Book Review: By Its Cover, a Commissario Guido Brunetti Mystery by Donna Leon

by DerdriuMarriner

By Its Cover, the twenty-third Commissario Guido Brunetti mystery by Donna Leon, deals with the plundering of artworks and books by unexpected impersonators, thieves, and vandals.

By conduct and conversation a person gets judged

By Its Cover attests to worldwide respect for Venice-based writer Donna Leon by constituting title #23 in the Commissario Guido Brunetti mysteries. It begins with the broken right arm, concussion, and missed flight consequences of inside jobs competing for percentages of fares on an American couple through the concierge calling one water taxi and the porter another. It then considers the inside or outside job of stealing 12 rare books and vandalizing 31 at the Zattere’s Biblioteca Merula of Dorsoduro 3429. Theft and vandalism diminish the utility and value of the affected items and of the entire collection.

The above-mentioned deep truth emerges throughout the Old World where Europe’s Interpol and Rome’s Art Theft division investigate disappearances.




In "By Its Cover," the rare first edition of Giovanni Ramusio's second volume of Delle Navigationi et Viaggi is vandalized. ~

Marco Polo Bridge, 9 miles (15 km) southwest of Cambalu (now Beijing) over Pulsangan (now Yongding) River: illustration in Giovanni Ramusio's narration of Marco Polo's voyages in Delle Navigationi et Viaggi, volume 2
G.B. Ramusio, Secundo volume delle navigationi et viaggi (1574), p. 32
G.B. Ramusio, Secundo volume delle navigationi et viaggi (1574), p. 32

By content and cover a publication gets kept


Churches, libraries, museums, and residences find ancient, rare and valuable books, manuscripts, paintings, and statues disrespected or stolen. Merula gets the first edition of the second in Giovanni Battista Ramusio’s (July 20, 1485 – July 10, 1557) three-volume Delle Navigationi et Viaggi stolen and nine pages of drawings and maps taken from Hernán Cortés’ (1484 – December 2, 1547) Relación printed by Versellace in 1524 and translated by Niccolò Liburnio (1474 – September 22, 1557). It horrifies Guido to find at the perpetrator’s residence:

  • 12 Merula books;
  • 15 private collection books, of which 4 Marchese Piero Dolfin; and
  • 23 library books, of which 2 Vicenza Public Library.

Is the thieving vandal a killer in four-year-old, 143-euro, size 43, waffle-soled boots? 


In "By Its Cover," Niccolò Liburnio's translation of explorer Hernán Cortés’ historic New World account, Cartas de Relación, is vandalized. ~

woodcut of Temixtitan (Tenochtitlan, modern-day Mexico City) by Friedrich Peypus (1485-1534), from map by Hernán Cortés
woodcut by Friedrich Peypus from map by Hernán Cortés

By deception and violence a publication is disrespected


Guido judges pertinent:

  • all crimes and sins arising through lies;
  • Church Fathers such as Ambrose, Augustine, Cyprian, Jerome, Maximum the Confessor, and Tertullian berating greed and lust;  
  • library security comprising electronic and human detectors;
  • Merula drawing central, city, and regional money for operations and private contributions for acquisitions and restorations;
  • patrons predictable for three months and three years atypically exiting before 2:30 p.m. on theft-discovery day; and
  • a Sicilian prince’s widowed daughter furnishing much of the 200 manuscripts and 8,000 books in Merula’s 30,000-item collection ten years previously and 100,000 euros every year thereafter.

What keeps a Vicenza private boys’ school’s ex-theologian from pressing assault charges against his ex-lover’s ex-boyfriend? What leads Merula’s directress to compromise security? 


Venice at night: Biblioteca Merula is located on Fondamenta da Zattere, the quay which runs along Venice's long southern shore in the island city's southwestern area, Dorsoduro.

Fondamenta da Zattere, Dorsoduro, southwestern Venice
Fondamenta da Zattere, Dorsoduro, southwestern Venice

By slip-ups and stress a thief is exposed


Means and opportunity make suspect:

  • Filippo D’Alessio, English-, French-, German-, Greek-, Italian-, Spanish-speaking Neapolitan book/identity/postal thief;
  • Roberto Durà, armed robbery assailant three months into four years at Treviso’s jail;
  • Patrizia Fabbiani, directress;
  • Aldo Franchini, 61-year-old receiving 1,300,000 euros in Lugano and Luxembourg accounts, 659-euro-a-month pension at Castello 333;
  • Adele Marzi, Dolfin’s secretary at Castello 999;
  • Contessa Morosini-Albani, antiques-stealing Gianni’s stepmother;
  • Joseph Nickerson, Michigan-born 36-year-old University of Kansas-Lawrence’s maritime/Mediterranean trade historian;
  • Piero Sartor, guard gambling Gratta e Vinci (Scratch and Win), librarian Manuela’s baby’s gender, 30,000 to 50,000 euros during 23 visits to Alvino’s casinò.

So By Its Cover nudges Venetian customs and landmarks through:

  • Atlantic Monthly Press, publisher;
  • Matthew Enderlin, designer;
  • Donna Leon, author;
  • Peter Zelei, photographer. 


By its Cover: A Commissario Guido Brunetti Mystery by Donna Leon ~ available via Amazon

A frantic call from the director of a prestigious Venetian library about pages stolen from rare books opens a case for Commissario Brunetti leading him to question his expectations about what makes a man innocent, or guilty.
Donna Leon's Commissario Guido Brunetti mystery series



My special thanks to:

  • Talented artists and photographers/concerned organizations who make their fine images available on the Internet;
  • Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University for superior on-campus and on-line resources.


Does an obsessive Gratta e Vinci (Scratch and Win) player become involved in high stakes vandalism of valuable antiquarian books?

Italy: Gratta e Vinci
Italy: Gratta e Vinci

Sources Consulted


Leon, Donna. 1 April 2014. By Its Cover. A Commissario Guido Brunetti Mystery. New York, NY: Atlantic Monthly Press. 

Ramusio, Giovanni Battista. 1574. Venezia: Giunti. Secundo Volume Delle Navigationi et Viaggi.

  • Available via Internet Archive at:


Biblioteca Merula, scene of theft and vandalism of some of its rarest books, is set on Fundamenta delle Zattere (Zattere Quay), which stretches along almost entire length of Canale della Giudecca, one of Venice's major canals.

Canale della Giudecca: Fondamenta delle Zattere, Dorsoduro, southwestern Venice
Canale della Giudecca: Fondamenta delle Zattere, Dorsoduro, southwestern Venice
the end which is also the beginning
the end which is also the beginning

Fireworks in Venice: black t-shirt ~ available via AllPosters

illustration by George Barbier (October 10, 1882 - March 16, 1932) for Fêtes Galantes by Paul Verlaine (March 30, 1844 – January 8, 1896)
Fireworks in Venice, Illustration for "Fetes Galantes" by Paul Verlaine 1924
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DerdriuMarriner, All Rights Reserved.
DerdriuMarriner, All Rights Reserved.
Updated: 09/24/2016, DerdriuMarriner
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DerdriuMarriner 15 days ago

directions, Donna Leon's work of fiction acts as an introduction to and a review of the horrors of repurposing almost anything valuable by way of gem-by-gem, page-by-page, panel-by-panel theft and vandalism. It's one of the many reasons why By Its Cover remains my absolute favorite -- along with The Jewels of Paradise -- of all of Donna Leon's insightful publications.

directions 17 days ago

Thanks for sharing. I hope it will be helpful for too many people that are searching for this topic.
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DerdriuMarriner on 05/08/2015

Mira, Umberto Eco's observation of books being taken apart and being sold, page by page, is sadly accurate. Many beautifully illustrated books -- including those with painstakingly beautiful illustrations of fauna and flora -- are subjected to such profitable, by-the-page sales. Additionally, many such dismembered books were published in limited editions, so the availability of complete editions is greatly reduced.

Mira on 05/06/2015

The plot sounds quite intricate. Umberto Eco said in This Is Not the End of the Book that manuscripts are often vandalized and sold by page rather than as a whole object. It appears that your book deals with this kind of vandalism.

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