Skeleton in the cupboard

Disappearing corpses, theme-park Venice and a post-Brexit smuggling operation

Woman About Town

This article is taken from the December/January 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

This time of year is a particularly bookish one, with launches for the crucial Christmas list and editors requesting mini reviews for their annual recommendations. My choice for the Spectator World last year was Helen Joyce’s brilliantly compassionate Trans. The editor warned me that I would be branded a terf, but I was prepared to stand by the review. Naturally no notice whatsoever was taken. These days I can’t even get cancelled.

Skeleton in the cupboard

Venice’s grandest literary event was Servane Giol’s reception for her gorgeous celebration of the city’s palazzi, Venice: A Private Invitation at her home, Palazzo Falier on the Grand Canal. The Falier were one of the most venerable ducal dynasties, scoring their first Doge in 1095. 

Visitors to the Doge’s Palace are pointed to the missing portrait in the line of Venetian rulers in the Chamber of the Great Council, where a black panel and the curt inscription Hic est locus Marini Falethri decapitati pro criminibus marks the conviction of Marino Falier for treason in 1355. 

The fate of his body displays a typical combination of Venetian brutality and pragmatism. His disgraced corpse, the head between the legs, lay quietly in its sarcophagus until 1812 when the remains were removed and the stone coffin repurposed as a water tank at the city hospital near San Zanipolo. Nowadays it can still be seen at the entrance of the Natural History Museum, though the skeleton was never recovered. 

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Practically all Venetian palaces have ghosts, though it’s considered a bit infra dig to mention them. Hallowe’en isn’t really a thing here. In recent years attempts have been made to commercialise the American version with plastic orange pumpkins and spooky tat but apart from the chance for children to collect sweets (“Trick or Treat” translates rather charmingly into Italian as “Sciocettino o regalino”— little fright or little gift), no-one knows quite what to do with themselves. 

The big festival here is All Saints Day on 1 November. When the Commune is in funds, a bridge is built from the Fondamenta Nuova to the cemetery island of San Michele and families queue up with bouquets of lurid chrysanthemums to pay their respects. 

Even if you’re not paying a call on the ancestors, San Michele makes for an evocative outing — the exquisite Mario Codussi church, considered to be the first example of pure Renaissance architecture in the city, is briefly opened and devotees of music and ballet have been known to leave a cheering glass of vodka on the graves of Stravinsky and Diaghilev. Festoons of cobwebs and fake blood feel a bit unnecessary; taking the last vaporetto through the mists of the silent lagoon is creepy enough.

Anti-ticket picket

The Commune’s funds have taken a knock from the final banning of the cruise ships from the Giudecca canal. Venice’s much-loathed Mayor, Luigi Brugnaro, had ignored years of anti-cruise demonstrations by locals (I was rather proud of my homemade “Cruisers are Losers” sign), and only direct intervention by central government finally effected their banishment. 

Brugnaro however, is still campaigning for their return. In the meantime, Venetians have another battle to fight against Brugnaro’s money-grubbing, the proposed introduction of ticketing to enter the city from January. 

It’s an absurdly unworkable plan — residents will be generously permitted guests without charge, so long as their details are registered on a handy app provided by the Commune. It will be a disaster for business, for education and for Venetians who will be subjected to spot checks and potentially fines if they refuse to comply. 

On 19 November, Venetians will march against this grotesque contravention of their rights as citizens, but unless the protest garners sufficient attention, the scheme looks likely to go ahead. The Comitato No Grandi Navi are organizing the demonstration, and anyone who cares about Venice can learn more and register their support online. 

* * *

Back to books: I’m looking forward to Owen Matthews’s launch at Pushkin House in London next week for Overreach, his inside account of the war against Ukraine. As well as writing incisive history more beautifully than anyone else of his generation, Owen gives tremendous parties. 

The annual bash he threw with his wife, the artist Ksenia Kravchenko on Buyukada Island in the Sea of Marmara was always three days of fabulously surreal debauchery mixed with a properly brilliant international crowd (where else would one find a hedge funder dressed in a full banana suit and a pink tutu discussing politics in a hammock with intellectual heavyweight Masha Gessen?). 

Editors’ guidelines for book of the year picks warn against nominating partners or close friends, but since this isn’t a review column, Owen deserves a shameless plug: Overreach will I’m sure be the non-fiction hit of the year..

Brexit booty

A trip to London will also provide the opportunity for a little low-level smuggling. Pre-2020, anyone returning to Venice would take requests for unfindable delicacies, from Fortnum’s tea to sausages, but transporting the odd box of French Fancies has become a high-risk game. 

My spare bedroom is currently a holding depot for packages (and the occasional person), belonging to friends which have fallen foul of the new customs laws. 

No one talks about Brexit anymore, but its ghost is haunting everyone whose lives and businesses have been severely affected by the voting away of their rights to travel and work in Europe in 2016. Freedom of movement works both ways and Brexiters should be called to account for it.

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