The best books on Venice, an improbable city

Kenneth R. Bartlett Author Of The Smithsonian Guide to Essential Italy: The Great Courses
By Kenneth R. Bartlett

Who am I?

My first encounter with Venice was as a PhD student consulting the state archives in the former monastery attached to the basilica of the Frari, a place redolent of the history and culture of the city, lined with the tombs of doges. This inspired me to learn more about this improbable city, a curiosity that has never waned. Since then, I have visited the city more times than I can count, taking students, cultural tours, and visiting my many friends. Consequently, I was invited to produce my Essential Italy for Smithsonian Journeys and later their first virtual reality tour of the city. I can never tire of Venice nor completely know it.


I wrote...

The Smithsonian Guide to Essential Italy: The Great Courses

By Kenneth R. Bartlett,

Book cover of The Smithsonian Guide to Essential Italy: The Great Courses

What is my book about?

The Guide to Essential Italy is your own grand tour of Italy focussing on the most historically and culturally compelling experiences. It is an Italian itinerary designed to present a fascinating picture of this captivating destination, a circuit that explores some of the most significant sites to illustrate the rich historical and cultural legacy of the peninsula. A breathtaking travel journey, this 36-segment video tour and travelogue lets you walk the streets and savour the heritage of Italy’s premiere destinations of Rome, Tuscany, and Venice, with side trips to additional treasures of Italian civilization.

The books I picked & why

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The Companion Guide to Venice (Companion Guides)

By Hugh Honour,

Book cover of The Companion Guide to Venice (Companion Guides)

Why this book?

Every visitor, regardless of how often he or she has been somewhere, needs an engaging, accurate, and timely guidebook. Hugh Honour’s Companion Guide to Venice is my choice because it was written by an art historian who lived in Italy (he died sadly in 2016) and because it falls into that rarified category of guides that not only describe what you are seeing and how to get there but also places the artwork, building or site in a broader context. Thus, the book functions as a history of Venice and Venetian culture and an insight into its unique society. It is also beautifully written in carefully crafted and modulated sections that evoke the grandeur of the city and its lagoon.

The Companion Guide to Venice (Companion Guides)

By Hugh Honour,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Companion Guide to Venice (Companion Guides) as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Offers all that the visitor with a concern for beauty and for leisurely sight-seeing will require. FINANCIAL TIMES

The best guide book I have ever encountered... and a book I found it impossible not to read from beginning to end. OBSERVER

There are few pleasanter ways of passing a summer's evening than sitting over a cup of coffee, and perhaps a glass of Aurum, in the Piazza San Marco. It is especially agreeable on those nights when the Venetian city band thunders away at some throbbingly romantic piece... And all the while the younger inhabitants parade around the square, chattering,…


Secret Venice

By Thomas Jonglez, Paola Zoffoli,

Book cover of Secret Venice

Why this book?

If you truly want to know a city, you must go beyond even the best guidebooks into those specialized collections of stories, myths, gossip, and suppressed facts. Much cultural history is in fact officially recorded gossip, so there is no opprobrium in enjoying the salacious, highly local, and fascinating stories that are known only to oral history. This is such a book: a fascinating collection of legends, myths, gossip, and generally little-known stories about Venice.

Secret Venice

By Thomas Jonglez, Paola Zoffoli,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Secret Venice as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Discover the secrets of St. Mark's Basilica with not a tourist in sight, finally crack the mystery of the pillars around the Doge's Palace, take a trip on the only underground canal in Venice in search of the alchemical sculpture of the winged horse, lunch at a restaurant tucked away in a lagoon fisherman's house, track down Teriaca, that miracle potion brewed in Venice from time immemorial, decode the paintings of the Scuola di San Rocco applying the principles of the Jewish Kabbalah and see how Kabbalistic music influenced the construction of San Francesco della Vigna, visit an unknown underground…


The World of Venice

By Jan Morris,

Book cover of The World of Venice

Why this book?

The greatest travel writer of her generation (she died in November of 2020) produced a popular introduction to the city, mixing fact and story in her uniquely engaging style. It is a book that rivals Honour’s guide but focuses more on the patterns and rituals of life in Venice, linked by a profound appreciation for that unusual place, a city where the “streets are full of water”. If you like Morris, you might also be interested in her old but still engaging Venice, written when she was still James Morris.

The World of Venice

By Jan Morris,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The World of Venice as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A fascinating exploration of the history, sights, seasons, arts, food, and people of an incomparable city. “A highly intelligent portrait of an eccentric city, written in powerful prose and enlivened by many curious mosaics of information...a beautiful book to read and to possess” (The Observer). New Foreword by the Author. Index.


The City of Falling Angels

By John Berendt,

Book cover of The City of Falling Angels

Why this book?

Berendt, the author of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, provides a parallel exposé of Venice and its many worlds, a complex intertwined collection of stories, events, and personalities that begins with the fire that gutted the Teatro La Fenice in 1996. Fuelled by newspaper stories, gossip, conspiracy theories, and convincing evidence, the book digs into the unseen traditional world of Venetian society and official corruption and incompetence, revealing an extraordinary cast of characters both Venetian and foreign. It is a book you will either love or hate, but its narrative struck a chord, as my Venetian friends will agree.

The City of Falling Angels

By John Berendt,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The City of Falling Angels as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A #1 New York Times Bestseller!

"Funny, insightful, illuminating . . ." -The Boston Globe

Twelve years ago, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil exploded into a monumental success, residing a record-breaking four years on the New York Times bestseller list (longer than any work of fiction or nonfiction had before) and turning John Berendt into a household name. The City of Falling Angels is Berendt's first book since Midnight, and it immediately reminds one what all the fuss was about. Turning to the magic, mystery, and decadence of Venice, Berendt gradually reveals the truth behind a sensational…


Death at La Fenice

By Donna Leon,

Book cover of Death at La Fenice

Why this book?

Donna Leon has become the murder mystery writer of record for Venice. She lives in the Veneto, where she teaches at a university, so her intuitive understanding of Venice and the Venetian character is deep and reflexive. Death at La Fenice is the first novel to feature her signature character, Commissario Guido Brunetti, a man who represents all that is fine and good about official Venice but who also knows its dark secrets and underbelly, which, like so many citizens of the lagoon, he navigates with skill, despite his distaste at having to acknowledge the incompetence and corruption of those who exercise power and influence. Leon’s small details of Venetian life and character reveal a canny accuracy and deep understanding of how the city really functions. Her insight is such that she refuses to allow any of her Brunetti mysteries to be translated into Italian, probably the result of a mixture of respect and fear.

Death at La Fenice

By Donna Leon,

Why should I read it?

6 authors picked Death at La Fenice as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'A splendid series . . . with a backdrop of the city so vivid you can almost smell it.' The Sunday Telegraph

Winner of the Suntory Mystery Fiction Grand Prize
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The twisted maze of Venice's canals has always been shrouded in mystery. Even the celebrated opera house, La Fenice, has seen its share of death ... but none so horrific and violent as that of world-famous conductor, Maestro Helmut Wellauer, who was poisoned during a performance of La Traviata. Even Commissario of Police, Guido Brunetti, used to the labyrinthine corruptions of the city, is shocked at the number of…


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in Venice, murder, and the Kabbalah?

7,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about Venice, murder, and the Kabbalah.

Venice Explore 46 books about Venice
Murder Explore 497 books about murder
The Kabbalah Explore 18 books about the Kabbalah

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

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