America’s Venice

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Howells wrote, “I felt curiously happy in Venice from the first.” It seems that Venetians had despised his predecessor, J. J. Sprenger, “whose unhappy knowledge of German threw him on his arrival among people of that race,” even though he was a “vivid” Pennsylvania Republican. Howells met few Americans in his first year, but that would soon change. The Venetians called Americans inglesi , their name for the English; the inglesi were openhanded, while the tedeschi , the Germans and Austrians, were stingy. At the Armenian Convent in San Lazzaro, “a sharp, bustling, go-ahead Yankee rushed in one morning, rubbing his hands, and demanding ‘Show me all you can in five minutes.…’” Howells was wonderfully observant. His official duties were few “during a year of almost uninterrupted tranquillity.” He met an old man who had known Byron and pretended to have swum with him. “Is it worth observing that there are no Venetian blinds in Venice?” Near the end of his first year in Venice he married Elinor Mead; their first child was born in Venice and given the un-Venetian name of Winifred; they had their Saturday evenings, their conversazioni. They moved to the Casa Falier, with its entrance on a dark calle but with its windows on the Grand Canal. On the wall, a small plaque, affixed in 1961. marks the Venetophile Howells’s residence. Like all other consuls, he rented not a house but an apartment. “Our dear little balcony at Casa Falier! Over our heads dwelt a Dalmatian family; below our feet a Frenchwoman; at our right, upon the same floor, an English gentleman; under him a French family; and over him the family of a marquis in exile from Modena.” Another neighbor was a witch, yet another a Duchess of Parma.

He was not the first, or the last, to remark that Venetians are “insensible to and ignorant of Art. … I would as soon think of asking a fish’s opinion of water as of asking a Venetian’s notion of architecture or painting, unless he were himself a professed artist or critic.” And that was Howells’s strength too: Unlike so many other writers, he did not aspire to vault suddenly to the near-celestial spheres of high art criticism. “I could not, in any honesty, lumber my pages with descriptions or speculations which would be idle to most readers, even if I were a far wiser judge of art than I affect to be.” A very wise judge of art he was not. When he looked at Titian’s Martyrdom of St. Lawrence on a bitter cold day, he felt envious of the saint’s being poked by a hot fork, toasting comfortably “amid all that frigidity.” He brought with himself plenty of New England Protestant prejudices: ”… there is so little in St. Mark’s of the paltry or revolting character of modern Romanism.” He disliked the baroque: “The sight of those theatrical angels, with their shameless, unfinished backs, flying off the top of the rococo facades of the church of the Jesuits, has always been a spectacle to fill me with despondency and foreboding.” He called the Church of the Jesuits “a dreary sanctuary.” The very fine English connoisseur James Lees-Milne took him to task for that. “How could this jolly American consul be so disapproving of a building calculated to bring beauty and pleasure to a congregation in a poor district who feasted their eyes and senses on the splendour and luxury which they regarded as theirs?” Still, James (later Jan) Morris, no mean critic of Venice, called Howells’s Venetian Life “a charming book.” Which it is.

 
 

During the last year of his consulship, Howells and his wife moved into the Palazzo Giustiniani. Was there “any house with modern improvements in America, which has also windows, with pointed arches of marble, opening upon balconies that overhang the Grand Canal?” Their apartment had six rooms, “furnished with every article necessary for Venetian housekeeping. We paid one dollar a day which, in the innocence of our hearts we thought rather dear.” Well, more than nostalgia is in order here. Hotels in Venice are frightfully expensive. Crowded they are too. But then some of them are very beautiful. The Gritti and the Danieli are world-famous and traditional palaces on the water. A fine addition is the Cipriani, positioned at the end of the island of Giudecca, built about 35 years ago, and pricey all right but, if you can afford it, worth every cent or lira. Its private motorboat will ferry you across the lagoon, to St. Mark’s, in a few minutes, across the grandest sea—and island—and cityscape—of the entire world.