29 December 2021

The opening of Venice’s historic Caffè Florian

Meeting place on St Mark’s Square became an institution

The Caffè Florian took its name from its
original owner, Floriano Francesconi
Venice’s famous Caffè Florian opened its doors for the first time on this day in 1720.

Florian’s nowadays occupies a long stretch of the arcades on the southern side of Piazza San Marco, its seats stretching out across the square with a permanent orchestra in residence to entertain clients. Yet the original consisted of just two rooms. 

It was officially given the grand title of Alla Venezia Trionfante (“To Triumphant Venice”), but soon became known as Florian’s after the owner, Floriano Francesconi.

The cafè’s 301-year history makes it the oldest still-active coffee house in Italy and the second oldest in Europe behind the Café Procope in Paris, which was founded in 1686. 

Florian’s soon became a fashionable meeting place for Venetian society, especially its writers. Among its 18th century clientele were the Venetian playwright and librettist Carlo Goldoni and the German poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, while the writer and adventurer Giacomo Casanova is said to have been regularly seen there, possibly drawn by the cafè’s then-unusual policy of opening its doors to women.

Florian's sits under the arcade on the southern side of the piazza
Florian's sits under the arcade on
the southern side of the piazza
When the critic and dramatist Gasparo Gozzi launched his literary magazine Gazzetta Veneta in 1760, Florian’s agreed to help him publicise his venture and sell copies.

Its popularity with writers continued in the 19th century, when the growing number of tourists visiting Venice might have found themselves sitting at the next table to English poet Lord Byron, the French novelist Marcel Proust or the increasingly popular English novelist Charles Dickens. 

Florian’s would remain in family ownership for more than a century. After the death of Floriano, his grandson, Valentino Francesconi, took over the running of the establishment in 1773 - by then expanded to four rooms - and he in turn handed it on to his son, Antonio, in 1810.

In the late 18th century, in the last days of the Republic of Venice, Florian’s was closed on order of the authorities, who were worried that its rooms were being used by would-be revolutionaries encouraged by the uprising in France that had toppled the French court of Louis XVI.  In the event, it was only a matter of months before the army of Napoleon Bonaparte began to support the Venice revolutionaries and the cafè was allowed to re-open.  

Today, Florian’s is known for its sumptuous elegance and for its art, a tradition that stems from its change of hands in 1858, which marked an era of new ownership outside the Francesconi family.  The new proprietors commissioned the architect and designer Lodovico Cadorin to undertake a substantial renovation project.

Cadorin transformed its four rooms, which emerged on the completion of his work as the Sala del Senato (Senate Room), the Sala Greca (Greek Room), the Sala Cinese (Chinese Room) and the Sala Orientale (Oriental Room).

Inside the sumptuously decorated Sala del Senato, one of Florian's several elegant rooms
Inside the sumptuously decorated Sala del Senato,
one of Florian's several elegant rooms
The Senate Room was notable for its paintings by Giacomo Casa, mainly themed around the progress of civilisation and science, while both the Chinese and Oriental Rooms were decorated by Antonio Pascuti, whose paintings had an exotic nature inspired by the art of the Far East.

The Sala degli Uomini Illustri (Hall of the Illustrious Men) was decorated by Giulio Carlini with paintings of notable Venetians; Vincenzo Rota’s decorations in the Sala degli Specchi (Hall of Mirrors) represented the four seasons.

Having been suspected of being a centre of revolutionary plotting in the 18th century, Florian’s openly played a part in the upheavals of the 19th century. The Senate Room became a meeting point for Venetian patriots eager to promote the cause of the Risorgimento and was used as a temporary hospital as Venetians fought to expel the occupying forces of Austria from the city in 1866.

More peaceful times followed, and early in the 20th century, Florian’s followed the fashion in central Europe for providing entertainment for its clients with daily concerts, a practice that soon led to the appointment of a resident orchestra. At around the same time, a seventh room was added, given the name of Sala Liberty, decorated in an art nouveau style.

The cafè’s position in the Venetian art world had taken on a new dimension in 1893 when it became home to the Esposizione Internazionale d'Arte Contemporanea (International Exhibition of Contemporary Art), known today as the Venice Biennale.  Since 1988, Florian’s has hosted a contemporary art exhibition that takes place every two years in conjunction with the modern Biennale.

Piazza San Marco is often thronged with visitors
Piazza San Marco is often
thronged with visitors
Travel tip:

Piazza San Marco, often known by its English name, St Mark's Square, is Venice’s main public space. It has the distinction of being one of only two squares in Venice to be known as piazza (Piazzale Roma is the other one). All the other open spaces in the city are called campi, campo being the Italian word for field. Along with the Piazzetta, which connects the main Piazza to the waterfront, San Marco has become the religious, political and social centre of the city. It flanks the Basilica di San Marco, the city’s cathedral church, and the Doge’s Palace, which was the traditional seat of government when Venice was an independent state, while also playing host on opposite sides to two of the city’s most famous cafes, Florian and Quadri.  Napoleon Bonaparte is said to have dubbed the square as ‘the drawing room of Europe’.

The gold mosaics that adorn the facade of Basilica San Marco led it to be nicknamed Chiesa d'Oro
The gold mosaics that adorn the facade of Basilica
San Marco led it to be nicknamed Chiesa d'Oro
Travel tip:

The Basilica di San Marco is one of the best examples of Italo-Byzantine architecture in existence. Because of its opulent design and gold ground mosaics it became a symbol of Venetian wealth and power and has been nicknamed Chiesa d’Oro (Church of Gold). The spacious interior with its multiple choir lofts inspired the development of the Venetian polychoral style used by the Gabrielis, uncle and nephew, and Claudio Monteverdi. The original church on the site of the basilica may have been built in the ninth century, although the earliest recorded mention was dated 1084. It has been rebuilt several times, the present neoclassical church dating from a rebuilding of 1795-1806, for patrician Pietro Zaguri, by Giannantonio Selva.

Also on this day:

1847: The birth of the sculptor Gaetano Russo

1891: The birth of WW1 flying ace Luigi Olivari

1941: The death of mathematician Tullio Levi-Civita

1966: The birth of footballer Stefano Eranio


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