13 July 2022

Missing a Bellini in Harry’s Bar for
one of the rival cafés in Saint Mark’s

Napoleon described Saint Mark’s Square as ‘the drawing room of Europe’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Patrick Comerford

There are cafés and bars with such history and aura that their names become symbols of their cities. Yet, while I cannot count how many times I have got on and off vaporetti at San Marco in Venice, I have never had a Bellini in Harry’s Bar. Nor, until Charlotte and I were in Venice last week, had either of us ever been in any of the cafés on each side of Saint Mark’s Square, Piazza San Marco.

There are two sides of Saint Mark’s Square: the Procuratie Vecchie on the north side, once the apartments of the nine Procurators of Venice, and the Procuratie Nuove on the south side. At its east and west ends, the square is book-ended by Saint Mark’s Basilica and the Museo Correr and the Napoleonic wing.

Napoleon described Saint Mark’s Square as ‘the drawing room of Europe.’ Each side of the square has rival cafés, known for their romantic locations, their competing musicians, the ideal venues for people-watching, and the unrivalled atmospheres on a balmy summer night.

Florian Francesconi first set out his tables under the arcade of the Procuratie Nuove in 1720 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

These two famous rivals on opposite side of the square are Caffè Florian and Caffè Quadri. Which one you chose today is a matter of taste. But in the 19th century, these two cafés defined the political views of Venetians and divided the city.

Gianfrancesco Morosini – whose family gave their name to the Morosini Fountain in Lion Square in Iraklion – first brought coffee to the attention of the Venetians in 1585. He reported to the Senate that the Turks had developed a taste for drinking ‘a black water, boiled up as hot as they could bear it, which is distilled from a seed called kahvé and which they say has the property of making a man stay awake.’

By the mid-17th century, coffee was being sold in Venice as a medicine. Its popularity increased and imports rose.

Florian Francesconi first set out his tables under the arcade of the Procuratie Nuove over 300 years ago, on 29 December 1720. He named his café ‘Alla Venezia Trionfante’ or ‘Triumphant Venice.’ The name did not stick, however, and the café was soon known by its owner’s name, Florian.

Café le Procope was founded in Paris in 1686, and Baroque Haus Zum Arabischen Coffe Baum was founded in Leipzig in 1694. So, Caffè Florian in Venice is the third oldest café in Europe to be continuously open in the same location. This is also the first café ever to be open to women.

Patrons who have visited Florian’s over the centuries include Rousseau, Canova, Foscolo, Goethe, Byron, Dickens, d’Annunzio, Stravinsky, Proust and Modigliani. Its six beautifully decorated rooms include the Sala del Senato, the birthplace of the international arts fair, Il Biennale.

Giorgio Quadri opened his café after he returned to Venice from Corfu in 1775 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

When Giorgio Quadri returned to Venice on 28 May 1775 after many years in Corfu, his Greek wife Naxina urged him to buy ‘Il Rimedio’ or ‘The Cure,’ a restaurant under the arcade of the Procuratorie Vecchie, and to open a coffee house on the Piazza.

Following the defeat of Napoleon, Venice was occupied by the Austrians for half a century, from 1815 to 1866. Florian’s was favoured by local patriots who dreamt of reviving their country and of Italian unification. On the other hand, on the opposite side of the square, the Gran Caffè Quadri, was chosen by the Austrian officers.

Quadri’s was more bustling, pretentiously pro-Austrian, and the guests included Stendhal, Honoré de Balzac, Alexandre Dumas and Richard Wagner.

But Quadri’s was shunned by Italian patriots. The garrison was ignored, no-one applauded when their bands played Wagner and they were unable to mingle with the people. As Wagner observed, ‘the Austrian officers … floated about publicly in Venice like oil on water.’

Since then, though, Quadri’s more recent guests have included Gorbachev, Mitterrand and Woody Allen. Quadri has been run since 2011 by the Alajmo family from Padua and it was redecorated in 2018 by the French architect Philippe Starck.

Close by, Harry’s Bar was founded in 1931 by Giuseppe Cipriani (1900-1980), and has given the world the Bellini. Harry’s Bar was a favourite of Hemingway and Evelyn Waugh mentions it in Brideshead Revisited.

Other clients have include Toscanini, Marconi, Charlie Chaplin, Alfred Hitchcock, Humphrey Bogart, Jimmy Stewart, Truman Capote, Orson Welles, Baron Philippe de Rothschild, Aristotle Onassis, Barbara Hutton, Peggy Guggenheim, George Clooney and Woody Allen.

Today, Florian’s and Quadri’s have tables in the square and each has its own quartet or small orchestra. They may have different interiors and menus, yet they seem to complement each other. Although rivals, their musicians alternate playing so as not to drown out the sound of each other.

Florian’s is still seen as a bohemian institution, and it was there – rather than Quadri or Harry’s Bar – we elected for a drink in ‘the drawing room of Europe’ late in the evening last week.

Listening to the quartet at Florian’s on a balmy summer evening (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

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