18 August, 2006

85. An afternoon's entertainment

The Procuratie Vecchie, was, as its name suggests, the older of the two great buildings in Piazza San Marco built as offices for the city's nine procurators – the administrators who were responsible for, among other things, the six sestieri, or districts of Venice. Its counterpart on the other side, is a slightly later construction known as the 'new' offices, the Procuratie Nuove.

Almost since the beginning of their occupation, however, these two buildings have housed other activities quite unconnected with city administration.

When the Venetian ambassador returned from Istanbul in 1585, he reported to the Senate that the Turkish were fond of drinking a hot black infusion made from seeds they called 'Kahavé', that had the effect of keeping people awake. The first batch of these seeds were not brought back to Venice until 1638, when they were roasted and ground and served in the first coffee shop in Europe, located on the ground floor of this building in the Piazza.

Coffee was exotic then, and very expensive. It is less exotic today, but the coffee shops of San Marco are still among the most expensive in the world. The most famous of these opened its doors in 1720 as the 'Caffé alla Venezia Trionfante', the 'Triumphant Venice Café', but its first owner was Floriano Francesconi, so it quickly became known as 'Florian's'. Caffé Florian was the favourite haunt of many famous visitors, like Lord Byron, and it's still there on the Nuove side of the Piazza.

On this side, also still going strong, are Caffé Quadri, a newcomer of 1755, and Caffé Lavena, Richard Wagner's favourite coffee house. Gambling was another pastime of the Venetian nobility that went on in and around the coffee houses, and by the end of the 18th century, there were 24 such establishments just in this Piazza alone.

One level up, on the first floor of the Procuratie Vecchie, were the 'ridotti', small but very fashionable apartments where a gentlemen whose palazzo might be a lengthy gondola ride away could entertain his friends in the afternoons and evenings. So much 'friendly entertaining' went on that in 1767 the government banned women from frequenting the cafes in the Piazza altogether (obviously, the debauchery was all their fault), but that didn't stop them from strolling about the square and along the corridors under the porticos while they waited for their lovers to finish their game of cards and to get their caffeine hit.

Despite the sea of coffee tables and chairs covering large slabs of the square every day in the tourist season, there are far fewer coffee houses here today than there were two hundred years ago.

And for the time being at least I am pleased to say that none of them are yet called 'Starbucks'.

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