Proust in Venice

Marcel Proust visited Venice in the Spring of 1900, continuing his travels in the footsteps of John Ruskin.

The best, most concise and wittiest summary of A Le Reherche Du Temps Perdu is (surely!) ‘Marcel devient ecrivain’ [Marcel becomes a writer] by Gérard Genette in Figures III.

Reading Ruskin was one of the key stepping stones in Proust finding his voice as a writer, and his time in Venice, journeying in ‘homage’ of Ruskin, is duly mined for use in In Search of Lost Time:

'My mother had brought me for a few weeks to Venice and — as there may be beauty in the most precious as well as in the humblest things — I was receiving there impressions analogous to those which I had felt so often in the past at Combray, but transposed into a wholly different and far richer key.'
(Albertine Disparue, Chapter 3)

As the train crossed the plain of Lombardy, Mme Proust had read aloud from the opening section of Ruskin’s Stones of Venice:

'… When first upon the traveller’s sight opened the long ranges of columned palaces, - each with its black boat moored at the portal, - each with its image cast down, beneath its feet, upon that green pavement which every breeze broke into new fantasies of rich tessellation … Well might it seem that such a city had owed her existence rather to the rod of the enchanter, than the fear of the fugitive; that the waters which encircled her had been chosen for the mirror of her state, rather than the shelter of her nakedness; and that all which in nature was wild or merciless, - Time and Decay, as well as the waves and tempests, - had been won to adorn her instead of to destroy, and might still spare, for ages to come, that beauty which seemed to have fixed for its throne the sands of the hour-glass as well as of the sea.'

Although at first sight disappointed in the façade of St Mark’s – that it didn’t live up to Ruskin’s description ‘because we cannot see things at once through the eyes of the body and the eyes of the mind’ – it was not long before the two merged and some years later, in a letter to Mme Straus, Proust wrote:

'When I went to Venice I found that my dream had become – incredibly, but quite simply – my address!’

Proust, as might be expected, stayed at the very best hotel, the Danieli, where Ruskin had also stayed.

The Danieli

Charles Dickens, Goethe, Balzac, Richard Wagner and Truman Capote, amongst many others, have also stayed at the Danieli; Aristotle Onassis and Maria Callas first met here at a party held in her honour. For Salman Rushdie “I think it is the nicest hotel I have ever been in.” The Danieli is also where, in Room 10, the notorious love affair between George Sand and Alfred de Musset played out in 1834.

In the mornings Proust set out from the Danieli by gondola, in company with Reynaldo Hahn and Marie Nordlinger, visiting all the churches described by Ruskin, and in the afternoons and evenings visited Caffe Florian and Quadri, the magnificent cafés on opposite sides of St Mark’s Square, where he worked with Marie Nordlinger on his translation of Ruskin’s The Bible of Amiens

'We returned up the Grand Canal in our gondola, we watched the double line of palaces between which we passed reflect the light and angle of the sun upon their rosy surfaces, and alter with them, seeming not so much private habitations and historic buildings as a chain of marble cliffs at the foot of which people go out in the evening in a boat to watch the sunset.'
(Albertine Disparue, Chapter 3)

A labyrinth of alleys

Proust captures the typical experience of the new visitor to the city getting lost amidst the maze of narrow alleyways that thread the way between piazzas:

'It was one of those architectural wholes towards which, in any other town, the streets converge, lead you and point the way. Here it seemed to be deliberately concealed in a labyrinth of alleys, like those palaces in oriental tales to which mysterious agents convey by night a person who, taken home again before daybreak, can never again find his way back to the magic dwelling which he ends by supposing that he visited only in a dream.'

It is likely the argument with his mother (as occurs in Albertine Disparue) actually happened, because such an argument is also recounted in Contre Sainte Beuve.

Whether he left with his mother (or not, as threatened) is uncertain, but in October Proust returned alone, and on 19 October 1900 signed the visitors’ book of the Armenian monastery on the island of San Lorenzo.

Proust probably visited San Lorenzo because Ruskin had particularly praised the view of Venice from San Lorenzo in a letter of may 1859 to Charles Eliot Norton, quoted by Norton in the preface to the Brantwood edition of Stones of Venice: Traveler’s edition (1891) New York.

Of this second trip, nothing else is known.

“My dear, you think me dead, forgive me, I am quite alive, should like to see you, talk about marriage, when do you return? Love. Albertine.”

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