Venice is a magical city that draws millions of visitors to its winding canals each year… from books, films and music, there are any number of ways you can immerse yourself in the allure of this city that temps our collective imagination.
And since normal travel is restricted due to ongoing pandemic, we can instead curl up on a couch and escape into a well-written novel and explore Venice with our imagination instead.
From romance, to solving mysteries, going back in time or reading biographies of past Venetians, there is something for everyone on this list… and if you have never been , but simply want to get a ‘feel’ for the real Venice (which is often overrun with tourists), then reading is a great way to do so.
I have tried to limit the list to 3 books per genre, which was hard because there are so many amazing books set in this amazing city! But at the very least, this is hopefully a great starting point for you on your literary adventures in Venezia!
Literary Classics set in Venice
1 – THE MERCHANT OF VENICE
Number one on this list has to be the classic play The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare. Set in 16th Century Venice, the story is about a young Venetian man (Bassanio) trying to pass a test set by his would-be lover’s (Portia) father.
Bassanio asks his friend, the Merchant of Venice, for a loan so that he can properly dress and present himself to woo lady Portia, but as his friend is unable to help, he is instead sent to Shylock, an unscrupulous moneylender.
Once Bassanio is ready to present himself, he is then set a test by the bride’s father – choose correctly among three caskets. If he fails, he may never marry at all.
2 – DEATH IN VENICE
Death in Venice is a literary classic about the dangers of obsession. It is the story of Gustave von Aschenbach, a successful German writer who, feeling the weight of his age upon him, decides to travel to Lido in Venice for a holiday.
Originally seeking spiritual fulfilment, Gustave instead finds himself obsessed by a young and beautiful Polish boy, Tadzio. Meanwhile an unnamed epidemic is beginning to ravage the citizens of Venice.
3 – THE ASPERN PAPERS
Another classic short story is The Aspern Papers by Henry James. The story follows a nameless critic who is determined to find a set of poems written by Jeffrey Aspern that are hidden within an old Venetian house. The critic seeks the help of Aspern’s former lover, Juliana Bordereau, but events escalate out of control quickly.
Biographies & Memoirs set in Venice
4 – A THOUSAND DAYS IN VENICE
A lovely memoir about American divorcee who is travelling through Italy when she meets Fernando in Venice. Within months, Marlena quits her job, sells her house and says farewell to her adult children, all to start a life with a virtual stranger in a foreign city. It would be unthinkable for most, but this memoir is an enchanting story about falling in love with a city and finding a new home. There are also recipes scattered throughout.
5 – THE CITY OF FALLING ANGELS
Not your typical biography, The City of Falling Angels tells the true story the 1996 fire which destroyed the historic Fenice Opera house. John Berendt writes a beautiful and haunting story of the people of Venice, pulling together individual characters and the mystery and decadence of Venice. A comprehensive biography of a snapshot in time for a truly magical city, it is written in the form of a novel, making it an easy yet fascinating read.
6 – WATERMARK
A mix of autobiography and poetry, Watermark is a collection of 48 chapters dedicated to different memories of Joseph Brodsky’s time in Venice. With nearly 20 years of winter visits to Venice, the chapters are a beautiful snapshot of Venice in its quieter months. From the people Brodsky met, to the architecture, tides and little events that come together to form a lovely vision of the remarkable city that is Venice.
Historical Fiction set in Venice
7 – IN THE COMPANY OF THE COURTESAN
An epic novel set in 1527 Renaissance Italy, a courtesan and her dwarf companion escape from Rome as it is being sacked by an invading army. Their destination is the decadent city of Venice, where they plan to rebuild their business. Set in a momentous period of time in Italy’s history, this is a stunning story of loyalty, friendship, desire and deception. A must-read for fans of historical fiction which uses real events as inspiration.
8 – VIVALDI’S VIRGINS
A mystery set in eighteenth-century Venice during the height of its splendour. The story focuses on Anna Maria dal Violin, a foundling left at the doors of a cloister where Antonio Vivaldi, the Red Priest of Venice, is maestro and composer.
Anna is determined to find out who she is and ventures beyond the walls of the cloister in her search for answers, a journey which takes her through all the layers of Venetian society, but when the entire city is masked for Carnival, nothing is as it seems.
9 – THE VENETIAN BARGAIN
In 1576, five years after the defeat of the Ottoman Empire at the Battle of Lepanto, a ship slips unnoticed into Venice bearing deadly cargo. Within days the city is infected with the bubonic plague, a ‘gift’ from Constantinople. However, the ship also carries with it a secret stowaway, a young female doctor running from her fate as a concubine to the Turkish Sultan. At the same time the dogue of Venice commissions Palladio to build the greatest Church of his career as an offering to God and a hope for salvation. A fascinating take of a tragic time in Venetian history.
Horror Fiction set in Venice
10 – DON’T LOOK NOW
A collection of five short stories of creeping horror and suspense designed to play with your mind. While only one of these stories is set in Venice, it is still a worthwhile read about a married couple on holiday trying to escape the pain of their young daughter’s death.
The other stories also explore deep fears and longings, such as the lonely schoolteacher compelled to investigate a mysterious American couple; a young woman confronting her father over his past with the IRA; the party of pilgrims who encounter strange phenomena in the Garden of Gethsemane; and a scientist claims to be able to trap souls at the point of death.
11 – CRY TO HEAVEN
A saga of music and vengeance, Cry to Heaven centres on the renowned castrati, the incredible sopranos who graced the courts and opera houses of Europe. The castrati are boys who were condemned, yet celebrated for their musical skill, yet not all who are made castrati are meant for that life… an enthralling look into darkness living beneath the surface of the decadent Venetian nobility.
12 – THE MAN IN THE PICTURE
In an apartment of a professor from Cambridge there is a painting on the wall, a mysterious depiction of masked revellers at the Venice carnival. One cold winter night, the professor decides to reveal the eerie secret hidden within the canvas, where instead of imitating life, the painting instead traps it. To stare into the painting is to play a dangerous game with the unseen demons hidden within, and to become a victim of its macabre beauty.
Romance & Women's Fiction set in Venice
13 – ONE SUMMER IN VENICE
Fighting the feeling of a mid-life crisis, Addolorata decides to spend a summer in Venice in an effort to come up with a list of ten things that make her happy. It seems straightforward to come up with ten things to reconstruct a life around, but what happens when you think you have everything you ever wished for, yet still feel lost?.
14 – THE LOST DIARY OF VENICE
A tale of two impossible love stories that moves between late-Renaissance Venice and modern-day America. Rose works as a book restorer when a struggling painter comes in with sixteenth-century treatise on art, which is really a palimpsest: a document written over a hidden diary that had purposely been scraped away. Hidden in the pages is a devastating tale of a city preparing for war combined with a forbidden love, bringing Rose and the painter closer together with their own mysterious connection.
15 – A YEAR AT THE HOTEL GONDOLA
Another by the author Nicky Pellegrino, A year at the Hotel Gondola is a romantic caper set in Venice. Kat is an adventurer, a food writer who travels the world visiting far-flung places and eating unusual things. Now she is about to embark on her biggest adventure yet – a relationship. After falling in love with an Italian man, she moves in with him and helps run his small guesthouse, Hotel Gondola. However, Kat has also lined up a book deal where she gets to write about her life in Venice for a year, which seems straightforward, but as we know, adventures never go exactly as expected!
Crime & Mystery set in Venice
16 – THE TALENTED MR. RIPLEY
The first volume of the five-book Ripley series introduces us to Tom Ripley. A suave and ambitious young man hired to bring back the playboy son of a wealth industrialist from his adventures in Italy. However, Tom is not someone to play games with, and when responsibility turns to fascination and ultimately to obsession, the games become more deadly.
17 – DEATH AT LA FENICE
When a world-renowned but highly disliked conductor is murdered mid-way through a performance at La Fenice, the question of who committed the crime is not so straightforward. Guido Brunetti, vice-commissario of police and genius detective works to narrow the list of suspects, and piece together the clues. The answer is so shocking that it leaves Brunetti wondering what is right, and what is wrong, and what exactly can the law do?
18 – DEAD LAGOON
Aurelio Zan returns to his native Venice to investigate the disappearance of a rich American resident but finds nothing is what it seems. As corpses appear in the across the city, so to do the ghostly tormentors of missing American. A mystery rich in character and very well informed about the history and politics of Venice.