Simpatico – the Boston & Venice Romance

December 21, 2016

Sargent view of canal

John Singer Sargent captured the mood of the Boston/Venice romance in his many watercolors. Side View of a Venetian Canal, 1902, private collection

It’s next time again.

In 1867, Charles Dickens took the stage at the Tremont Theatre in Boston to read aloud from his new work. Two hours later, as the reportedly enraptured audience left the auditorium, did they realize they had just heard one of the most enduring Christmas stories of all time? A Christmas Carol read aloud, by Dickens himself, inside of a building which now sports a façade made to look as much as possible like the Doge’s Palace in Venice. What is going on here? Every time I walk past Boston’s rather startling version of The Doge’s Palace, I think about how amazing that lecture must have been and as I look up at that distinctive unmistakably Venetian pattern of pink brick, I wonder how in the world Boston and Venice became so inextricably (and so evocatively) linked?

Tremont Temple sized

Venice Postcards

The pink brick pattern and some of the Gothic ornamentation of the Tremont Temple in Boston (above) is based upon the Doge’s Palace in Venice’s St. Mark’s Square.

Because I’m lucky enough to spend some of my time every year in both of these seaside cities this research has been a joy to investigate. Turns out, the current Tremont Temple (former Tremont Theatre) was put up in 1897, some 30 years after Dickens’ historic reading. When you live in historic cities you are used to such reincarnations. Like Venice’s famous opera house La Fenice (the Phoenix), the Tremont Theatre was plagued by recurring fires. By 1897, a more substantial stone building seemed the right solution and Boston’s fascination with Venice was in the air. Look no further than the magnificent 15th Century Venetian palazzo of the Isabella Stewart Gardner museum. How on earth did that end up in Boston?

ISG Courtyard

The garden at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum is the delightful result of one Bostonian’s Venice obsession.

We know certain things. Isabella Stewart Gardner adored Venice. How and why did that love affair begin and why did Venice fire the imaginations of so many other Bostonians?

You know how sometimes when you first meet someone, whether or not you actually believe in reincarnation, you feel as though you knew each other in a past life? I think that vague sense of déjà vu and instantaneous “like minds” is what the Italians mean when they describe you (or something they like) as simpatico. I maintain Venice and Boston are simpatico in much the same way. They are somehow connected with a quasi-spiritual link forged in a rich intellectual life.

Mark Twain said of Boston, “In Philadelphia, they ask, who were his parents? In New York, how much is he worth? In Boston they ask, how much does he know?” Both Boston and Venice are known for their love of education and books. Venice was the publishing heart of Italy and the Old World.  By the turn of the 15th Century, there were more than twice as many books being published in Venice than in Paris. Both Boston and Venice feature important libraries on their central squares. The Biblioteca Marciana, founded in Venice in 1468, is a book lovers dream and houses one of the most important archives of the Old World. For the New World, the Boston Public Library, founded in 1852, was the first metropolitan library in America and, for many, signaled the dawn of a democratized American enlightenment.

BPL Archival Shot

The Boston Public Library’s McKimm building on Copley Square as it appeared shortly after its construction in 1895. Photo courtesy of The Boston Public Library.

The quasi-spiritual connection is Humanism and a love of the arts born of their cosmopolitan sophistication as centers of import/export trade and rich cultural exchange. Both cities are cultural crossroads. And here is where the real fun begins. To research this further, I asked Frederick Ilchman, who is the Chairman of Save Venice, about the curious cultural connections of Boston and Venice. I’ve known Frederick for twenty years, meeting him first in Venice when he was working on his dissertation. He is now also Chair, Art of Europe at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston and is among the top Tintoretto scholars in the world. If anyone would know, he would.

Frederick is hugely passionate about both cities. He machine-gunned his Boston/Venice connections greatest hits: “Both cities are seaports, both have campinelle (bell towers), both are built on land fill, the buildings of both are supported by wooden pilings, both cuisines favor seafood, Bostonians and Venetians both love rowing, the list goes on and on.” He quickly dashed off a text to Save Venice colleague, and the articulate Christopher Carlsmith immediately emailed back, “Both Venice and Boston have been beacons for religious freedom (and conflict), and both are famous for their academic institutions and intellectual skepticism. Chronology plays a part here too: Boston was founded in the year 1630 by pilgrims seeking a new home, the same year that Venice was re-founded with a vow to build the Church of Santa Maria della Salute by residents desperate to be saved from a great plague. Boston features a significant number of buildings with an obvious Venetian connection: the courtyard of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, the Venetian Alcove of the Boston Public Library, the murals inside the Ames-Webster house, and the façade of the Boston Athenaeum.” (Since I’m writing this in part from the Boston Athenaeum I feel compelled to add that its façade (1849) is based on Palladio’s Palazzo da Porta Festa (1544) in nearby Vicenza but, Palladio has so many famous landmarks in Venice and Vicenza certainly qualifies as being in the Veneto so, a Venetian origin-story is not at all far fetched.)

Porta Festa and Athenaeum copy

The 1849 façade of the Boston Athenaeum (far right) is based on Palladio’s 1544 Palazzo da Porta Festa (far left) in nearby Vicenza.

If it is true Boston and Venice are of like minds, who were the trend-setting Bostonians who first became Venice-obsessed? For Americans, our romanic notions of Venice are rooted in the 1880s and 90s by otherwise rational people who quite simply lost their minds over Venice’s many charms. These highly intelligent Venice fanatics include both proper Bostonians and those with deep Boston ties; Henry James, John Singer Sargent, Isabella Stewart Gardner, Bernard Berenson, Ralph and Ariana Curtis and Charles Everett Norton. Norton was classmate of Ralph Curtis at Harvard and is considered to be one of America’s first connoisseurs. In his day, he was called “the most cultivated man in the United States.” He was a friend and faithful correspondent of John Ruskin (author of The Stones of Venice). Since he taught both Bernard Berenson and Isabella Stuart Gardner perhaps we can trace Boston’s high opinion of Venice to his distinguished recommendation. He said, “I have in mind to write a study of Venice in the 16th Century…the city that is dearer to me than any other in Italy.”

The New Yorker, Henry James, author of, The Bostonians, is perhaps the most articulate of Venice’s many lovers. He immortalized the beguiling atmosphere of Venice in his novels, The Wings of the Dove and The Aspern Papers. If Henry James supplied the words then John Singer Sargent provided the pictures. The place was provided by Ralph and Ariana Curtis, who bought a famous palazzo on the Grand Canal and entertained these people in lavish Venetian style.

Palazzo Barbaro Archival

The Palazzo Barbaro is actually two palaces very close to today’s Accademia Bridge in Venice. On the right is a rare archival photograph of Ralph and Ariana Curtis inside the Palazzo Barbaro. Interesting to compare it to Sargent’s famous oil painting below.

I don’t know if you believe that people have auras but do you believe that a place can have an aura? Maybe a more modern word would be vibe; certainly you would agree places have an atmosphere. One writer who captures atmosphere exquisitely is John Berendt. His Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (1994) is still bringing eager visitors to Savannah, Georgia years after it became the NYT’s longest running best seller. Berendt’s long-awaited second book, The City of Falling Angels, is about Venice and according to him, and many others, the place perhaps most evocative for the Venice/Boston connection are two historic palazzi on the Grand Canal near the Academia Bridge collectively called the Palazzo Barbaro (originally constructed in 1425 and 1465). The Barbaro family were humanists on a grand scale on the Grand Canal.

Sargent Barbaro

John Singer Sargent, An Interior in Venice, 1899 Photo: © Royal Academy of Arts, London. Photographer: Prudence Cuming Associates Limited

Berendt talks about the prestigious history of this place and the Barbaro family with great clarity. “Daniele Barbaro hired Andrea Palladio to design his summer estate, engaged Veronese to paint the frescoes. When he sat for his portrait, Titian painted it.” By the nineteenth century, the Palazzo Barbaro had seen better days. When the “Boston blue blood” Daniel Sargent Curtis moved his family to Italy in 1878, he shortly thereafter leased and then, in 1885, purchased the crumbling water-palace and began to restore it’s faded luster. “By creating their own cultural salon in the Barbaro, they even revived its humanist spirit. With the Curtises playing host to artists, writers, and musicians, Palazzo Barbaro came to be considered the most important American cultural outpost in Venice, if not in all of Italy.”

Why did the Curtis’ leave Boston? According to a superb essay in an exhibition catalog called Gondola Days by Richard Lingner (which was borrowed from heavily in the construction of John Berendt’s book) there were several factors. One was how life was changing in America after the Civil War. From Lingner’s research you get the feeling the Curtises were bored with rich and aimless Americans. They felt America was in cultural decline. Europe seemed more sophisticated. Daniel Curtis felt some of his friends were uninterested in conversations if, “business and money were not paramount topics.” They were looking for intellectual stimulation and Venice gave it to them.

Brideshead and Wings of Dove copy

Anthony Edwards and Jeremy Irons (left) lean on the balcony of the Palazzo Barbaro as they appeared in unforgettable episodes in the BBC’s Brideshead Revisited (1981). On the right is the same balcony from the film adaptation of Henry James’ Wings of the Dove (1997) starring Helena Bonham Carter.

In many ways Palazzo Barbaro became a powerful and iconic symbol of Venetian elegance. Sargent’s famous interior view shimmers with that molto famoso Venetian light which Gore Vidal described tongue-in-cheek as nacreous (iridescent). As if that image weren’t haunting enough, the Palazzo became even more cinematic in unforgettable episodes of the BBC’s Brideshead Revisited and the 1997 film adaptation of Wings of the Dove with Helena Bonham Carter in the breakout role of her career.

ISG in Gondola

Isabella Stewart Gardner was a frequent guest of the Curtises. In this archival photograph they enjoy “gondola days” on the Grand Canal in the late 1880s.

One of the Curtises frequent guests in what came to be called “the Barbaro Circle” was the legendary art collector Isabella Stewart Gardner. Unlike the Curtises, who never returned to Boston, Mrs. Gardner became a pendulari; what the Italians call a person who swings like a pendulum between home and abroad. Over repeated summers in Venice, where she rented the Palazzo Barbaro from her friends the Curtises, she floated down the Grand Canal and explored the deep cultural waters of Europe. Following in the Curtises glide path, she was intoxicated with the intellectual life she found there. Because she was curious and rich she began to buy things she liked and (fortunately for us) the artworks, antiques, furniture, manuscripts and architectural details which knowledgeable friends like the Curtises, Professor Norton, and Norton’s student, the famous art historian Bernard Berenson, recommended to her. Now, much of this glorious bounty is displayed at the Gardner Museum. Venice seduced her as it had Henry James who describes the romantic allure vividly,

“It is by living there from day to day that you feel the fulness of her charm; that you invite her exquisite influence to sink into your spirit…She has high spirits or low, she is pale or red, grey or pink, cold or warm, fresh or wan, according to the weather and the hour. She is always interesting and almost always sad; but she has a thousand occasional graces and is always liable to happy accidents… Tenderly fond you become; there is something indefinable in those depths of personal acquaintance that gradually establish themselves. The place seems to personify itself, to become human and sentient and conscious of your affection. You desire to embrace it, to caress it, to possess it; and finally a soft sense of possession grows up and your visit becomes a perpetual love-affair.”

Woman in Gondola by Robert Frederick Blum (1887)

Woman in Gondola by Robert Frederick Blum (1887)

Imagine summer “gondola filled” days in Venice at that time. No wonder she decided on an Italian theme for her new museum to be built on the marshy Fenway back in Boston. She and her husband had originally wanted to expand a house on Beacon Street for this purpose but those plans turned out to be impractical. Not enough space for her burgeoning collection. 

She wanted the building to be completely constructed of stone. Surely if the buildings in Venice could last for hundreds of years her new building in Boston could be constructed with the same techniques. The Boston Building Inspector had other ideas. I’m not sure exactly who won but I like the idea that she wanted something truly Venetian right down to the foundations of wooden pilings.

Spend a quiet moment in the garden of the Gardner museum today and you palpably feel the Boston/Venice connection. It’s at least a hundred year old romance. Henry James said of Daniel Curtis that he was “doing his best to make the grand Canal seem like Beacon Street.” 

This analogy of the Grand Canal as Beacon Street brings to mind one final Boston Venice connection; both are “walking cities.” Of course, in Venice, you have no choice. It’s either walk or take a boat since there are no cars. Humorist Robert Benchley said it best in a telegram. “Just arrived. Streets filled with water. Please advise.” In Boston you have a choice but its also a marvelous city for long walks unforgetably described by Mark Twain, “You cannot take in a whole Boston street with a single glance… Many of these bending and circling ranks of buildings are architecturally handsome, and there is a Venetian picturesqueness of effect in the unfolding of their pillared and sculptured graces as you drift around the curves and watch them swing into view.”

Until next time with much love, I remain your,




  • Mark says:

    Thank you for sharing this beautifully written essay. A very rewarding read, if a little more linear than your usual “conversations.” I had not thought of this comparison, but it is wonderfully illuminating about how we are impacted by art and place. As Martina noted, these two cities were/are “built on seafaring entrepreneurial adventures,” both great centers of commerce that aggressively encountered the world and reaped the benefits. A further opportunity for the comparison to explore the relationship of commerce and art? Hope you are enjoying your holidays and wish you a happy and healthy new year.

  • Jack Gantos says:

    Tom, Thank you for pairing the significant cultural histories of Boston and Venice–a lot to sort out and imagine as I walk back and forth across Boston. I look forward to your next cultural investigation. Best, Jack

  • Myriam says:

    From the first paragraph you had me hooked! I had no idea! Fascinating, informative, and beautifully written I became intrigued by the “simpatico” connection between Boston, a city that I do not know at all well, and my beloved Venice that I can say I know pretty well. You have given me a new perspective, and I thank you so much for enriching my life. Do write more, please…

  • Oh, Tom! The first time I was in Venice was the last day of Carnival – a warm February day – perfect for a first view. Then, overnight the fog rolled in casting mystery everywhere. Tendrils of fog wrapped around the pillars of the palaces, and out of the fog, high on a balcony, two revelers appeared in full, masked splendor, then quickly disappeared into the misty morning.

    The second visit, last July, in 100 degree heat, we stayed in the Don Orione Monastery Hotel just behind the Accademia – a perfect location. The Blum painting of such a fashionable lady in 1887, in the summer, brought to mind the absolutely wilting heat. She would have been wearing, from the skin out, a chemise, stockings, drawers, corset, corset cover, bustle, petticoat and finally her fashionable summer dress. All of the finery may well account for her seemingly wilting posture. I only hope that the gondola was catching the sea breeze.
    Best to you, and happy 2017,

  • Martina says:

    Dear Tommaso,
    This is a wonderful reflection! I love the Frederick Blum painting, and the word ‘nacreous”. It seems to me that both Boston and Venice were built on seafaring entreprenurial adventures, and the money they made allowed them to take much pleasure in art, which has given us the treasures in both places. And the light, as you have pointed out in the past, is made different, due to the moisture in the air, and there is just something golden, and tinged with rose, in the way the light hits the buildings in Venice. I did not know that Sargent spent time there, but of course, he would have loved it, and I love that quickly sketched watercolor view of the canal you posted. I remember reading about Henry James in Venice, and the desk looking out of one of those grand windows, at the Grand Canal, the light, the inspiration, the heavy massive frames of walls, windows, paintings, and that nacreous light. Thanks for another provocative and intriguing posting. I hope you have a wonderful holiday and year ahead. I agree with Juan, please keep sharing your terrific blogs!

  • Juan Bastos says:

    Dear Tommaso,

    What a great idea to pair Venice and Boston together! Both centers of culture and beauty, I can see how both provide inspiration and history for everyone to enjoy. Having been in both cities many times, visiting the Isabelle Stewart Gardner Museum is stepping indeed in an unforgettable experience. The magnificent court yard, and seeing the Sargents, provide a great welcoming effect. I have started reading Gore Vidal’s “Venice” book, which certainly sets a great bridge between Americans love for Venice of yesteryear. Thank you for making a point of the Tremont Temple and the Doges Palace…It’s fascinating the love affair for Italian architecture in this country. I live in Los Angeles, and UCLA’s campus architecture was based on the 12th century Romanesque style of the warm land of Southern Italy.
    Thank you so much for the marvellous pictures and research. Wishing you the best for the Holidays and please keep sharing your terrific blogs.

  • Michelle Moehler says:

    Dear Tommaso, I always love seeing the world through your eyes! The exquisite photography you paired with these thoughtful and unexpected comparisons was such a treat on this gray, slushy morning. Now, I’m dreaming of a gondola filled summer!

    It’s so wonderful that your new home in the States fills you with as much curiosity and appreciation as your beloved Venice. I’m very happy to know your heart is so full. Wishing you a 2017 with continued fulfillment, good health and prosperity! xo

  • Bob Woods says:

    Tomasso, the candy in this article is impossible to pass up– I want to visit it again after we get past the rigors of the holiday season. Humanism and anything about John Singer Sargent has my attention immediately, and you provided some great depth of things to look into further here. How can you not love Venice and Boston. Great way to start up again and wishing you the best of the season and the year to come. Bob