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Research trip: Venice

The Grand Canal at sunset
The Grand Canal at sunset

This year my focus has been on the second book in the Night’s Masque trilogy, The Merchant of Dreams. As the title hints at, this installment is set (partially) in Venice, a favourite city of mine. However I haven’t been there since 2003, so I was very keen on making another visit to do some research – and of course enjoy some fabulous Italian food whilst there!

We flew out the evening after FantasyCon, which was perhaps a mistake – I soon discovered that I had a dose of “con crud”, and the flight over the Alps was rather painful with bunged-up sinuses. However I kept my cold under control with regular doses of echinacea and paracetamol, and overall the trip was wonderful. The city was as beautiful and atmospheric as I remembered, the perfect setting for a historical fantasy novel.

Ca' Malcanton, a medieval Venetian house
Ca' Malcanton, a medieval Venetian house

First up: our accommodation. I found this place online, and the idea of staying in a real Venetian house rather than a hotel was irresistible. I haven’t decided yet whether this exact house will appear in the book or whether I will just use some of the details, but either way, it was a useful part of my research as well as a brilliant place to stay.

My main research consisted of visiting a few locations I intend to use in the book, as well as just soaking up the atmosphere for inspiration. First up was a visit to the Doge’s Palace, where we took the Secret Itineraries tour: a look behind the scenes at the offices, torture chamber and “the Leads” (i Piombi), the attic cells where Giacomo Casanova was imprisoned in the eighteenth century. The torture chamber was surprisingly civilised in appearance, just a high, narrow wood-paneled room, with a heavy rope hanging from the ceiling above a set of wooden steps. The Venetians’ approach to torture was very simple: suspects were placed in adjacent cells where they could see and hear everything that went on, then one victim was subjected to the strapado, i.e. hauled up on the rope by his hands, which had been tied behind his back. Very, very painful, and thus very effective at loosening the tongues of both victim and observers. (Unfortunately we weren’t allowed to take any photos inside the palace or even make written notes, so I will have to rely on my memory for any details I might use in the book.)

Fondaco dei Turchi
Fondaco dei Turchi

We also visited the Fondaco dei Turchi (now the Natural History Museum), for reasons that will become clearer when the book is published! I was more interested in the building than the museum exhibits, which range from the fascinating (dinosaur footprints) to the macabre (a collection of stuffed animals formerly belonging to a big game hunter), It wasn’t all dead things, however; in the garden area outside we spotted a hummingbird hawkmoth, though sadly he moved far too fast to be photographed.

Whilst not exactly research, I did make the most of our trips to various restaurants, including trying out local specialities like sarde in saor (sardines in a “sweet-and-sour” marinade). I can particularly recommend Ai Assassini, tucked away in a side street near La Fenice, where I enjoyed some amazing prosciutto crudo, as rich and soft as butter; and Poste Vecie, said to be the oldest restaurant in Venice. At the latter I had another delicious Venetian speciality, seppie in nero (cuttlefish cooked in its own ink) – the restaurant is right next door to the Rialto fishmarket – followed by a glass of grappa di prosecco in lieu of dessert. Poste Vecie was founded around 1500, so don’t be surprised if it makes a guest appearance in The Merchant of Dreams :)

Lace parasol and fan, brocade slippers, leather mask and Murano glass jewellery
Lace parasol and fan, brocade slippers, leather mask and Murano glass jewellery

Of course the reason Venice became so rich was that it was the nexus of a vast trading network transporting luxuries from the East into Europe. No trip to Venice would be complete without buying a few luxuries of my own, including some that you may see me wearing at a future convention! (see photo)

I also bought a gorgeous leather-bound journal – almost too nice to use! – and some comestibles: a small packet of chocolate-covered ginger, a jar of enormous olives, and a bottle of Prosecco to toast the handover of the manuscript of The Merchant of Dreams. I guess it’ll be a while before I get to that one…

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Rabia

Sounds like the perfect research trip!