Kate Forsyth on her favourite books set in Venice

My Favourite Books Set in Venice

I don’t remember the first time I read about Venice. I seem to have longed to go there all of my life. The combination of enchanting beauty, ancient stones steeped in story, and the whiff of danger was irresistible. A book only needs a picture of Venice on its cover, or the mention of its name in its title, and I will want to read it.

I have always wanted to set a book in Venice, partly to give me an excuse to travel there again, and so my latest novel Bitter Greens is set partly in Renaissance Venice and partly in France in the 17th century. And yes, the cover has a gorgeous picture of Venice on it ...

Here are my favourite books set in Venice:

In the Company of the Courtesan by Sarah Dunant

An absolutely fabulous historical novel, In the Company of the Courtesan tells the story of the escape of a courtesan from the pillage of Rome in 1527 – she flees to Venice and hopes to start a new life there. The story is told from the point of view of her dwarf. Sarah Dunant features the painter Titian and his most famous painting ‘The Venus of Urbino’, which is something I do in my own novel Bitter Greens, but we have completely different explanations for the story behind the painting. One of my all-time favourite books from one of my all-time favourite authors.

The Rossetti Letter by Christi Phillips

Another parallel narrative, moving between contemporary times and the early 17th century, The Rossetti Letter is a fabulous read. Claire Donovan is doing her Ph.d on the Venetian courtesan, Alessandra Rossetti, who wrote a letter to the Council of Ten warning of a Spanish plot to overthrow the Venetian Republic in 1618. The narrative moves smoothly back and forth between the two protagonists, and is filled with romance, intrigue, mystery and suspense.

A Venetian Affair: A True Tale of Forbidden Love in the 18th Century by Andrea di Robilant

A long-lost packet of letters, found by the author's father in the attic of a palace on the Grand Canal, reveals a passionate and forbidden love affair between a Venetian nobleman and a half-English commoner. The world of 1750s Venice is brought vividly to life - masked balls, gondolas on the canals, gambling, dancing, making love in secret gardens. I really loved this book.

The Glassblower of Murano by Marina Fiorato

This novel has a parallel narrative, with one story taking place in 17th century Venice and the other taking place in contemporary times. Much of the story is set on Murano Island where the glassblowers worked and lived. It’s a quick-paced, vivid and absorbing historical mystery, with some fascianting details about the art of glass-blowing.

The City of Falling Angels by John Berendt

John Berendt is best known for Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. This book works in the same way, being a non-fiction book that uses fictive devices and a strong personal voice to bring to life a place, a time, and the people who inhabit them. It describes the events following the burning of the historic La Fenice opera theatre in 1996, as well as charting the stories of other writers and artists who were fascinated by Venice, including Henry James, John Singer Sargent, and Ezra Pound. A really fascinating, colourful book.

The Four Seasons: A Novel of Vivaldi's Venice by Laurel Corona

This novel is set in the Pieta, a Venetian hospital for founding children, during the time when Vivaldi was choir master. I had never heard of the Pieta before, and was so inspired by this novel that I decided to set a section of my own book Bitter Greens there. Abandoned babies were taken in by the nuns, and trained to be exquisite singers and musicians.

Many of them would never leave the Pieta in their lifetime, singing in the church behind high wooden screens. A really intriguing look at an unknown part of Venetian history.

Vivaldi's Virgins by Barbara Quick

This is another book set in the Pieta during the time of Vivaldi. I really loved this book – the writing was fluid and vivid, and the characters came dancing to life. The story about how the author came to write the book is just as fascinating – I’d really recommend this book too.

A Thousand Days in Venice by Marlena de Blasi

One day, in Venice, Marlena de Blasi fell in love with a stranger. She decides to move to Venice to be with her new love, and this book charts (with lots of wonderful recipes and descriptions of food) her romantic adventures thereafter.

Miss Garnet’s Angel by Salley Vickers

After her dearest friend dies, retired history teacher Julia Garnet does something completely out of character: she rents an apartment in Venice for six months.
An atheist, a Communist, and a virgin, Julia finds herself falling beneath Venice’s spell. She makes friends and falls in love for the first time in her life. Interwoven with her journey of self-discovery is the tale of Tobias and the Archangel Raphael, which she sees painted on a fresco in a church. A really beautiful, unusual novel.

Death at La Fenice by Donna Leon

Donna Leon is an American crime writer who lives in Venice, and has written a whole series of books featuring the endearing, food-and-wine loving detective Guido Brunetti. Death At La Fenice is the first in the series, and it’s really worth reading them in order because the book is as much about Brunetti’s wife, family, and friends as it is about solving crimes in modern-day Venice. I love this books and buy them religiously – I have never once been disappointed.

Then, just quickly, my favourite children’s books set in Venice:

The Thief Lord by Cornelia Funke

Absolutely wonderful, a must read book!

The Madman of Venice by Sophie Masson

A marvellous romantic adventure set in 1602, and filled with all sorts of unexpected twists and turns. Sophie Masson is an Australian writer too, though her imagination is never bound by geographic limitations.

Daughter of Venice by Donna Jo Napoli

My favourite novel by Donna Jo Napoli, this slim book bring the life of 16th century Venice vividly to life

Stravaganza – The City of Masks by Mary Hoffman

A time travel book to a magical city very much like Venice ...

Kate Forsyth
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