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America’s Venice

June 2024
15min read


What could be more different than Venice and an American city? One pretends to represent the continued existence of the past. The other pretends to represent the ideal of progress, of the future. In their separate ways both are illusions, but no matter. The relationship of the Old and the New Worlds is not simple. It is like that of the sexes: Opposites may repel, but often they attract. Thus there are towns named and emulating Venice across America. And there exists a long record of American presence in Venice, reaching well beyond what brings American tourists there today. The history of Americans’ attraction to Venice is more than 200 years old.

In 1789, when the United States was born, there were but two other republics in the entire world. One was the Republic of Venice, the other the city-state of Geneva. Many of the Founders were aware of their existence but had no wish to emulate their examples. They were aristocratic republics, with constitutions that had little appeal even for the more conservative of the Founders. At least Geneva was Protestant, but the government and the society of Venice seemed to represent much that was corrupt in the Old World. Many Americans were acquainted with Venice Preserved, a popular, often performed play by the English dramatist Thomas Otway: “Curs’d be your State, cursed your constitution/The curse of growing factions and divisions.” No, the new American Republic had to incarnate something that was the very opposite of Venice.

Still, it was the task of that new Republic, for reasons commercial even more than diplomatic, to establish consulates abroad, especially in the main ports of Europe. In 1796 Timothy Pickering, Washington’s Secretary of State, wrote William Willis, a proper Philadelphian, instructing him to take the post of the first American consul in Venice. Willis, who was involved in a business dispute with a dubious Italian middleman in Leghorn, was about ready to move across Italy and establish himself in Venice when Bonaparte marched into that city in May 1797, putting an end to the Venetian Republic after 1,300 years. Willis never got to Venice. He turned around and sailed first to the West Indies and then to New York, where he wrote a detailed letter to the Secretary of State about Venice and the French. In November 1798 he was posted American consul at Barcelona. By then the Republic of Geneva had been eliminated too, annexed to France, and Bonaparte had traded Venice to the Austrian empire.


William Willis had missed a great experience: the approach to Venice. Two hundred years ago the only way to get there was by water, from the lagoon or the sea. And that way was—and remains—incomparable. Allow me, then, to suggest something to American travelers two centuries after Willis—that is, if they will afford a small amount of extra time. The dazzling approach, the literal revelation, of Venice is that from the lagoon to the south. There is the fishing town of Chioggia, on a spit of land, not difficult to get to, a few miles from Vicenza, at the end of the Brenta Canal, which is dotted with Palladian villas. Chioggia is a little Venice, its canals lined with fishing boats even now. A small steamer wends its way north from there, calling at a few of the lagoon villages, and then makes straight for the pier at St. Mark’s. An hour or so before the traveler’s arrival, Venice rises from the sea, a coruscating beauty immediately recognizable, the fabulous vista immortalized by its own Canaletto and Guardi and by hundreds of other great painters, including Americans. If one elects to spend the night at Chioggia and take the morning boat, the eastern sun paints the grand theater of Venice with gold.

The approach by train is not bad either. Once you emerge from the crowded Santa Lucia station, there is the Grand Canal, with a plenitude of color and waterborne business. From the airport north of Venice you will arrive by water: again, not a great loss, since, as with a beautiful woman, every side of Venice, including her back, is admirable. (Don’t take a private motorboat from the airport; it will cost you a small fortune.) One thing is to be avoided, if possible: the approach by car. The enormous parking garage at the western end of Venice is nowadays often so full that many motorists must leave their cars at a garage in the mainland industrial port of Mestre and, panting, lug their bags to its indifferent railroad station, there to wait for the next local across the lagoon.

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?


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.

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.”


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.

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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