When you sip a cup of coffee in Venice, you are drinking in the very history of this beverage. No matter whether you are seated in one of the luxury cafés in Saint Mark’s Square or standing at the counter of a tiny bar: you are in the city that taught the world the pleasure of drinking coffee.
The Coffee Craze
The relationship between Venice and coffee started long ago.
In fact, the first scientific mention of coffee beans and their use in Africa was in a book published in 1591 by Prospero Alpini, a physician working for the Venetian consul in Cairo around 1580.
Venice was one of the ports where the first loads of coffee beans arrived in Europe in the early XVII century. Initially, coffee was sold as a medicine, but it quickly gained popularity as a social drink.
The first café opened under the porticoes of Saint Mark’s Square in 1638, and by 1759 the Senate of the Serenissima had to limit the number of coffee shops in the city: they were already 206, 34 of them in Saint Mark’s Square alone!
Giovanni David, “A Man wearing a Mask drinking a Cup of coffee (La Masque au Caffé)”, 1775 (The Elisha Wittelsey Collection, The Elisha Wittelsey Fund, 1979)
Customers included both noblemen and ordinary people: artists, intellectuals, and scientists all passed time in the cafés, as did informers for the dreaded Council of the Ten in search of information about plots and conspiracies against the Republic.
The frequent presence of women in the cafés raised issues about morality and public decency. In 1767 the government of the Venetian Republic banned women from coffee shops, except during the period of the year when masks were allowed. The law was simply ignored by all the Venetian noblewomen and courtesans who couldn’t accept any limits on their social lives.
Not all women were going to the café for romantic meetings, though. Some of them, such as the aged noblewoman Elisabetta Gritti, would just enjoy the pleasure of coffee and bussolà (a traditional Venetian biscuit). This is proved by the long bill Gritti amassed in her favourite café near Campo Santi Apostoli, a document which now belongs to the collection of the Correr Museum.
The “coffee craze” in XVIII century Venice was so big that several writers stated that more coffee was consumed in Venice in a week than in any other European city in a month!
The Florian: a Historical Venetian Café
Opened in 1720 under the name “Alla Venezia Trionfante” (“Venice Triumphant”), it later took the name of its owner, Floriano (“Florian” in Venetian dialect) Francesconi.
Among his many famous customers were the French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau and the Neoclassical sculptor Antonio Canova.
At first made up of just a few unadorned rooms, the café was gradually enlarged and completely renovated in 1858 with a design by the artist Ludovico Cadorin.
Each of the six rooms of the Florian has its own charm and its own story: which is the one for you?
As the name implies, the Senators of the Venetian Republic used to meet here, and it was also the place where the Venice Biennale was founded in 1893. The paintings on the walls celebrate progress, the arts, and science, but they also include a number of Masonic symbols.
So, if you are organizing a meeting that will change history, this is the room to book.
The Senate Room in the Caffè Florian, Venice (Archivio Caffè Florian)
The Chinese Room and the Oriental Room
Decorated with images of couples in Asian clothes, exotic beauties (semi)covered with veils and holding cigars in their hands, and ceilings recalling Islamic motifs, these tiny rooms are designed to let your imagination travel to distant lands.
The Chinese Room in the Caffè Florian, Venice (Archivio Caffè Florian)
Ceiling of the Oriental Room in the Caffè Florian, Venice
The Room of the Illustrious Men
Ten famous Venetians are portrayed on the walls of this room. Would you sit next to a traveler like Marco Polo, or a doge like Enrico Dandolo?
I would choose Carlo Goldoni, the XVIII century playwright who dedicated his play “The Coffee House” to the Venetian cafés of the time: he is in the best location to observe the modern crowd passing in front of the windows of the Florian.
Portrait of Carlo Goldoni in the Room of the Illustrious Men in the Caffè Florian, Venice
The Room of the Four Seasons
The paintings of four female figures representing the seasons give this space the above name, though it is also known as “the room of the mirrors” because of the mirrors facing each other to create an infinite reflection. This is probably the room from which you can get the best view of Saint Mark’s Square.
The Room of the Four Seasons in the Caffè Florian, Venice (Archivio Caffè Florian)
The Liberty Room
Added in 1920 to commemorate the second centenary of the café, this is an almost secret space, and the only room which does not face Saint Mark’s Square. As romantic meetings are no longer forbidden, this would be the perfect spot to enjoy coffee for two in the soft light of flower-shaped lamps.
The Liberty Room in the Caffè Florian, Venice (Archivio Caffè Florian)
So, just choose your seat, relax, and sip your coffee surrounded by the history and beauty of Venice!
A curiosity: the marble tables of the Florian cannot be moved, but their tops can rotate to better accommodate clients.