Thursday, March 8, 2018

Frigid Grandeur: Palazzo Zenobio, W.D. Howells, and A Shiver of Recognition

Palazzo Zenobio's Sala degli Specchi

Last Sunday, on a cold foggy afternoon, I found myself for the first time in Palazzo Zenobio, which is also known as the Collegio Armeno Moorat Raphael, as it's been the property of the Padri Armeni Mechitaristi di Venezia since 1850, and remains a center for Armenian studies. It was open to the public last Sunday day because it's currently hosting a large exhibition of contemporary painting, about which I think it best for me to politely refrain from commenting. It wasn't to my taste, but I encourage anyone in town to check it out and form their own opinion.  

What struck me, though, was not the exhibition, and not only the notable late Baroque decoration of the palazzo, but the cold. The entire place was unheated--so that my ungloved hands quickly became stiff and numb--and the experience of walking among its many icy rooms reminded me that not all that long ago (at least in terms of the long history of Venice) it was not uncommon for even the grandest Venetian palaces to be without heating.  

After more than 7 years of living in Venice I recognized that I was finally experiencing first-hand and on a grand scale what I'd only previously read about, most memorably in William Dean Howell's marvelous account of living in Venice in the 1860s entitled Venetian Life

Now that the end of winter is in view perhaps it's a good time to post a large excerpt from Howell's description of unheated palazzi and how, more generally, 19th-century Venetians made it (or suffered through) the season. On a sunny day like today in Venice, after a rather long stretch of wet gray weather (including a window-rattling run of bora winds from the northeast), it's finally possible to read the passage below without an uncomfortable shiver of sympathy.
The Germans have introduced stoves at Venice, but they are not in much favor with the Italians, who think their heat unwholesome, and endure a degree of cold, in their wish to dispense with fire, which we of the winter-lands know nothing of in our houses. They pay for their absurd prejudice with terrible chilblains; and their hands, which suffer equally with their feet, are, in the case of those most exposed to the cold, objects pitiable and revolting to behold when the itching and the effort to allay it has turned them into bloated masses of sores. It is not a pleasant thing to speak of; and the constant sight of the affliction among people who bring you bread, cut you cheese, and weigh you out sugar, by no means reconciles the Northern stomach to its prevalence. I have observed that priests, and those who have much to do in the frigid churches, are the worst sufferers in this way; and I think no one can help noting in the harsh, raw winter-complexion (for in summer the tone is quite different) of the women of all classes, the protest of systems cruelly starved of the warmth which health demands.
The houses are, naturally enough in this climate, where there are eight months of summer in the year, all built with a view to coolness in summer, and the rooms which are not upon the ground-floor are very large, lofty, and cold. In the palaces, indeed, there are two suites of apartments—the smaller and cozier suite upon the first floor for the winter, and the grander and airier chambers and saloons above, for defence against the insidious heats of the sirocco. But, for the most part, people must occupy the same room summer and winter, the sole change being in the strip of carpet laid meagrely before the sofa during the latter season. In the comparatively few houses where carpets are the rule and not the exception, they are always removed during the summer—for the triple purpose of sparing them some months’ wear, banishing fleas and other domestic insects, and showing off the beauty of the oiled and shining pavement, which in the meanest houses is tasteful, and in many of the better sort is often in-wrought with figures and designs of mosaic work.
All the floors in Venice are of stone, and [...] all the floors are death-cold in winter. People sit with their feet upon cushions, and their bodies muffled in furs and wadded gowns. When one goes out into the sun, one often finds an overcoat too heavy, but it never gives warmth enough in the house, where the Venetian sometimes wears it. Indeed, the sun is recognized by Venetians as the only legitimate source of heat, and they sell his favor at fabulous prices to such foreigners as take the lodgings into which he shines.
It is those who remain in-doors, therefore, who are exposed to the utmost rigor of the winter, and people spend as much of their time as possible in the open air. The Riva degli Schiavoni catches the warm afternoon sun in its whole extent, and is then thronged with promenaders of every class, condition, age, and sex; and whenever the sun shines in the Piazza, shivering fashion eagerly courts its favor. At night men crowd the close little caffè, where they reciprocate smoke, respiration, and animal heat, and thus temper the inclemency of the weather, and beguile the time with solemn loafing, [Footnote: I permit myself, throughout this book, the use of the expressive American words loaf and loafer, as the only terms adequate to the description of professional idling in Venice] and the perusal of dingy little journals, drinking small cups of black coffee, and playing long games of chess,—an evening that seemed to me as torpid and lifeless as a Lap’s, and intolerable when I remembered the bright, social winter evenings of another and happier land and civilization.
Sometimes you find a heated stove—that is to say, one in which there has been a fire during the day—in a Venetian house; but the stove seems usually to be placed in the room for ornament, or else to be engaged only in diffusing a very acrid smoke,—as if the Venetian preferred to take warmth, as other people do snuff, by inhalation. The stove itself is a curious structure, and built commonly of bricks and plastering,—whitewashed and painted outside. It is a great consumer of fuel, and radiates but little heat. By dint of constant wooding I contrived to warm mine; but my Italian friends always avoided its vicinity when they came to see me, and most amusingly regarded my determination to be comfortable as part of the eccentricity inseparable from the Anglo-Saxon character.
 I daresay they would not trifle with winter, thus, if they knew him in his northern moods. But the only voluntary concession they make to his severity is the scaldino, and this is made chiefly by the yielding sex, who are denied the warmth of the caffè. The use of the scaldino is known to all ranks, but it is the women of the poorer orders who are most addicted to it. The scaldino is a small pot of glazed earthen-ware, having an earthen bale: and with this handle passed over the arm, and the pot full of bristling charcoal, the Veneziana’s defense against cold is complete. She carries her scaldino with her in the house from room to room, and takes it with her into the street; and it has often been my fortune in the churches to divide my admiration between the painting over the altar and the poor old crone kneeling before it, who, while she sniffed and whispered a gelid prayer, and warmed her heart with religion, baked her dirty palms in the carbonic fumes of the scaldino. In one of the public bathhouses in Venice there are four prints upon the walls, intended to convey to the minds of the bathers a poetical idea of the four seasons. There is nothing remarkable in the symbolization of Spring, Summer, and Autumn; but Winter is nationally represented by a fine lady dressed in furred robes, with her feet upon a cushioned foot-stool, and a scaldino in her lap! When we talk of being invaded in the north, we poetize the idea of defense by the figure of defending our hearthstones. Alas! could we fight for our sacred scaldini?
The entire text of Howell's Venetian Life can be downloaded for free from Project Gutenburg at

It's one of the best books from any period that I've read on Venice, and I can't imagine another 19th-century book in English that even comes close to giving such a full and entertaining account of Venetian life.

For a bit more about Howells, and some images of one of the Grand Canal palazzi in which he lived during his four years in Venice as the United States consul, visit

A 180 degree panorama of the Sala degli Specchi


  1. Thanks for your link to this book. Having spent much time in Paris during November, I know how cold the churches are. Alas, they are the only source of coolness in the humid summer heat there.

    1. That's exactly the way Howells writes about making seasonal use of Venetian churches, too, Richard!