If you take a vaporetto to Ca' Rezzonico, and get off at the stop just beside its imposing facade, it's hard to miss the large plaque on the side of the palazzo commemorating the death of "Roberto Browning" (sic) in the building in 1889. It's a fact that also seems to be mentioned in every guide book. It's certainly the fact that was quite heavily on my mind when I first visited the palazzo in the fall of 1991. But then I'd just dropped out of an English Lit PhD program in which my dissertation was to have been on the Victorian period and, still in my mid-twenties, I was at an age when death still seems, however dark, only exotically and poetically theoretical.
Italy was vitally important to Browning and his wife, Elizabeth Barrett, so it's certainly fitting and not at all surprising that he should be so prominently remembered here, but it's not as if to expire in Venice was the poet's last wish. He spent only a matter of months in the palazzo, which had been bought by his son and American heiress daughter-in-law, and seems to have died there only incidentally.
What surprised me just a couple of days before I finally visited Ca' Rezzonico for the second time in my life on Friday, is that Cole Porter also lived there.
Perhaps many people know this, but I don't recall seeing it in a guidebook, it's not on the Wikipedia entry for Ca' Rezzonico, nor on the website of the museum itself. I stumbled upon it while looking up something about one of Porter's songs.
According to an online chronology of Porter's life (coleportersessions.com), he rented the palazzo each summer from 1923 through the summer of 1927. According to the Wikipedia entry on Porter, he rented it for $4,000 per month ($51,000 in current value) and expanded upon the reputation he'd already made for himself in Paris of throwing the most extravagant, and scandalous, of parties.
In fact, according to some accounts, it was a scandal involving a nephew of Venice's mayor that closed Porter's run in Venice for good.
In a city that typically celebrates those celebrities who loved her, something of this sort seems to be one of the only likely explanations for the absence of any reference to Cole Porter at Ca' Rezzonico.
For another huge fan of Venice, Henry James, once wrote a story inspired by his personal observations of Robert Browning. The comic and slightly spooky tale is entitled "The Private Life" and focuses upon the huge yawning gulf between the brilliance of a certain great writer's work--the creations of his private self laboring alone in his room--and the numbing dullness of that writer's ordinary social self.
In the case of Cole Porter it seems as though his social self was every bit the match of the self who, when alone, wrote his songs.
I think it is these differences between the two men that explain why, as my wife Jen and I approached Ca' Rezzonico two days ago on the vaporetto, one silly question kept running through my mind:
"Would you rather visit the palazzo where Roberto Browning died or the one where Cole Porter lived?"
I was of course about to do both at the same time, but my clear preference for the latter suggested to me how much I'd changed since the last time, nearly 20 years ago, I saw Ca' Rezzonico.