One of the world’s oldest cafés is located in Venice and for almost three centuries it has been an important part of this incredible city’s true soul. Food and Travel Arabia visited a place which is the quintessence of history.
If mirrors could reflect the passage of time, if the decorations on the ceilings could tell about distant epochs and if murals could let the words flow freely, who knows what intriguing stories they would tell about Caffè Florian’s many visitors who have been allured by the fragile beauty of Venice for almost three centuries, about the famous writers and poets from all parts of the world, who over the years have used the cafe as a literary reading room, or perhaps about Venice’s wounded soldiers who, in the struggle in 1848 against the Austrian occupying power, transformed the café into something that bore more resemblance to a camp hospital?
More than 295 years of Venetian history piles up at Caffè Florian’s long glass facade, facing what many believe to be Italy’s most beautiful piazza, the sumptuous Piazza San Marco in the heart of Venice. It is therefore not surprising that the Venetians not only consider Florian as a café but also as a historical and cultural gem, which constitutes an extremely important piece in the city’s fascinating and complex identity.
So, if you are in search of the true soul of the city, you should make sure that the city’s labyrinth-network of paths and alleys eventually will bring you to Florian’s old living rooms. The atmosphere is unique. The visitor’s sense of having come to a place with tradition and a good portion of well-founded pride is probably created by a mix of the antique interior, the waiters’ self-consciousness, the smooth classical music flowing discretely from the speakers, as well as the other guests’ attitude of awe, as they visit the world’s most famous café.
The first coffee houses
However, the historical events that constitute the birth of Caffè Florian in 1720 go even further back in time with the opening, in 1544, of the very first coffee houses in Constantinople (today Istanbul).The first written document about these coffee houses allegedly dates back to 1573, when the Republic of Venice’s diplomatic envoy, Costantino Garzoni, reporeds from Constantinople about a mysterious drink: “… many consume a certain black beverage. It’s made of opium and holds them free from worries”.
The mysterious black beverage makes its entry into Europe in 1615, when Venetian merchants receive the first shipment of green coffee beans. Strangely, however, it was the tea-loving English who, according to history books, opened the first coffee house, The Angle, in Oxford in 1650.
Venice followed on, when the first Venetian coffee houses opened in 1683 under the city’s colonnades Procuratorie Nuove in the city centre. Others followed and they were very successful; not only because of the pleasant taste of coffee, but more due to the fact that these cafes represented a public place where ordinary people could gather together.
Coffee and literature
The relationship of love that has always existed between coffee and the written word – is there anything better than a good book and a cup of coffee? – could very well had begun at Florian. It was here that the Venetian Count Gasparo Gozzi (1713-1786) had what he himself called his “headquarters and editorial staff”, when he published one of Italy’s first daily newspapers, La Gazzetta Veneta. Gozzi spent most of his time at Florian, where he discussed politics with the cafe’s guests and wrote his articles. Gozzi did not do anything to hide that he was extremely fascinated by the cafe’s environment. In one of his articles, written at Caffè Florian, he writes: “At Florian, it’s not like being in a coffee house. You rather have the feeling of being part of a theater play, where the scenes change frequently”.
Also Venice’s famous playwright, Carlo Goldoni, was so impressed by the Florian’s environment that before his flight from Venice in 1750, with a swarm of creditors after him – he wrote the play La Bottega del caffè (The Coffee House).
After Florian Francesconi’s death in 1773, the café was passed on to his nephew Valentino Florian, who soon ran into difficulties. In 1776, Venice’s authorities decided to prohibit women from accessing all cafes. The official reason was that the cafes practiced card games with money. The truth was rather that too many women could be found in the cafes.
However, this ban had such a negative effect that Valentino Florian applied for am exception to the ban. He got it, and Venice’s women once again could visit Caffè Florian. As the café was the only place in the city where women could go, it also meant that the famed Giacomo Casanova, became a regular fixture at Florian.
The artistes’ home
Caffè Florian’s fame throughout the 19th century as Europe’s most well-known literary café was confirmed by its impressive series of world-famous celebrities of the who became regular guests at Florian.
Many European writers, poets and other literary inspired persons often made their grand tour to Italy with a secret hope that Venice’s immense beauty and distinctive atmosphere would have a positive impact on their creativity, the lagoon town had almost become a compulsory stop on the journey. Beauty is – as we all know – beguiling, and often a short stop-over developed into a longer stay. And Caffè Florian was the place where people of the written word saw each other. The list of the literary heavyweights that have attended the old café over the years is quite impressive.
The French writer and Italy-lover Stendhal sipped coffee at Florian as he read about Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo in 1815. The romantic British poet Lord Byron regularly came to Florian, and he often brought his poetry friends Percy Shelly and the Irish Thomas Moore. In 1836, the French author Alexandre Dumas writes about the old café: “Florian is like a stock exchange, a theatre foyer, a reading room, a club, a writing desk and many Venetian men actually go to Florian to write letters”.
The English writer Charles Dickens was a frequent guest at Florian in 1845, and so was the famous Italian sculptor Antonio Canova, who was a close personal friend of the cafe’s owner. Ocsar Wilde too, was captivated by Florian, and it was at Florian that German composer Richard Wagner managed to finish his love story about “Tristan and Isolde”. Artistes such as the French writer Marcel Proust, the Italian poet Gabriele D’Annunzio and the Russian composer Stravinsky were said to have worked at Florian.
It’s no wonder that so many – ordinary folk to world-famous celebrities – have been seeking Caffè Florian throughout time. At least if you are to believe what Austrian writer Karl Hernold – not without a certain humoristic glint in his eyes – wrote: “Europe is the world’s most beautiful continent, Italy is Europe’s most beautiful country, Venice is Italy’s most beautiful city, Piazza San Marco is Venice’s most beautiful place, Caffè Florian is the most beautiful venue of the piazza … so I’m drinking my coffee at the world’s most beautiful place”!
Caffè Florian also earned its place in the history books in 1848, when the Austrian occupying power conquered Venice. Many prominent Venetians met secretly at Florian to plot against Austrians, who eventually learned of their plotting and ordered the cafe closed; fortunately the ban came too late and on March 17 1848, the Venice uprising began. The battle was bloody and many of Venice’s wounded soldiers were brought to Caffè Florian for medical treatment, which had been transformed into am impromptu field hospital.
These historic events undoubtedly sealed Venetians’ patriotic feelings towards what they regard as their café. Especially considering that the Austrians had chosen to place their headquarters in the city’s second famous historical café, Caffè Quadri which could be found on the other side of Piazza San Marco.
Florian in literature
The passage of time and shifts in fashion have in no way changed the constant flow of celebrities that have made Florian their favourite meeting point. Throughout the 20th century, an ever-increasing number of well-known names from literature, art, music, film and politics have fought over available space in the cafe’s guestbook. Personalities such as Argentine writer Borges, German composer Richard Strauss, Gina Lollobrigida, Grace Kelly, Jean-Paul Satre, Marcello Mastroianni, Anthony Quinn, Liza Minelli, Giscard Mitterand, Margaret Thatcher, Helmuth Kohl, Clark Gable, Andy Warhol and many many more.
Many authors have not only passed much of their time on Florian, they have also portrayed Florian’s life in their books; for example, in the 1987 Russian Nobel Prize winner, Joseph Brodsky’s wonderful Venice watermark from 1997, which should be compulsory reading for anyone who goes to Venice. For a number of years, Brodsky came back to Venice again and again – always in the winter – where he became a true regular at Florian. Here he met colleagues, friends and acquaintances from around the world.
Time stands still
With a history spanning almost three centuries, time at Florian seems to stand still.
Caffè Florian, Piazza San Marco 56, Venice Italy +39 041 52 05 641 www.caffeflorian.com