America’s Venice

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Ever since the sixteenth century, the finest observers and admirers of Venice have been Englishmen and Englishwomen. Another maritime power, but how different! Perhaps the sense of contrast—architectural, theatrical, historical—is also what had drawn so many Americans to Venice, the sense of being able to experience a city where an ever more ancient past is palpable and alive at every corner. For unlike other Old World attractions, Venice is not a museum; it is, rather, a magnificent and panoramic seaborne bazaar, where each turn of small street or a canal is a living reminder of something in the past. Venice is not a city of fantasy. It is not fantasy but imagination that is vitalized by its thousands of sights.

The American consulate had a gondola and employed a fulltime gondolier. In 1910 the consul, John Q. Wood, reported that the consulate’s situation was “fairly convenient” but that there was “difficulty for tourists of finding Consulate without a gondola.” By that time, the main business of the consulate involved not commerce or problems with tourists but the emigration of workers to the United States from the Veneto, a small but significant portion of the huge wave of Italian migration to America, many of them accomplished artisans and stonemasons, and their families.

In the 1920s, the consulate estimated that about 29,000 Americans visited Venice every year. In the Depression year of 1931, the number fell to 18,000, but soon it rose again. There was now another attraction to Venice: after plein air painting, plein air bathing, on the Lido. Across from Venice proper, a few minutes’ boat ride across the lagoon, on its narrow sandy strip the hotels and the casino of the Lido stretch out. The Lido of Venice was probably the most fashionable summer place in Europe during the 1920s and the 1930s; indeed, many Americans stayed at the luxurious Excelsior or at the Hotel des Bains, rather than in Venice, which they could visit easily by boat. Cabanas with their striped awnings; silk pajamas on the beach and on the hotel terraces; bands playing American tunes, so different from the melancholy nineteenth-century opera and operetta music that floated from the plangent strings of the small orchestras of the cafés on St. Mark’s Square: The atmosphere of the Lido was suffused with the fevered social and sexual ambitions and appetites of the period. Henry James and Edith Wharton and Thomas Moran were gone; it was now the period of Ernest Hemingway and Cole Porter and the supermodern Biennale and Peggy Guggenheim’s no less supermodern museum. One emblem of this American imprint on Venice was the establishment of Harry’s Bar in 1931 (not on the Lido), marking the rise of the talented Cipriani family, the name “Harry’s Bar” soon to be repeated on thousands of American lips, eventually becoming an American, rather than Italian, cliché. (Cliché or not, many Americans claim that it is one of the few places in Europe, if not the only one, where you can get a first-class American martini.)

Twentieth-century American writers wrote about Venice, foremost among them Hemingway, Gore Vidal, and Mary McCarthy. Ezra Pound chose to be buried there. Hemingway wrote an entire novel, Across the River and Into the Trees, set in the winter in Venice and on the lagoons, not one of his better ones. Perhaps the finest twentieth-century American book about Venice is Mary McCarthy’s Venice Observed (1956). About St. Mark’s, for example: “And it can take you unawares, looking beautiful or horribly ugly, at a time you least expect. Venice, Henry James said, is as changeable as a nervous woman, and this is particularly true of St. Mark’s facade.” A gondolier talked to McCarthy, with exquisite taste, about colors. “There spoke Venice, the eternal connoisseur, the voice of her eternal gondolier.”

Venice Preserved! There was, and there is, more of the American presence than the tangible remnant works of American artists and the words of American writers, and more than the surely fleeting memories of the hundreds of thousands of American tourists who must now push their way through the enormous crowds that make passage so difficult as to be nearly impossible, at least around St. Mark’s, and not only during the months of high season. The American love, and respect, for Venice endures in many ways. American-born historians have written precise and scholarly works about odd periods of Venetian history. Americans have contributed—and not only financially—to important works of Venetian restoration. In 1902 the great bell tower, the Campanile on St. Mark’s Square, collapsed. The Venetians swore that it would be rebuilt perfectly, the way it had been and where it had been: com’era, dov’era . By 1912 that was done. One of the principal contributors to its restoration was J. P. Morgan. In 1967, after a sudden tidal flood had damaged the beautiful church of Santa Maria del Giglio, American art students came and worked hard to restore portions of the interior and floors. There is a small plaque commemorating their endeavors. The plaque is difficult to find, hidden in one of the recesses of the church, but then Venetians are not an expressive people, and fulsome gratitude is not among their habits. There was a time, shortly after the Second World War, when Italy, including Venice, attracted American writers and bohemians and all kinds of expatriates, worthy and unworthy ones, much as did Paris in the 1920s. Frank Lloyd Wright wanted to build a house next to the Palazzo Balbi, at the turn of the Grand Canal. Fortunately, he didn’t.

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