Edith Wharton, in her book of travel essays, Italian Backgrounds, reminds us that 19th-century Venice had no galleries or museums. Travelers did not go there to see pictures or buy marble statues or look at ruins, but to have an amusing time. Especially at Carnevale, it must have been a great relief to those hardworking seekers of culture on the Grand Tour to find themselves in a ravishing city where pleasure was their sole purpose. I think of this whenever I am in Venice, especially after a long, hot day of Tiepolos and Titians, when I stop for a restorative granita at Florian’s. My own particular immersion in delight begins with Henry James.
In The Aspern Papers, published in 1888 and one of several stories that James set in Venice, he retells some gossip he had heard about Claire Clairmont, half sister to Mary Shelley and mother of Byron’s daughter, Allegra. Clairmont reportedly possessed some letters from Byron and Shelley that an American had plotted to obtain by promising to marry her niece. In James’s story, Byron and Shelley are transformed into the American poet Jeffrey Aspern; Clairmont becomes an aged American woman living in the desolate Ca’ Capello, near the church of the Scalzi. The narrator, a researcher who has learned of the letters, takes rooms in the palazzo and seduces Miss Tina, the old woman’s shy spinster niece, in order to get the papers.
“I sat in front of Florian’s café eating ices,” says James’s narrator, “listening to music, talking with acquaintances: The traveler will remember how the immense cluster of tables and little chairs stretches like a promontory into the smooth lake of the Piazza. The whole place, of a summer’s evening, under the stars and with all the lamps, all the voices and light footsteps on marble…is like an open-air saloon dedicated to cooling drinks and to a still finer degustation, that of the exquisite impressions received during the day.” Pleasure indeed.
The Short List
A Stopover in Venice, Kathryn Walker: A young woman, recently estranged from her husband, discovers a mysterious 16th-century mural.
Secret Gardens of Venice, Cristiana Moldi-Ravenna: A revelation of elegant gardens hidden in a world of water.
Palaces in the Night: Whistler in Venice, Margaret F. MacDonald: An investigation of Whistler’s time in Venice—only two of his oil paintings of the city have ever been found.
Venice Observed, Mary McCarthy: Smart, wry and informative.
Memoirs, Giacomo Casanova: A sophisticated picaresque.
Lucia: A Venetian Life in the Age of Napoleon, Andrea di Robilant: Like the author’s previous book, A Venetian Affair, Lucia is witty and intelligent.