If you love Venice and you love crime novels, you have probably already read one or more adventures of Commissario Guido Brunetti. Even though Venice is a relatively safe city, murders take place all over the city in these stories written by Donna Leon. Brunetti, Ispettore Lorenzo Vianello, Vice-Questore Guiseppe Patta, Signora Elettra and the other members of the Questura have their hands full with all her cases.
In honour of the 25th anniversary of the series, I will guide you in this post along the most common places of the books, such as the Questura, the Ospedale or the apartment where Brunetti lives with his wife Paola and their children Chiara and Raffi. I have also listed the murder locations of some of his recent adventures, as well as interesting places to visit nearby, such as the Frari basilica or Teatro La Fenice. These murders happen all over the city, so it will be a long walk. Alternatively, you can make a walk by sestiere.
This sestiere is the most prominent in all the books, even though it has relatively less murders, probably due to the location of the police office. The Questura is based in the Palazzo Ziani, which is located next to the Rio de San Lorenzo at the Fondamenta S. Leonardo 5053. In reality, this location is the ‘Commissariato di Pubblica Sicurezza S.Marco’. The actual Questura (i.e. the provincial seat of the State Police) moved a long time ago to Piazzale Roma. The City of Venice owns the Ziani – Buttaro complex, which dates from the 17th century, since 1807. It was completely restored in 2003.
INSIDER TIP: Nearby the Questura, Brunetti regularly stops at the Ai Greci bar for a coffee and some small talk with the owner Sergio. On the other side of the Ponte dei Greci, you also find the Da Remigio restaurant, which appears in several books. This is a very good fish restaurant, so I recommend you make reservations if you want to dine there.
From the bridge, you have a good view on the Greek Orthodox ‘Chiesa di San Giorgio dei Greci’ and its leaning belltower. This was the center of the Scuola dei Greci, the confraternity of the Greeks, after they fled from the Ottoman Turks. The Greek community was the second foreign community in Venice after the Jews. In 1539, the papacy allowed the construction of the church, financed by a tax on all ships from the orthodox world. The exterior was designed by Lombardo, Chiona and Longhena. The belltower was added in 1592 and has been leaning since the beginning. The church has typical orthodox features such as the matroneo (womens’ gallery), and the iconostasis, an altar screen decorated with 46 icons painted on a golden background. The majority of the icons are the work of the Cretan artist Michael Danaskinàs.
If you walk past the Questura and turn left towards the north of Castello, you will see the Ospedale at the Campo SS Giovanni e Paolo. Brunetti often comes here to interview victims or to discuss a case with the pathologists such as Dottor Ettore Rizzardi. It is located behind the beautiful façade of the Scuola Grande di San Marco, which was built in 1260. In 1819, the Scuola Grande became an Austrian military hospital and it is now one of the largest civil hospitals of Venice. You can visit the ancient library and a medical museum, if you don’t mind the medical instruments and explicit drawings of surgeries. The rooms are beautifully decorated with paintings and an impressive ceiling in blue and gold colours. If you want to know more about this area, you can read my article ‘Castello: Mark these hidden gems on your map’.
Continue to the west to discover another beautifully restored scuola grande, i.e. the Scuola Grande della Misericordia. It is near this location that the dead body was found of Araldo Fontana, the attendant of the court house, in the 19th adventure of Brunetti, ‘A Question of Belief’ (if you prefer to read the books in another language, you can also choose one of these titles: Auf Treu und Glauben, Brunetti et le mauvais augure, Een kwestie van vertrouwen).
“Commissario Guido Brunetti longs to escape the crowds of tourists and oppressive heat of Venice in August. But before he can join his family on holiday in the mountains, a folder containing court records lands on his desk. An old friend suspects a sinister motive behind a local court’s notorious inefficiency. Meanwhile, Brunetti’s colleague, Inspector Lorenzo Vianello, is concerned about his aunt’s sudden – and expensive – interest in astrology and enlists the commissario’s help. Just when it seems Brunetti will be able to make his getaway, a brutal crime shocks the city and he forces himself to shake off the heat and get down to work.”
The construction of the original seat of the Scuola Vechia della Misericordia started in 1308. It was expanded several times and finally reconstructed as ‘scuola nuova’ from 1532 onwards. The famous architect and sculptor Jacopo Sansovino was in charge of the whole project. Since the beginning of the 19th century, the Scuola Grande della Misericordia has been used as military lodgings, as a warehouse, and as the seat for the State Archives. In 1914, the Costantino Reyer Sports Club transformed it into a sports centre. The first floor became the official basketball court of the Venetian team Reyer, who hosted its games at this location until the early ’80s. It is now completely restored and can usually be visited. If you want to be sure that you can explore the inside, you can check the agenda on their website in advance. The scuole grandi played an important role in the history of Venice. You can read more about this in my post on the ‘The scuole grandi combine social history and art’.
DID YOU KNOW? The first plans for a railway bridge linking Venice to the mainland, in 1830, had the Misericordia as the site of the terminal.
To reach the second murder location, which is in the Santa Croce sestiere, walk through the Jewish Ghetto and cross the Canal Grande in front of the Santa Lucia train station via the Ponte dei Scalzi. You can find more details about this – reversed – trajectory in my post ‘Cannaregio: A walk along artisans and history‘. From there, it’s only a short walk to San Giacomo, where Costanza Altavilla was murdered in the 20th book ‘Drawing Conclusions’ (Reiches Erbe, Deux veuves pour un testament, Dodelijke conclusies).
“In Drawing Conclusions, a young woman arrives home and senses that all is not right in the apartment below. When she investigates, she finds her neighbor lying lifeless on the floor. The autopsy shows that the widow’s death was due to a heart attack, but Brunetti is convinced that things are not as straightforward as they seem.”
San Giacomo dall’Orio is one of the oldest churches in Venice, but there is some confusion about its date of origin. Some sources mention the 8th or 9th century, but the first documented reference dates from 1120. What is certain is that the church went through several phases of reconstruction and now looks totally different than the original one. The church was remodelled and enlarged in 1225, using funds provided by the Badoer and Da Mula familes. After the earthquake in 1345, the transept and ship’s keel roof were added. More rebuilding took place at the beginning of the 16th century, followed by further restoration works around 1906.
INSIDER TIP: Take a look at the strange painting ‘Miracle of the Virgin’, painted by Gaetano Zompini in the 18th century. It shows a man who attacked Mary’s funeral procession, but who was miraculously thrown to the ground with his hands ripped off, while they are still attached to the coffin. This painting is mentioned in David Hewson’s novel ‘Lucifer’s Shadow’.
A little walk further brings you to the scene of the 22nd adventure, ‘The Golden Egg’ (Das goldene Ei, Le Garçon qui ne parlait pas, Het onbekende kind). Davide Cavanella, a deaf and mute boy, was killed at his house near Campo San Stin.
“In The Golden Egg, as the first leaves of autumn begin to fall, Commissario Guido Brunetti’s wife Paola comes to him with a request. The mentally handicapped man who worked at their dry cleaners has suffered a fatal sleeping pill overdose, and Paola loathes the idea that he lived and died without anyone noticing or helping him. To please her, Brunetti investigates the death and is surprised to find nothing on the man: no birth certificate, no driver’s license, no credit cards. As far as the Italian government is concerned, he never existed. And yet, there is a body. As secrets unravel, Brunetti suspects an aristocratic family might be connected to the case. But why would anyone want this sweet, simple-minded man dead?”
Davide lived nearby the Basilica di Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, one of the largest churches in the city. It has the status of a minor basilica. At the beginning of the 13th century, the Franciscans were given land by Giovanni Badoer and Doge Jacopo Tiepolo to build a church, but it was only completed in 1338. This was however not the current church, as they immediately started working on a much larger replacement. The current church, in Italian Gothic style, also took over a century to build. In the meantime, the old church was being used until 1415, after which it was demolished. The campanile is the second tallest in the city after that of San Marco. The Frari is like a museum of Renaissance art with some of the finest examples. Titian’s Assumption over the main altar is said to be the largest altarpiece in Venice. Titian is buried in the church, as well as the sculptor Canova.
DID YOU KNOW? The huge pyramidal funeral tomb of Canova was originally envisaged as the tomb of Titian. Later, they made some changes for Maria Christina of Austria. In the end, when Canova died, his pupils completed the project for their master.
The Campo San Polo, the second largest Venetian public square after the Piazza San Marco, is only a few steps further. This is the location where the main character, Davide Cavanella, regularly played soccer. From here, you are very close to the house where Guido Brunetti lives in the top floor apartment with his family. It is located in the Calle de Forno, where it turns into the Traghetto della Madonnetta. Brunetti loves coming home for lunch or dinner to spend time with his family and to enjoy the copious meals of his wife Paola. If she’s not cooking her typical Venetian meals with several dishes, she is reading a book while having a good glass of wine. If you want to try her recipes at home, you can find some of them in ‘Brunetti’s Cookbook’ (Bei den Brunettis zu Gast). At the end of the traghetto, between Palazzo Donà and Palazzo Donà della Madonetta, you reach the Canal Grande. Here, Brunetti often waits for Paolo Foa to pick him up with the police boat whenever a case requires his urgent presence and he doesn’t feel like walking or taking the vaporetto. If you want to know more about this area and get an idea where Paola might shop for groceries, you can read the post ‘San Polo & Santa Croce: A culinary discovery in Venice‘.
From their house, it is a very short walk for Paola Brunetti to the Ca’Foscari University, where she teaches English literature. The headquarters of the university are based in the ‘Casa delle Due Torri’, which dates from 1420. In 1452, Doge Francesco Foscari bought it from the State of Venice. Led by the famous Italian architect Bartolomeo Bon, the building was largely demolished, renovated and expanded. This created the second largest courtyard of Venice, after the Palazzo Ducale. Since then, this masterpiece of Venetian Gothic style has been known as Ca’Foscari. In 1868, it became the headquarters of the Ca’Foscari University, when it was founded as the ‘Scuola Superiore di Commercio’ (Advanced School for Commerce). It was the first Italian institution with an advanced education in Business and Economics. Today, the Ca’ Foscari University teaches approximately 20,000 students and covers four large scientific and cultural areas: Economics, Foreign Languages and Literatures, Humanities and Sciences. It also offers English-taught programmes and double/joint degrees, thanks to the numerous cooperation agreements with European and extra-European institutions and universities. Which student wouldn’t love to follow an Erasmus program or something similar in Venice?
INSIDER TIP: Ca’Foscari can be visited with a guided tour, which will show you – amongst other things – the famous Aula Baratto designed by Carlo Scarpa (Explore Venice in the steps of Carlo Scarpa). I really enjoyed this tour so I can strongly recommend it. You can find more information in my post ‘Why you will never forget your visit to Ca’Foscari’.
When Paola Brunetti finishes teaching, she can easily visit her aristocratic parents. Count and Contessa Falier live a few palazzos further in the Palazzo Falier. This is a fictive palazzo, but it has a lot of similarities with the neighbouring Ca’ Rezzonico. Visiting this museum will give you an impression of where Brunetti discusses politics or his cases with his father-in-law and how the Faliers entertain their guests.
The magnificent Ca’ Rezzonico along Canal Grande was originally designed by Baldassare Longhena for the aristocratic Bon family. The works started in 1649, but came to an end after Longhena’s death in 1682. In 1751, Giambattista Rezzonico, a merchant and banker, bought the palazo and appointed Giorgio Massari to complete the works. In 1758, the beauty of the palazzo was finally revealed: a magnificent facade on Canal Grande, a sumptuous land-entrance, a ceremonial staircase and an unusual grandiose ballroom, all decorated by the most important painters in Venice (Giambattista Crosato, Pietro Visconti, Giambattista Tiepolo, Jacopo Guarana and Gaspare Diziani). The election of Carlo Rezzonico, Giambattista’s younger brother, as Pope Clement XII was celebrated in grandeur in their new family residence. As of 1810 however, the palazzo was neglected until it was sold to the Venice Town Council in 1935. After some restoration work, the palazzo was adapted to serve as the museum of the 18th century Venice and opened to the public in 1936.
Not far from there, in the Rio del Malpaga, the body of a misformed man, Dottor Andrea Nava, was found in the canal, in the ‘Beastly Things’ (Tierische Profite, L’Inconnu du Grand Canal, Beestachtige zaken) novel or number 21 of the Brunetti adventures.
“When a body is found floating in a canal, strangely disfigured and with multiple stab wounds, Commissario Brunetti is called to investigate and is convinced he recognises the man from somewhere. He asks Signorina Elettra if she can help him find footage of a farmers’ protest the previous autumn. Acting on the fragile lead, Brunetti and Ispettore Vianello set out to uncover the man’s identity. Their investigation eventually takes them to a slaughterhouse on the mainland, where they discover the origin of the crime, and the world of blackmail and corruption that surrounds it.”
The Dorsoduro area is a very relaxed neighbourhood with lots of art galleries and beautiful architecture. Before you cross the Accademia bridge towards San Marco for the last 2 book locations, take your time and wander around. You can find some inspiration in my post ‘Dorsoduro: An amazing tour of intriguing architecture’.
The San Marco sestiere is where it all started for Brunetti, when he solved his first murder case at La Fenice (Death at La Fenice, Venezianisches Finale, Mort à La Fenice, Dood van een maestro). He returns to this location for his 24th case, ‘Falling in Love’ (Endlich mein, Brunetti en trois actes, Ik aanbid je) when an opera singer is stalked.
“Flavia Petrelli has returned to the illustrious La Fenice to sing the lead in Tosca. As an opera superstar, Flavia is well acquainted with attention from adoring fans and aspiring singers. But when one anonymous admirer inundates her with bouquets of yellow roses – on stage, in her dressing room and even inside her locked apartment – it becomes clear that this fan has become a potentially dangerous stalker. Familiar with Flavia’s melodramatic temperament, Commissario Brunetti is at first unperturbed by her story, but when another young opera singer is attacked he begins to think Flavia’s fears may be justified.”
Teatro La Fenice is a stunning location, even though it has been damaged and completely destroyed by several fires during its history. It all started in 1774, when the Teatro San Benedetto, which had been Venice’s leading opera house for more than forty years, burned to the ground. The construction of a new theatre began in 1790. When it was completed in 1792, it was named ‘La Fenice’, referring to the phoenix who rises from the ashes. At the beginning of the 19th century, La Fenice acquired a European reputation, with important productions of Rossini, Bellini and Donizetti. In December 1836, another fire destroyed the theatre. It was quickly rebuilt and La Fenice opened its doors again on the evening of December 26, 1837.
On January 29, 1996 a devastating fire demolished once more the theatre, which was temporarily closed for maintenance work. The restoration works progressed slowly and the opening was continuously postponed. It took until December 2003 before the theatre could be handed back to its owner, the Municipality of Venice, for an inaugural week. The return of the great ‘Teatro La Fenice’ was celebrated in November 2004 with ‘La Traviata’ of Verdi. You can visit the theatre with a guided tour, which gives you acces to the backstage. However, the memory of attending an opera or theatre will last much longer.
DID YOU KNOW? The fire of 1996 was not an accident, but was set by two electricians. Due to delays in the repair work, their company was facing heavy fines. They were sentenced to prison for 6 and 7 years, but Enrico Carella, the company’s owner, disappeared. He was arrested in February 2007 at the Mexico-Belize border.
Walking towards Canal Grande will bring you to the Palazzo Benzon, where Ariana was found dead in the canal after she broke in with her brother in ‘The Girl of his Dreams’ (Das Mädchen seiner Träume, La Petite Fille de ses rêves, Droommeisje), number 17.
“When a friend of Brunetti’s brother, a priest recently returned from years of missionary work, calls with a request, Brunetti suspects the man’s motives. A new, American-style Protestant sect has begun to meet in the city, and it’s possible the priest is merely apprehensive of the competition. But the preacher could also be fleecing his growing flock, so Brunetti and Paola, along with Inspector Vianello and his wife, go undercover. But the investigation has to be put aside when, one cold and rainy morning, a body is found floating in a canal. It is a child, a gypsy girl. Brunetti suspects she fell off a nearby roof while fleeing an apartment she had robbed. He has to inform the distrustful parents, encamped on the mainland, and soon finds himself haunted by the crime – and the girl.”
The Palazzo Benzon dates from the 18th century and was once a place where the most fashionable people would meet in the early 19th century. Regular guests included Byron, Thomas Moore and Canova. The gondolier song ‘La biondina in gondoleta’ was dedicated to the lady of the house, Contessa Querini-Benzon. The palazzo can now be rented for events, such as the Biennale or Carnevale, so you might be able to visit it if you are lucky.
Finally, to end this ‘murder’ walk on a positive note, continue your walk to Campo San Salvador. Here, you will find Fantin, the luxury flower shop where Signora Elettra buys the flowers to decorate her office.
Donna Leon is not the type of author who regularly gives interviews. However, on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the series and the launch of the 26th book ‘Earthly Remains’ (Stille Wasser), you can read an interview which was published earlier this week in The Guardian. If you would like to follow more walks around Venice in the steps of Brunetti, you can find many ideas in the book ‘Brunetti’s Venice’ written by Toni Sepada.
If you have enough of Brunetti for a while, there are plenty of other good novels which are set in Venice: ‘My 10 favourite novels that are set in Venice’ and ‘The 2016 top 10 of new books set in Venice’.
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