Padraig Colman

Rambling ruminations of an Irishman in Sri Lanka

Tag: Venice

Michael White’s The Venetian Detective


This article appeared in the Sunday Island on May 15 2016





This fragrant isle gets a mention in Michael White’s new book. One of the hero’s friends, Lord Pinelli, has a manservant called Ajith who is from India. Another servant, who generally answers the door, is called Pius, named as an insult to the Pope of that name. Pius was originally from the jungles of Borneo and no-one is quite sure how he came to be in a Venetian noblemen’s house in 1592. There is speculation that he arrived on a Portuguese spice ship from Taprobane. Pius is an orang-utan.



As in Equinox, his first novel, in this new book, The Venetian Detective, Michael White uses the vehicle of the detective novel to explore unexpected connections between the rational development of modern scientific practice and alchemy, occultism, necromancy and religion. Mixed in with that is a gumbo of political intrigue and rivalry, papal dominance versus Venetian republican libertarianism, drug dealing and prostitution. There is also a love story.

Michael White is a British writer based in Australia. Born in 1959, he studied at King’s College London (1977-1982) and was a Chemistry lecturer at d’Overbroeck’s College, Oxford (1984-1991). He used to be a rock star with Colour Me Pop and the Thompson Twins – I saw them live at Hammersmith Palais in the 1980s.  He now lives in Perth, Australia. He is a bestselling author of 39 books, selling over 4 million copies in 40 languages and has appeared on TV and Radio around the world. He has been a science editor of British GQ, and a columnist for the London Sunday Express. He moved to Australia in 2002 and was made an Honorary Research Fellow at Curtin University in 2005.


Michael White’s books include, Stephen Hawking: A Life in ScienceLeonardo: The First ScientistTolkien: A Biography; and C. S. Lewis: The Boy Who Chronicled Narnia and a biography of Isaac Newton The Last Sorcerer. His first novel Equinox – an occult mystery thriller (with far better writing than Dan Brown’s) reached the Top Ten bestseller list in the UK and has been translated into 35 languages. His most recent non-fiction book is Galileo: Antichrist, a biography of the great scientist and religious radical. Novels following Equinox include: The Medici SecretThe Borgia Ring and The Art of Murder. A further novel features Galileo and Elizabeth I. White has also written novels under the pseudonyms Sam Fisher and Tom West and collaborated on a novel with James Patterson. He has been both short-listed and long-listed for the Aventis prize – Rivals short-listed in 2002 and The Fruits of War long-listed in 2006. He was also nominated for the Ned Kelly Prize for First Novel (for Equinox).

The book opens: “Venice. Ten Minutes Past Midnight, 10th of November, 1592” with two masked and black-cloaked figures lurking in the shadows of the alleyways by the canals, “their footfalls dampened by practice”. The taller of the two men, called here Saviour “could smell blood before he saw it”. The other man is here called Sin Eater. They are looking for a beautiful prostitute called Antoinette Perugino at Alfonzo’s bordello. The diabolic duo witness Antoinette being attacked by a tall man with a cane and being rescued by a squat burly man. She escapes from those two only to have her throat cut by Saviour and Sin Eater.

This is the first of a series of ritualistic murders that the eponymous Venetian Detective investigates. Serial killing leads to mass murder and an orgy of violence. The detective is Doctor Francesco Sagredo who has returned to Venice at the insistence of the current Doge, Pasquale Cicogna, after fifteen years of exile. Many tales have come back to Venice of Sagredo’s adventures and accomplishments, enough to make his rival Niccolo Celsi intensely jealous “The girls are calling him the new Marco Polo”.

The Doge’s son, the foul-mouthed and low-living Tomasso Cicogna, was Sagredo’s comrade in arms at the Battle of Lepanto and becomes his assistant in his new career as a detective, Lewis to Sagredo’s Morse. There are knowingly anachronistic nods towards modern detectives. Like Sherlock Holmes and Adrian Monk Sagredo, dismisses any thought that he has special powers, that he is a wizard: “It is simply deductive reasoning, looking at the evidence before your eyes and drawing logical conclusions that fit the observed facts”. Sagredo has a Gil Grissom-like tendency to say things like “The dead may indeed speak” and “Follow the evidence, the evidence does not lie”. His forensic techniques, as well as his medical practices – which deviate from the then standard prescription of leeches, mercury and horse excrement – lead some to fear that he is dabbling in the occult. He has learnt arcane lore from wise men in Nepal and alarms people when they witness him practising yoga and meditation.

Historical figures like Caravaggio, Hans Lippershey, Giordano Bruno and Galileo make guest appearances. There is also a knowing nod towards our 21st Century celebrity culture in the magazine published by Titus Rinilto.

The book has been optioned for a TV dramatization and there are many meaty roles for experienced actors – Maggie Smith would make a good Violetta Celsi – “corroded by her own excoriating vitriol”. Perhaps Hugh Jackman would make a good Sagredo. Trevor Peacock could be Carlo Perugino. Either Alan Rickman or Ian Richardson would have been perfect for Niccolo Celsi but sadly they have both left us. I would nominate Nick Dunning (Thomas Boleyn in The Tudors) for the role of Cardinal Severino. It is easy to imagine it a visual treat with the camera lingering on the Venetian buildings as the Morse dramatizations relished the ancient structures of Oxford. There will be plenty of sinister atmosphere in the canals and narrow passageways, as in Don’t Look Now. There will be a feast of colourful costumes, as in The Borgias and The Tudors.” “The gold leaf and the beggars, the smell of church incense and bilge, the gaudy ladies of high society…the winding lanes and the houses flat-faced and daubed in a beautiful cacophony of colour, the maze-like routes from one point to another, the market stalls and shops stinking of fish or blood-dripping poultry”. There is an orgy scene around page 197 which will go down well on the screen.

This book has inspired me to delve some more into the history of Venice. I read James (Jan) Morris’s book on Venice before my own brief visit to the city a long time ago and  I am now inspired to read it again. The brilliant literary critic Tony Tanner has long been one of my intellectual heroes. His book Venice Desired examines Venice in the light of the influence it has had on diverse writers over the centuries. While researching my own travel piece on Venice, Venice and Death, I found much of interest in the work of ground-breaking historian Ferdinand Braudel.


Michael White’s book The Venetian Detective is a fine achievement, providing much intellectual stimulation and evocative prose alongside the thrills of the historical mystery.






Venice and Death

This article appeared in the April 2014 edition of Echelon.


A city born to die – by drowning.



Algonquin Round Table wit Robert Benchley visited Venice and sent a telegram to David Niven: “Streets full of water. Advise”. The city is certainly flooded these days – with tourists.






Writers and Venice



death in venice

In his novella, Death in Venice, Thomas Mann describes the fetid atmosphere of the city and the cholera outbreak that kills his protagonist. Other writers apart from Mann have been inspired by Venice. Shakespeare set Othello and The Merchant of Venice in the city. Venice inspired the poetry of Ezra Pound, who wrote his first literary work in the city. Pound died in 1972 and his remains are buried in Venice’s cemetery island of San Michele. The city features prominently in Henry James’ The Aspern Papers and The Wings of the Dove and is also visited in Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited. The English writer, artist, photographer and eccentric, Frederick William Rolfe, better known as Baron Corvo, author of Hadrian VII, died in Venice in 1913. Mark Twain wrote about Venice in The Innocents Abroad:”The Venetian gondola is as free and graceful, in its gliding movement, as a serpent.”

Henry James visited Venice 15 times and used the city to explore themes of  the contrast between the new world and the old.






At the  Hotel Danieli, the famous affair between the French novelist and playwright George Sand and poet Alfred de Musset was consummated. At different times Goethe, Byron and Dickens also stayed there.



Geoff Dyer was born not far from me in Cheltenham. He now lives in Venice Beach California where he was reminded of his mortality recently when he had a stroke.





Venetian Empire


The Venetian Empire thrived between 1206 and 1450. In its heyday, it stretched down the Adriatic, along the Peloponnesian coast, across to Crete and Corfu and Cyprus, up the Adriatic and into Asia Minor, with its eastern outpost at Tana on the far end of the Sea of Azov beyond the Crimea.


Centre of Commerce

In the Middle Ages Venice was a major centre for commerce and trade, a leader in political and economic affairs. Venice created an institutional basis for commercial capitalism, creating political and legal institutions that guaranteed property rights and the enforceability of contracts. It was a pioneer in developing foreign exchange and credit markets, banking and accountancy. It created a government bond market, starting with compulsory loans with regular interest payments. Its fiscal system was efficient and favourable to mercantile profits and the accumulation of capital.


The biggest enterprise in imperial Venice was the Arsenale, a public shipyard created in 1104. It was operative for centuries, and employed thousands of workers. Some small boat building is still carried out there and the rope factory is today one of the venues of the Venice Biennale.





Wealth and Art
The wealth of the Venetian Empire attracted great artists such as Giorgione, Tintoretto and Titian. Glassworkers, woodworkers, lace makers and sculptors made satisfactory livings. Venetian Gothic architecture, as seen in Doge’s Palace and the Ca’ d’Oro, has attracted visitors for centuries. During the 16th century, Venice became one of the most important musical centers of Europe, marked by a characteristic style of composition and the development of the Venetian polychoral style. Venice was famous for the splendour of its music, as exemplified in the “colossal style” of Gabrieli, which used multiple choruses. Venice was also the home of many famous composers during the baroque period, such as Vivaldi and Albinoni. Opera was born in Venice through the works of Monteverdi.





Demographic Decline



In 1171, the city had about 66 000 inhabitants, and was one of the three biggest cities in Western Europe until the sixteenth century. In 1557, the population of Venetian territories was about 1.5 million. Venice experienced three demographic catastrophes. A final one may be underway now. The other three were plagues. The modern plague is tourism. The numbers of the native population have been falling for centuries, but the pace of decline has quickened. The population fell from 174,000 in 1951 to 70,000 in 1996, prompting fears that the city’s days as a sustainable community are numbered. The danger point was thought to be 60,000 and the population has now dipped below that.


la salute
Venice has been trying to find a role. Should it aim to be a creative, living city, or to be a kind of museum? Real people cannot afford to live there but the tourist trade needs workers.




The city of Mestre, on the mainland connected by rail and road over the lagoon, supplies what Venice’s tourist industry needs most: people. Since the end of World War II, Mestre grew quickly and chaotically into a vast human settlement, which now includes migrant workers from Romania and Africa. Unlike Venice, Mestre has normal shops with normal prices.


Italian street



Built on Sewage



It might seem like a crazy idea to build a city at the centre of an empire in a waterlogged space. Water gave Venice life and water will be the death of Venice. The current city administration is ignoring the rise in sea level that global warming will bring. On November 4, 1966, an abnormal occurrence of high tides, rain-swollen rivers and a severe Sirocco wind caused a flood that left thousands of residents without homes and caused over six million dollars worth of damage. Climate change will bring regular flooding twice a day, because of tidal oscillation.


Many visitors comment on the smell of Venice. The current sewage disposal system is a patchwork of old and new and does not fully meet the needs of a modern city catering to thousands of tourists. Some houses and apartments still discharge untreated sewage directly into the canals. Significant levels of hepatitis A and enteroviruses have been detected.

The 12th edition of the Baedeker guide to Venice published in 1903 noted that the vaporetti were introduced in 1888. These new steamboats churned the water below the surface and increased erosion. Today motor boats have a worse effect.







Worse still are the huge cruise ships, most of them three times the length of an American football field, with gross tonnage of 100,000 or more (the Titanic was only 46,000 tons). In 1997, 206 cruise ships came to Venice, in 2011, 655. In 1990, 200,000 cruise tourists disembarked in Venice; in 2011, it was 1.8 million. On just one day in July 2011, six of these ships tied up in port and 35,000 tourists disembarked at once.




The cruise business provides 1,600 direct jobs in services for the ships and passengers, 2,600 jobs in supplies, maintenance, repairs, bunker sales, etc., and 1,270 direct jobs created by tourist spending in Venice (at least €363 million a year).
St Mark’s Square has hundreds of people milling around. You cannot enjoy a quiet coffee at Quadri or Florian’s. A huge queue obscures the façade of St Mark’s. The acceptable maximum number of tourists for Venice is 33,000. In 2011, the average number of visitors to the city daily is 60,000. Tourism destroys that which gives it existence.


Much of Venice’s appeal lies in its air of unreality. Canaletto and Turner captured the dream-like quality of ancient buildings reflected in water in the constantly changing light. Proust said his dream had become his address. The film Don’t Look Now captured the sinister aspect of Venice, the fog from the canals drifting down the maze-like alleyways hiding who knows what dangers.


dont look


Venice is a good example of anicca, impermanence. It was born to die and this gives it its beauty. Venice’s death warrant was signed at its birth by its very location. The city has always been sinking, frayed by the salty air, the thrusting marine current, the sirocco and the oscillation of the Adriatic Sea. Now it has a plague of tourists with which to contend.


How much longer can it live?


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