America’s Venice

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It is not possible to ascertain how much of an effect Venetian Life had on American tourism after 1865. But it is ascertainable that soon after 1865 the high period of American Venetophilia began. The city began to attract American painters. In 1872 Henry James met “on the Piazza on the evening of my arrival a young American painter who told me that he had been spending the summer just where I found him. I could have assaulted him for very envy.” Among the most famous American painters, John Singer Sargent, James McNeill Whistler, William Merritt Chase, William S. Horton, and Maurice Prendergast painted many, and very different, canvases of Venice. But the most celebrated and most industrious American painter of Venice was Thomas Moran, otherwise known as the pioneer landscape painter of the Rocky Mountains. In 1898 the publishers Brown & Bigelow printed an edition of 22 million of one of Moran’s Venetian paintings, an extraordinary number considering that the population of the United States was then about 76 million.

John Ruskin wrote that Venice was “a golden clasp on the girdle of the earth,” about as fine a phrase as one can imagine. Such a clasp had appeal in the Gilded Age. By about 1880, Venice was no longer just a somewhat exotic bauble in the garland collected by American tourists, an extraneous feature on their rapid tours of Europe. Now, one or two rich Americans had rented entire palazzi on the Grand Canal, and in 1882 Mr. and Mrs. Daniel Curtis of Boston bought the two upper floors of the Palazzo Barbaro, perhaps one of the most historic and surely one of the most sumptuously decorated palaces of Venice. Sargent, who disliked Venice because it was “cold,” painted the group portrait of the Curtis family in the ballroom of the Barbaro. Their guest list was stunning: Sargent, the aged Robert Browning, Mrs. Jack Gardner (who used the Barbaro as a kind of model for her Boston townhouse, now the Gardner Museum), Edith Wharton, and Claude Monet. Howells was, of course, gone, but there was Henry James. He had come to Venice first in 1869, in the same year as Mark Twain, who, Yankee skeptical as he was in The Innocents Abroad , was more impressed by Venice and wrote better about it than James, who wrote to his brother that Venice reminded him of Newport: “The same atmosphere, the same luminosity.” Luminosity, perhaps, but atmosphere? Well, he learned fast. He came again in 1872 and then in 1881; he knew the Curtises, he stayed in the Palazzo Barbaro, and he came often thereafter, staying long, very long. He wrote at least three articles about Venice, and he wrote two of his novels, The Aspern Papers and The Wings of the Dove , there. In the latter, he described the ballroom of the Palazzo Barbaro in a sentence that runs to more than 130 words. Let us, instead, cite him on the gondola: “The little closed cabin of this perfect vehicle, the movement, the darkness, and the plash, the indistinguishable swerves and twists, all the things you don’t see and all the things you do feel—each dim recognition and obscure arrest is a possible throb of your sense of being floated to your doom, even when the truth is simply and sociably that you are going out to tea. Nowhere else is anything as innocent so mysterious, nor anything so mysterious so pleasantly deterrent to protest.”

HENRY JAMES CALLED ST. MARK’S AS CHANGEABLE AS A NERVOUS WOMAN. MARY McCARTHY OBSERVED THAT IT “CAN TAKE YOU UNAWARES, LOOKING BEAUTIFUL OR HORRIBLY UGLY.”

A century later, don’t let yourself be talked into a gondola or a private motorboat, as you issue, with eyes blinking, from the railroad station. Don’t let yourself be talked into a gondola at high noon anywhere. Gondolas are for the twilight or the evening. Then the theatricality falls away, and velvet shadows appear not only on the water but under the small cast-iron bridges and the houses close to whose stone walls the gondola slides with a melancholy sigh, the silence only punctuated on occasion by the soft plash of the gondolier’s oar. During the day the best way to get around, when not on foot (Venice can be crossed walking in an hour at the most), is on the vaporetti, the waterbuses, crowded with working people getting off and on at so many stations, as they stitch the line of their progress from one side of the canal to the other, back and forth.

Americans tended to like gondoliers—James Morris mentions a generous American lady who in her will left a house to each of her boatmen—and gondoliers liked Americans. “The prestige of the United States was very high in Venice,” Morris writes. “When a team of gondoliers took their craft to the [1893] Chicago World Fair, they came home to Venice as heroes, and lived comfortably on the experience for the rest of their lives.” Lagoons, gondoliers, Venice: They appealed to the imagination of many Americans. How many American towns are named Venice! In California, replete with canals, in Florida, but also in Illinois, Michigan, Louisiana, New York, and Ohio.