I am pleased to welcome my fellow author, historian, and Venetophile friend Kathleen Ann Gonzalez. Kathleen is the creator of the wonderful blog, Seductive Venice, and the author of several books, including a new book on notorious Venetian women called A Beautiful Woman in Venice. Here, in a piece for lovers of Venice, Kathleen shares her fascination with our most favorite city. Read on…
What was it about Venice that first captivated you?
I don’t think I can point to one thing about Venice that captivated me. In 1996 I had just arrived with a group of students, and within five minutes of riding the vaporetto down the Grand Canal, I was in love with the place. Maybe it was the buildings the colors of raspberries and peaches, or the salty sea scent, or the light dancing off the water peaks. Maybe it was the complete lack of cars and neon and most markers of modern life that transported me to another reality. I was smitten and already began planning my return trip. Then I met gondoliers and other Venetians, tasted the spritz and pinot grigio, got addicted to the smell of the canals, heard the silence of the nights in narrow alleys, and was dazzled by the gold mosaics of San Marco. I’ve been captivated ever since.
What are some of your favorite places in Venice, the ones you’ve gone back to again and again?
One of my favorite churches is I Gesuiti up by Fondamente Nove. When I first went there, the floor was as wavy as a fun house, but since then it’s been restored to flatness. The green and white inlaid marble columns, pulpit, steps, altars, and even draperies boggle my mind. Every few years I return to Museo Correr to visit Jacopo Barbaro’s wood block of 1500 Venice and say hello to the portrait of Maria Boscola. I also return often to the cemetery island of San Michele. On a hot day, it offers cool shade, entertaining lizards, and deafening cicadas. I’ve explored the many sections to find famous and not so famous graves and ponder the stories behind people’s lives. I also make a point of going through the Rialto market to see the vibrant rainbow of fruits and vegetables and the silvery, glistening fishes. In the summer, I love to hang out at the sagra at Campo San Giacomo dell’Orio, with the tombola, cheap wine, and high-spirited music played by local bands, with the crowds singing along. And I haven’t missed the last six exhibits at the Fortuny, designed by gifted curators and housed in one of my favorite palaces. I can sit there for hours.
What’s the first thing you want to eat when you arrive in Venice?
My favorite foods have changed over the years. I used to always have sarde in saor and spaghetti al nera di seppia, and then I always had to have spaghetti alle vongole. My favorite place was Da Sandro near Campo San Polo until they changed their menu a few years ago. But now I’m enamored with pastries! I can’t pass Marchini Time or other pasticcerie without purchasing something gooey and sweet to eat. And I’ve never stopped loving stracciatella gelato, my go-to flavor. These are all foods I want to enjoy while I’m in Venice, but the first thing I have to have is a spritz, usually at Bar Tiziano near the Church of San Giovanni Grisostomo. Bepi or Claudio always make the best spritz, often on the house as a special welcome back. And my second must-have drink is a glass of chilled fragolino; the best locally made ones, in unmarked bottles, can be found at Enoteca Boldrin or Al Portego near San Lio. And I always have to have a pear and gorgonzola pizza at the original Ae Oche by Campo San Giacomo dell’Orio.
Tell me more about A Beautiful Woman in Venice.
My friend Vonda Wells gave me the idea to write a book about remarkable Venetian women. At first, it was difficult to find many women to write about because the historians mostly ignore women’s roles in history. But through much research I discovered about 35 women who led extraordinary lives that give us such a different perspective about Venetian history, one not focused on war or the sea or political intrigue. Instead, we learn about literary academies, women scrabbling to gain an education, women cloistered in convents, sometimes against their will. One historian believed that these women’s lives should not be termed “remarkable” because these women are only a handful of the many, many women who lived in Venice; we only read about these few, so they seem remarkable. Whose stories are lost? Still, I fell in love with each of these women as I uncovered their lives.
You have uncovered fascinating historical details about Venetian women’s lives through the centuries. Can you share a few with us?
Many gondoliers today still revere Maria Boscola, a five time regatta winner in the 1800s, but few people realize that women have raced nearly as long as men. In a city on the water, every nonna knew how to row, and women were encouraged to participate in regattas at the festivals. Then there are a lot of superlatives, or potential firsts, among the women I researched. For example, the first person to translate Shakespeare into Italian was Giustina Renier Michiel. Barbara Strozzi published more compositions during the Baroque era than any of her contemporaries, and yet her name is rarely listed among men of her era. The first woman in the world to earn a university degree was Venetian—Elena Cornaro Piscopia—and yet she suffered from “holy anorexia” and other ailments due to the immense familial pressure put upon her. Hermonia Vivarini patented her glass pitcher and Marietta Barovier opened her own glass blowing furnace in the 16th century, at a time when women were hardly allowed out of the house.
Angela del Moro survived humiliation and violence at the hands of her male clients when she worked as a courtesan, and then went on to be the model for Titian’s Venus of Urbino, one of the world’s most recognizable paintings. Giustiniana Wynne, some believe, wrote the first Italian novel. I may have just given away too many of my greatest finds, but the truth is that there are many more, and reading these women’s full stories brings them to life again and gives us a glimpse into daily Venetian life.
Are there common threads that link women’s lives in Venice through time?
Women were very often humiliated, belittled, and threatened when they showed their talents. Over and over I read about women writers, poets, composers, orators, playwrights, and academics who faced men threatened by educated women. The men usually lashed out by claiming that the women were unchaste or vulgar or bedeviled or had stolen someone else’s work because they couldn’t have possibly created it themselves. So the women were silenced, locked into houses or convents, or their reputations were damaged. Fortunately, some men became protectors and patrons, so the women’s writing was published and has survived. It wasn’t until the late 18th and early 19th centuries that we see women begin to have more agency and be seen as arbiters of society. It’s sad that I found enough information to write about only 35 women spanning five centuries.
We tend to look back into the past and see women’s lives as very restricted. But would you trade living in twenty-first-century America for living as a Venetian woman in another era? Why or why not? What did they have going for them that we don’t?
As romantic as the past often appears, I would not trade living in the 21st century for the life of a Venetian woman in another era. Too often I read about how these women’s voices and actions were suppressed. When they beat the odds to get an education or to express themselves, they were then often threatened, humiliated, and verbally attacked. I love seeing their fashions but wouldn’t actually want to wear them day to day in the Venetian heat or climbing all those stairs. Yes, I would love to live in a palazzo, but if the price tag included giving up much of my freedom and marrying a man I didn’t love, then I’ll pass. If they were lucky, courtesans got to surround themselves with intellectually stimulating men, but with the provision that they needed to also sleep with them to earn their keep. I can enjoy many of the benefits Venetian women had, without putting up with these dangers and costs and restrictions. And I can choose to do this in Venice if I wish!