I now want to add another likeness to my Gogolian gallery of Venice’s living souls. If this continuing series should start to take on the blurry aspect of a spinning carousel, becoming a kind of soap opera of fleeting impressions, all I can say in my defense is that the development is an intended one, and that the clamorous success of Monet’s water lilies, for instance, owes far more to the soap effect than does my own humble sketching. Impressionism is a perfectly good approach to the world, but it probably ought not to have fallen into the hands of the French who, like all regicides since Lady Macbeth, long to turn everything under the sun into a savonnerie.

And invariably I think of my friend Giovanni as someone who has managed to escape that perfumed world with his judgment intact, although French remains the language most native to him. Idiomatic as they are, neither his standard Italian nor his deeply Americanized English, which I would describe as heavy-hearted, is good enough to let him say what he really thinks. As for his Venetian—not a minor dialect among Italy’s many, but a literary language with a rich tradition that includes the theater of Carlo Goldoni—it is altogether stillborn, which may be bewildering to the visitor from abroad who finds himself drinking wine and eating roast veal in the house of the man who governed Venice for much of the century, Giovanni’s father. Count Giuseppe Volpi di Misurata.

But however serious or trivial the reason for the visitor’s bewilderment, the natives themselves have many more such reasons, and are consequently far more bewildered, with the result that asking a Venetian about Giovanni Volpi is as dangerous as walking through a construction site without a helmet on. It is their aggregate reaction—some voluble hybrid of a Nevada filling-station attendant talking about Howard Hughes, a retired colonel in Hampshire talking about Bill Gates, and a Gdansk orchestra’s concertmaster talking about Herbert von Karajan—that is the focal point of my impressions here.

The long and the short of it is that, to Venice, Giovanni is a mystery. Some of this tenebrous aura is obviously an inheritance from his father, who managed Italy’s finances until the war: “Count Volpi is the voice of sincerity,” said Mussolini. “He is not afraid of me. He is not afraid of anybody. It could be ventured that he is much more powerful than the head of the fascist regime.” The quotation is from Taccuni Mussoliniani by Yvon De Begnac, a mammoth, decade-long continuous interview with the Duce, unpublished until the author’s death in 1990 and still largely unknown despite the revelations it contains.

Apparently he was the only man in Italy whom the Duce addressed as lei. To understand what respect is attached by a dictator to this simple pronoun we may recall that Stalin reserved the polite vy for the scourge of Stalingrad, Marshal Zhukov. Mussolini himself to say nothing of his economic field marshal whom he called “the last Doge,” emerges from the book as a complex, independent, and wholly engaging figure, a brave thinker and a good talker:

Count Volpi’s recollections are not of men, but of a city. And for him, Venice is the universal city. If the world became one big Venice, the site of the foremost of human sentiments, he would deem himself a happy man. His melancholy hinges upon the knowledge that this dream can never be realized.

On the crisis of 1929, of which Mussolini says “Count Volpi was the only European financier to survive unscathed”:

“Waste!” Count Volpi uttered this word a number of times. “Waste, destruction of useful things, overproduction of useless things, people rushing into cities, urbanization, a diminishing desire to work, get-rich-quick mania, gambling away the future, intelligence subjugated to fortune, a middle class turned stupid, and workers resigned to their fate: there’s your crisis!”

And on the gestation of Hitler’s war, whose deep-hidden Soviet roots are only now beginning to be exposed to historical scrutiny with the publication of works like Stephen Koch’s Double Lives, Ernst Topisch’s Stalin’s War, and Viktor Suvorov’s Icebreaker trilogy:

In the wake of the Anschluss, Count Volpi said to me: “Germany is heading towards Moscow, with the Kremlin’s consent.” Immediately after Munich, he said: “Berlin is moving towards Moscow, offering a morsel to Warsaw. Poland will chew of the morsel, but we all know who will gulp it down.”

Such was Giovanni’s intellectual inheritance, which he was free to accept as he chose. Yet, naturally, the world being what it is—even this ideal world, locked away in the filigreed lagoon like a portrait miniature in a gold locket, all but hidden from envious magpies and other scavengers of social progress—le tout Venise is far more keenly aware of his inheritance of bricks and mortar, including the beautifully presented 16th-century Palazzo Martinengo-Volpi, up the canal from Corte Tron where I used to live and where we first met. Giovanni is rarely there, however, preferring to spend his time at Ca’ Leone, the family house on the Giudecca that drowns in flowers every spring.

He is not married. People say that he is a recluse, that he loathes their city, that he is never here, that he prefers Paris, that he never goes to parties, that he shuns their company, that he is a snob, a misanthrope, an oddball . . . And the truth? The truth is that he is a virtuous man, a Venetian to the marrow of his bones, a man who has chosen to accept his intellectual inheritance in its entirety, mixed blessings and all—come hell or acqua alta—and, braving the incomprehension, and the uncomprehending scorn, of those who would see Venice merely as a restful alternative to Hollywood and Cannes, a quaint destination for the glamour crowd, has centered his life on solitary scholarship and the study of modern history.

Yet who, even in the ideal world that is Venice, a plate that in a most benign sense is something like a century behind the times, can possibly understand why a fabulously wealthy bachelor spends his days photocopying documents and poring over book catalogues, when it was his own old man who had started the Venice Film Festival and he could be spending his balmy carefree nights bragging to décolleté starlets in tapestried ballrooms by candlelight? As Arkady Belinkov once said, “I testify under oath that there are no circumstances in which the human soul is less immanent than the costliest kind of sausage.” Rare indeed are those who would so testify alongside the Russian writer, especially if the casting for the role of the costliest sausage is done the Hollywood way. Certainly none would escape society’s ridicule.

Hence, I sometimes think, Giovanni’s heavy-hearted American accent when he speaks English, an accent I thought I had never heard, and would almost certainly never have thought of as admirable, until I met him. It is an instinctive wav of putting distance between himself and what he sees as the social quagmire of an involuntarily modernizing Italy, something into which his own secretly beloved city must vanish one day. Because not only is the dream of the world becoming one big Venice, prosperous islands in a placid lagoon, not any closer to being realized than in his father’s time, but on the contrary, it is more and more like the rest of the gross and turbulent modern world that the universal city is destined to become.

Now that I think of it, it occurs to me that I have heard that desperately American accent before, the first time from the mouth of a family friend in Moscow who had spent many years in Siberian concentration camps. Jack’s parents, American Communist Party stalwarts in the 1930’s, had lived all their lives in the United States thinking of themselves as Russian and eventually emigrated to the Soviet Union with their teenage son, whereupon all were promptly arrested. Jack used to tell how in his youth in Chicago he would say “Russian!” when asked about his nationality, and how, on the night of their arrest, the question was put to him again in Lefortovo prison. “And I barked back: ‘Amer-r-ican!'”

The next time I heard it, in a somewhat more comical context, was in a bit of dialogue from Preston Sturges’s Palm Beach Story, in which Rudy Vallee, playing the reclusive John D. Hackensaeker, III, meets a disheveled Claudette Colbert in the sleeping compartment of a train. The next day, after he has bought her a diamond bracelet for each of her new dresses with “bracelet-length sleeves” (“Eet eez all the rahge!” exclaims the vendeuse), she demands to know why a millionaire should be found traveling bv train in anything less grand than a stateroom. “Staterooms,” replies Rudy Vallee, “are un-American.”

As I said, it is not easy for Venetians to understand why il Conte does not spend more time in the Palazzo Volpi. If it were, perhaps he would.