By Rick Steves and Gene Openshaw
To learn more about Venice past and present, check out a few of these books and films.
A History of Venice (Norwich) covers the city from its beginnings until Napoleon ended the Republic’s independence. Venice: A Maritime Republic (Lane) explains how dominance on the high seas brought in piles of riches. Venice: Lion City (Wills), another city history, has a more academic tone. Francesco’s Venice (da Mosto), based on a BBC series, balances history with coffee table-book illustrations. The Venetian Empire (Morris) is an easy read and shows the city’s place on a larger historical canvas.
Filled with stories of a woman abroad, Venice Observed rings with Mary McCarthy’s engaging voice. The City of Falling Angels, by best-selling author John Berendt, hinges on a devastating fire at La Fenice Opera House. Based on once-hidden letters found in a palazzo, A Venetian Affair (di Robilant) tells a true love story. Venice: A Cultural and Literary Companion (Garrett) also covers the nearby islands, while A Literary Companion to Venice (Littlewood) includes walking tours of the city, as does Strolling Through Venice (Freely). For a traveler’s insight into Venice, consider picking up Barrie Kerper’s Venice: The Collected Traveler. Kids of all ages enjoy the whimsical impressions of the city in Miroslav Sasek’s classic picture-book This is Venice.
For a fun, critical perspective on tourism in Venice, get Venice: The Tourist Maze (Davis and Martin). Jane da Mosto’s The Science of Saving Venice is a readable introduction to the ecology and future of Venice’s lagoon.
Henry James set many of his best books in Venice, including The Wings of the Dove, Italian Hours, and The Aspern Papers and Other Stories. Thomas Mann also chose this city for his doomed tale Death in Venice.
In Invisible Cities (Calvino), “Marco Polo” tells of the fantastical cities he’s seen...or is he just describing the many facets of his beloved Venice? The Palace: A Novel (St. Aubin de Terán) has the Italian Risorgimento as its backdrop. Set in the Napoleonic era, The Passion (Winterson) is both a complex love story and a work of magical realist fiction. In the Company of the Courtesan (Dunant), The Glassblower of Murano (Fiorato), and The Rossetti Letter (Phillips) novelize the drama and romance of Venice.
Venice’s murky waters make a perfect setting for intrigue. Mystery fans will enjoy Dead Lagoon (Dibdin), Dirge for a Doge (Eyre), Stone Virgin (Unsworth), and The Haunted Hotel (Collins). In Death at La Fenice, one of a dozen of her novels set in Venice, Donna Leon chronicles the adventures of detective Guido Brunetti and his wife Paola. Fans of the series will enjoy Brunetti’s Venice (Sepeda), which leads visitors on intimate walks through the city, highlighting Brunetti’s haunts and settings from Leon’s novels.
Summertime (1955) sends melancholy Katherine Hepburn to Venice for romance. Death in Venice (1971), based on the book (see above), shows the devastating impact of a troubling infatuation. Don’t Look Now (1973), based on a novel by Daphne du Maurier, uses Venice as a mysterious backdrop for a haunting tale.
Only You (1994) is a cute (and even sappy) love story, while Bread and Tulips (2000) — equally romantic, but firmly grounded in reality — shows the power of Venice in reviving a wounded soul. Dangerous Beauty (1998), meanwhile, keeps love out of the picture in the story of a 16th-century prostitute. The Wings of the Dove (1997), based on the Henry James novel, is a tale of desire that takes full advantage of its Venetian locale.
The 2003 version of The Italian Job begins its fluffy, fun crime caper in Venice. Shakespeare fans will appreciate The Merchant of Venice (2004), which won raves for Al Pacino. The Woody Allen musical Everyone Says I Love You (1997) is partially set in Venice. And the climax of the James Bond thriller Casino Royale (2006) takes place along — and under — the canals of Venice. For more lightweight Venetian eye-candy, try Casanova (2005), starring Heath Ledger as the master of amore, or The Tourist (2010), with Johnny Depp and Angelina Jolie.
If you’re visiting Verona, try Letters to Juliet (2010) for a romance woven around the letter-writing tradition.
Gene Openshaw is the co-author of the Rick Steves' Venice guidebook.