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Venice is a treasure trove of literary secrets. Several years ago my father found a packet of encoded letters in the attic of the palazzo where he had grown up. They revealed a powerful 18th-century love story between my ancestor Andrea Memmo and a spirited Anglo-Venetian beauty named Giustiniana Wynne. Because of those letters I came to Venice to write a book, which became A Venetian Affair (2003). I’d planned to stay a year but never left. I discovered that literature is everywhere in this city—in the ancient libraries, like the Biblioteca Marciana off St. Mark’s Square; in the bulging archives of old Venetian families; in the houses and palaces, the cheap dives, and the fancy hotels where famous writers lived; even in cafés and restaurants and bars. There is always a discovery to be made. While doing research at the old Church of the Frari, I found my great-great-great-great grandmother Lucia Memmo Mocenigo’s Paris diary of Napoléon’s fall in 1814. From that, I wrote a sequel, Lucia: A Venetian Life in the Age of Napoléon, published last year. And I continue hunting in this city’s literary corners for my next great story, constantly attracted by the lure of a glittering new nugget.
In the spring of 1818 Lord Byron rented the piano nobile of Palazzo Mocenigo from my great-great-great-great grandmother Lucia. He transformed the place into a chaotic menagerie where his lover, the fiery Margarita Cogni, ruled over 14 squabbling servants. The entrance porch was cluttered with rattling cages housing birds, dogs, monkeys, a fox, and even a wolf. Despite all the racket, Byron was able to work: While living at the palazzo, he wrote “Mazeppa” and the first parts of Don Juan. He had a terrible relationship with Lucia—they argued to no end about the rent, broken crockery, and new mooring posts for the gondola, which Byron finally replaced before leaving to join his new mistress, Teresa Guiccioli, in Ravenna. The posts were still there 15 years later, when Chateaubriand paid a visit to Lucia. He pulled up in his gondola one afternoon and was moved nearly to tears by the sight of the old wooden poles planted in the mud, with Byron’s coat of arms half erased by salt water and wind.
When the poet Robert Browning visited Venice with his wife, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, in 1851, he couldn’t leave soon enough, and it wasn’t until three decades later, when he was old and widowed, that he grew to love the city. His son, Pen, was also enamored, and after marrying an heiress, he purchased and restored Ca’ Rezzonico, the vast palazzo that stands along the bend in the Grand Canal on the way to St. Mark’s. A year later, having just managed to complete Asolando, his last collection of poems, Browning died there. An air of gloom shrouded the place until the twenties, when Cole and Linda Porter rented it in the summer. The Porters were frequent guests at my grandparents’ parties, which invariably ended with Cole at the piano. Then he and Linda would return to Ca’ Rezzonico by gondola as dawn broke over the Grand Canal.
Gelateria Paolin, the café facing the news kiosk on the western side of Campo Santo Stefano, was the favorite meeting place of the Biennale crowd in the seventies: Critics, curators, and artists gathered under the awning before lunch for a Venetian spritz (Campari, white wine, and a dash of sparkling water). Every day at the same hour, a frail couple would appear at the far end of the square and make a slow, painstaking crossing under the glaring August sun: Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir went out for their constitutional with clockwork precision. It took the pair a good half hour to inch their way to the shade on the other side of the campo and slowly disappear—roughly the same time it took the crowd at Paolin to finish their aperitifs and amble off to lunch at Harry’s Bar.
This beautiful Gothic palace on the Grand Canal, just past the Accademia Bridge heading toward St. Mark’s, became one of the settings for Henry James’s masterpiece, The Wings of the Dove, called Palazzo Leporelli in the book. Palazzo Barbaro belonged to a wealthy Boston couple, Daniel and Ariana Curtis, who bought it in 1885, and James, a regular visitor to Venice, was an assiduous guest. At one point he thought of getting a pied-à-terre, but in the end he preferred to rely on the comfort of his guest room here, with its “marble and frescoes and portraits of the Doges.” James’s affection for the place was such that he continued to stay there even after he’d grown tired of Daniel’s unfunny jokes and tedious tirades against America. Four generations later Ralph Curtis occupied the palazzo, which he had come to regard as a spaceship. “You have reached the earth liaison station of the Democratic Republic of the planet Mars,” the answering machine said.
Ernest Hemingway had little interest in Venice proper. When in town he much preferred hanging out at Locanda Cipriani, on the island of Torcello, after shooting ducks on the far reaches of the lagoon. One morning in the misty mud banks, he became infatuated with 18-year-old Adriana Ivancich, a beautiful Venetian who joined his hunting party. Though the relationship lasted several years, with Adriana following Hemingway as far as Cuba, it remained mostly platonic. The lagoon became the setting for Across the River and into the Trees, the story of an American soldier who goes back to Italy after the war and falls in love with a girl called Renata. Years later Adriana wrote a nostalgic memoir about her time with Hemingway. She suffered from depression and committed suicide by hanging herself from an olive tree in the Tuscan countryside.
Of all the literary ghosts swishing about Venice, Joseph Brodsky’s is by far the most endearing. In the late eighties he lived in Venice for several months as the guest of the city and wrote a beautiful, rambling meditation on life there. The English version is called Watermark, but I find the Italian title, Fondamenta degli incurabili, more Brodskian. It takes its name from the old Venetian hospital for “incurables,” near which Brodsky lived. He loved Venice to death, and after a heart attack killed him in New York, his body was flown to Italy and buried at San Michele near Ezra Pound: two great poets, a Jew and an anti-Semite.
After Byron, John Ruskin casts the longest shadow in Venice. “Thank God, I am here,” he wrote in his diary in 1841 at the age of 22. It was the start of the long, obsessive, and brilliant meditation on the city’s architecture that eventually produced The Stones of Venice and contributed to the great Gothic Revival of the 19th century. Toward the end of his life, in an attempt to counter all the mushy guidebooks out there, Ruskin holed up at Pensione La Calcina on the Zattere and wrote St. Mark’s Rest, a mad, idiosyncratic guide to Venice’s churches and shrines. “ ‘Viva San Marco!’... Is there yet life enough in the molecules, and plasm, and general mess of the making of you,” he asked the modern tourist, “to feel for an instant what that cry once meant?” Fittingly, La Calcina has inherited the nickname Ruskin’s House.
In Death in Venice, Thomas Mann’s short novel set at the Lido, Gustav von Aschenbach, an aging writer, falls hopelessly in love with a beautiful Polish boy in a sailor suit. The story takes place at the Grand Hotel des Bains, where Mann stayed once in the early years of the last century (one of the dining rooms is now called Ristorante Thomas Mann). This grand and melancholy establishment overlooking the gray Adriatic Sea came to symbolize the lazy Venetian summers of the international set during the Belle Epoque. The decor has remained largely unchanged, and in the seventies Luchino Visconti used the hotel as the location for the movie version of Mann’s novella. Unlike the Hotel Excelsior down the beach, all glitter and flashy movie stars, the Grand Hotel des Bains has maintained its air of quiet mystery. Regular patrons think of it not just as a hotel but also as a place of the soul.
While it may no longer be possible to run into Hemingway at Locanda Cipriani, the restaurant itself (locandacipriani.com) still welcomes guests with its old-world glamour and first-rate service, as does Pensione La Calcina (lacalcina.com). Ca’ Rezzonico, in the years since Cole Porter stayed there, has opened to the public as the museum of 18th-century Venice (museiciviciveneziani.it), and Palazzo Mocenigo can now be rented out as a private residence (livingasavenetian.com). But it is the smaller hotels, owner-run guesthouses, and neighborhood restaurants that may provide the real sense of writerly intimacy with the city.
Hotel Flora At the Flora, one of the city’s most popular three-star hotels, the decor is traditional Venetian, done with style and taste, and the old-school service is charming. Book well in advance to reserve the best rooms, on the corner of the building or overlooking the delightful creeper-filled garden. From $260 to $420. At 2283A S. Marco; 39-041/520-5844; hotelflora.it.
La Villeggiatura Don’t be put off by the scruffy entranceway and steep climb up to this guesthouse. Inside Francesca Adilardi’s third-floor apartment a warm welcome awaits. The six spacious bedrooms are decorated with great attention to detail: hand-painted furniture, custom-made Thai-silk cushions and drapes, and mosaic-tiled bathrooms. From $230 to $360. At 1569 S. Polo; 39-041/524-4673 or 39-338/853-1264; lavilleggiatura.it.
Oltre il Giardino Accessed through a walled garden, this brick-fronted six-bedroom villa is like a bucolic country retreat in the heart of Venice. It once belonged to Alma Mahler, the widow of composer Gustav; today it is run as a discreet, stylish home away from home by proprietor Lorenzo Muner. From $190 to $590. At 2542 S. Polo; 39-041/275-0015; oltreilgiardino-venezia.com.
Palazzo dal Carlo This elegant family home on a quiet Dorsoduro backwater is filled with impressive antiques, yet the atmosphere is not at all stuffy, thanks to its personable owner, Roberta dal Carlo. There are three comfortable guest rooms, one of which has direct access to the roof terrace. From $220 to $250. At 1163 Fondamenta Borgo; 39-041/522-6863; palazzodalcarlo.com.
Ostaria Da Rioba On the lovely Misericordia Canal, this nouveau-rustic restaurant serves superfresh fish dishes to a local crowd. Brick walls, beamed ceilings, and bare wood tables set the scene for schie (tiny gray shrimp) and polenta, and gnocchi with artichokes and shrimp. Dinner, $50. At 2553 Fondamenta della Misericordia; 39-041/524-4379; darioba.com.
Osteria La Zucca Though not specifically vegetarian, the menu here always has interesting choices for nonmeat eaters, such as lasagne made with bitter red radicchio or tagliatelle and artichokes topped with pecorino. The setting, beside a crooked bridge, is picturesque, and reservations are essential to secure a waterside table. Dinner, $45. At 1762 Santa Croce; 39-041/524-1570; lazucca.it.
Ristorante Al Covo Chef Cesare Benelli uses only top-notch ingredients for his seasonal menus of dishes familiar—spaghetti with clams and zucchini blossoms—and less so: risotto with gò (a lagoon fish) and deep-fried moeche (small soft-shell crabs) with baby artichokes from the island of Sant’Erasmo. There’s also an exceptional wine list. Dinner, $60. At 3968 Castello; 39-041/522-3812; ristorantealcovo.com.
ristorante Mistra Specializing in Venetian and Ligurian dishes, Mistrà sits amid the sprawl of boatyards on the lagoon side of Giudecca. At lunchtime there’s a simple, well-priced menu aimed at local dock workers. In the evening it’s a bit more elaborate, with whole fish baked in a salt crust and pasta with pesto on offer. Dinner, $50. At 212A Giudecca; 39-041/522-0743.
ristoteca Oniga The chef here is Hungarian, but apart from an excellent goulash the seasonal menu is very much Venetian. Try the spaghetti with fresh anchovies and cherry tomatoes or the sea bass with asparagus. Dinner, $40. At 2852 Campo San Barnaba; 39-041/522-4410; oniga.it.
Trattoria Antiche Carampane This family-run trattoria has proudly refused to sell out to the tourist trade—a sign outside declares “no lasagne, no pizza, no menù turistico ”—which is probably why it’s a favorite with Venetians. All the seafood comes fresh from the nearby Rialto market. Dinner, $65. At 1911 S. Polo; 39-041/524-0165; antichecarampane.com.
Enrico Isacchi Isacchi has a degree in modern and medieval history and has been working as a guide and lecturer since 1990. His passion for the art and history of Venice takes him beyond the usual tourist itineraries and into corners of the city that are normally inaccessible to visitors. 39-335/530-4125 or 310-923-0547; firstname.lastname@example.org
Franca Zanchi Before qualifying as a guide, Zanchi taught modern languages at the University of Venice. She leads private tours of the city’s most important museums, galleries, and churches, and also takes her clients to private palaces and gardens that are closed to the public. 39-335/534-9248; email@example.com —Nicky Swallow