Men in the Seguso family had been glassmakers since the fourteenth century. Archimede was the twenty-first generation and one of the greatest of them all. He could sculpt heavy pieces out of solid glass and blow vases so thin and fragile they could barely be touched. He was the first glassmaker ever to see his work honored with an exhibition in the Doge's Palace in St. Mark's Square. Tiffany sold his pieces in its Fifth Avenue store.
Archimede Seguso had been making glass since the age of eleven, and by the time he was twenty, he had earned the nickname "Mago del Fuoco" (Wizard of Fire). He no longer had the stamina to stand in front of a hot and howling furnace eighteen hours a day, but he worked every day nonetheless, and with undiminished pleasure. On this particular day, in fact, he had risen at his usual hour of 4:30 A.M., convinced as always that the pieces he was about to make would be more beautiful than any he had ever made before.
In the living room, Signora Seguso paused to look out the window before lowering the curtain. She noticed that the air had become hazy, and she mused aloud that a winter fog had set in. In response, Signor Seguso remarked from the other room that it must have come in very quickly, because he had seen the quarter moon in a clear sky only a few minutes before.
The living room window looked across a small canal at the back of the Fenice Opera House, thirty feet away. Rising above it in the distance, some one hundred yards away, the theater's grand entrance wing appeared to be shrouded in mist. Just as she started to lower the curtain, Signora Seguso saw a flash. She thought it was lightning. Then she saw another flash, and this time she knew it was fire.
"Papa!" she cried out. "The Fenice is on fire!"
Signor Seguso came quickly to the window. More flames flickered at the front of the theater, illuminating what Signora Seguso had thought was mist but had in fact been smoke. She rushed to the telephone and dialed 115 for the fire brigade. Signor Seguso went into his bedroom and stood at the corner window, which was even closer to the Fenice than the living room window.
Between the fire and the Segusos' house lay a jumble of buildings that constituted the Fenice. The part on fire was farthest away, the chaste neoclassical entrance wing with its formal reception rooms, known collectively as the Apollonian rooms. Then came the main body of the theater with its elaborately rococo auditorium, and finally the vast backstage area. Flaring out from both sides of the auditorium and the backstage were clusters of smaller, interconnected buildings like the one that housed the scenery workshop immediately across the narrow canal from Signor Seguso.
Signora Seguso could not get through to the fire brigade, so she dialed 112 for the police.
The enormity of what was happening outside his window stunned Signor Seguso. The Gran Teatro La Fenice was one of the splendors of Venice; it was arguably the most beautiful opera house in the world, and one of the most significant. The Fenice had commissioned dozens of operas that had premiered on its stage - Verdi's La Traviata and Rigoletto, Igor Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress, Benjamin Britten's The Turn of the Screw. For two hundred years, audiences had delighted in the sumptuous clarity of the Fenice's acoustics, the magnificence of its five tiers of gilt-encrusted boxes, and the baroque fantasy of it all. Signor and Signora Seguso had always taken a box for the season, and over the years they had been given increasingly desirable locations until they finally found themselves next to the royal box.
Signora Seguso had no luck getting through to the police either, and now she was becoming frantic. She called upstairs to the apartment where her son Gino lived with his wife and their son, Antonio. Gino was still out at the Seguso glass factory in Murano. Antonio was visiting a friend near the Rialto.
From The City of Falling Angels by John Berendt. Copyright John Berendt 2005. All rights reserved.
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