Marcello walked to the edge of Campo San Fantin and found himself standing in the midst of a crowd that included the entire city council, which had rushed in a body from Ca' Farsetti, the town hall, where it had been in an evening session. Marcello was a familiar figure around town, with his bald head and close-cropped gray beard. The press frequently sought him out for comment, knowing they could count on a frank, often provocative quote or two. He had once described himself to an interviewer as "inquisitive, restless, eclectic, impulsive and capricious." It was the last two of these behavioral quirks that asserted themselves as he stood in Campo San Fantin looking at the burning opera house.
"What a shame," he said. "It's gone. I suppose I will never see it again. The reconstruction will take so long, I'm sure I won't be alive when it's finished." This remark was nominally directed to the person next to him, but it was really intended for the ears of a handsome man with a dark beard in his mid-fifties who was standing a few feet away: the mayor of Venice, Massimo Cacciari. Mayor Cacciari was a former Communist, a professor of philosophy and architecture at the University of Venice, and Italy's most highly regarded contemporary philosopher. Being mayor automatically made him president of the Fenice, which meant he had been responsible for the security of the theater and would now be in charge of rebuilding it. Marcello's remark clearly implied that, in his opinion, neither Cacciari nor his left-wing government had the competence to do it. Mayor Cacciari gazed at the fire with a look of deep despair, unfazed one way or the other by Marcello's obliquely worded taunt.
"But I would suggest," Marcello went on, "that if they want to rebuild the place as it was in its prime - and by that I mean as a social place, a meeting place - they should make it into a great discotheque for young people."
An old man standing in front of Marcello turned around, aghast, tears rolling down his cheeks. "Girolamo!" he said. "How can you say such a thing? Anyway, who knows what the hell young people will want five years from now?"
A deafening crash resounded in the depths of the Fenice. The great crystal chandelier had fallen to the floor.
"You have a point," Marcello replied, "but, as everybody knows, going to the opera has always been a social thing. You can even see it in the architecture. Only a third of the seats are positioned so they have a good view of the stage. The rest, particularly the boxes, are really best for looking at the audience. The arrangement is purely social."
Marcello spoke with a gentle bemusement and without any trace of cynicism. It seemed to tickle him that anyone could think that generations of opera-goers, like the Marcellos, had been drawn to the opera by anything as lofty as music or culture - Benedetto Marcello, the eighteenth-century composer and one of Girolamo Marcello's forebears, notwithstanding. Throughout its existence, the Fenice had been hallowed ground in the social landscape of Venice, and Girolamo Marcello had a broad knowledge of Venetian social history. He was, in fact, regarded as something of an authority on the subject.
"In the old days," he said, "the private boxes had curtains you could close, even during the performance. My grandfather loved going to the opera, but he didn't give a damn about music. He would open the curtains only for highlights on the stage. He would say, 'Silence! Now we have the aria!' and he would pull open the curtains and applaud . . . 'Good! Lovely! Well done!' Then he would close the curtains again, and a servant would come from the house with a basket of chicken and some wine. Opera was just a form of relaxation, and anyway it was cheaper to take a box at the opera than heat a whole palace for an evening."
Suddenly another enormous boom shook the ground. The floors in the entrance wing had collapsed, one onto another. People standing at the edge of the campo leaped backward just as the roof of the entrance wing fell, sending flames and burning debris high into the air. Marcello went back upstairs to his rooftop altana, this time fortified with a bottle of grappa, a video camera, and a bucket of water in case any of the airborne embers should happen to land on his roof.
From The City of Falling Angels by John Berendt. Copyright John Berendt 2005. All rights reserved.
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