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Venice in the 1860s, from Venetian Life by W. D. Howells




Old Venice

Venice Art

Venice Prints



First view of Venice

St. Mark's Square

The Caffé life

Outdoor lifestyle in Venice

Springtime in Venice

Venetian campi

The Beauty of Venice

Tempers of gondoliers and Italians




William Dean Howells, a prominent American writer until his death in 1920, lived with his newlywed wife in Venice from 1861 to 1865 where he filled the post of U. S. Consul in Venice under President Lincoln. 

Comments on he and his newlywed wife's first view of Venice, when arriving early one still dark morning, and a gondola transports them over the dark canals to their hotel.

For I think there can be nothing else in the world so full of glittering and exquisite surprise, as that first glimpse of Venice which the traveler catches as he issues from the railway station by night, and looks upon her peerless strangeness. ...

Then on either hand I saw stately palaces rise gray and lofty from the dark waters, holding here and there a lamp against their faces, which brought balconies, and columns, and carven arches into momentary relief, and threw long streams of crimson into the canal.

I could see by that uncertain glimmer how fair was all, but not how sad and old; and so, unhaunted by any pang for the decay that afterward saddened me amid the forlorn beauty of Venice, I glided on. ...

Dark, funereal barges like my own had flitted by, and the gondoliers had warned each other at every turning with hoarse, lugubrious cries; the lines of balconied palaces had never ended;--here and there at their doors larger craft were moored, with dim figures of men moving uncertainly about on them. 

At last we had passed abruptly out of the Grand Canal into one of the smaller channels, and from comparative light into a darkness only remotely affected by some far-streaming corner lamp. But always the pallid, stately palaces; always the dark heaven with its trembling stars above, and the dark water with its trembling stars below; but now innumerable bridges, and an utter lonesomeness, and ceaseless sudden turns and windings.

Comments on St. Mark's Square in the heart of Venice

The Place of St. Mark is the heart of Venice, and from this beats her life in every direction through an intricate system of streets and canals that bring it back again to the same centre. 

So, if the slightest uneasiness had attended the frequency with which I lost my way in the city at first, there would always have been this comfort: that the place was very small in actual extent, and that if I continued walking I must reach the Piazza sooner or later. 

There is a crowd constantly tending to and from it, and you have but to take this tide, and be drifted to St. Mark's--or to the Rialto Bridge, whence it is directly accessible.  Of all the open spaces in the city, that before the Church of St. Mark alone bears the name of Piazza, and the rest are called merely _campi_, or fields.

Describing the Caffé Life around St. Mark's

By all odds, the loungers at Florian's were the most interesting, because they were the most various. People of all shades of politics met in the dainty little saloons, though there were shades of division even there, and they did not mingle. 

The Italians carefully assorted themselves in a room furnished with green velvet, and the Austrians (ed. Venice was under Austrian control at this time, to the great frustration of the national-unity-minded Italians) and the Austriacanti (ed. those who favored Austrian tutelage) 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 (ed. walking 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, "E in Piazza!" That was, he bore a cane, wore light gloves, and stared from Florian's windows at the ladies who went by.

Comments on the outdoor Italian lifestyle in Venice

We say, in a cheap and careless way, that the southern peoples have no homes.  But this is true only in a restricted sense, for the Italian, and the Venetian especially, makes the whole city his home in pleasant weather.  

No one remains under a roof who can help it; and now, as I said before, the fascinating out-door life begins. All day long the people sit and drink coffee and eat ices and gossip together before the Caffé, and the soft midnight sees the same diligent idlers in their places. 

The promenade is at all seasons the favorite Italian amusement; it has its rigidly fixed hours, and its limits are also fixed: but now, in spring, even the promenade is a little lawless....

Comments on Springtime in Venice

"E la stagion che ognuno s'innamora;" (ed. It is the season in which everyone falls in love.) and now young girls steal to their balconies, and linger there for hours, subtly conscious of the young men sauntering to and fro, and looking up at them from beneath. 

Now, in the shady little courts, the Venetian housewives, who must perforce remain indoors, put out their heads and gossip from window to window; while the pretty water-carriers, filling their buckets from the wells below, chatter and laugh at their work. 

Every street down which you look is likewise vocal with gossip; and if the picturesque projection of balconies, shutters, and chimneys, of which the vista is full, hide the heads of the gossipers, be sure there is a face looking out of every window for all that, and the social, expansive presence of the season is felt there.

Comments on the Venetian Campi (small squares)

Each campo in Venice is a little city, self-contained and independent. Each has its church, of which it was in the earliest times the burial-ground; and each within its limits compasses an apothecary's shop, a mercer's and draper's shop, a blacksmith's and shoemaker's shop, a Caffé more or less brilliant, a green-grocer's and fruiterer's, a family grocery--nay, there is also a second-hand merchant's shop where you buy and sell every kind of worn-out thing at the lowest rates. Of course there is a coppersmith's and a watchmaker's, and pretty certainly a wood-carver's and gilder's, while without a barber's shop no campo could preserve its integrity or inform itself of the social and political news of the day.

Comments on the beauty of Venice

And if, living constantly in Venice, you sometimes for a little while forget how marvelous she is, at any moment you may be startled into vivid remembrance.  The cunning city beguiles you street by street, and step by step, into some old court, where a flight of marble stairs leads high up to the pillared gallery of an empty palace, with a climbing vine green and purple on its old decay, and one or two gaunt trees stretching their heads to look into the lofty windows,--blind long ago to their leafy tenderness,--while at their feet is some sumptuously carven well, with the beauty of the sculptor's soul wrought forever into the stone.  Or Venice lures you in a gondola into one of her remote canals, where you glide through an avenue as secret and as still as if sea-deep under our work-day world; where the grim heads carven over the water-gates of the palaces stare at you in austere surprise....

Comments on the tempers of Venice's gondoliers, and Italians in general morning we were roused from our breakfast by a wild and lamentable outcry.  Two large boats, attempting to enter the small canal opposite at the same time, had struck together with a violence that shook the boatmen to their inmost souls.

One barge was laden with lime, and belonged to a plasterer of the city; the other was full of fuel, and commanded by a virulent rustic. These rival captains advanced toward the bows of their boats, with murderous looks, and there stamped furiously, and beat the wind with hands of deathful challenge, while I looked on with that noble interest which the enlightened mind always feels in people about to punch each other's heads.  But the storm burst in words.

"Figure of a pig!" shrieked the Venetian, "you have ruined my boat forever!"

"Thou liest, son of an ugly old dog!" returned the countryman, "and it was my right to enter the canal first."

They then, after this exchange of insult, abandoned the main subject of dispute, and took up the quarrel laterally and in detail.  Reciprocally questioning the reputation of all their female relatives to the third and fourth cousins, they defied each other as the offspring of assassins and prostitutes.

As the peace-making tide gradually drifted their boats asunder, their anger rose, and they danced back and forth and hurled opprobrium with a foamy volubility that quite left my powers of comprehension behind.  At last the townsman, executing a pas seul of uncommon violence, stooped and picked up a bit of lime, while the countryman, taking shelter at the stern of his boat, there attended the shot.

To my infinite disappointment it was not fired.  The Venetian seemed to have touched the climax of his passion in the mere demonstration of hostility, and gently gathering up his oar gave the countryman the right of way.  The courage of the latter rose as the danger passed, and as far as he could be heard, he continued to exult in the wildest excesses of insult:  "Ah-heigh! brutal executioner!  Ah, hideous headsman!" Da capo.

I now know that these people never intended to do more than quarrel, and no doubt they parted as well pleased as if they had actually carried broken heads from the encounter.  But at the time I felt affronted and trifled with by the result, for my disappointments arising out of the dramatic manner of the Italians had not yet been frequent enough to teach me to expect nothing from it.

More excepts from Venetian Life by W. D. Howells on:

Italian theatre in the 1860s in Venice

Italian food in Venice in the 1860s and new-fangled restaurants

More on W. D. Howells at the William Dean Howells Society site.


My list of books by and/or about William Dean Howells

available at