Exploring Venice 


Venice has inspired writers through the ages, and many have been drawn to ‘this most improbable of cities,’ amongst them Ezra Pound, Ernest Hemingway, Robert Browning, Ruskin, Proust (in Ruskin’s footsteps) and Thomas Mann to name just a few.

Photo by Vittore Buzzi on Unsplash

Left: Ezra Pound.

In addition the city is the home town of Michael Dibdin's detective Aurelio Zen, and the adopted home of American crime writer Donna Leon, whose novels, featuring Commisario Guido Brunetti, are all set here. Visconti filmed 'Death in Venice' on the Lido, the location (and inspiration) for Mann's original novella.

The city has provided the backdrop to videos, such as Madonna's Like A Virgin and of course many movies, including one of my all-time favourite movies, Nicolas Roeg's exceptional Don't Look Now starring Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland.

venice, most improbable of cities

Arguably each of the cities described by Italo Calvino’s exquisite Invisible Cities ('Le Città Invisibili,' 1972) is a description of a different facet of this one city.

D.H. Lawrence visited, but did not fall in love with the city: In Lady Chatterley's Lover, he described it as the "holiday-place of all holiday-places." Today there are fewer native Venetians than ever (and more tourists than ever!), but the extravagantly beautiful and theatrical architecture is still there (at least for the time being).

The best immediate response to Venice was surely the telegram from the American humorist Robert Benchley to his editor at the New Yorker: "Streets full of water. Please advise."

Palazzo Barbaro and Henry James

Photograph of Henry James by prominent American photographer Alice Broughton, taken sometime before 1916.

The location with the most literary connections (except, perhaps, Caffé Florian on St Marks Square) is perhaps the Palazzo Barbaro - or, more correctly, the Palazzi Barbaro. These two adjoining palaces are located on the Grand Canal close to the Ponte dell'Accademia in the San Marco district.

Constructed in Venetian Gothic style in 1425, the palazzo was bought by Zaccaria Barbaro, Procurator of San Marco, in 1465 and extended by descendants of the family in 1694 in the baroque style. In 1881 the older palazzo was rented by Daniel Sargent Curtis, a relative of the American painter John Singer Sargent.

Daniel and Ariana Curtis subsequently bought the Palazzo in 1885 and for many years it became the hub of American and expatriate artistic life in the city. Their many visitors included Edith Wharton, Claude Monet, Robert Browning and Henry James, who finished The Aspern Papers at a desk which remains in the palace today.

Palazzo Barbaro also features as Palazzo Leporelli in Wings of the Dove, and in his account of Milly’s Party, James describes the ballroom at the Palalzzo, which he regarded as the finest example of a Venetian Baroque interior.

Palazzo Barbaro was used as the home of Lord Marchmain and his mistress Cara in Granada’s 1981 adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited. It was also used in the 1997 film adaptation of The Wings of the Dove, directed by Iain Softley and starring Helena Bonham Carter as Kate Croy.

The Palazzo is also discussed extensively in John Berendt's The City of Falling Angels (2005).

Image of Palazzo Barbaro courtesy Moroder Archives, wikimedia.

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