It’s a cloudy November day in Venice, the kind of moody autumn day that befits the seaside city. I usually spend each and every day this season longing for a ray of sunlight to peek through the clouds but when I’m in Venice, I prefer the city dressed in grey. La Serenissima is never more romantic than when blanketed in a thick fog, creating a melancholy atmosphere that exalts its natural splendor and underscores its existence outside of space and time.
Lia’s adventures begin on this precise sort of day, when the winds are howling and Venetians turn indoors for a hot cup of tea and a good book to read. Lia, you should know, is the protagonist of Lia Leaves The Library, a children’s book written by Allison Zurfluh, a writer who has made the Venice Lagoon her second home. Its one of the few books that takes visitors on a walk through Venice as seen through the eyes of a young girl, and it’s the only children’s book to be housed in the renowned Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana, a 16th century library that contains some of the most important classical texts in the world.
Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana
I recently met Allison in Venice for a walk through the city with Lia and our adventures began precisely where the book begins: in the hallowed halls of the Marciana Library. We were accompanied by Maurizio Messina, the former director of the library, who is featured in the book and helped bring its dreamy, illustrated pages to life. Mr. Messina calls himself the Watchman of the Library and proudly oversaw this remarkable space for decades. Located just steps from St. Mark’s Basilica, the Marciana Library is fully immersed in the magnificence of the city and houses a million books, including an important collection of Greek and Latin manuscripts, texts about the city of Venice and illuminated manuscripts. It also has paintings by Tintoretto and Veronese.
And it’s where Lia Leaves The Library begins, back when Lia is still a children’s book named “Story” sitting on a shelf but anxious to step out of the library and learn about the world outside its walls. “Story” stealthy falls into a professor’s briefcase and is carried out of the library just before a gust of wind shakes off all her letters, periods, commas and exclamation points, causing her to transform into a young girl all on her own in the city of Venice for the first time. She collects the fallen letters and punctuation marks and stores them in her pocket as she begins to write her own story for the first time.
“Do you ever feel that way? Adventurous, I mean? It takes a great deal of courage to step out into the unknown. And it takes a very bright person to know that reading will only make that step more exciting.” Maurizio Messina, Director of the Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana
Campanile di San Marco
Right after leaving the Marciana library and her magical shakeup, Lia finds herself alone in Piazza San Marco beneath the towering Campanile di San Marco, one of the most iconic symbols of the city. Nearly 100 meters tall, it provides an incredible view of Venice’s rooftops and the multiple cupolas of St. Mark’s Basilica – it’s also noticeable from far across the lagoon. Allison and I made our way up to the top (an easy elevator ride) to soak in the surrounding landscape and point out the surrounding islands in the Venice Lagoon we’ve visited together, like Burano and Mazzorbo, located off in the distance. The Basilica di San Marco is also worth a peek inside: it’s an impressive example of Italo-Byzantine architecture with Gothic elements, opulent mosaics and sumptuous details. Founded in the 9th century, it was originally built as the Doge’s private chapel before becoming the cathedral of Venice in the early 19th century.
The Basilica di San Marco and its surrounding piazza are the focal point of the city of Venice and attract millions of visitors each year who admire the city’s monumental architecture while enjoying coffee in one of its historic cafes. The most famous, of course, is Caffè Florian, established in 1720 and considered the second oldest caffe in the world (after Le Procope in Paris). Caffè Florian is a true icon and has attracted artists, philosophers and intellectuals over the centuries: everything from its vintage signage, gilded interiors and velvet seats transmit old-world charm and opulence.
In the book, Lia steps into the cafe to warm up so we followed suit and ordered hot chocolate with mint cream, a sweet and nourishing beverage served on a silver tray with a plate of macaroons. The cafe has all sorts of tantalizing treats, from croissants and finger sandwiches to pastries, gelato and cocktails – enjoy a sunset aperitif outside in the piazza on warm evenings or fuel up for your day with a hearty breakfast inside in the winter.
Basilica dei Frari
After we finished our hot chocolate, we followed Lia’s footsteps over the Rialto Bridge and into Rivoaltus, a cozy paper store with handmade journals, photo albums, calligraphy sets and more. This small boutique serves as inspiration for the shop Lia eventually opens herself and we spot the same ladder and leather-bound diaries that are illustrated in its pages. After a brief chat with the owner, we wander over to the Basilica dei Frari, a tall church with rose windows that sits across the Grand Canal.
One of the most noteworthy churches in the city, it was built during the 13th-14th centuries and has the second tallest bell tower after San Marco. Although the exterior is relatively nondescript, the inside is richly decorated with works by Venetian artists of the Middle Ages and Renaissance, including Titian’s awe-inspiring Assumption of the Virgin, and a number of monumental tombs and funerary statues (Titian himself is buried here as well). Lia attends a mass here but we had one more important person to visit before concluding our stroll of the city: Lia’s Anna.
Cannaregio & Lia’s Anna
We headed north towards Cannaregio, one of my favorite neighborhoods in Venice. Tucked to the west of the train station and expanding away from the Grand Canal, it’s an area that many people miss on their first trip to Venice but it’s filled with charming restaurants, boutiques and leafy local piazzas where the locals hang out. Cannaregio is home to the Jewish Ghetto, the first in the world, so you’ll notice a few synagogues in this area as well as delicious Kosher eateries.
Lia’s Anna also lives here, though her real name is Bruna. In the book, Lia notices an elderly woman struggling with her groceries and offers to help her carry them to her home – the woman agrees and serves her a cup of tea and sweet pastries. It’s an important moment in the book because it’s when Lia discovers her voice, her name and identity and begins to write her own story. Allison and I caught up with Bruna over tea ourselves and talked about her feature in Lia Leaves The Library before posing for a photo along one of the canals outside her home.
As Lia grows up, she begins to fill her own book with words, sentences and chapters, opens a shop filled with handmade journals and letter writing sets, and marries a fisherman in the Venice Lagoon. She visits the Marciana Library, her old home, to read the books inside and spends her days sitting in St. Mark’s Square looking out at the lagoon as it shimmers in the sunlight and seagulls soar overhead.
One day, when Lia’s book was quite full indeed and only the very last page remained blank, she reached into her pocket to write something new. She picked up her book and read it again – all of it – from the day she found her own name until today; and then she smiled. All the words were hers. All the pages described the life she had chosen and lived. She was happy.
Lia Leaves The Library
Lia Leaves The Library
Lia Leaves The Library is written by Allison Zurfluh and illustrated by Heidi Stevenson. The book was published by lineadacqua, an independent publisher in Venice, and is available in English, Italian, French, and German. You can find it on Amazon as well as in select museums & shops in Venice.