Visiting Venice Through (Mostly) Fiction

shelved under Fiction and Travel & Places

One day, sitting by a canal in Venice just off the lagoon, reading a novel that happened to be set there, I watched the sun gradually sink over the horizon. As I turned back to my book I read words that described the exact scenes I was experiencing: the mellifluous colours, the lengthening shadows, the keening tones of the swallows, all reflected back to me via the prose in my book.

It was having so many senses stimulated – visually I could flip from the page to the view; I could smell the garlic as the restaurants began to cook the evening food – and the cooking descriptions simultaneously wafted off the pages as the characters settled down to eat. I could hear the canal water lapping in front of me as the location in the novel moved from the Grand Canal into one of the minor canals.

It was a perfect experience that I never forgot. To bring that experience to you, I'm pleased to pull together my favorite (mostly) novels set in – and of course evocative of – Venice.


A Question of Belief

by Donna Leon

No list of novels set in Venice is complete without at least one example written by Donna Leon, the queen of Venetian fiction. Leon lives in Venice and it tells through her stories. You can feel you are walking along the Canali, Campi and Calli with the characters. In this novel the city is quiet, Guido Brunetti is about to go on holiday with his family, it's sweltering, and no one is about. The excessive heat makes everyone rather unfocussed, there are various things that need attending to, but nothing that seems urgent... until there is a murder and a web of intrigue, with which he has to grapple on his return. A truly evocative book with all the twists and turns of a good detective novel.


Thousand Days in Venice

by Marlena De Blasi

There is something inspirational that a middle aged American woman can up sticks and settle in Venice. It is through her eyes as a newbie in the city, that the reader can visualise some of the splendours and beauties of the city, and literally “taste” some of the food that is specific only to the lagoon city (recipes included, of course). I suppose would sum up this memoirs as a "gastro affair of the heart." Love food, love Venice.


A Venetian Affair: A True Story of Impossible Love in the Eighteenth Century

by Andrea Di Robilant

This is written by a descendant of the 18th-century Venetian nobleman Andrea Memmo and charts his illicit affair with beautiful Giustiniana Wynne. Inspiration is drawn from letters he discovered. The novel is really planted in the era; Canaletto is featured, as is Casanova, and the story has just that much more poignancy because it is loosely based on a real clandestine love affair. Many of the tristes are among the palazzos and canals and the reader is drawn into a world that one can still occasionally see in the echoes of the past that still reverberate in the city.



by M. R. Lovric

I came to this book after reading another title, The Floating Book, by the same author. And as soon as I saw the cover, I thought “I must read this book.” It is beautiful (it’s what covers and content should be like). Cecilia Cornaro is a 13-year-old living in Venice who has relationship with Casanova and with Byron. It is a lusciously described novel; the writing is so fluid. I found it an absolute delight.


In the Company of the Courtesan

by Sarah Dunant

One of the first books I ever read that was set in Venice, and I was charmed (if that is the right word) by the story and by the dark, decaying feel brought to life. Fiammetta and her companion dwarf Bucino escape the sack of Rome in 1527 and head to Venice, where she ensconces herself to ply her trade. Real historical figures pepper the plot, like Titian and Aretino, as we are guided from Rome to Venice through the voice of Bucino. Terrific writing and terrific observations of life and setting. I loved this novel and also The Birth of Venus, set in Florence, same author, same great writing.


Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi

by Geoff Dyer

This book is made up of 2 novellas. The first novella is set in Venice and features Jeff, a journalist who embarks on a passionate affair with Laura from the United States during the Venice Biennale (it includes scenes of a sexual nature so it isn’t for everyone!). Jeff has certainly got the idea of researching beyond the guidebook, as he gins up on Venice by reading Mary McCarthy's Venice Observed, and having enjoyed her description of Giorgione's painting The Tempest, sets out to find it. The dark canals, the heat, the little campi and calli all star in this well written book.


Miss Garnet's Angel

by Salley Vickers

An absolutely delightful book. Julia is a teacher who has retired and with some money that has just come to her, she finances a winter sojourn to Venice. As Julia embarks on a journey of self discovery, the story of Tobias and the angel is interwoven into the modern story. Chiesa dell'Angelo San Raffaele features in the storyline and it is possible to visit it in Venice, which is just a great experience.


The Stone Virgin

by Barry Unsworth

In order to really like this book, you need to have an interest in art – otherwise it becomes a little esoteric. But if you love Venice and you love art, boy, is this the book for you! It revolves around the restoration of an antique statue of the Madonna and the story is beautifully layered in time. Barry Unsworth is a writer who I have only recently discovered and look forward to reading other books he has written.


Death in Venice and Other Stories

by Thomas Mann

In a way, I feel you can’t draw up a list of novels “set in Venice” without including this old favorite. To be honest, it isn’t my top pick but when people think of novels set in Venice, though it's often the first to come to mind. A novella, it is the story of Gustav von Aschenbach who struggles between emotion and reason, centred around his encounter with a young boy.


The City Of Falling Angels

by John Berendt

This is the book I buy my friends when they plan a trip to the lagoon city. The fire at the Fenice opera house on the Monday evening, January 29, 1996 is at the heart of this wonderful account of post-fire Venice. Was it arson, or was it negligence? John Berendt trawls the evidence, meets some wonderful people as he trails the calli and campi of Venice, and traces bits of history with myth and memory interwoven into the fabric of his story - this is like a tapas of stories.


The Comfort of Strangers

by Ian McEwan

Colin and Mary have issues in their relationship. They are very distant. In Venice (though not actually named in the book), they meet Robert one evening, and he enters their lives, together with his wife. I read this many years ago, and the noir element of the book was something that really struck home, the brooding sexual menace that pervades the story. Somehow the dark writing echoes some of the darker corners of the city.


The Glassblower of Murano

by Marina Fiorato

In the late 1600s, Venice was flying and glass was hugely prized. Modern day Nora Manin decides to return to the city of her ancestors and become a glass-blowing apprentice. The story moves smoothly between historical and present-day Venice and brought to life a period of history about which I knew little. It's a gripping read; I felt I learned a lot while engrossed in a good storyline.


Good Thief's Guide to Venice

by Chris Ewan

Charlie Howard is an ex-thief and is currently writing his book in a palazzo in Venice. This is a top crime caper, and some of the descriptions of Venice are superb. An easy read and a great way to enjoy an actual - or armchair - visit to Venice.


The Titian Committee

by Iain Pears

You can’t really think of books set in Italy without considering the novels of Iain Pears. This particular book is set in Venice. He builds the mystery nicely; there is some art involved and Venice is one of the main characters. It’s not too demanding and just makes for a “good read."