The entire reason to visit Venice, Italy – tourist haven of lovers, gelato aficionados and shoppers galore (D.H. Lawrence, in Lady Chatterly’s Lover, described it as the “holiday-place of all holiday-places”) – THE reason to visit as a bookish person rests in this one, beautiful old bookstore: the Libreria Acqua Alta.
Translating to Bookstore at High Water or, more accurately, describing the effect on the Libreria of winter high tides in the Venetian Lagoon. See, it’s already dreamy. My made-up back story is that owner Luigi Frizzo one day awoke at high tide and realized he had waaaaaaaaaaay too many books on his tbr list that he was never going to get to. And, they were floating away. So he opened a bookstore, but not just any bookstore: in this store, old encyclopedias that no one’s ever gonna buy are repurposed and packed tight as stair-steps into the store.
‘Shelves’ scoff at the formal idea of the word and instead are formed from old gondolas, canoes, and boats. Watertight, to keep them dry when the tide (acqua alta!) comes in.
The books are about 60% new, the rest used, and cover topics ranging from sci-fi to sports to comics to bestsellers, all in a variety of languages. Also, there are cats.
After you pick out some books (The Merchant of Venice, if you can find a copy, is a no-brainer here), head over to Piazza San Marco and Caffè Florian, the oldest cafe in Italy, and hangout of writers past, from Dickens to Rousseau and Goethe to Byron.
Locals know that Caffè Florian is only for those seeking really expensive hot beverages while they people-watch. (Apparently, nothing in the Caffè costs less than 10 euros – which, right at this exact moment is roughly $11.33 U.S.) I’d do it though – look at this coffee service!
After the crowds at Florien, grab a coffee to go and head off the beaten path to the San Polo district, to Casa di Goldoni e Biblioteca di Studi Teatrali (House of Carlo Goldoni and Library of Theater Studies). Playwright Carlo Goldoni was born in 1707 in this Gothic house, and it’s now a museum that contains his old manuscripts, paintings, and other household objects, as well as Venetian theater artifacts – costumes, marionettes, gaming tables, Murano chandeliers. If you’re a fan of Goldoni, or just looking for a quiet diversion, this is the museum for you.
But if you’d prefer a more mainstream example of Gothic Venice and its literary scene, head over to the Grand Canal’s Palazzo Barbaro (aka Palazzo Barbaro, Ca’ Barbaro, and Palazzo Barbaro-Curtis). The Palazzo is actually Palazzi: two adjoining palaces.
Book lovers will delight in the Palazzi’s elegant third floor library. In the late 19th century the Palazzo became a center of American expat artistic life in Venice, hosting artists from the “Barbaro Circle,” including Edith Wharton, Henry James, and Robert Browning, to name-drop a few. James finished his The Aspern Papers here at a desk that is still in the Palazo; the book’s plot revolves around an anonymous man trying to get access to poet Jeffrey Aspern’s papers, by sneakily renting a room in the Venetian villa of Aspen’s former mistress, who is in possession of said papers. James also included a description of the Palazzo’s ballroom in The Wings of the Dove, and parts of the 1997 movie adaptation of the novel were filmed here.
A gondola ride is a pricey tourist attraction, but you can take one as nod to art historian Laura Morelli’s novel, The Gondola Maker, where, in 16th-century Venice, a gondola maker restores an old gondola – with the hope of taking a pretty girl for a ride.
Morelli herself took the classic tourist trip to Venice’s Murano “glass island,” bought a small piece of the famed glass and used the experience to write travel guides revolving around native craftspeople carrying on living traditions.
You can check out her book on Italy under the Authentic Arts series, to be published later this year. And you can pick up The Glassblower of Murano by Marina Fiorato for more Murano glass-making-reading. (Full disclosure: my piece of Murano glass was a really weighty angel for my mother, which made it all the way back to the U.S. in my rucksack, in one piece. That’s solid craftsmanship!)
And finally, when you’ve decided that Venice is actually where you should be living full time, you’ll need The Venice Experiment, a Year of Trial and Error Living Abroad. Barry Frangipane writes about his year year of living in an apartment in Venice with his wife, Debbie: “My secret plan to move to Venice was ready. It was time to see if my wife would buy into the idea of leaving our home to live for an entire year in a foreign country.” Do they do it? Do they last longer than a year? Tune in to find out more.
Do you have a favorite Venice literary excursion?