America’s Venice

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In 1807 an American consulate was finally established in Venice. It functioned until the 1960s, when the number of U.S. consulates abroad was reduced. But for American travelers in the early nineteenth century, Venice was seldom on the itinerary. Emerson visited it in 1837. He did not like it. “It is a great oddity—a city for beavers—but to my thought a most disagreeable residence … any thing but comfort. I soon had enough of it.” But much would change after 1847, when the Austrian administration built the long railway bridge connecting Venice with the mainland. That was around the beginning of popular tourism, including the spread of eclectic interest in architecture, especially in their Italianate forms. In 1848 the Venetians rose against the Austrians, proclaiming, for a short time, the independence of Venice. The American consul William A. Sparks sent his felicitations to the Venetian leader Daniele Manin. Manin answered instantly: “We have been impressed with the salutations of the Consul of your great Republic as he greeted our Rebirth; we have welcomed it as the happiest of auguries.… We are divided by the Ocean but united by Sympathy, and Liberty, like the electric Telegraph, traversing the seas, will bring us your examples. …”

Poor Sparks, Poor Venice. The former was very ill and died a year later. Venice was reconquered by the Austrians without much trouble. Sparks’s secretary Peter C. Ebenkofler reported to Washington on July 1, 1850: “I regret saying that since the Austrian government had thought it proper to deprive Venice of the free port, with a view, it is generally supposed, of favouring Trieste, this place is entirely fallen … in point of fact, commerce is null .” Yet his pessimism was not warranted. It was not only that 16 years later the Austrians left Venice, which was then united with the kingdom of Italy; it was that notwithstanding the decline of maritime commerce, during those 16 years the attraction of Venice rose to a previously unimagined extent, drawing masses of visitors and, for the first time, many Americans.

The U.S. consulate had its troubles. Of no fewer than seven consuls between 1849 and 1861, one declined the appointment “in consequence of the inadequacy of the emoluments,” and two died at their posts. Then, in 1861, Abraham Lincoln gave William Dean Howells the consulship, a serendipitous choice for at least two reasons. It was in Venice that Howells discovered his talent for writing novels; eventually, he turned out to be one of the best American novelists of the nineteenth century. And his Venetian Life, written between 1863 and 1865, is still one of the finest of the hundreds of books about Venice, recognized not only by his American critics but by many of the most erudite and sensitive English Venetophiles. At first Howells thought of writing letters from Italy for The Atlantic, but its editors rejected them. After that his “Letters from Venice” appeared seriatim in the Boston Daily Advertiser. They were the work not of a journalist but of a novelist. As he himself wrote later, “I was studying manners, in the elder sense of the word, wherever I could get them in the frank life of the people around me.

 

“I took lodgings, and I began dining drearily in restaurants.” Not too much change there since. From a gastronomic tour of northern Italy, Venice might as well be omitted. There is good food to be found in Venice, but mostly in some of its luxury hotels. Here and there, in a dark calle or around a sudden turn, tucked away in the corner of a small stone-paved square, one may find a fine little trattoria, above and beyond all gastronomic criticism. But don’t attempt to dine on St. Mark’s Square or near La Fenice Opera; the food will be appallingly expensive and not very good. Those places are for coffee or ices, very good coffee and very good ices, worth the money, which will be considerable.

There are a few exceptions to such generalizations. Perhaps typical of the Venetians’ customary thrift, one of the few traditional, and very good, Venetian dishes is fegato alla veneziana, a calves’ liver that is nearly classic; the other one is both Venetian and Adriatic, the fritto misto , a lightly breaded and fried medley of calamari and scampi and whitebait and small fish—delicious, accompanied by a green salad. There is one bargain, the wines of the Veneto, of the Venetian mainland provinces, crisp, light white wines (among them, for instance, the relatively recent American importation of Pinot Grigio). However, there is no reason to worry. Where else in the world can you lunch or dine on an airy terrace of a hotel, under a softly flapping canvas, leaning your elbow on a fine stone balustrade, looking out on the great theatrical traffic of the Grand Canal?