Signor Seguso stood silently at his bedroom window, watching as the flames raced across the entire top floor of the entrance wing. He knew that, for all its storied loveliness, the Fenice was at this moment an enormous pile of exquisite kindling. Inside a thick shell of Istrian stone lined with brick, the structure was made entirely of wood - wooden beams, wooden floors, wooden walls - richly embellished with wood carvings, sculpted stucco, and papier-mâché, all of it covered with layer upon layer of lacquer and gilt. Signor Seguso was aware, too, that the scenery workshop just across the canal from his house was stocked with solvents and, most worrisome of all, cylinders of propane gas that were used for welding and soldering.
Signora Seguso came back into the room to say she had finally spoken with the police.
"They already knew about the fire," she said. "They told me we should leave the house at once." She looked over her husband's shoulder and stifled a scream; the flames had moved closer in the short time she had been away from the window. They were now advancing through the four smaller reception halls toward the main body of the theater, in their direction.
Archimede Seguso stared into the fire with an appraising eye. He opened the window, and a gust of bitter-cold air rushed in. The wind was blowing to the southwest. The Segusos were due west of the theater, however, and Signor Seguso calculated that if the wind did not change direction or pick up strength, the fire would advance toward the other side of the Fenice rather than in their direction.
"Now, Nandina," he said softly, "stay calm. We're not in any danger."
The Segusos' house was only one of many buildings close to the Fenice. Except for Campo San Fantin, a small plaza at the front of the theater, the Fenice was hemmed in by old and equally flammable buildings, many of them attached to it or separated from it by only four or five feet. This was not at all unusual in Venice, where building space had always been at a premium. Seen from above, Venice resembled a jigsaw puzzle of terra-cotta rooftops. Passages between some of the buildings were so narrow one could not walk through them with an open umbrella. It had become a specialty of Venetian burglars to escape from the scene of a crime by leaping from roof to roof. If the fire in the Fenice were able to make the same sort of leap, it would almost certainly destroy a sizable swath of Venice.
The Fenice itself was dark. It had been closed five months for renovations and was due to reopen in a month. The canal along its rear façade was also closed - empty - having been sealed off and drained so work crews could dredge the silt and sludge from it and repair its walls for the first time in forty years. The canal between the Segusos' building and the back of the Fenice was now a deep, muddy gulch with a tangle of exposed pipes and a few pieces of heavy machinery sitting in puddles at the bottom. The empty canal would make it impossible for fireboats to reach the Fenice, and, worse than that, it would deprive them of a source of water. Venetian firemen depended on water pumped directly from the canals to put out fires. The city had no system of fire hydrants.
THE FENICE WAS NOW RINGED BY A TUMULT OF SHOUTS and running footsteps. Tenants, routed from their houses by the police, crossed paths with patrons coming out of the Ristorante Antico Martini. A dozen bewildered guests rolled suitcases out of the Hotel La Fenice, asking directions to the Hotel Saturnia, where they had been told to go. Into their midst, a wild-eyed woman wearing only a nightgown came stumbling from her house into Campo San Fantin screaming hysterically. She threw herself to the ground in front of the theater, flailing her arms and rolling on the pavement. Several waiters came out of the Antico Martini and led her inside.
Two fireboats managed to navigate to a water-filled canal a short distance from the Fenice. Their hoses were not long enough to reach around the intervening buildings, however, so the firemen dragged them through the kitchen window at the back of the Antico Martini and out through the dining room into Campo San Fantin. They aimed their nozzles at flames burning furiously in a top-floor window of the theater, but the water pressure was too low. The arc of water barely reached the windowsill. The fire went on leaping and taunting and sucking up great turbulent currents of air that set the flames snapping like brilliant red sails in a violent wind.
From The City of Falling Angels by John Berendt. Copyright John Berendt 2005. All rights reserved.
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