Saturday, 10 March 2012

Historical Cafe Society - Michelle Lovric



You might want to make yourself a nice cup of coffee before you read any further.

While you are reading, I’ll be following in the footsteps of Goethe, Goldoni, Casanova, Byron, Dickens and Proust. I’ll be sitting in rococo splendour, sipping sour-sweet hot chocolate through a moustache-making muff of whipped cream, having dragged my fat manuscript to Caffè Florian at San Marco in Venice. I’ll be dipping my fluted wafer into the dark brown dregs while I correct my chapter. Because at Florian they don’t mind at all if you write your book while you enjoy your chocolate. As one of the white-coated waiters reassured me recently, ‘This place is a work of art, so of course you may create more masterpieces here.’ (Ahem).

Today Florian is a gilt-edged jewel-box of a café with a maze of painted rooms set with velvet banquettes and delicate tables. Few realize that the café’s beloved and ancient-seeming appearance is in fact a fairly recent development. When Florian first opened on December 29th, 1720, there were no windows on San Marco. The cafe consisted of two rooms, simply furnished. Tassini records that in those days all the cafes in the city were ‘undecorated, badly lit, lacking windows or any protection against the weather and overflowing.’ In those days it was known as the Caffè alla Venezia trionfante (the Café of the Triumphant Venice). Fairly soon, however, it was soon renamed Caffè Florian – nothing to do with the Saint Florian who was clubbed, burned, spiked and drowned – but after its original owner Floriano Francesconi.

Florian was an immediate success with both Venetians and foreigners, partly because it was one of the few establishments that permitted women. It was also perfectly placed at the heart of the city’s drawing room, the piazza of San Marco. E.V. Lucas observed that ‘the original Florian was wise in his choice of site, for he has more shady hours than his rivals opposite.’ By the middle of the eighteenth century, Florian had spread into two extra rooms.

The place has always taken itself very seriously as an institution. Eugene Schuyler recorded, ‘We stopped at Florian’s for a cooling drink, and thoughtlessly asked the waiter at what hour the café closed. “Closed, sirs?” he said with astonishment. “The doors of Florian’s have not been shut for three hundred years.”

One of many legends of Florian concerns the great sculptor Canova, a regular customer. The owner suffered dreadfully from gout. Canova, no doubt settling his coffee bill in the process, modelled the man’s leg in plaster so that he might have a shoe made to ease the pain.

Coffee, originally sold in Venice as an expensive medicinal preparation, was only one of the reigning beverages at Florian: hot chocolate was ascendant in the eighteenth century, recalling a time when chocolate was so highly valued that ten cocoa beans were worth one rabbit, one hundred a slave and twelve a night with a courtesan.

It was in the eighteenth century that the Venetian poet Antonio Sforza wrote a delightful ode to hot chocolate. I translated it for my anthology about Venice a few years ago. Here’s a taste:

It has no beginning or end,
this love that I have for the
daughter of cocoa,
cinnamon, sugar and vanilla;
I would go three hundred miles
barefoot just to drink a
little cup of it,
I would pawn my Breviary
and my robe.
Truly my guts
are (And I wouldn't like to tell you
any wickedness) for chocolate
like a pig's lusting after acorns.
I would give up all beverages —
I would give up tocai, and malvasia —
and the whole genealogy of wines:
If I could only be given
that holy liquor which
touches my heart,
which only to name it
makes my mouth water.
But there are lots of idiots
who believe that the Gods' ambrosia
would be a better drink than chocolate …
He who never tries it could not believe
how many blessings it has for us,
delivering us first of all from all evils,
apart from death …
My soul, dead and buried;
will go begging, that my flesh,
turning under the earth
till it becomes earthenware,
shall not be made into plates or urinals
but instead into little royal cups
for holding Chocolate
So that after death
I shall be still in my beatitude.


The Florian we see today is the result of a massive restoration, redecoration and expansion in 1858. By this time, the Francesconi family had sold up. The new owners commissioned Lodovico Cadorin to undertake the work. Like the Eiffel Tower in its early days, the innovations at Florian were at first received badly. The expense was as great as a palazzo on the Grand Canal, some lamented, but most of all the Venetians hated the idea of any change to their beloved meeting place.

They soon came round, and their loyalty has never swerved since. Venetians often huddle in the bar at the back, while the tourists (and the odd writer) occupy Cadorin’s richly decorated rooms. Some choose the Sala degli Uomini Illustri (Hall of the Illustrious Men) hung with the portraits ten notable Venetians including Marco Polo, Goldoni, Marco Polo, Titian, Palladio and my old favourite Enrico Dandolo, the blind warrior doge who pillaged Constantinople and sent back the body of Saint Lucy to Venice. (His portrait is particularly ferocious, while Marco Polo is the heart-throb of the room). Others favour the Sala del Senato (Senate Hall), left as you enter. Here, the vivid allegorical paintings represent the arts and sciences. This room is famous for being the place where the idea of the Venice Biennale was dreamt up. If you turn right, you’ll be surrounded Pascuti’s paintings of lush ladies and their lovers in the Sala Cinese. Walk through to the Sala Orientale, and you’ll find seven full-length portraits of women in harem trousers and tunics, framed by gilded oriental arches. The one dark-skinned lady is shown topless with white silk shimmering from her waist. She holds a long golden pipe. Women are yet again the theme in the Sala delle Stagioni (Hall of the Seasons), sometimes known as the Sala degli Specchi (Hall of Mirrors). In the early 20th century, the Sala Liberty was added. Today, it’s hung with large photos of modern people in Carnevale costumes.

William Dean Howells patronised Florian just when Cadorin’s new restoration would have been shiny and new. In his Venetian Life (1867), he confessed that ‘we spent by far the greater part of our time in going to the Piazza, and we were devoted Florianisti, as the Italians call those that lounge habitually at the Caffè Florian.’ He explained how Florian served as Venice’s social Switzerland during the hated sixty-year Austrian occupation. I hope you don’t mind this long quotation: I couldn’t resist it, partly because it’s so easy to transpose these wry, sly observations onto modern-day coffee shops anywhere.

In regard to the caffè there is a perfectly understood system by which the Austrians go to one, and the Italians to another; and Florian's, in the Piazza, seems to be the only common ground in the city on which the hostile forces consent to meet. This is because it is thronged with foreigners of all nations, and to go there is not thought a demonstration of any kind.'

He wrote later, ‘By all odds, the loungers at Florian's were the most interesting, because they were the most various ... The Italians carefully assorted themselves in a room furnished with green velvet, and the Austrians and the Austriacanti frequented a red-velvet room. They were curious to look at, those tranquil, indolent, Italian loafers, and I had an uncommon relish for them. They seldom spoke together, and when they did speak, they burst from silence into tumultuous controversy, and then lapsed again into perfect silence. The elder among them sat with their hands carefully folded on the heads of their sticks, gazing upon the ground, or else buried themselves in the perusal of the French journals. The younger stood a good deal about the doorways, and now and then passed a gentle, gentle jest with the elegant waiters in black coats and white cravats, who hurried to and fro with the orders, and called them out in strident tones to the accountant at his little table; or sometimes these young idlers make a journey to the room devoted to ladies and forbidden to smokers, looked long and deliberately in upon its loveliness, and then returned to the bosom of their taciturn companions. By chance I found them playing chess, but very rarely. They were all well-dressed, handsome men, with beards carefully cut, brilliant hats and boots, and conspicuously clean linen. I used to wonder who they were, to what order of society they belonged, and whether they, like my worthless self, had never any thing else but lounging at Florian's to do; but I really know none of these things to this day. Some men in Venice spend their noble, useful lives in this way, and it was the proud reply of a Venetian father, when asked of what profession his son was, "È in Piazza!" That was, he bore a cane, wore light gloves, and stared from Florian's windows at the ladies who went by.

'At the Caffè Quadri, immediately across the Piazza, there was a scene of equal hopefulness. But there, all was a glitter of uniforms, and the idling was carried on with a great noise of conversation in Austrian- German. Heaven knows what it was all about, but I presume the talk was upon topics of mutual improvement, calculated to advance the interests of self-government and mankind. These officers were very comely, intelligent- looking people with the most good-natured faces. They came and went restlessly, sitting down and knocking their steel scabbards against the tables, or rising and straddling off with their long swords kicking against their legs ...

'Further up toward the Fabbrica Nuova (as the Imperial Palace is called), under the Procuratie Vecchie, is the Caffè Specchi, frequented only by young Italians, of an order less wealthy than those who go to Florian's. Across from this caffè is that of the Emperor of Austria, resorted to chiefly by non-commissioned officers, and civilian officials of lower grade. You know the latter, at a glance, by their beard, which in Venice is an index to every man's politics: no Austriacante wears the imperial, no Italianissimo shaves it. Next is the Caffè Suttil, rather Austrian, and frequented by Italian codini, or old fogies, in politics: gray old fellows, who caress their sticks with more constant zeal than even the elders at Florian's.'


I don’t always go to Florian to do my work, but as usual I’ve just slipped some Florianisti into my current book. I usually ‘use’ the Sala del Senato, but today I’ll be patronizing the Sala Orientale, because I’m writing a little scene set there. It’s going quite well, but I might need a second cup of that hot chocolate, don’t you think? Waiter!

I wonder if other History Girls or Dear Readers have researched historical coffee shops for their novels? If so, do tell.


Michelle Lovric’s website
Enrico Dandolo, of the Sala degli Uomini Illustri, features as a character in her Venetian adventure for children, The Undrowned Child. Florianisti Byron and Casanova are characters in Carnevale. Minguillo, the villain of The Book of Human Skin, also hangs out there. The anthology that contains the full version of Antonio Sforza’s chocaholic poem is Venice – Tales of the City.

Some History Girls are listing their current reading at the end of their posts.The following may give a clue as to the contents of the aforementioned fat manuscript:
Rebecca Baillie et al, Braided Together, Hair in the Work of Contemporary Women ArtistsAnthony Butler, The Book of Blarney
Glenn Hooper, ed, The Tourist’s Gaze, Travellers to Ireland 1800 – 2000
Colin Clair, Human Curiosities
Alfred Perceval Graves, ed, The Irish Fairy Book

9 comments:

catdownunder said...

Not a cafe as such but an "icecream parlour" in the notorious "Hindley Street" in Adelaide. Sadly it closed and the building demolished but it was rumoured to have a very dubious Mafia history. The reality was that it was owned by an Italian family who had migrated early last century in order to get away from the Mafia!

Linda B-A said...

I can picture it all... and I wish I could smell it, too! In terms of historical coffee houses, I was planning a scene, in 'The Tar Man' where an eighteen-century character needed to discover what was happening in Revolutionary France. The location had to be somewhere in the vicinity of St Paul's Cathedral. I had great fun tracking down just the right one - the London coffee houses, like any grouping of people, soon developed a particular 'character'. The Chapter Coffeehouse, in Paul's Alley, attracted writers and publishers and thinkers. There certainly would have been talk, in the early 1790s, about Thomas Paine's bestseller, 'The Rights of Man', and the likelihood of a revolution starting up in England, though whether you could drink hot chocolate there, as well as coffee, I don't know...

Ness Harbour said...

I am just going to have to find my way to this place and sup some hot chocolate. Your piece is so evocative. I just loved it.
For my novel I sat outside little cafes in Caen. I watched the people go by and drank tiny cups of espresso. It was delightful

Stroppy Author said...

I wrote a lot of my Venetian novel in Florian's (in the Sala del Senato) and a good deal in the first cafe on the right of Zanipolo. But the hot chocolate is too rich for me! Cafe Venexiana...

Your post is so evocative - really took me back there. Sigh.

Penny Dolan said...

Wished I had a mug of hot chocolate before me while I read, not the tepid dregs of Earl Grey. Such a deliciously vivid post, Michelle!

H.M. Castor said...

I love this post - so evocative! Drinking coffee as I read it, and I really feel I'm there... delicious!

Book Maven said...

I am much in need of a comforting cup of Florian's hot chocolate this morning, though I certainly couldn't manage two!

And of course in Bellezza it was started by Fiorentino Rossi, one of Rodolfo's older brothers.

Thanks for that nice bit of time and space travel.

adele said...

Heavenly treat! Wish I were there too! Thanks for v. interesting post.

michelle lovric said...

thank you all for the nice comments. Wouldn't it be lovely if there was a writers' and thinkers' cafe in London now where History Girls and and HG Homies could meet up to discuss 'The Rights of Man'? And walk in, knowing that there would be interesting people scribbling interesting things? And I don't mean one of the chains of coffee shops, which could never be equal to it, and I don't mean the dismal, dark, expensive, gelid cafes at the British Library. Or even the bright, modern space Wellcome. Perhaps the internet is now the writers' coffeeshop? If so, we've lost something, and not just the coffee.