I’d been asked to prepare information on how a British visitor/expatriate in Venice would have found the city in those final months of peace. The closest to that time that I had written was 1901, the period of my children’s novel, The Mourning Emporium.
I’ve said before that there are many Venices – one for each epoch of her history. While her built environment has not changed drastically since the sixteenth century, each of her walls holds successive layers of history, as a tree’s rings express its age.
So Venice in 1913 was a whole new place for me to explore.
I was surprised to find quite how many well-known Britons were living on the Grand Canal in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Indeed some of their most English of names had become attached to the sonorous roll call of palazzo titles. This is not to say that coming to Venice was like coming home for the British traveller, but there was much here that resonated with British notions of Empire, Literature and Art. Venice was already imprinted on the traveller's mind via Byron, Browning, Wordsworth, Ruskin, Arthur Symons and many others.
In London, an image of la Serenissima had been etched into the imaginations of thousands who flocked to see the illuminated acquatic spectacular Venice, The Bride of the Sea, at Olympia.
On the eve of the Great War, Venice was still a romantic destination. 'Il turismo di massa' kept Venice on any European itinerary. The Futurists had recently staged a protest - denouncing the old- fashioned romantic view of Venice. In handbills launched in fluttering thousands from the clock tower in July 1910, Filippo Tommaso Marinetti urged the Venetians to raise themselves to Modernity. The first thing they had to do was 'murder the moonlight':
We repudiate the Venice of foreigners, a market for counterfeiting antiquarians, a magnet of snobbery and universal imbecility, a bed whose bottom has been staved in by caravans of lovers, the bejeweled hip-bath of cosmopolitan courtesans,the cloaca maxima of passéism.
We want to cure and heal this putrefying city, this magnificent sore from the past. We want to reanimate and ennoble the Venetian people, fallen from their ancient grandeur, drugged by the morphine of nauseating cowardice and debased by the habit of shady business.
We want to prepare the birth of an industrial and military Venice that can dominate the Adriatic Sea, that great Italian lake.
Let us hasten to fill in its little reeking canals with the ruins from its leprous and crumbling palaces.
Let us burn the gondolas, rocking chairs for cretins, and raise to the heavens the imposing geometry of metal bridges and factories plumed with smoke, to abolish the cascading curves of the old architecture.
It was a masterpiece of oratory, but loving couples were not going to be denied their gondolas, their kisses on bridges, their cascading curves and their moonlit adventures.
Meanwhile there were signs of a different kind of doom approaching. Indeed Italy herself had been at war with Turkey over Libya between 1911 and 1912. It was the Italians who had pioneered the idea of aerial bombardment: there was no reason to expect that the Austro-Hungarian airforce would spare Venice, Italy's main naval base in the Adriatic. Even before the advent of aeroplanes, Austrians had not scrupled to bombard Venice with canon balls during revolution and siege of 1848-9.
So those travellers arriving in 1913 might have been among the last to see San Marco's basilica in its glory. Soon the portals would be walled up with sandbags and the four famous horses packed up and sent to Rome for safekeeping.
Le Petit journal, September 21, 1913, showed a dramatic picture of a 'charmant jeune fille' struck by lightning during an outdoor ball in Venice:C'était au Lido, lieu de plaisir recherché pour ses fêtes et où l'on dansait avec l'ardeurs et la fougue particulières à ces bals vénitiens. Soudain, un orage éclate, brusque, rapide, et un éclair zèbre le jardin où les danseurs allaient interrompre leur valse : la foudre tombe et frappe une charmante jeune fille qui s'affaisse, foudroyée, sur la poitrine de son danseur. Celui-ci n'éprouva qu'une sorte secousse et laissa glisser le corps de la jeune fille, morte sans un cri sans un geste.
|photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons|
In that year, the railway itself was still a relative newcomer in an antique city. The 222 arches of the railway bridge over the lagoon were built by Venice’s Austrian occupiers between 1842. The station opened 1846. (The current building dates from 1955).
For many, the railway represented a kind of psychological unseaming of Venice, a triumph of Teutonic efficiency over romantic isolation. She had been a virgin city, unbreached by any enemy invasion for 1400 years. (Napoleon was permitted to stroll in, by negotiation).
I don’t think it is surprising that two years after the railway opened the Venetians rose up in revolt against the Austrians, who besieged and bombarded the city for sixteen months, and were thereby forced to destroy parts of their own bridge. Below is Vittorio Emanuele Bressanin's painting of the Austrians bombarding the railway bridge, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
|Ruskin in 1843 - before the Railway.|
Photogravure of lost watercolour
after George Richmond.
In The Stones of Venice, Volume I, Ch. Xxx. Ruskin approaches Venice gondola hired in Mestre: he does not hold back his feelings. He's ever the master of the devastating short sentence, strategically placed.
The silver beak cleaves [the water] fast; it widens: the rank grass of the banks sinks lower, and lower, and at last dies in tawny knots along an expanse of weedy short. Over it, on the right, but a few years back, we might have seen the lagoon stretching to the horizon, and the warm southern sky bending over Malamocco to the sea. Now we can see nothing but what seems a low and monotonous dockyard wall, with flat arches to let the tide through it; this is the railroad bridge, conspicuous above all things. But at the end of those dismal arches there rises, out of the wide water, a straggling line of low and confused buildings, which, but for the many towers which are mingled among them, might be the suburbs of an English manufacturing town. Four of five domes, pale, and apparently at a greater distance, rise over the centre of the line; but the object which first catches the eye is a sullen cloud of black smoke brooding over the northern half of it, and which issues from the belfry of a church.
It is Venice.
Indeed the British train traveller would have arrived in a part of Venice already devastated by Napoleon, who had suppressed the convent and church of Corpus Domini, the original church of Santa Lucia and other buildings here in his cull of Venetian churches between 1806 and 1810. here is how the area around the station looked in 1650 when Matthaeus Merian drew his map.
One of the few to survive Napoleon is 17th century Church of Santa Maria di Nazaret, which served the Barefoot Carmelite fathers, and is consequently known as the ‘Scalzi’. It was not yet finished when Merian recorded the area. In fact the friars were permitted sandals, but not socks, a cruel enough penance in Venice’s sharp winters. Ludovico Manin, Venice’s last Doge, is buried here and British tourists might have wanted to see his grave and shake their heads over the so-called ‘leggenda nera’ – that Venice deserved the fall of her thousand-year-old Republic because the Venetians themselves partied it to death in one last century of decadence. Those British tourists would be among the last to see the Scalzi’s glorious ceiling frescoed by Giambattista Tiepolo with the story of the translation of the house of Nazareth.
On October 24th, 1915, a full moon guided a squadron of Austrian planes into Venice. They circled for two terrifying hours before releasing their bombs. The intended target was the railway station, but it was the Scalzi church that took the punishment. A chilling photograph of the damage can be seen here. The new ceiling is a work on canvas by Hector Tito (1859-1941).
The Bridge of the Scalzi already existed in 1913, but not in the sterile curve of marble we see today. That bridge dates only as far back as 1934, so our tourists would have seen an iron construction dating from 1858 – 60, by Alfred Neville, a British engineer, who was also the author of a flat iron bridge at the Accademia. It is thought that this bridge too was in the sights of the Austrian bombers. It was the Scalzi's misfortune to be exactly in between the bridge and the railway station.
But arriving at the station back in 1913, the traveller would emerge blinking into a scene straight out of a Canaletto painting, but not nearly as serene or silent. The air would have rung with the importuning of the gondoliers, the facchini (porters) and gransieri (the men who hooked the boats and held them steady). There would have been a few motor boats, a couple of omnibus boats, and the steam ferries still known vaporetti, which started in 1881.
|old style vaporetto with gondola|
Augustus Hare, another writer of the pre-war period, claimed that two sets of people ought always to live in Venice: those who have heart complaints and those who are afraid of horses; the peaceful floating gondola life would be so suited to them
Whether heart-sufferers or equinophobics, I am fairly sure that my visitors to Venice in 1913 would have been readers. The long journey through the Alps and across the plains of the Veneto would have given them plenty of time to catch up with their reading.
So, crammed in their valises, would have been the Venetian poems of Byron and Browning. They would have Augustus Hare’s jaunty little travel guide ; also, if they were lucky, William Dean Howells’s splendid Venetian Life. The more learned would have read the readable parts of John Ruskin’s Stones of Venice. They might have read the Wilkie Collins story, 'The Haunted Hotel'. They would have been titillated by Henry James’ Venetian novels, The Aspern Papers (1888) and The Wings of a Dove (1902).
But if they arrived in October 1913, the British tourists would have heard about the redoubtable writer’s somewhat shabby death, which took place in Palazzo Marcello, not far from the station and on the same side of the canal: just to the right of the Vendramin Calergi palazzo where Wagner had died in 1883, his body bundled into a gondola by night and taken to the station for its final journey to Bayreuth.
|Palazzo Vendramin Calergi left and Palazzo Marcello at right|
He was a writer, a painter, an active practitioner of ‘Greek Love’, a photographer, a mild pornographer, but above all possibly the most ungrateful spongers who ever lived, who wound his way like a tapeworm into the heart of anyone who befriended him and then harassed them with toxic letters demanding cash, sometimes signed 'Your Faithful Enemy'. As he told one of these generous enemies, in Venice Rolfe was principally engaged in dying as slowly and publically and annoyingly as possible. For several years he lived pretty much on fury and paranoia alone. He was reduced to starving, to living on a boat, where he believed that the crabs and rats would eat him alive. But in fact he died in the Palazzo Marcello, apparently of a heart attack that came on while he was removing his boots. Such an unromantic end would have infuriated him. He is buried on the cemetery island of San Michele.
|Frederick Rolfe dressed up as a priest in 1886|
photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Nothing could save the expatriate British in Venice from Crabbe’s/Corvo’s vicious pen, however. Many of them are mercilessly parodied in the book.
In 1913, as now, the British tourists would not have had to wait long for retail opportunities in Venice. A large number of palazzi on the grand canal were antique shops at that point … selling off Venice’s heritage bit by bit, partly as a result of awful restorations that were more like pillaging. Frescoes and mouldings were literally scraped off the walls.
The Fondaco dei Turchi is where the cultured British tourist would have gone for a little light history. Between 1890 and 1920, this old Turkish foundation housed the core of the city’s museum, the Correr collections. Painfully cultured tourists would also go to shake their heads knowingly and complain about the place. One of the great scandals of the late 19th century was the brutal over-restoration of the fondaco, ‘overpristinated’ as the Venetians put it, between 1860 and 80.
E.V. Lucas found the museum a dismal duty: 'It is necessary to visit the collections preserved here, but I cannot promise any feelings of exultation among them. …Since none of the exhibits have descriptive labels (not even the pictures), and since the only custodians are apparently retired and utterly dejected gondoliers, the visitor's spirits steadily fall.'
At left, the 18th century Ca’ Gussoni-Grimani-della Vida, near San Felice, can be distinguished by its stripy stemma. British historian and famous Venice obsessive Rawdon Brown had been its proprietor – having ruined himself by trying to restore the haunted Ca’ Dario further up the canal. He had bought the Dario for £480 in 1838, and then moved to Palazzo Businello and finally ended up the Gussoni in 1852, where he stayed till he died in 1883. His life work was the Calendar of State Papers and Manuscripts, ambassadorial correspondence, edited diaries of Marin Sanudo. The rest of the time he applied himself as a diligent 'fixer' for the expat community, finding them palaces to buy or rent and facilitating introductions to the good and great. In fact Venice of the 19th and early twentieth centuries was dominated by two gentlemen called Brown. Horatio Brown (no relation to Rawdon) was to take over much of his research and social function.
|Ca' Pesaro in 1900 from Brooklyn Museum Archives, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons|
At left, at the turning into Apostoli canal is a palace called Smith, or, to be precise, the Ca’ Balbi Smith Mangilli Valmarana. In this palazzo lived the British reason that Venice was drained of Canalettos. To this day, scandalously, there are only two Canaletto paintings left in the city, both at Ca’ Rezzonico. Consul Joseph Smith, friend of Casanova, died here in 1770, having extensively remodelled the place to suit his personal grandeur. In his time, Joseph Smith’s palazzo had been an essential place to visit on any British Grand Tour. He was a wheeler art dealer, and agented for Canaletto, even bringing him to London in 1746 for ten years.
courtyard and the balconies that looked over it. The stairway was reconstructed in the early 20th century.
The Rialto was the first bridge in Venice and the only one for centuries. Originally a pontoon in the 12th century, then a wooden bridge in 1255, it was burned by Baiamonte Tiepolo in the 1310 conspiracy that led to the creation of the Council of Ten. The next one collapsed under excited wedding crowds in 1444 and another one in 1524. Eventually a stone bridge built in 1591. Below is watercolour of it by Maurice Prendergast, painted in 1911 or 1912, and capturing all its pre-war gaiety.
|painting courtesy of Wikimedia Commons|
I always think of William Beckford here, a notable 18th century English eccentric who wrote the comic gothic masterpiece, Vathek, which was Byron’s favourite book. Contains a cannibal queen and a monstrous camel called Alboufaki. Cultivated readers would have been familiar with William Beckford’s Dreams, Waking Thoughts, and Incidents, with its descriptions of languid noblemen arriving here at the market at dawn, in their black robes, after a night of gambling and debauchery. They came to buy grapes to refresh their jaded palates before going home to mourn their losses and sleep the whole day.
|Henry Layard courtesy|
of Wikimedia Commons
The house was nicknamed ‘The Refrigerator’ because Lady Enid insisted on such frigid formality in everything. Even her picnics on the Lido were served in six courses by white-gloved servants. For 51 years, Lady Enid wrote regularly in her journal. Her 8000 page diary includes over 14,000 entries. The Venetian chapters are littered with the names of all the most illustrious expatriates and foreign visitors of the time.
Henry Layard had helped revive the glass trade in Murano along with the Salviati family. But his big preoccupation was setting up the English church in Venice
He died in 1894. In November 1913, Lady Enid Layard was just one year dead. Up until the end, she was involved in charities including setting up the Cosmopolitan Hospital for English Sailors on Giudecca. She was one of many people who tried to help Baron Corvo. Characteristically, he repaid her by parodying her as Lady Pash in The Desire and Pursuit of the Whole.
here - price on request.). You’d also need a certain amount of self-confidence and daring to dress in the Delphos: it was designed to be worn without underwear. Proust was a great enthusiast of Fortuny’s sumptuous dresses, comparing them to musical harmonies. He must have seen them both in Paris and during his visits to Venice, where his itineraries followed those of his literary hero, John Ruskin. After the war, Fortuny would purchase as site on the island of Giudecca in Venice from Giancarlo Stucky, a close friend and owner of the wheat mill next door (now the Hilton Hotel). The new Fortuny factory occupied a space once occupied by yet another convent closed down by Napoleon.
|Ca' Viaro Martinengo Volpi|
On the left nearby we see the rather undistinguished Ca’ Benzon, salon of Marina Querini Benzon, where Byron was a frequent guest. She was a scandalous old woman, sometimes known as el Fumeto, the steamy one, because she would walk around with hot polenta between her breasts to keep warm. When Napoleon had subsumed Venice into his Regno Italia, she was in San Marco wearing an indecent Athenian petticoat slit to the thigh, dancing around the liberty tree and pyre on which they burned the Golden Book, the charter of all Venice’s noblemen. But her most memorable claim to fame was her alleged role as Lamberti’s heroine in the song ‘La Biondina in Gondola’, in which a man watches a woman seductively falling asleep.
Speaking of Byron, just a little further up on our left are the four Mocenigo palazzi. Byron came to live in one the middle pair in 1818 and stayed till 1819. For Byron’s exploits in Venice, see my earlier blog The Goes the Neighbourhood. Enough said.
Almost enough said. It behoves me to explain that Venice invented sexual tourism, and has always drawn the playboys of the western world. John Day described it as ‘the best flesh-shambles in Italy’. Thomas Coryat, the British traveller, deemed Venice in 1611 a city of 20,000 women so loose that they ‘opened their quivers to every arrow’. Her upper-class prostitutes were like geishas: educated and pampered. Some were kept by a club of noblemen, each having his own appointed evening. Others were honoured – Veronica Franco had her books of poetry and letters published. Even humbler prostitutes were treated with certain respect, as merchants of their own persons. Girl orphans had become one of the lucrative tourist spectacles of Venice, performing in choirs and orchestras.
The gondolas (described by one writer as ‘knowing swans’) used to have little enclosures – felze – for added privacy – all the better to facilitate a Venetian tradition of adultery that favoured the wives.
The professional whore
Is an over-used item,
But someone else’s wife
Is a private resource.
One of the least endearing things and strangest things about Byron – a compulsive dieter himself – was the fact that he could not stand to watch a woman eat. He also despised women writers: ‘Of all bitches alive or dead a scribbling woman is the most canine’. I suppose he never forgave Mary Shelley for trouncing him so comprehensively in the art of ghost stories during a wet summer at the Villa Diodati on the shores of Lake Geneva in 1816. Mary’s story would be published as Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus in 1818. Byron did, however, think well of Italian women in general. He thought they were the best kissers in the world, because they practised so often on religious icons.
At this point I am going to leave this tour of the Grand Canal, to be continued in my next History Girls blog. To come: Casanova, Browning's parrot Jacko, The Lady with the tame cheetahs and Cole Porter.
I have been distracted by a skype conversation with another History Girl in which we were arguing about which of our male characters would have been a desirable lover. As Byron, in my humble opinion, could not possibly have been, it is seemly to draw a veil at this point.
Michelle Lovric’s website
Great Continental Railway Journeys
The True & Splendid History of The Harristown Sisters will be published by Bloomsbury on June 5th 2014
Unattributed photos are by the author or her sister, Jenny Lovric. Venetian etchings and ephemera from the author's own collection.