Several policemen struggled with the massive front door of the Fenice, but to no avail. One of them drew his pistol and fired three shots at the lock. The door opened. Two firemen rushed in and disappeared into a dense white wall of smoke. Moments later they came running out. "It's too late," said one. "It's burning like straw."
The wail of sirens now filled the air as police and firemen raced up and down the Grand Canal in motorboats, spanking up huge butterfly wings of spray as they bounced through the wakes of other boats. About an hour after the first alarm, the city's big fire launch pulled up at the landing stage behind Haig's Bar. Its high-powered rigs would at last be able to pump water the two hundred yards from the Grand Canal to the Fenice. Dozens of firemen ran hoses from the fire launch into Campo Santa Maria del Giglio, feverishly coupling sections together, but it was immediately apparent that the hoses were of different gauges. Leaks sprayed from the couplings, but the firemen carried the linked hoses, such as they were, up to the rooftops around the Fenice anyway. They directed half the water onto the theater in an attempt to contain the fire and the rest of it onto adjacent buildings. Fire Commandant Alfio Pini had already made a momentous strategic decision: The Fenice was lost; save the city.
WHEN THE LIGHTS WENT OUT, Count Girolamo Marcello was midsentence in a conversation over dinner with his son on the top floor of his palace less than a minute's walk from the front of the Fenice. Earlier in the day, Count Marcello had learned that the exiled Russian poet and Nobel laureate Joseph Brodsky had died suddenly of a heart attack, at fifty-five, in New York. Brodsky had been a passionate lover of Venice and a friend and houseguest of Marcello's. It was while he was staying in Marcello's palace, in fact, that Brodsky had written his last book,
Watermark, a lyrical reflection on Venice. That afternoon Marcello had spoken by phone with Brodsky's widow, Maria, and they had discussed the possibility of burying Brodsky in Venice. Marcello knew that this would not be easily arranged. Every available plot on the burial island of San Michele had been spoken for years ago. It was generally understood that any new arrival, even a native Venetian, would be dug up in ten years and moved to a common burial site farther out in the lagoon. But for a non-Venetian, Jewish atheist, gaining approval for even a temporary burial would be a quest fraught with obstacles. Still, there had been notable exceptions. Igor Stravinsky had been buried on San Michele, and so had Sergei Diaghilev and Ezra Pound. They had all been buried in the Anglican and Greek Orthodox section, and all would be allowed to remain there in perpetuity. So there was reason to hope that Brodsky could be buried there, too, and this was on Marcello's mind when the lights went out.
Father and son sat in darkness for a while, expecting the lights to come back on. Then they heard the sirens, lots of them, many more than usual.
"Let's go up and see what's happened," said Marcello. They headed upstairs to the wooden deck on the roof, the altana, and as soon as they opened the door, they saw the raging fire.
Marcello decided they should leave the house at once. They descended the stairs, feeling their way in the darkness, Marcello wondering if the six-hundred-year-old palace was doomed. If it was, the most impressive private library in Venice would disappear with it. Marcello's library occupied most of the second floor. It was an architectural delight, a high-ceilinged space complete with a wraparound wooden gallery that could be reached only by climbing a secret stairway hidden behind a panel in the wall. The floor-to-ceiling shelves held forty thousand volumes of private and state papers, some of them more than a thousand years old. The collection amounted to a treasure trove of Venetian history, and Marcello regularly made it available to scholars. He himself spent long hours sitting in a thronelike black leather armchair perusing the archives, especially the papers of the Marcello family, which was one of the oldest in Venice. Marcello's ancestors included a fifteenth-century doge, or head of state. The Marcellos had, in fact, been among the families that built the Fenice and owned it until just before World War II, when the municipality of Venice took it over.
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