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  • Writer's pictureJack Dykstra, PhD

A Brief History of Caffè Florian in Venice

What is Caffè Florian?

Caffè Florian is a Historic coffee-house that was established in 1720 and has been the meeting point of intellectuals, celebrities and locals ever since.

Caffè Florian

Caffè Florian History

‘Taking a seat in the café Florian, in a small cabinet wainscoted with mirrors and decked with agreeable allegorical subjects’, wrote the French historian Hippolyte Taine in the mid-19th century, ‘one muses with half-closed eyes over the imagery of the day falling into the order of and transformed as in a dream; odorous sorbets melt on the tongue and are rewarmed with exquisite coffee such as is found nowhere else in Europe; one smokes tobacco of the Orient and beholds flower-girls approaching, graceful and handsomely attired in robes of silk, who silently place on the table violets and the narcissus’.

This idyllic urban description both illuminates and obscures the real history of Caffè Florian. It captures the intoxicating products on offer, highlights the sensuous allusions of coffee-houses, and links them to the Middle East. Rightly so, as Floriano Francesconi opened his coffee-house in 1720 inspired by Muslim antecedents. In the 16th century, coffee-houses had appeared in Mecca, Cairo, and Constantinople (now Istanbul). In the 17th century, they popped up across Europe: in London in 1652, then Paris and Venice by the end of the century. The products Caffè Florian served, sherbet and coffee, had been cultivated in the Ottoman Empire and the way in which they were made, served, and drunk was learnt from interactions with Muslims. Indeed, Florian’s was modelled on those cafés in Istanbul where coffee was said to be the Wine of Islam. Italy’s oldest continually serving café, which has remained in the same spot in St Mark’s Square up to today, holds epicurean fragments of Venice’s deep connections to the Middle East.

Caffè Florian interior

Jorge Franganillo, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Originally, Francesconi named his café Alla Venezia Trionfante (or Venice Triumphant). This now seems ironic for a few reasons. To begin with, Venice’s golden years were over, and the city was struggling with decline. Whereas Caffè Aurora, which opened in 1723 next to the Campanile (or Bell Tower), emulated the grand café style of Paris with elaborate furnishings and decorations, Caffè Florian was relatively modest with merely a few austere rooms. As you can see today, the Florian soon followed suit. In 1750, it expanded to four rooms, and had gained another three rooms by 1920. In the 18th century, it had a reputation for more than coffee. It was where Jean-Jacques Rousseau philosophised, the playwright Carlo Goldoni and the sculptor Antonio Canova gathered, and where Giacomo Casanova came to gamble and seduce women. With Venice’s masked Carnival and all of its dark hidden alleys, the city was renowned as an enclave of hedonism. The courtesans of Venice were famous, with prostitution occurring brazenly from pimping gondoliers to fashion-setting courtesans who moved easily within influential circles. The Triumph of Venice took on an altogether different meaning.

Lastly, Hippolyte Taine’s mid-19th-century description omitted one of the great political upheavals of the period. In 1848, from a coffee table in Caffè Florian, Daniele Manin made a speech which toppled the Austrian occupation and led to the formation of a democratic government. The republic failed, but the Florian continued to attract icons in the 19th century, including Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Lord Byron, Marcel Proust, and Charles Dickens, as well as celebrities in the 20th century, from Charlie Chaplin, Ernest Hemingway, and Andy Warhol to Miranda Kerr. The cherished decorations you see today are the work of Lodovico Cadorin in 1858, with a different style suiting each room. But the best way to appreciate Florian’s is to take a seat, admire the Neo-Baroque decor, taste a coffee, and enjoy the orchestra.

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