Venice is full of statues. The Garden of Angels was prompted by one most people miss. It’s the figure of a woman in a shroud, set by the vaporetto stop called Giardini next to a waterfront promenade called the Riva dei Partigiani – the shore of the partisans.
The work is known as the Monument to the Partisan Woman, a tribute to the resistance fighters who fought both the Nazis and the Italian Fascists during World War Two. The fact it’s half-hidden, wreathed in seaweed, drowned often by the Venetian tide, unseen by most of those that pass, lies at the very heart of this story. As I quote Angela Merkel in the book’s epigraph, ‘When the generation that survived the war is no longer with us, then we’ll find out whether we’ve learned from history.’
The story begins in 1999 when Nico Uccello, a fifteen year old Venetian, son of a family made wealthy by its luxury weaving business, goes to see his grandfather Paolo in hospital. Nico has been suspended from school after an incident in which a Jewish pupil was being bullied. Paolo has a lesson for him, one he will deliver from his deathbed. It’s the story of what happened to him during one week of the Nazi occupation of Venice in 1943, a tale delivered part by part each day so that Nico must work to understand the dark and shifting story his grandfather has to tell.
Venice found itself in a strange situation during World War Two. The city was of no strategic importance to either side, and the Allies had quietly decided it would never bomb such an international jewel, even though it was perfectly willing to rain intense destruction on civilian communities elsewhere in the country. Instead, Venice became almost a holiday outpost for both Nazis and Fascists. There was still opera and theatre, fine restaurants, and the beauty of the canals and palazzi. At the other end of the spectrum there were brothels, drinking dens and gambling clubs for the new invaders.
But the war still carried on, and Venice was not without its partisans. From time to time there would be attacks on German soldiers and institutions, followed by harsh reprisals. One of the principal headquarters of the occupation, Ca’ Giustinian on the Grand Canal, was bombed by the partisans in 1944, killing several occupants. The Nazis retaliated by taking thirteen prisoners from jail and shooting them amidst the rubble. And today it’s the headquarters of the Biennale, with a fine cafe where you can take a cappuccino by the Grand Canal, yards from where those brave partisans were shot.
Not long after the Germans seized control the attacks on the city’s Jewish community began, with round-ups, imprisonments, long train journeys to concentration camps in Germany – from which there was rarely any return. Venice was the home of the first ghetto – now a historic quarter of the city in Cannaregio. It was no stranger to the persecution of the Jews.
Paolo Uccello’s recollections of the war place his grandson back in a time he barely knows and a city he both recognises and finds foreign. The places he walks through on the way to see his grandfather in the great hospital of Giovanni e Paolo are the same ones the young Paolo Uccello scuttled along trying to avoid the Germans and stay alive. When the story starts Paolo’s an orphan – his parents have been recently killed in an Allied air raid in Verona. He’s inherited a failing velvet weaving operation down to three looms – with only himself and a friendly skilled weaver, Chiara Vecchi, to work on the one commission he has.
Then a local priest approaches him and asks for a favour. He wants Paolo to take in two Jewish partisans, Vanni and Mika Artom, brother and sister, on the run from the Fascists. Just for a day or two and they promise not to set foot outside Paolo’s home, a ramshackle building in the ruins of an old palazzo at the very edge of the city near the island of San Pietro. A hidden refuge known as the Giardini degli Angeli, the Garden of Angels.
Paolo needs their help to finish the commission. Though he barely understands it, he also craves company to try to help him understand the solitary predicament he’s found himself in.
So Mika and Vanni arrive, strangers to the city, educated, middle class students from Turin who, in another world, would have gone on to careers in medicine and publishing. Now Vanni is wounded and barely able to walk. And Mika, a strong-willed, impetuous young woman, is looking to kill Fascists as revenge for the loss of their family back home. She is not going to stay hidden at all.
Day by day Nico Uccello reads the story his grandfather slowly unveils for him from his hospital bed. With each twist and turn he finds the tale begins to obsess him as the city he grew up in becomes home to the ghosts of the past who follow him through all its familiar canals and streets, through the ghetto, where some of the story takes place, but most of all through the back alleys of Castello and San Pietro, a part of Venice that even today visitors rarely find.
Why has his grandfather saved this story for him and him alone? What really happened between Paolo, Vanni and Mika all those years before? The answers arrive slowly, and only become fully clear in 2019 when Nico, now a grown man, finally begins to understand why, twenty years before, his dying grandfather bequeathed the story of his war to him and him alone.
The Garden of Angels was three years or more in writing, and longer than that in gestation. A labour of love prompted by the fact I can’t walk around the astonishing city of Venice without thinking about all those who’ve passed those streets before.
But it’s not really about the past. It’s a story about the challenges we still face today when we can see them. How do we respond to terror and despotism? Who among us is brave enough to risk their own lives and those of their families and friends to fight tyranny? Do we wait for better times and the courage of others? Or do we risk everything to bring those better times ever closer knowing we may not be there to enjoy them?
And there’s the question Angela Merkel posed again… When the generation that survived the war is no longer with us, then we’ll find out whether we’ve learned from history.
(c) David Hewson
About The Garden of Angels:
At his beloved Nonno Paolo’s deathbed, fifteen-year-old Nico receives a gift that will change his life forever: a yellowing manuscript which tells the haunting, twisty tale of what really happened to his grandfather in Nazi-occupied Venice in 1943.
The Palazzo Colombina is home to the Uccello family: three generations of men, trapped together in the dusty palace on Venice’s Grand Canal. Awkward fifteen-year-old Nico. His distant, business-focused father. And his beloved grandfather, Paolo. Paolo is dying. But before he passes, he has secrets he’s waited his whole life to share.
When a Jewish classmate is attacked by bullies, Nico just watches – earning him a week’s suspension and a typed, yellowing manuscript from his frail Nonno Paolo. A history lesson, his grandfather says. A secret he must keep from his father. A tale of blood and madness . . .
Nico is transported back to the Venice of 1943, an occupied city seething under its Nazi overlords, and to the defining moment of his grandfather’s life: when Paolo’s support for a murdered Jewish woman brings him into the sights of the city’s underground resistance. Hooked and unsettled, Nico can’t stop reading – but he soon wonders if he ever knew his beloved grandfather at all.
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