Her stories of Guido, Paola and their family are just amazing. I would love to visit Venice to see the sights that I have read so fondly of.

  18. I so love Venice, and your photos of the canals are lovely, Carol. I stayed in Lido when I visited--your room reminds me of one I had on Lago Maggiore when I visited the northern region of Italy. Wonderful memories you've given me here...xo

  19. These sound like good reads! And Venice sounds amazing. Thanks for sharing all your tidbits of fashion advice, sweets and things to see and do (like gelato!)

  20. ... just checked my library catalog and will be putting her books on hold - some have a long waiting list - Thanks for the post, pictures and new mystery books for me to read.

  21. It was last THUIRSDAY, the 31st of March that Donna Leon was in New York!
    Molto tristessa :(
    But thank you anyway Frances for the info!!!
    merci indeed

  22. travel, travel, travel, ohhhh you are my inspiration!!!

  23. Thanks Nikon,

    Really you just have to go CLICK almost anywhere to do justice to Venice..
    It's all there - so snapable.
    The trick is to stop and look a little deeper...
    If you like mysteries and love Venice first you will love Donna Leon
    xx cg

  24. I've been admiring your blog for sometime. It contains so many lovely features, but today I am compelled to thank you for your attention to desserts. What a gift to the world to have access to your delicious photos! Thank you Thank you Thank you!

  25. I ADORE your post, Carol. Feel we've been transported there for a few minutes. It's spooky. Have to laugh at your humour with the heels and fighting for window seats. Now we're looking forward to seeing your new glasses? (but I liked the old ones...)

  26. Venice is such a beautiful city..Venice is a mysterious seductress...Thanks for this..

  27. Anonymous10:40 AM

    so sad to hear that tourists are not considered welcome if they don't "attire" themselves like Venetians. My son went to Venice and said it was filthy. I agree, yet have never been there.

  28. hello carol! I've just descovered your blog and your paintings: very nice! great compliments! and your pics sooooo wonderful! qhat kind of camera do you use? thanks&compliments again!


  29. Hi Dafne & THANKS,

    My CAMERA is in the Amazon sidebar, though I'm still using the last model, the Canon Powershot S90. It's got a great sensor comparable to many SLRs or so they say...
    I love it because it's discrete.

  30. They do wear impossibly high heels to walk the cobbled calle/streets of Venice.

  31. Your description of the Venetions is a great read and so accurate. That is exactly what they are like on the Vaporettos.
    I also find their attitude amusing and unique as they arrive for work each morning. If we are out and about at that time, and they are heading towards us, they do not move aside, we must, to avoid running into them!


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