A Passion for Venice: Meet Agatha-Nominated Author Nina Wachsman

In her Agatha-Nominated debut novel, The Gallery of Beauties, Nina Wachsman does such a wonderful job of bringing seventeenth century Venice to life that the city itself becomes a character. In her guest essay, Nina discusses her fascination with Venice, her personal connection to the city, and the inspiration behind her work.


by Nina Wachsman

I dreamed of going to Venice ever since I read Daphne Du Maurier’s Don’t Look Now. What I remember of that novel was foggy vistas and dark passageways, leading the characters into a labyrinth of gloom. Perfect for a tale of suspense and murder, which is why I chose Venice as the setting for my debut novel of historical suspense, The Gallery of Beauties.

The Gallery of Beauties begins with an artist’s commission to paint the portraits of the twelve most beautiful women in Venice. Not a fantastical premise, since Venice was known for its beautiful women. The most famous of the courtesans were captured in the Book of Courtesans, a parody of the Golden Book, which listed the most prominent families of Venice.  In the fifteenth century, the festivities of Carnevale included a parade of twelve beautiful young girls, each chosen to represent a specific neighborhood. The nobles of the city raised the funds to supply these chosen girls with beautiful dresses and glittering jewels to wear for the procession.  By the early seventeenth century, the parade was discontinued, because fighting occurred in the wake of the beautiful girls, much like the portraits of the beauties in my novel instigated a murderer and led to their deaths.         

Conjuring the Venice of the seventeenth century during its golden age, is not as difficult as it may be for other cities. There are no cars, and without them, transportation is limited to going by foot or boat, just as it had been for the past five centuries. In the sestéres of the city, other than the uber-touristy San Marco, the shops and residents may have changed, but the buildings and palazzos have not. When following a snake-like calle or passageway through twists and turns, finally ending in a canal or a dead end, it isn’t too difficult to imagine yourself in another time.     

Have you ever been in a city where everyone is masked, all the time?  During the daytime, while shopping, you are masked—either in the simple domino, which covers just the eyes and nose, or in the more elaborate traditional full-face masks which are extravagantly painted and designed. If you want to go a little further in the spirit of Carnevale, there are kiosks in every campo to rent a cloak and hat, guaranteed to put you in the right mood for the festivities. At night, there are parades of gondolas, roaming processions of fully costumed men, women and children traversing the campos or squares. Snatches of Vivaldi are released every time the door to one of the many churches are opened, and the sweet moans of violins drift out from the gates of walled courtyards. The streets are haunted by phantoms of the past; Venetians wearing the costumes of their ancestors, some with skirts so wide they have to walk sideways through the narrow calles.     

One of my favorite scenes in The Gallery of Beauties takes place on the opening night of Carnevale. Acrobats in human pyramids entertain the crowds in the main square of San Marco, and the most anticipated event is “The Flight of the Angel.”  Recently revived in today’s Carnevale celebrations, it is similar to the flight of Tinkerbell from Cinderella’s castle at Disneyworld.  A trained acrobat would start from the top of the tower of the Campanile of the church of San Marco, descending via zip line to land on the balcony of the Doge’s palace with a concluding somersault. In my story, all the notables of Venetian society await the acrobat’s descent, including the Doge, who will award a special medallion to the performer if he completes his feat successfully. Belladonna, a notorious courtesan is proud of having earned a place on the Doge’s balcony, legitimately able to rub shoulders among the elite of Venice.

It is during Carnevale the magic and mystery of Venice is at its peak, designed now, as it was then, to let each member of the crowd lose themselves for the night. It happens to the main characters in Henry James’ The Wings of the Dove.  What they experienced over a hundred years ago in that novel is not very different from what a visitor to Venice might experience today.

For many writers, especially those writing historical fiction, it’s crucial to create an authentic setting to keep the reader firmly engaged in the reality of the story. Besides my visits to Venice and the stories I’ve read about it, a personal family connection to the Ghetto of Venice helped me bring the main character to life.                                             

Diana, the rabbi’s scholarly daughter, is a widow, and lives with her parents in the lower floors of the synagogue. My father, my uncles, and my grandfather were rabbis of congregations, and my maternal grandfather was the direct descendant of one of the rabbis of the Ghetto of Venice. One day, my mother brought out her Sabbath candlesticks, and turned them over, to show they were hollow, and rumored to  have once been torch holders, supposedly sold to a Ghetto pawnshop where one of our family members acquired it. I’ve stayed in a small hotel under the synagogue where Leone di Modena, the most famous citizen of the Ghetto, and the father of my character, was the rabbi. The timbers of the original ceiling are sill visible, so I have gazed at the painted faces on the ceiling and imagined my character, Diana, the rabbi’s daughter, once doing the same.

In short, in writing my historical series, Venice Beauties, I conjure the Venice I have experienced, but color it with the strange, murderous stories I can imagine.



Nina Wachsman majored in book illustration at the Parsons School of Design, and studied under Maurice Sendak. She is currently the CEO of a digital marketing agency in New York City. She attends the Venice Art Biennale every two years, and is a descendant of a chief rabbi of the Ghetto, a contemporary of her characters. She is a member of Sisters in Crime, Mystery Writers of America, and the Historical Novel Society, and has published stories in mystery and horror magazines and anthologies. The Gallery of Beauties is her debut novel, and its sequel, part of the Venice Beauties series, The Courtesan’s Secret, will be released in Summer, 2023 by Level Best Books.  

Website: https://venicebeauties.com/

Buy link: https://amzn.to/3Bxbwvg

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