Saturday, November 9, 2013

William Dean Howells--and Others--in Palazzo Falier on the Grand Canal

Taking the sun in one of Palazzo Falier's two projecting sun rooms
I should confess upfront that I went to Palazzo Falier yesterday with at least as much interest in the 19th-century American writer, critic and editor William Dean Howells, who once lived there, as in the installation (or "over-all intervention") by Portuguese artist Pedro Cabrita Reis that it currently houses. I also went simply to see the inside of one of the more charming facades on the Grand Canal, because, as every curious admirer of Venice knows, the various "collateral events" of the Biennale offer temporary access to buildings otherwise closed to such visits (or such snooping, as the case may be).

A view of one of Palazzo Falier's liatì (and the Grand Canal), as seen from the other
In addition to a fine location on the Grand Canal, a short distance from the Accademia Bridge, Palazzo Falier is notable for its two upper-story liatì, or what we might today call sun rooms, that project symmetrically from either side of its gothic-arched 15th-century facade to the very edge of the water. Its leaded windows (which evoke a distant century to us) are rather recent additions, but the wings themselves, which were for a time thought to have been 19th-century additions, are now believed to also date back to the 15th century.

And what marvelous spaces those two projecting windowed rooms are! I spent a long time admiring them, imagining (erroneously, as it turns out) that Howells had used one to write in. Then a white cat, whom I'd seen out in the back garden when I first arrived, sauntered in and made the more elaborate of the two liatì her own. And as I watched her arrange herself to best enjoy the sun, I realized that for the first time in my life I was seeing the grand hauteur evident in the attitudes of even the mangiest cats in the most humble contexts displayed in a room entirely appropriate to it. Forget about some old achey-backed, bleary-eyed, inky-fingered writer toiling away in a room like this--this room was made for the imperial and luxurious manner of a cat!

The interior of the second sun room
So it was just as well that Howells never actually spent a minute in this room or, as it turns out, even lived on this floor. The palazzo has gone through many renovations since the couple of years in the early 1860s that Howells spent here as US consul to Venice. The piano nobile presently serves as the headquarters of Veneto Sviluppo, and is largely devoid of charm. But Howells actually lived on the floor below, I found out when I returned home and began reading his book Venetian Life.

In this image and the one below: 2 views of Pedro Cabrita Reis's "over-all intervention" in Palazzo Falier
You see, I'd always known Howells only by reputation and association (Mark Twain was a long-time friend of his), and I found myself prodded into actually reading him only after seeing that I could visit the palazzo he'd once lived in. It turns out that, based upon the 25% or so of Venetian Life I've read so far, he's a great writer, with a gift for sharp description and a lively sense of paradox that makes him a particularly able observer not only of a Venice still in thrall to the hated Austrians--while the rest of newly-unified Italy struggles with the difficult (and, alas, ongoing) challenge of governing itself--but to the workings of his own mind as it reacts to this marvelous city. He's well aware of the seemingly irreconcilable distance between, on the one hand, the scenes of hopeless poverty he so vividly describes and, on the other, his ever-returning sense of the city as an incomparably beautiful dream realm. He's aware of his own romantic and even sentimental flights of fancy about the city (to a much greater extent than, for example, the young Jan Morris), and this self-awarereness--never obsessive, labored or indulgent (in the contemporary style)--is part of the drama in the book. And he presents the best all-around depiction of daily life in 19th-century Venice--how people shopped, how people heated (or didn't) their houses, how people dressed and worked (or didn't) and relaxed and interacted--than any I've read. Much more incisive and far-ranging, though I almost hate to admit it, than Henry James.

I'm sure I'll have more to say about Venetian Life after I've read it all, but for the moment I'll just present two of his own descriptions of Palazzo Falier as he knew it:

"We were not in the appartamento signorile--that was above--but we were more snugly quartered on the first story from the ground-floor, commonly used as a winter apartment in the old times. But it had been cut up, and suites of rooms had been broken according to the caprice of successive landlords, till it was not at all palatial any more. The upper stories still retained something of former grandeur, and had acquired with time more than former discomfort. We were not envious of them, for they were humbly let at a price less than we paid: though we could not quite repress a covetous yearning for their arched and carven windows, which we saw sometimes from the canal, above the tops of the garden trees."

"As for our Dalmation friends [a Dalmatian family that lived in the appartamento signorile], we met them and bowed to them a great deal, and we heard them overhead in frequent athletic games, involving the noise as of the maneuvering of cavalry; and as they stood a good deal on their balcony, and looked down upon us on ours, we sometimes enjoyed seeing them admirably foreshortened like figures in a frescoed ceiling."

The complete text of Howell's Venetian Life (along with many other great titles) can be downloaded free-of-charge at the Project Gutenburg website:

Autumn in the little garden of Palazzo Falier, as seen from the top of the outdoor stairs leading to the first floor
But what about the art installation? you may ask. Well it made me wonder if--just as there have been times (the 1970s, for example) and circles (eg, conceptual artists) in which the practice of painting was the object of such scorn as to make its adherents quite sheepish--there will ever come a day when installations of this sort, of "artless" everyday building materials arrayed artfully around gallery spaces will also come to be considered so played out, so easy, and even so sentimental as to be beneath bothering with?

Yes, as has by now been well-documented, even the most minimal "intervention" in a certain kind of space can radically alter our perception of it. But so can the unexpected appearance of a cat from outdoors. And though it's been a long time since anyone accused me of being a "cat person," yesterday I found myself preferring the cat.

A panorama of the garden of Palazzo Falier


  1. Amazon kindly downloaded Howells book, gratis! Who could reuse that offer.

    The palazzo looks quite lovely; I admire the windows and the liati (now I know what to call them). Oh, and the haughty cat is the perfect touch, I think we can spy him in the last photo, also.

    1. Thanks for reminding me, Yvonne, of something I neglected to do: post a link to a site where people can get a free download of the book! As it was originally produced by Project Gutenburg, I use that one--as nothing that other massive corporate entity you mention is done "kindly" (certainly not the way they treat their employees). The cat somehow seemed to reintroduce a bit of warmth into an interior that had otherwise in the course of successive renovations become quite generic--in spite of the nice windows.

  2. I'm totally "homesick" for Venice tonight, after seeing these photos. (Homesick, even though I've never lived there long-term, just a visitor: in and out.) Thanks for this post and these beautiful photos!


    1. I'm glad you liked the pics, Elizabeth, even if they did cause you a bit of longing--and you're very kind to take the time to let me know. The good news is that Venice will, in spite of what one sometimes reads, still be here when you manage to come back!

  3. Your post reminds me that I loaned my English-language copy of William Dean Howells "Venetian Life" many years ago to Megan H. Jones, the US State Department Consular Agent, when she first arrived here in Venice back in 2005, 2006. She has yet to return my book. Not only that, but she was also gifted with an Italian translation by a friend of mine whom I brought to a little US gov shindig over at the Quadri. If her behavior here in Venice is any indication, I have my doubts about whether she has read the book in either language:)

    1. I suspect the availability of a free download, Venetian Cat, is little consolation to being without your actual copy of the book--real books are so far superior to e-books, I think--but here's hoping you'll get your copy back! It seems like such a very American book in the best sense to me that it's interesting to think of how it might change in the Italian version. I'm really enjoying it.