Within minutes - as Girolamo Marcello's video camera whirred and clicked, as Archimede Seguso stared in silence from his bedroom window, as hundreds of Venetians watched from rooftops, and as thousands more all over Italy followed live television coverage of the fire - the roof of the auditorium collapsed with a thunderous boom and a volcanic eruption that shot flaming debris 150 feet into the air. A powerful updraft sent chunks of burning embers, some as big as shoe boxes, arcing over Venice like comets.
Shortly after eleven, a helicopter appeared above St. Mark's, swung low over the mouth of Grand Canal, and scooped up a tankful of water. Then it soared aloft again, banked over the Fenice and, to cheers from rooftops, dropped its water. A hissing plume of steam and smoke coiled up from the Fenice, but the fire kept burning undiminished. The helicopter turned and flew back to the Grand Canal to load up again.
It suddenly occurred to Girolamo Marcello that his wife, Lesa, who was out of town, might hear about the fire before he had a chance to tell her that her family and her house were safe. He came down from the roof to telephone her.
Countess Marcello worked for Save Venice, the American nonprofit organization devoted to raising money for restoring Venetian art and architecture. Save Venice was headquartered in New York. Lesa Marcello was the director of its Venice office. Over the past thirty years, Save Venice had restored scores of paintings, frescoes, mosaics, statues, ceilings, and building façades. Recently, Save Venice had restored the Fenice's painted curtain, at a cost of $100,000.
Save Venice had become a hugely popular charity in America, largely because it was set up to be, in a sense, a participatory charity. Save Venice would organize event-filled, four-day galas in Venice in late summer during which, for three thousand dollars a person, subscribers could attend elegant lunches, dinners, and balls in private villas and palaces not open to the public.
In winter Save Venice kept the spirit alive by mounting a fund-raising ball in New York. Lesa Marcello had flown to New York earlier in the week to attend the winter ball. This year it was to be a masked ball, based on the theme of Carnival, and it would be held in the Rainbow Room on the sixty-fifth floor of Rockefeller Center. As he picked up the telephone to call his wife, Girolamo Marcello suddenly remembered that the ball was scheduled for this very night.
From The City of Falling Angels by John Berendt. Copyright John Berendt 2005. All rights reserved.
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