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The Caffè Florian is a must-see destination for anyone visiting the capital of Veneto. Nowadays it can be recognised by its terrace in St. Mark’s Square and the live music it offers every day, but the Florian has been much more than just a place to have a coffee.
Caffè Florian is the oldest coffeehouse in Italy; it opened its doors in 1720 under the arcades of St. Mark’s Square. Originally called Alla Venezia Trionfante, it soon became known by its patrons as Caffè Florian, after its original owner, Floriano Francescani.
It was a meeting place for the Venetian aristocracy and local merchants and bankers. The city was a key point in maritime trade, so the café soon became a silent witness to significant banking and commercial transactions. It reflected the cultural, literary and artistic prosperity of the city and was, at the same time, a symbol of its progress: in the 18th century it was the only café in Italy that also served women.
In its early days the café was frequented by such famous names as the Italian playwright Carlo Goldoni, and the writers Goethe and Casanova, the latter quickly attracted by the idea of it being the only establishment to open its doors to women. The Florian was also patronised by the poet and politician Lord Byron, and the novelists Marcel Proust and Charles Dickens.
It was the first Italian café to open its doors to women.
In 1773 Valentino Francesconi, grandson of the original owner, took over the business. A few years later and given the social unrest brought about by the French Revolution, the Venetian State feared that revolutionary ideas could spread throughout Venice. The Florian had become a meeting place for many French Jacobins, so as a preventive measure the State Inquisitors forced Caffè Florian to close. It would not be until 1797, when French troops entered the city, that Valentino Francesconi would be able to re-open its doors, initially once again under the original name of Alla Venezia Trionfante and subsequently as Caffè Florian.
In the early 19th century the coffeeshop had deteriorated badly, but was restored to the designs of the architect Lodovico Cadorin. It was then that the new halls, considerably re-vamped, were given their current names: Sala degli Uomini Illustri, Sala del Senato, Sala Cinese, Sala Orientale, Sala delle Stagioni and Sala Liberty. All the halls were decorated with the works of artists, sculptors, photographers and illustrators. The Florian continued to be a hotbed of the city’s cultural life and in 1893 became the birthplace of the exhibition of international contemporary art, an event that would go on to be known as the Venice Biennale.
In 1893, it became the birthplace of the exhibition of international contemporary art, which would go on to be known as the Venice Biennale.
Many years have passed and the Caffè Florian remains open, as strong as it ever was. In 2003 the contemporary artist Irene Andessner painted a series of ten portraits of influential women in Venetian society, naming the collection Le Donne Illustri. Her work was displayed in the Sala degli Uomini Illustri and is currently being lent for exhibitions in art museums the world over.
Another of the coffeeshop’s key attractions today is music. The fact is, one of the most typical images of the Florian is to see its customers sipping coffee on the terrace as they enjoy listening to live classical music.