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

The Books I Picked & Why

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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