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Ian Fleming

I bathe every afternoon at the Lido. But not at the fashionable plage. I bathe at the Bagni Alberoni, where the English poet Byron used to ride his horse. It is at the tip of the peninsula. The Vaporetto will take you there.
Lisl Baum in Ian Fleming’s Risico

The Trip From Rome to Venice in the ’50s

After the success of ‘The Diamond Smugglers’, a series of articles he wrote for the Sunday Times, Ian Fleming was asked by the same newspaper to write a further series on any subject that might interest him. He therefore planned to write about treasure hunting around the world, and in April 1958 he decided to visit the Seychelles in search of a treasure that was supposed to have been hidden there by the French pirate Levasseur. As he also admitted in his articles, he was completely disappointed by the Seychelles, not only because his treasure hunting reached a dead end, but also because he found the place to be inferior to the West Indies. This explains why he soon started to think about something more exciting, like visiting Rome, where he arranged to meet his wife Ann, and from there moveing together to Venice for a holiday on his fiftieth birthday. His first two days in Rome were not happy, because he still felt sick from coral poisoning; he had cut his left shin on a piece of coral towards the end of his stay in the Seychelles. It was only when his temperature came down that they could move to Venice, taking the midday Laguna express from Stazione Termini. However, from the description he made in his short story Risico we can assume that he didn’t enjoy the journey:

The best train from Rome to Venice is the Laguna express that leaves every day at midday. Bond, after a morning that was chiefly occupied with difficult talks with his London Headquarters on Station I’s scrambler caught it by the skin of his teeth. The Laguna is a smart, streamlined affair that looks and sounds more luxurious than it is. The seats are made for small Italians and the restaurant car staff suffer from the disease that afflicts their brethren in the great trains all over the world – a genuine loathing for the modern traveller and particularly for the foreigner. Bond had a gangway seat over the axle in the rear aluminium coach. If the seven heavens had been flowing by outside the window he would not have cared. He kept his eyes inside the train, read a jerking book, spilled Chianti over the tablecloth and shifted his long, aching legs and cursed the Ferrovie Italiane dello Stato.

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The Station of Mestre in the ’50s (Source: Trenitalia)

Life at the Gritti Palace, Harry’s Bar, Caffè Florian and Caffè Quadri

Fleming had booked the Princess Margaret Suite at the Gritti Palace Hotel, from where they could enjoy one of the finest views of Venice. The Gritti was (and still is) one of the most luxurious and expensive hotels in the city; when they found out how much they were spending, they moved to a less expensive room at the back. Among other famous writers who lodged at the Gritti were Ernest Hemingway and Fleming’s friend Somerset Maugham. Echoes of Fleming’s real life experience can be found in Risico, when he describes the arrival of James Bond in Mestre and then at the Gritti Palace:

But at last there was Mestre and the dead straight finger of rail across the eighteenth century aquatint into Venice. Then came the unfailing shock of the beauty that never betrays and the soft swaying progress down the Grand Canal into a blood-red sunset, and the extreme pleasure – so it seemed – of the Gritti Palace that Bond should have ordered the best double room on the first floor.

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The Gritti Palace Today

As we know from his biographers, Fleming visited all the most famous places that only very few rich people could afford, like Harry’s Bar, the Florian and the Quadri. If we are to believe what he wrote in Risico (his stories are always based on what happened to him in real life), he experienced with Ann the rapture and euphoria of the first visit to Venice, as most tourists still do today. Also, nothing seemed more exciting to him than to be associated with all those famous writers who had visited the city:

That evening, scattering thousand-lira notes like leaves in Vallombrosa, James Bond sought, at Harry’s Bar, at Florian’s, and finally upstairs in the admirable Quadri, to establish to anyone who might be interested that he was what he had wished to appear to the girl – a prosperous writer who lived high and well. Then, in the temporary state of euphoria that a first night in Venice engenders, however high and serious the purpose of the visitor, James Bond walked back to the Gritti and had eight hours dreamless sleep.

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Ian Fleming, Bon Viveur (or Bon Vivant)

Life in the City

Another quote from Risico gives an account of the impression that the city made on Fleming, with the marbles and stones that a century before were the subject of John Ruskin’s The Stones of Venice, together with the usual references to the mild climate, the tourists and the postcard-like views:

May and October are the best months in Venice. The sun is soft and the nights are cool. The glittering scene is kinder to the eyes and there is a freshness in the air that helps one to hammer out those long miles of stone and terrazza and marble that are intolerable to the feet in summer. And there are fewer people. Although Venice is the one town in the world that can swallow up a hundred thousand tourists as easily as it can a thousand – hiding them down its side-streets, using them for crowd scenes on the piazzas, stuffing them into the vaporetti – it is still better to share Venice with the minimum number of packaged tours and Lederhosen.

Their days in Venice were happy. Ann loved sight-seeing, walking around the city and sitting in the sun, but when they found a museum or a church she would like to visit, Fleming usually waited for her at the nearest café with a Campari, a cigarette and a newspaper. He did not seem to be much interested in art. On one occasion Ann persuaded him to visit the Accademia, but there was so much to see inside that he preferred to wait for her at a café table in the sun. Again, echoes of this lack of interest may be found in a sentence in Risico, where Bond visited a couple of churches “not to admire their interiors” but to see if someone was following him:

Bond spent the next morning strolling the back-streets in the hope that he would be able to uncover a tail. He visited a couple of churches – not to admire their interiors but to discover if anyone came in after him through the main entrance before he left by the side door. No one was following him.

A similar feeling is mirrored in the ironic postcard that Bond sends to Miss Moneypenny from St Mark’s Square:

Bond went to Florian’s and had an Americano and listened to a couple of French culture-snobs discussing the imbalance of the containing facade of St Mark’s Square. On an impulse, he bought a postcard and sent it off to his secretary who had once been with the Georgian Group to Italy and had never allowed Bond to forget it. He wrote: “Venice is wonderful. Have so far inspected the railway station and the Stock Exchange. Very aesthetically satisfying. To the Municipal Waterworks this afternoon and then an old Brigitte Bardot at the Scala Cinema. Do you know a wonderful tune called ‘O Sole Mio?’ It’s v. romantic like everything here. JB.”

In spite of his detachment from the beauties of art, Fleming was always interested in the literary links of places. He gave Ann a copy of Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice, to help her get a feeling of the history and past grandeur of the city. After reading the book, Ann commented:

Once I had read it I understood for the first time the sad nostalgic beauty of Venice and realized that this was how Ian saw the city and why he loved it.

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Ian and Ann

The Trips to the Lido in 1958 and 1962

One of their favourite trips was to take the boat to the Lido and then the bus to Alberoni, a deserted beach where Byron used to ride. They loved the silence and the sea there, far from the more touristy areas of the Lido. Alberoni became another important setting in Risico, in the scene where Bond was chased by Italian gangsters among the dunes. Once again, Fleming used his real-life experience as inspiration for his story:

He went along to the landing-stage and boarded the twelve-forty vaporetto to Alberoni, out of sight across the mirrored lagoons. Then he settled down in a seat in the bows and wondered what was going to happen to him.

From the jetty at Alberoni, on the Venice side of the Lido peninsula, there is a half mile dusty walk across the neck of land to the Bagni Alberoni facing the Adriatic. It is a curiously deserted world, this tip of the famous peninsula.

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A Trolleybus used in the Venice Area in the ’50s

A curious note in Risico is the description of the decadent landscape of late-’50s Alberoni”, that had already started being targeted by property speculation, a cancer that destroyed many beautiful areas of the Veneto in the following decades:

A mile down the thin neck of land the luxury real estate development has petered out in a scattering of cracked stucco villas and bankrupt housing projects, and here there is nothing but the tiny fishing village of Alberoni, a sanatorium for students, a derelict experimental station belonging to the Italian Navy and some massive weed-choked gun emplacements from the last war.

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Alberoni in an Old Photo (Source: Circolo Golf Club Venezia)

Four years later, in early June 1962, Ian and Anne visited Venice again, this time lodging at the Hotel Bauer Grünwald. There Fleming met Paul Munster, a golfing partner from the ’30s, who introduced him to the best local course, at Alberoni (now Circolo Golf Venezia). This time instead of solitary walks with Ann, he relished meeting the continental jet set and playing golf at the club. He certainly knew the course from his first visit, as described in Risico:

In the no man’s land in the centre of this thin tongue of land is the Golf du Lido, whose brownish undulating fairways meander around the ruins of ancient fortifications. Not many people come to Venice to play golf, and the project is kept alive for its snob appeal by the grand hotels of the Lido. The golf course is surrounded by a high wire fence hung at intervals, as if it protected something of great value or secrecy, with threatening Vietatos and Prohibitos. Around this wired enclave, the scrub and sandhills have not even been cleared of mines, and amongst the rusting barbed wire are signs saying MINAS. PERICOLO DI MORTE beneath a roughly stencilled skull and crossbones. The whole area is strange and melancholy and in extraordinary contrast to the gay carnival world of Venice less than an hour away across the lagoons.

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Another Old Photo of Alberoni (Source: Circolo Golf Club Venezia)

(…)

In front of him was a rickety wooden archway whose central span said BAGNI ALBERONI in faded blue paint. Beyond were the lines of equally dilapidated wooden cabins, and then a hundred yards of sand and then the quiet blue glass of the sea. There were no bathers and the place seemed to be closed, but when he walked through the archway he heard the tinny sound of a radio playing Neapolitan music. It came from a ramshackle hut that advertised Coca-Cola and various Italian soft drinks. Deck-chairs were stacked against its walls and there were two pedallos and a child’s half inflated seahorse. The whole establishment looked so derelict that Bond could not imagine it doing business even at the height of the summer season.

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The Golf Club of Venice (Source: Circolo Golf Club Venezia)

During their second visit, their relationship started to deteriorate. Ann was no longer in the mood for cultural interests and was instead forced by Ian to move around the lagoon by speedboat, to meet their new acquaintances. Tensions began to surface between them and soon they left for France. However, Venice always remained in Fleming’s heart, as we can see from his tribute in the James Bond series.

A Note on the Language

A interesting aspect in the short story Risico is the peculiar use of Italian and English. Even though the character is Italian, Fleming seems to use “correct” spoken English with Enrico Colombo, the boss behind the racket of drug-smuggling in Italy, making him utter some colourful expressions like “You goddam Austrian beech” or “Son-a-beech“. The general impression is that of a man who speaks American English with an Italian accent, the typical Italian outlaw who has lived in America. Sometimes Colombo adds Italian words to his sentences (“Presto – like that”) and the same happens to the narrator with “private vendetta of some sort“. On the other side, Kristatos, the CIA informant, uses a mixture of languages. In the opening line he says “In this pizniss is much risico“, where “risico” sounds Italian but is actually Dutch. This word is also used in Italian but not with the meaning of “risk”, except in Tuscany. Elsewhere Fleming adds other Italian-sounding words like in “I must visit the toiletta” or “he is to be destrutto – killed“. The narrator had however warned the reader since the beginning that: “He (Kristatos) spoke his own kind of English with an occasional phrase borrowed from other languages. It made a lively mixture. Bond was interested and amused.”

Fleming’s imitation of a foreign accent is not always successful and he uses clichés. Sometimes it sounds like an English speaker trying to imitate an Italian who is trying to speak English and the result is not natural. Mistakes in the text are frequent, like the cheese name “Provelone“, which should be Provolone, and the very last sentence of the novel, which ends with a mispelling: “The metal tag was inscribed Albergo Danielli. Room 68“, where the hotel name should of course be Albergo Danieli.

On another level there is a mixture of Italian and Spanish and it is not always clear if this is done on purpose or if this merely shows that Fleming knew very little Italian and often mistook Spanish for Italian words. When the narrator says that at Alberoni there were signs saying “Vietatos and Prohibitos“, “Vietatos” correctly refers to the English plural of the Italian word “Vietato” (Forbidden), “Prohibitos” sounds more Spanish and could not be found on an Italian sign. On another occasion, the old saying “Che sera, sera“, the Italian version of the Spanish motto “Que sera, sera“, is spelled incorrectly in both languages (Italian should be “Che sarà sarà“, with accents). However, the most interesting example of Spanish-Italian is Bond trying to speak Italian: “Bond summoned a few words of Italian and rehearsed them. “Mi Ingles. Prego, dove il carabinieri”“.

A Note on Contemporary Politics

There are also many references to contemporary Italy, the most important of which are echoes of the political elections and campaign of 1958. In Rome, Bond sees supporters of Democrazia Cristiana trying to convince people to vote for them instead of Partito Comunista Italiano. A man selling party newspapers passes by on a bicycle; a long pennant streaming from the basket says “PROGRESSO? – SI! – AVVENTURI? – NO!“, at which “Bond smiled” because “that was how it was.“. The last sentence shows that the UK’s main enemy at the time was communist Russia, and Bond agrees that progress cannot come from communism, which would be an “adventure”. Here is another error of Italian: “AVVENTURI“, which should be “AVVENTURA“. As this word was in a pennant, it couldn’t be wrongly spelled.

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The Political Elections of 1958 (Source: Il Sole 24 Ore)

A Note on the Relationships Between the Italian Mafia, the CIA and the MI5

Apart from contemporary politics, references to the strange relationships between the CIA, the MI5 and the Italian Mafia are apparent in such characters as Kristatos, who is a CIA informant and in charge of the drug-smuggling operation in Venice, and Enrico Colombo, the man behind the racket, who surprisingly says:

I worked for the English during the War. In the Resistance. I have the King’s Medal.” He put his hand in his pocket and threw the silver Freedom medal with the red, white and blue striped ribbon on to the table. “You see?”

This sentence actually hides the damaging compromise between the allies and the Mafia during WW2. After the war, it paralysed Italian politics for nearly half a century while Democrazia Cristiana was in charge.

Towards the end of the story, Fleming seems to reconsider Colombo. In the end, the Italian villain joins forces with the MI5 agent Bond to get rid of Kristatos, so in practice they are allied. Colombo then becomes a kind of impersonation of a stereotyped Italian outlaw:

It struck Bond that Colombo had made a good life for himself – a life of adventure and thrill and risk. It was a criminal life – a running fight with the currency laws, the State tobacco monopoly, the Customs, the police – but there was a whiff of adolescent rascality in the air which somehow changed the colour of the crime from black to white – or at least to grey.

From these words, it seems that the Italian mafia is not too dangerous if seen from outside. The same stereotyped view that we can find in the behaviour of the outgoing Italian as opposed to the starchy Englishman when Colombo is too gushing for English taste:

Bond put his gun on safe and tucked it away in the belt of his trousers. He turned to find Colombo approaching him. The fat man was grinning delightedly. He came up with Bond and, to Bond’s horror, threw open his arms, clutched Bond to him and kissed him on both cheeks.
Bond said: “For God’s sake, Colombo.”
Colombo roared with laughter. “Ah, the quiet Englishman! He fears nothing save the emotions. But me,” he hit himself in the chest, “me, Enrico Colombo, loves this man and he is not ashamed to say so.”

Colombo’s final words underline once again the fact that the Italian mafia is considered less dangerous than the real enemy, the Soviet Empire. This echoes the co-operation between the western secret services and the Italian criminal organisation, which started during the War and continued through the Cold War, in order to prevent the Partito Comunista Italiano making a bid for power and becoming a real Trojan horse for Europe, the UK and the USA:

You can now go back and tell your people in England that the traffic will cease. You can also tell them the truth – that Italy was not the origin of this terrible underground weapon of war. That it is our old friends the Russians.

Creative Commons License
Letters from the Exile by Massimo Vangelista is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.
Based on a work at byronico.com.
Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at byronico.com.

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