December 21, 2016
It’s next time again.
In 1867, Charles Dickens took the stage at the Tremont Theatre in Boston to read aloud from his new work. Two hours later, as the reportedly enraptured audience left the auditorium, did they realize they had just heard one of the most enduring Christmas stories of all time? A Christmas Carol read aloud, by Dickens himself, inside of a building which now sports a façade made to look as much as possible like the Doge’s Palace in Venice. What is going on here? Every time I walk past Boston’s rather startling version of The Doge’s Palace, I think about how amazing that lecture must have been and as I look up at that distinctive unmistakably Venetian pattern of pink brick, I wonder how in the world Boston and Venice became so inextricably (and so evocatively) linked?
Because I’m lucky enough to spend some of my time every year in both of these seaside cities this research has been a joy to investigate. Turns out, the current Tremont Temple (former Tremont Theatre) was put up in 1897, some 30 years after Dickens’ historic reading. When you live in historic cities you are used to such reincarnations. Like Venice’s famous opera house La Fenice (the Phoenix), the Tremont Theatre was plagued by recurring fires. By 1897, a more substantial stone building seemed the right solution and Boston’s fascination with Venice was in the air. Look no further than the magnificent 15th Century Venetian palazzo of the Isabella Stewart Gardner museum. How on earth did that end up in Boston?
We know certain things. Isabella Stewart Gardner adored Venice. How and why did that love affair begin and why did Venice fire the imaginations of so many other Bostonians?
You know how sometimes when you first meet someone, whether or not you actually believe in reincarnation, you feel as though you knew each other in a past life? I think that vague sense of déjà vu and instantaneous “like minds” is what the Italians mean when they describe you (or something they like) as simpatico. I maintain Venice and Boston are simpatico in much the same way. They are somehow connected with a quasi-spiritual link forged in a rich intellectual life.
Mark Twain said of Boston, “In Philadelphia, they ask, who were his parents? In New York, how much is he worth? In Boston they ask, how much does he know?” Both Boston and Venice are known for their love of education and books. Venice was the publishing heart of Italy and the Old World. By the turn of the 15th Century, there were more than twice as many books being published in Venice than in Paris. Both Boston and Venice feature important libraries on their central squares. The Biblioteca Marciana, founded in Venice in 1468, is a book lovers dream and houses one of the most important archives of the Old World. For the New World, the Boston Public Library, founded in 1852, was the first metropolitan library in America and, for many, signaled the dawn of a democratized American enlightenment.
The quasi-spiritual connection is Humanism and a love of the arts born of their cosmopolitan sophistication as centers of import/export trade and rich cultural exchange. Both cities are cultural crossroads. And here is where the real fun begins. To research this further, I asked Frederick Ilchman, who is the Chairman of Save Venice, about the curious cultural connections of Boston and Venice. I’ve known Frederick for twenty years, meeting him first in Venice when he was working on his dissertation. He is now also Chair, Art of Europe at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston and is among the top Tintoretto scholars in the world. If anyone would know, he would.
Frederick is hugely passionate about both cities. He machine-gunned his Boston/Venice connections greatest hits: “Both cities are seaports, both have campinelle (bell towers), both are built on land fill, the buildings of both are supported by wooden pilings, both cuisines favor seafood, Bostonians and Venetians both love rowing, the list goes on and on.” He quickly dashed off a text to Save Venice colleague, and the articulate Christopher Carlsmith immediately emailed back, “Both Venice and Boston have been beacons for religious freedom (and conflict), and both are famous for their academic institutions and intellectual skepticism. Chronology plays a part here too: Boston was founded in the year 1630 by pilgrims seeking a new home, the same year that Venice was re-founded with a vow to build the Church of Santa Maria della Salute by residents desperate to be saved from a great plague. Boston features a significant number of buildings with an obvious Venetian connection: the courtyard of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, the Venetian Alcove of the Boston Public Library, the murals inside the Ames-Webster house, and the façade of the Boston Athenaeum.” (Since I’m writing this in part from the Boston Athenaeum I feel compelled to add that its façade (1849) is based on Palladio’s Palazzo da Porta Festa (1544) in nearby Vicenza but, Palladio has so many famous landmarks in Venice and Vicenza certainly qualifies as being in the Veneto so, a Venetian origin-story is not at all far fetched.)
If it is true Boston and Venice are of like minds, who were the trend-setting Bostonians who first became Venice-obsessed? For Americans, our romanic notions of Venice are rooted in the 1880s and 90s by otherwise rational people who quite simply lost their minds over Venice’s many charms. These highly intelligent Venice fanatics include both proper Bostonians and those with deep Boston ties; Henry James, John Singer Sargent, Isabella Stewart Gardner, Bernard Berenson, Ralph and Ariana Curtis and Charles Everett Norton. Norton was classmate of Ralph Curtis at Harvard and is considered to be one of America’s first connoisseurs. In his day, he was called “the most cultivated man in the United States.” He was a friend and faithful correspondent of John Ruskin (author of The Stones of Venice). Since he taught both Bernard Berenson and Isabella Stuart Gardner perhaps we can trace Boston’s high opinion of Venice to his distinguished recommendation. He said, “I have in mind to write a study of Venice in the 16th Century…the city that is dearer to me than any other in Italy.”
The New Yorker, Henry James, author of, The Bostonians, is perhaps the most articulate of Venice’s many lovers. He immortalized the beguiling atmosphere of Venice in his novels, The Wings of the Dove and The Aspern Papers. If Henry James supplied the words then John Singer Sargent provided the pictures. The place was provided by Ralph and Ariana Curtis, who bought a famous palazzo on the Grand Canal and entertained these people in lavish Venetian style.
I don’t know if you believe that people have auras but do you believe that a place can have an aura? Maybe a more modern word would be vibe; certainly you would agree places have an atmosphere. One writer who captures atmosphere exquisitely is John Berendt. His Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (1994) is still bringing eager visitors to Savannah, Georgia years after it became the NYT’s longest running best seller. Berendt’s long-awaited second book, The City of Falling Angels, is about Venice and according to him, and many others, the place perhaps most evocative for the Venice/Boston connection are two historic palazzi on the Grand Canal near the Academia Bridge collectively called the Palazzo Barbaro (originally constructed in 1425 and 1465). The Barbaro family were humanists on a grand scale on the Grand Canal.
Berendt talks about the prestigious history of this place and the Barbaro family with great clarity. “Daniele Barbaro hired Andrea Palladio to design his summer estate, engaged Veronese to paint the frescoes. When he sat for his portrait, Titian painted it.” By the nineteenth century, the Palazzo Barbaro had seen better days. When the “Boston blue blood” Daniel Sargent Curtis moved his family to Italy in 1878, he shortly thereafter leased and then, in 1885, purchased the crumbling water-palace and began to restore it’s faded luster. “By creating their own cultural salon in the Barbaro, they even revived its humanist spirit. With the Curtises playing host to artists, writers, and musicians, Palazzo Barbaro came to be considered the most important American cultural outpost in Venice, if not in all of Italy.”
Why did the Curtis’ leave Boston? According to a superb essay in an exhibition catalog called Gondola Days by Richard Lingner (which was borrowed from heavily in the construction of John Berendt’s book) there were several factors. One was how life was changing in America after the Civil War. From Lingner’s research you get the feeling the Curtises were bored with rich and aimless Americans. They felt America was in cultural decline. Europe seemed more sophisticated. Daniel Curtis felt some of his friends were uninterested in conversations if, “business and money were not paramount topics.” They were looking for intellectual stimulation and Venice gave it to them.
In many ways Palazzo Barbaro became a powerful and iconic symbol of Venetian elegance. Sargent’s famous interior view shimmers with that molto famoso Venetian light which Gore Vidal described tongue-in-cheek as nacreous (iridescent). As if that image weren’t haunting enough, the Palazzo became even more cinematic in unforgettable episodes of the BBC’s Brideshead Revisited and the 1997 film adaptation of Wings of the Dove with Helena Bonham Carter in the breakout role of her career.
One of the Curtises frequent guests in what came to be called “the Barbaro Circle” was the legendary art collector Isabella Stewart Gardner. Unlike the Curtises, who never returned to Boston, Mrs. Gardner became a pendulari; what the Italians call a person who swings like a pendulum between home and abroad. Over repeated summers in Venice, where she rented the Palazzo Barbaro from her friends the Curtises, she floated down the Grand Canal and explored the deep cultural waters of Europe. Following in the Curtises glide path, she was intoxicated with the intellectual life she found there. Because she was curious and rich she began to buy things she liked and (fortunately for us) the artworks, antiques, furniture, manuscripts and architectural details which knowledgeable friends like the Curtises, Professor Norton, and Norton’s student, the famous art historian Bernard Berenson, recommended to her. Now, much of this glorious bounty is displayed at the Gardner Museum. Venice seduced her as it had Henry James who describes the romantic allure vividly,
“It is by living there from day to day that you feel the fulness of her charm; that you invite her exquisite influence to sink into your spirit…She has high spirits or low, she is pale or red, grey or pink, cold or warm, fresh or wan, according to the weather and the hour. She is always interesting and almost always sad; but she has a thousand occasional graces and is always liable to happy accidents… Tenderly fond you become; there is something indefinable in those depths of personal acquaintance that gradually establish themselves. The place seems to personify itself, to become human and sentient and conscious of your affection. You desire to embrace it, to caress it, to possess it; and finally a soft sense of possession grows up and your visit becomes a perpetual love-affair.”
Imagine summer “gondola filled” days in Venice at that time. No wonder she decided on an Italian theme for her new museum to be built on the marshy Fenway back in Boston. She and her husband had originally wanted to expand a house on Beacon Street for this purpose but those plans turned out to be impractical. Not enough space for her burgeoning collection.
She wanted the building to be completely constructed of stone. Surely if the buildings in Venice could last for hundreds of years her new building in Boston could be constructed with the same techniques. The Boston Building Inspector had other ideas. I’m not sure exactly who won but I like the idea that she wanted something truly Venetian right down to the foundations of wooden pilings.
Spend a quiet moment in the garden of the Gardner museum today and you palpably feel the Boston/Venice connection. It’s at least a hundred year old romance. Henry James said of Daniel Curtis that he was “doing his best to make the grand Canal seem like Beacon Street.”
This analogy of the Grand Canal as Beacon Street brings to mind one final Boston Venice connection; both are “walking cities.” Of course, in Venice, you have no choice. It’s either walk or take a boat since there are no cars. Humorist Robert Benchley said it best in a telegram. “Just arrived. Streets filled with water. Please advise.” In Boston you have a choice but its also a marvelous city for long walks unforgetably described by Mark Twain, “You cannot take in a whole Boston street with a single glance… Many of these bending and circling ranks of buildings are architecturally handsome, and there is a Venetian picturesqueness of effect in the unfolding of their pillared and sculptured graces as you drift around the curves and watch them swing into view.”
Until next time with much love, I remain your,