Thursday 10 April 2014

Venice on the eve of World War One, part two - Michelle Lovric

Having left you cruelly dangling last month – wondering both which History Girl and which lovers were in play – I am now resuming my journey down the Grand Canal, inspired by research that I undertook for Michael Portillo’s Great Continental Railway Journeys television programme.

Ever cruel, I’m still not going to tell you which History Girl or which lover. Instead, I’ll I take you straight to Casanova-ville, the San Samuele stretch of the Grand Canal. Visible from the water at the left are the church of San Samuele and Ca’ Malipiero, both the settings for formative scenes in the  life of Giacomo Girolamo Casanova, including his birth in 1725 in a narrow alley behind the Malipiero palace. (In those days it was called the Calle delle Commedia).

plaque marking the birthplace of Giacomo Girolamo Casanova
Poor misunderstood Casanova, misrepresented as a Don Juan with no respect for the humanity or tenderness of women! On the contrary, Casanova adored women, body and soul. He believed a woman derived more pleasure from sex than a man, ‘because the feast is celebrated in her own house’, and declared that four-fifths of his own joy in sex was in the visible pleasure he gave. He even hoped that he might come back in another life as a woman. He loved the smell of a woman’s sweat, and he rejoiced in preparing sumptuous meals for his lovers. He wrote candidly of the sensual joy of exchanging oysters from mouth to mouth.

picture courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
A British visitor to Venice in 1913 might well have been aware of many such delicious details. Casanova’s memoirs, penned a century before, had been translated into English for the first time in 1894 and then again in 1902. Although somewhat censored at that stage, the twelve volume memoirs are not at all what might be expected. They constitute kind of Hello magazine for the 18th century, and are delightfully easy to read. In fact less than a third of the writing is devoted to his love life. Casanova was a scientist, an alchemist, a happy medical charlatan, a novelist and an autobiographer. He knew everyone and noticed everything from shoe buckles to salt cellars.

The picture at right was made by Casanova's brother, Francesco. It shows Casanova in his twenties.

I recorded some of the boy Casanova's San Samuele shenanigans in my earlier History Girls blog, There goes the neighbourhood.

Let us avert our eyes hastily from this scandalous behaviour and look right to Ca’ Rezzonico, an imposing structure started by Baldassare Longhena 1667 and finished by Massari in the 18th century.
Ca' Rezzonico, photo by Wolfgang Moroder, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Robert Browning
In the late 1880s, Ca’ Rezzonico became the home of Pen Browning, adored and over-coddled son of Robert and Elizabeth. Pen was by this time an undistinguished artist who had married an American heiress, Fanny Coddington. She eventually divorced him, after which the palace would be sold again.

Robert Browning had his own apartment in Ca’ Rezzonico. There he kept a parrot called Jacko who liked cake. Browning loved to feed pomegranates to the elephant at the Giardini Pubblici, often accompanied by his sister Sarianna. The pair used to go to walk or ride on the Lido in the afternoons. Pen was also an animal lover, who kept dogs and parrots and large snakes. (I’d have divorced him, too.)

Browning senior had first come to the city with his wife Elizabeth in 1851. Here is a picture of Elizabeth Barrett Browning and the young Pen, who also loved the city.

“I have been," she wrote, "between heaven and earth since our arrival at Venice. The heaven of it is ineffable. Never had I touched the skirts of so celestial a place.”

So it was perhaps fitting that her widower died in the city on December 12, 1889, after a cold swiftly turned nasty.

Robert Browning's funeral service held in Ca’ Rezzonico’s imposing portego with expatriate Venetian royalty in attendance: the Layards, Mrs Bronson, the Curtises. The poet had not be averse to giving readings and recitals of his works in their palazzi. And he had assisted in their campaign to set up an English church in Venice.

At this time, the American portrait painter John Singer Sargent also had a studio in the palazzo.

Later Cole Porter would rent Ca’ Rezzonico for 4000 dollars a month, engaging 50 gondoliers to act as footmen.

A few yards away from Ca' Rezzonico is a palace that always enchants visitors to Venice, seeming a perfect rosy little jewel of the Gothic. It is now a very pleasant hotel.

Palazzetto Stern, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
But Palazzetto Stern was quite new in 1913. Lady Enid Layard’s diary entry of 30 April 1912 records: ‘I went to the housewarming given by Mme Stern at the Palace she has just had built at S. Barnaba on the Grand Canal. It is in the Venetian gothic style & the exterior is not bad—but the interior is weird & resembles more a mosque than a dwelling house. In appears that she put the whole thing into the hands of a 2nd rate artist here Marnelta by name, a man who has evidently no idea of the wants of the life of a lady & he has therefore made domes & mosaics & put up pictures & statuettes & sheets of alabaster behind wh are electric lamps. The whole thing is one huge mistake & must be very uncomfortable to live in. Mme Stern who is an elderly lady with very good manners received her guests with great amiability & gave an excellent tea.

Renaissance and Gothic side by side.
The red shoes are gratuitous.
A little further along on the same side we see the semi-detached Ca’ Contarini degli Scrigni and the Ca’ Contarini Corfu. The family who lived here was so rich that it was thought that the palazzo was full of treasure chests (scrigni).

This was where a good Englishman would go to pray up until the late 19th century. In 1842, the Diocese of Gibraltar was established to provide visiting clergy for English-speaking communities in the Mediterranean. At the time of the unification of Italy, Rev. John Davies Mereweather, Cavaliere della Corona d’Italia, settled in Venice. He officiated at Anglican services in his apartment in Palazzo Contarini degli Scrigni for 33 years until 1887.

As explained in the previous blog, many of our Edwardians would be clutching their Ruskins, and would look upon these sibling palaces with well-informed eyes. Ruskin’s The Stones of Venice championed the earlier palace’s Gothic style over that of its Renaissance neighbour. Long story criminally short, he favoured the curlicued trefoiled Gothic because it mimicked the wild perfection of God's natural creation, exemplified in the acanthus leaf, whereas Renaissance architecture showed only the hard and pitiless perfection of human geometry. Also, the Gothic style gave dignity to its artisans, who might fashion individual beauties. To Ruskin, the builders of the Renaissance were anonymous toilers with no more creative contribution allowed than to the men who built the pyramids.

Turning to our left, we see the unusual liagi or towers of the Ca’ Falier Canossa. This was originally a Gothic structure, and the characteristic windows are visible at the inner layer of the facade. The two towers were added in the late 18th century, lending the palazzo an oriental feel, surprisingly similar to buildings as far away as Muscat. 
a building with liagi in Muscat Old Town. Picture by Hin-Yan Wong

As the stupendously young American consul to Venice, William Dean Howells was driven out of this, his honeymoon palace by a venal maid, Giovanna. He later wrote about her depredations in his bestselling book Venetian Life which also contains a memorable account of a slanging match between two gondoliers and stories of Venetian cats, dogs, puppets. It was everyone’s favourite book about Venice for decades, and rightfully so. It is still one of mine.

We are now in sight of the Accademia Bridge. The current curved wooden structure is from the 1933. Our Edwardian travellers would have seen a much less romantic, flat iron bridge constructed by the Scottish engineer Alfred Neville in 1854. He built it at his own expense, charging tolls. For a brief period there were two bridges, while the new one was under construction.

Today lovers weigh the structure down with padlocks that the authorities are kept busy snipping off. Perhaps the first lock was piquant or faintly amusing, but the practice has now become a hazardous visual cliché. And smokers perpetually set fire to the wooden bridge by dropping their smouldering cigarette butts. The city periodically launches competitions to design a new bridge, and has even offered to sell its name and extensive advertising rights to a sponsor for the project. Watch this space, but do not invest much hope in it.

At the foot of the bridge, travellers in 1913 might have found rest at the Albergo Universo, inside the Palazzo Brandolin Rota. Indeed, Robert Browning used to stay here with his sister in 1880 -1, before the grandeur of Ca’ Rezzonico was available to him.
Ca' Barbaro, second on the left, at night

Whistler by Ralph Curtis
Ca’ Barbaro at left after the Accademia Bridge, was the home of the most prominent Americans to settle in Venice in the late nineteenth century: Daniele and Ariana Curtis, who rented it from 1881, bought it in 1885. Their son Ralph was a painter. Their cat was called Caterina Cornaro, after the queen of Cyprus, who brought the island to Venice.

Ca’ Barbaro was a great gathering place for literary and high society, though the Curtises were stern judges. Violet Piaget (also known as Vernon Lee) was another interesting character who was part of the community. She fell out with the Curtis family over her story about the community in Venice.

The Barbaro circle included Bernard Berenson, Isabella Stewart Gardner,
Edith Wharton and Charles Eliot Norton and the painter Whistler. Here is Anders Zorn's 1894 painting of Isabella emerging through the drapery on one of those wondrous evenings of the gilded expat society in Venice. (Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons). Isabella would buy parts of Venetian palaces to set up her own Gothic-style museum in Boston.

Henry James in 1913
by John Singer Sargent
courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Henry James stayed here, principally in 1887, and wrote many letters from his Venetian ‘nest’. He finished my personal favourite of his novels, The Aspern Papers, while a guest of the Curtises.

The Wings of a Dove (1902) was partly set there, though not written there, as is frequently supposed. Palazzo Leporelli in the novel is Palazzo Barbaro, and parts of the 1997 film adaptation were made here.

John Singer Sargent, a relative of the Curtises, painted in Venice every autumn from 1902 to 13. He created an atmospheric portrait of the palace and his hosts in in 1898.

photo of Arianna and Daniele Curtis
in the drawing room of Ca' Barbaro,
courtesy of Wikipedia Commons

Later Harry Belafonte would perform at the Palazzo Barbaro, and more recently the Venetian scenes from the 1981 television adaptation of Brideshead Revisited were filmed here too.

Across the other side of the canal we see the pretty Ca’ Contarini Polignac.

At the beginning of the 20th century, it hosted the salon of  Princess Winnaretta de Polignac, a patron of the musical avant-garde in Europe. One can imagine the guests draped over the wonderful loggia and stairs on the left. Igor Stravinsky was among the guests here.

The Palazzo Balbi Valier Molin delle Trezze was the original home of Horatio Brown, an institution for educated British visitor. As mentioned in the previous blog, Horatio took over from Rawdon Brown as general fixer for British travellers Venice. He also took over from his namesake the historical research on the Calendar of State Papers and Manuscripts relating to English Affairs existing in the Archives of Venice and Northern Italy. Horatio Brown was an author in his own right of various interesting books about the city. My favourite is Life on the Lagoons, 1884, which explores the customs, folk tales, superstitions and mating practices of the Venetians.

Horatio Brown moved to Ca’ Torresella on the Zattere, where he lived till 1926 when he when died, apart from a temporary evacuation during WW1. Every Monday evening (so as not to clash with Lady Layard) he gave a salon there and British visitors armed with letters of introduction could meet all the great and good.

Perhaps it was because of Horatio Brown that Walter Sickert claimed that the Zattere smelled ‘of the British and the Church of England and of Ruskin.’

One of Horatio Brown’s great friends was the writer John Addington Symonds.

Both had close relationships with Venetian gondoliers. Horatio Brown’s was Antonio Salin; Symonds loved Angelo Fusato – described in his explicitly homoerotic memoirs that were not published till 1984. Horatio Brown, acting as his executor, had suppressed much unpublished material after Symonds' death.

At right we see the open square of San Vio and the English church of Saint George. Its stern walls give the clue that the building was originally secular.

More and more Anglo Saxons were coming to Venice … there was a steamer service from India and from USA, and the huge English tourist boom. By the early 20th century, there were around 200 people wanting an Anglican service in the city every Sunday. So, as previously mentioned, Horatio Brown, Robert Browning, Henry Layard and others collected funds to buy a mosaic and glass warehouse in San Vio that became the Church of Saint George in Venice in 1892. There's a window dedicated to Browning.

Helen, Countess of Radnor, lived in the Palazzo Morosini in San Vio, and was the choir mistress of Saint George. The chaplain from 1905 till 1912 was the Rev Canon Lonsdale Ragg.

Palazzo Barbarigo. Photo by Leandro Neumann Giuffo, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
At right, just past San Vio, we see Ca’ Barbarigo 16th century. It was fashionable to decry the mosaics (applied only in 1886) as seriously vulgar, but they continue to delight the tourists who know no better. It was for 50 years the 'town' home of Frederick and Caroline Eden, who owned the fabulous 'Garden of Eden' on Giudecca, to which they were rowed daily by gondola. Caroline Eden was the older sister the famous gardener Gertrude Jekyll.

The Edens also owned a private steam launch for excursion into the lagoon. Visitors to the Garden of Eden included Isadora Duncan, Gertrude Stein and Marcel Proust, who came to Venice when researching his hero, Ruskin, whom he was translating into French. He stayed in Venice from October to May of 1900.

Giovanni Boldini's portrait of Luisa Casati with
peacock feathers, from 1912
Luisa Casati in 1912
by Adolf de Meyer
Palazzo Venier dei Leoni – now better known as the Guggenheim Collection – was just a private palace on the Grand Canal in 1913. And it was at that time the home of Luisa Casati, Marquise Casati Stampa di Soncino (1881 –1957), who was one of Venice’s more colourful figures. She rather insisted on it, saying ‘I want to be a living work of art.’
Luisa Casati in 1912
by Alberto Martini

Among those who endorsed her artistry were Jean Cocteau, Cecil Beaton and her lover Gabriele D’Annunzio, who from 1914 lived just a gondola ride across the Grand Canal at the Casetta delle Rose.Luisa Casati was known for walking around with a pair of cheetahs on leashes. She wore living snakes as jewellery.

She moved into the palazzo in 1910, and immediately began a series of legendary soirées with artists, writers, fashion designers and musicians of the time. Naturally she was a patron of Fortuny, whose dresses were featured in part one of the blog. Forty years after her death, she was the inspiration for John Galliano’s 1998 summer collection for Christian Dior. Alexander McQueen revisited her style in his 2007 collection, as did Karl Lagerfield in 2009.

During her lifetime, artists were encouraged to paint Casati’s portrait or sculpt her likeness. Augustus John, among many others, obliged. In spite of her old money, and evident love of decadence, she was a muse to the Futurist Marinetti.

Luisa Casati in 1922
photographer unknown
She inspired characters in various films, including La Contessa (1965) in which she was played by Vivien Leigh, and A Matter of Time, when her role was taken by Ingrid Bergman. (All photos of Luisa Casati courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.)

Just a little further up on the left hand side we see the austere contours of the Hotel Gritti. Ruskin and his wife Effie stayed here in five rooms at eastern end of first floor, during 1851 -2 while he was researching the second and third volumes of The Stones of Venice. At the beginning of the twentieth century, the palace was converted into a hotel.

Later Somerset Maugham would write on its terrace, ‘Few things are equally wonderful as sitting here, while the sun goes down and immerses the Canal in bright colours.’

Hemingway also favoured this hotel, as would Winston Churchill, Graham Greene, and Orson Welles.

Virginia Woolf by
Geoge Charles Beresford,
courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
We are in the Honeymoon Hotel Mile. Palazzo Ferro Fini at left was once The Grand Hotel, where Virginia and Leonard Woolf spent part of their honeymoon in 1912 (the middle of her three visits). She found the noise and crush of Venice quite overwhelming.

The Hotel Europa Regina on the left was the site of George Elliot’s honeymoon in Venice, 1880. At 60 the writer had married John Cross, 20 years her junior, who jumped out of the hotel window. Much unfortunate hilarity has been expended on this incident which presumably resulted from intense private pain and probably illness.

Contarini Fasan
The pretty Contarini Fasan was one of Ruskin’s favourites. It is sometimes known
as Desdemona's palace.

Two palazzi up is the somewhat austere Ca’ Alvisi. It was the home of the redoubtable Mrs Katherine de Kay Bronson, American society hostess in Venice from the 1880s almost until her death in 1901, when it was inherited by her daughter, by then Countess Rucellai.

In her time Mrs Browning entertained Whistler, Browning, Sargeant and Henry James. Whistler wrote, 'Venice is only really known in all its fairy perfection to the privileged who may be permitted to gaze from Mrs Bronson's balcony'.

At right we see Ca’ Dario, a lurching 15th century structure, studded with lozenges of porphyry and serpentine. This building is famous as the most haunted house in Venice, the site of an unfair share of the city’s unexplained deaths and suicides. Rawdon Brown who lived there 1838- 42, was ruined by the restorations. But many people were fine there

In fact, Pen and Fanny Browning rented it while doing up the Rezzonico, and I have seen no untoward reports of their time there. The poet Henri Regnier also enjoyed his time there. Claude Monet made this painting of it in 1908, when a guest at Ca' Barbaro (of course). Painting courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. And Lady Enid Layard recorded that in May 1912 she went to visit the Bournes, a pleasant French family who had recently taken up residence at Ca' Dario.

A little further on the right we see Ca’ Semitecolo, a small 15th century Gothic palazzo with six arched windows opposite Giglio, left of Salviati’s mosaic-facaded town headquarters. The writer Constance Fenimore Woolson (photo right,courtesy of Wikimedia Commons) in 1894 occupied the top two floors of this building. She committed suicide there – jumping from her bedroom window onto the hard stones below. Her body was found by the gondolier Angelo Fusato. Encroaching deafness had brought depression. It is also thought she was hopelessly in love with Henry James, who was appointed one of her executors and was much traumatised by having to deal with her personal effects and her clothes after her death.

San Gregorio, visible from the Canal on the right, was an antique warehouse in 1913.

Finally, the pre-war traveller would pass the great white church of Santa Maria della Salute and come out into the bacino at the end of the canal, with the customs house, or Dogana. The scene would be very similar to today, apart from the Bagni Galleggianti – floating swimming baths with gaily striped awnings – that were anchored every summer off the tip of Dorsoduro. They were equipped with hot and cold, freshwater and saltwater showers, and fifty changing rooms. There were also ‘sirene’ – mermaids – which were specially adapted gondolas with metal cages underneath, so that ladies could bathe modestly and safely. Camillo Boito makes use of one of these boats for an amorous encounter between Raniero and Livia in his novel, Senso, of 1883. Having just downloaded a fascinating article about these structures, I see a translation and a whole blog about them coming on.

Overbearing, outsize cruise ships of today, not to mention the pollution they bring, make such a delightful installation impossible today. And more, for so many reasons, is the pity.

So this is where we leave the Grand Canal and our last wave of pre-war Grand Tourists.

I hope you’ve enjoyed the ride.

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.


Sue Purkiss said...

Have had a quick look at this, and it's fascinating - will come back to it and give it the time it deserves!

Leslie Wilson said...

Fascinating, and such a good read! I remember the Gothic hotel from the slide show we used to watch on the long winter evenings, from our family Tour of Europe when I was seven. We relived the journey, through the slides, over and over again, and so Venice stayed in my mind till I revisited it about forty-three years later. We went to Ca' Rezzonico then, and loved it. I wonder which was the palazzo that the grandmother of the Duc de Sauveterre, in THE PURSUIT OF LOVE, was given by one of her lovers? It was pink, I seem to remember.
Thank you for this mini-trip to Venice and into the past, Michelle.